The unique nature of Hitler’s character and of his place in the history of our times inspires an endless stream of comment. Few, if any, twentieth century political leaders have enjoyed greater popularity among their own people than Hitler in the decade or so following his assumption of power on 30th January, 1933. It has been suggested that at the peak of his popularity nine Germans in ten were, ‘Hitler supporters, Fuhrer believers’. Acclaim for Hitler went way beyond those who thought themselves as Nazis, embracing many who were critical of the institutions, policies and ideology of the regime. This was a factor of fundamental importance in the functioning of the Third Reich. The adulation of Hitler by millions of Germans who might otherwise have been only marginally committed to Nazism meant that the person of the Fuhrer, as the focal point of basic consensus, formed a crucial integratory force in the Nazi system of rule.

Biographical concern with the details of Hitler’s life and his bizarre personality- fully explored in numerous publications- falls some way short of explaining the extra- ordinary magnetism of his popular appeal. According to popular perception, the ‘Hitler myth’- by which I mean a heroic image and popular conception of Hitler imputing to him characteristics and motives for the most part at crass variance with reality- served its vitally important integratory function in providing the regime with its mass base of support. There is a need to ascertain the central foundations of the ‘Hitler myth’; on what basis it was erected, and how it was maintained. In doing so, there should be an attempt to establish the main elements of consensus which the myth embodied, and finally, to suggest the implications of the ‘Hitler myth’ for the implementation of Nazi ideological aims.

Hitler is the most prominent power figure in world history since Napoleon and by a concentrated application of will, Hitler created his own movement and his own dictatorship. No matter how much we may detest everything for which Hitler and Nazism stood, we must reckon with the incredible fact that in ten years Hitler went from a petty political demagogue to absolute master of Germany; ten years later again he would commit suicide after failing to maintain an Empire which had stretched from the Atlantic seaboard to the environs of Moscow and Stalingrad and from the Arctic circle to the Mediterranean. He possessed the mystique of power, the capacity to move great assemblies of people by speech and by his presence at the centre of mass spectacles staged to enhance the legend of his all- pervading will. According to Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel[1], Hitler’s life is the Cinderella story, the tale of the unlikely boy, born with no social advantages, who rises from orphan poverty to inhabit great palaces and command great armies.

Hitler was born in the border town of Branau- on- the inn, on April 20, 1889, which he left when he was three years old. Later, while writing Mein Kampf, Hitler considered himself lucky to have been born in a town on the border of Germany and Austria. According to him:

“It has turned out fortunate for me today that Destiny appointed Branau-on- the- inn to be my very birthplace. For that little town is situated just on the frontier between these two states the reunion of which seems, at least to us of the younger generation, a task to which we should devote our lives, and in the pursuit of which every possible mean should be employed[2].”

Family relations were complicated. Hitler was the product of his father’s third marriage to Klara nee Polzl, who was 23 years her husband’s junior. In the household were also two half siblings from the father’s second marriage, Alois Jr born in 1882 and Angela, born in 1883. Family life was not peaceful: the father had fits of rage and battered his oldest son, Alois, who in turn was jealous of Adolf, pampered by his young mother. But Adolf, too was sometimes subjected to his father’s rage.

At the end of 1898 the family moved to the village of Leonding, south of Linz, where for 7,700 kronen Alois Hitler acquired a small house next to the cemetery. The nine- year- old Hitler entered the village school in Leonding, where he was a happy rogue, and saw himself as a young scamp:

“Even as a boy I was no ‘pacifist’, and all attempts to educate me in this direction came to nothing.”

One of his schoolmates from Leonding, Abbot Baldaun of Wilhering, recalled, and  by no means unkindly: “Playing war, always nothing but playing war, even we kids found that boring after a while, but he always found some children, particularly among the younger ones, who would play with him.” Otherwise, young Hitler practiced his “favourable sport”: shooting at rats with his handgun in the cemetery next to his parents’ house[3].

Around 1900, the Boer war began, which was a summer lightning for Hitler: “Everyday I waited impatiently for the newspapers and devoured dispatches and news reports, happy at the privilege of witnessing this struggle even at a distance. The boys now preferred the game, “Boers against the English”, with no one wanting to be an Englishman and everybody wanting to be a Boer.

In 1900, Adolf’s six year old brother Edmund died in Leonding of measles and eleven year old Adolf was left the only son in the family. The difficulties with his father began to increase. Hitler’s schoolmates described himself as “hardly an engaging person, neither in his external appearance nor in his character.” Old Mr. Alois demanded absolute obedience. Adolf greatly suffered from his father’s harshness. Adolf liked to read, but the old man was a spendthrift and didn’t hand out any money for books. Alois Hitler’s only book is said to have been a volume on the Franco- Prussian war of 1870-71: ‘Adolf liked looking at the pictures in that book and was a Bismarck enthusiast.”

Young Hitler made no effort at advancing in school. According to a schoolmate, Klara frequently had to go to school, ‘to check on him’. Klara was an exemplary mother. As Hitler put it, “My mother would have cut a poor figure in the society of our cultivated women. She lived strictly for her husband and children. They were her entire universe.” Alois determined that his son should become a civil servant. His father had dragged him at the age of thirteen into Linz’s main customs office, a genuine state cage. Thus he had learned to deplore thoroughly the career of a civil servant.

Hitler’s revenge for his father’s opposition to his desire to train as an artist was to do badly at school. He attended the Realschule at Linz from September 1900, till 1904, and his school record was so poor that he was forced to leave. The education given in his school stressed on  non- classical subjects, educating the pupil for a practical career rather than one that required academic training. However, Hitler’s own comments on his schooling in the autobiographical section of Mein Kampf are almost wholly misleading. Hitler’s trouble with authority, both parental and educational, related therefore directly with the period when he says in Mein Kampf, he had decided he wanted to be an artist. ‘This happened when I was twelve years old,’ he wrote. ‘How it came about I can not exactly say now, but one day it became clear to me that I would be a painter- I mean, an artist.’ This conviction never left him, when he failed as an artist on canvas, he dreamed of becoming an architect, a builder of cities. When this too, failed, he had passed through the experience of war, he dreamed of becoming an artist in politics. In this, he succeeded. But when, he finally dreamt of becoming an artist in war, he failed once again. This was to be his final, most extravagant dream, and it cost him his life.

The years between 1905 to 1908 were crucial in Hitler’s youth. In May 1906, when he was seventeen, he spent about a month in Vienna, staying possibly with his Godparents. The trip is estimated to have cost his mother some 200 kronen from her savings. Once home, he began to learn to play the piano. He also took endless walks around Linz with Kubizek, re- planning the city and drawing innumerable sketches. In his ambition to be an art student, however, he failed. On October 1907, his application to enter the Vienna academy of fine arts was rejected on the ground that his best work was not good enough. However, he treated the rejection as a revelation that he was destined for different work: ‘Within a few days I... knew that I ought to become an architect.”

He had drawn his patrimony from his mother before leaving for Vienna- a sum amounting to some 27 euros. However, a further blow was to follow in December when his mother died. The family doctor, Edward Blouch, has recalled: ‘In all my career I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief.’

There can be no question that Hitler was devoted to his mother in his own peculiar way. His developing self indulgent egocentricity meant that any affection he experienced was coloured by what he instinctively felt to be his own needs; in this sense, he exploited his mother’s affection for him in his moody adolescence and felt entitled to draw on her modest resources in order to indulge his genius, as he believed it to be. The importance of the relationship of Hitler to his mother was such that it affected his attitude to women of his own generation throughout his life. He overrated them, and when they responded to him, he exploited them. Psychologists have made their own assumptions concerning Hitler’s childhood orientation to his mother.

There can be little doubt that Hitler’s development was to be a considerable degree abnormal. Because of lack of demonstrable evidence, he has been variously accused of being homosexual, a chronic masturbator, impotent and a practitioner of masochistic conversions. Dr. Walter Lagner, who was responsible during the war for the secret compilation of psychological observations on Hitler for the American Office of Strategic services, claims that there was a strong masochistic streak in Hitler, as well as a powerful feminine element in his psychological make- up, with its pronounced emotional characteristics. Langer asserts that his sexual relations with women were apparently of an unusual nature, and account for the suicide of his niece Geli Raubal and the two successive suicide attempts made by Eva Braun[4].

Hitler stayed in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 without any settled occupation. In Mein Kampf he took pleasure in creating an image of himself as a martyr to suffering and neglect, against which he pitted his calm, his resolution and his unconquerable will. His educational qualifications were insufficient for him to get accepted as a student of architecture. From Vienna, Hitler emerged as a young man of deeply serious outlook, enjoying no youthful gaiety, expending his restless energy on walking, reading, drawing. More importantly, he was fostering his hatred to a point when he seemed ‘almost sinister’. He hated Viennese society, smoking, drinking, Marxism, the Jews, etc. By December 1909, due to lack of finances, Hitler had joined a large tramp population of Vienna. Hitler now came into contact with fellow tramps, unemployed men and the police during this period. The first of these was Reinhold Ramisch, with whom Hitler set up a home in the State Men’s hostel in the industrial suburb of Brittgenau. He produced now a steady streak of paintings which he regularly sold to Jewish dealers.

What finally drove Hitler to leave for Munich in May 1913 at the age of 24, was his conviction that he had been successful in his annual evasion of military service, for which he had been first due to report in 1909. In Mein Kampf he claims he left Austria because he could no longer stand living there. As a true German, he was impatient to know the happiness of living and striving in the ‘common Fatherland’, ‘The German Reich.’ He was soon to volunteer for the German army. After a period of training, he left the Front in October, 1914, serving in the List regiment. By now he was serving as a runner, carrying messages between the regiment and head quarters. After further hard frontline service with the rank of Lance corporal, he was severely gassed and temporarily blinded in October, 1918. He was still in hospital when the war ended. He was 29.

His comrades thought him strange, one eyewitness report comments on the way he would sit brooding, silent and unapproachable, while at other times he would rage against the Communists and Jews. In Vienna, before the war, he had acquired, his more lasting prejudices: against the Hapsburg monarchy and empire, against social democracy, against the Marxists, against the Jews and Eastern Europeans of mixed race who filled Vienna. He hated alike the capitalists and the left wing trade unionists, both of whom he identified with the Jews. His exclusive German racialism and nationalism were fostered by his dislike of the polyglot humanity which had drifted through the Mens’ hostel.

However, Hitler left the army in 1920, and joined the famous German Workers Party, which was later renamed as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, or more famously known as, the Nazi party. During this period, Hitler’s social life had widened considerably. In his field, he had become something of a local ‘star’ among those members of upper class society who were susceptible to his particular outlook. His effect was much like that of an actor, according to an observer Ludecke:

‘When he stopped speaking, his chest still heaving with emotion, there was a moment of dead silence, then a storm of cheers[5].’

In upper class society he was uneasy and exaggeratedly polite until he gradually learnt how to mix socially. Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl was one of his instructors. Hanfstaengl claims he tried to civilize Hitler through the influence of music; he played Wagner for him, whole sections of whose works Hitler learned to hum and whistle. He found Hitler’s domestic habits completely undisciplined; he devoured unlimited quantities of cakes and cream, and loved sweet things. He was persistently unpunctual, caring as little about time as he did about money. He was apparently hopeless as an administrator, driving his helpers at Party headquarters or at the office of Volkischer Beobachter to despair. In private, he continued to read voraciously within his limited sphere of interest- History, the life of Frederick the Great, the French Revolution and the works of Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war. Another characteristic of Hitler was his appeal to children. He pretended to enter their imaginary world and was an expert and entertaining mimic, his imitations including women and children.

The key issue in historical- philosophical terms is the role of the individual in shaping the course of historical development, as against the limitations on the individual’s freedom of action imposed by impersonal ‘structural determinants’. In the present case, this focuses upon the question of whether the terrible events of the Third Reich are chiefly to be explained through the personality, ideology and will of Hitler, or whether the Dictator himself was not at least in part a (willing) prisoner of forces, of which he was the instrument rather than the creator, and whose dynamic swept him too along in its momentum. The historiographical positions are graphically polarized in the frequently cited comment of the American Historian Norman Rich, that ‘the point cannot be stressed to strongly: Hitler was master in the Third Reich’, and in the diametrically opposed interpretation of Hans Mommsen, of a ‘Hitler unwilling to take decisions, frequently uncertain, exclusively concerned with upholding his prestige and personal authority, influenced in the strongest fashion by his current entourage, in some respects a weak dictator.’

Studies founded upon the centrality of Hitler’s personality, ideas, and strength of will to any explanation of Nazism take as their starting point the premise that, since the Third Reich rose and fell with Hitler and was dominated by him throughout, ‘National Socialism can indeed be called “Hitlerism”.’ The 1970’s saw the appearance of a number of Hitler ‘biographies’- amid the outpouring of mainly worthless products of the so- called Hitler- wave, indicating a macabre fascination with the bizarre personality of the Nazi leader[6]. One of the most famous work is of Joachim Fest. However, Fest’s work is rather unbalanced in coverage, for instance, in devoting undue attention to Hitler’s early years, it downplays socio- economic issues; it is excessively concerned with the historically futile question of whether Hitler can be attributed with the qualities of ‘negative greatness’. The apogee of Hitler- centrism is reached in the psycho- historical approach characterizing a number of new studies in the 1970’s and coming close to explaining the war and the extermination of Jews through Hitler’s neurotic psychopathy, oedipal complex, monarchism, disturbed adolescence and psychic traumas. Even if the findings were less dependent on conjecture and speculation, it is difficult to see how this approach could help greatly in explaining how Hitler could become a ruler of Germany and how his ideological paranoia came to be implemented as government policy. According to Wehler, “Does our understanding of National Socialist politics really depend on whether Hitler had only one testicle?... Perhaps the Fuhrer had three, which made things difficult for him- who knows?... Even if Hitler could be regarded irrefutably as a sadomasochist, which scientific interest does that further?... does the final solution of the ‘Jewish question’ thus become more easily understandable or the ‘twisted road to Auschwitz” become the one- way street of a psychopath in power?”

The wide range of works by Bracher, Hillgruber, Hildebrand and Jackel have made a major contribution to our understanding of Nazism. What links their individually different approaches together is the notion that Hitler had a ‘programme’, which in all essentials he held to consistently from the early 1920’s down to his suicide in the Berlin bunker in 1945. His own actions were directed by his ideological obsessions; and the Third Reich was directed by Hitler; therefore the Fuhrer’s ideology became implemented as government policy. This is the basis of ‘programmatist’ type of interpretation.

An examination of Hitler’s power, whether he is to be seen as ‘master in the Third Reich’ or a ‘weak dictator’, must begin with some conception of what, potentially might comprise his ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ within the overall power constellation in the Third Reich. At least three categories of possible weakness appear to be distinguishable:

1. It might be argued that Hitler was ‘weak’ in the sense that he regularly shirked making decisions, and was compelled to do so in order to protect his own image and prestige, dependent upon the Fuhrer remaining outside factional politics and unassociated with mistaken or unpopular decisions. This would mean that the chaotic centrifugal tendencies in the Third Reich were ‘structurally conditioned’ and not simply or mainly a consequence of Hitler’s ideological or personal predilections, or of a Machiavellian ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

2. Hitler could be regarded as ‘weak’ if it could be shown that his decisions were ignored, watered down, or otherwise not properly implemented by his subordinates.

3. It might be claimed that Hitler was ‘weak’ in that his scope for inaction, his manoeuvrability, was preconditioned and limited by factors outside his control but immanent to the ‘system’, such as the demands of the economy or fear of social unrest.

What does seem clear is that Hitler was hypersensitive towards any attempt to impose the slightest institutional or legal restriction upon his authority, which had to be completely untrammelled, theoretically absolute, and contained within his own person. Hitler was correspondingly distrustful of all forms of institutional loyalty and authority – of army officers, civil servants, lawyers and judges, of Church leaders and of cabinet ministers.

According to Stephen J. Lee, the main reason for positive support was the personal popularity of Hitler. To many, he was a direct successor to the populist vision of the Kaiser during the second reich. Hitler filled the gap and greatly extended the leadership cult. He offered something different to each class and yet pulled them all together with the uniqueness of his own vision for the future. Ian Kershaw states that he was seen as ‘representing the national interest’, putting the nation first before any particularist cause and wholly detached from any personal, material and selfish motives. He struck a chord with the widespread disillusionment with the institutions, parties and leaders of the Weimar republic. He had, of course, the considerable advantage of a monopoly of the media. But in a sense Hitler transcended the manufactured image- as an overall synthesizer of Nazi messages.

The most extreme manifestation of Nazi racial policies was the Holocaust, in which over six million Jews and several hundred thousand gypsies were killed from 1941 onwards by SS squads, in gas chambers at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidenek, Sobibor, and Chelmo. Race is usually seen as the most illogical component of the entire Nazi system, the one which made it a totalitarian regime capable of committing great acts of evil. This is, of course, the truth, but not the whole truth. Race was also the fundamental rationale for all social developments within Nazi Germany: indeed race and society were inseparable. The foundation of the Nazi race doctrine was the concept of the survival of the fittest from the animal to the human world. the biologist Haeckel argued that ‘the theory of selection teaches us that organic progress is an inevitable consequence of the struggle for existence. Hitler took this a stage further and based his whole ideology on the premise of struggle, which he saw as the ‘father of all things.’ From this emerged the right of the strong to triumph over the weak. Indeed, this was essential since the strong created, while the weak undermined and destroyed. He emphasised that ‘All human culture, all the results of art, science and technology that we see before us today, are almost exclusively the creative product of the Aryan. Conversely, ‘All the great cultures of the past were destroyed only because the originally creative race died from blood poisoning.’ The solution was obvious, ‘therefore, he who would live, let him fight, and he who would not fight in this world of struggle is not deserving of life.’

To be fully effective the Volksgemeinschaft (racial purity theory) needed to have its ‘impurities’ removed. The victims were all those who, for genetic reasons, did not fit into the stereotype of Aryanism. There were three broad types. First, there were threats from ‘biologically impaired’ individuals. Some of these might have been Aryan by origin, but for a specific reason, now threatened to pollute the community through diseases or defects which were transmissible to future generations. Second, individuals or groups following certain lifestyles threatened to undermine the social integrity or economic performance of the Volksgemeinschaft; these included vagrants, alcoholics and homosexuals. Third, groups classified by membership of an ‘inferior’ race had to be prevented from ‘contaminating’ the Volksgemeinschaft by being deprived of certain forms of contact with it. Among these targets were Sinti and Roma, Negroes and Slavs. The last of these became far more important with the expansion of the Reich into Eastern Europe in 1939 and again in 1941.  The most important racial ‘threat’ of all came from the Jews. 

Hitler’s own views on Jews were the main driving force behind the whole Nazi ideology and movement; anti- Semitic policies were therefore a sublimation of his personal obsession. Mein Kampf and his speeches are full of the most inflammatory references. In the former, he created the stereotype of the Jew as a parasite and pollutant: ‘Culturally he contaminates art, literature and the theatre, makes mockery of national feeling, overthrows all concepts of beauty, and instead drags men down into the sphere of his own base nature.’ Official policy towards the Jews unfolded in two broad stages. Pseudo- legal measures removed Jewish civil servants in April 1933and dismissed Jews from public employment the following month. The two key measures, were, however, introduced in November 1935 under the collective name of the Nuremberg laws. The Law for the Protection of German blood and Honour prevented mixed marriages, while the Reich citizenship law removed basic civil rights from all Jews, effectively expelling them from the Volksgemeinschaft. Legislation was combined with indoctrination and propaganda, anti- Semitism acting as the negative pole of ‘race education’ in schools. During the second stage such moderation disappeared as the government gave ground to the SS as the chief enforcer of policy. The third stage, which was launched by Germany’s invasion of Poland, saw the SS regain the ascendancy, this time with full government approval. The fourth phase was the invasion of the Soviet Union. In summary, Nazi race policy did three things. First, it converted traditional etatism into a more radical Aryanism, the ultimate thrust of which was Lebensraum. Second, it substituted for the older class divisions of German society the new unity of the Volksgemeinschaft. And third, this German unity was maintained at the expense of minorities which had no place within it. Some, the ‘community aliens’, were removed with as little fuss as possible. Hitler remained convinced of the rightness of his cause to the very end. In his Political Testament, he wrote, a few days before his suicide, ‘Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation, as well as its followers, to a rigorous adherence to our racial laws and to a merciless against the prisoner of all peoples- international Jewry.’

Although Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945, in final, ignominious defeat, it took the combined forces of several determined nations to overthrow it. The European empire Hitler built during his brief, twelve- year dictatorship is unique in modern times. Hitler derived his power solely from himself. The State was he and he the state; the Party was he and he the party. It will be wrong, indeed ignorant, to underestimate Hitler because of the exorbitant nature of his crimes against humanity. his lack of human feeling, his wholesale, uncompromising approach to the creation of history at the expense of large numbers of innocent people who lay in his path as he had conceived and determined it, should not blind us to a certain negative greatness in the man, and the significance of the hypnotic power he was capable of exercising over others. Hence, there is a grave necessity to arrive at some degree of understanding of him, his psyche, the reason for his behaviour. A person is shaped by his surroundings, the circumstances in which they are brought up. In fact, in one of Hitler’s most famous interviews taken by American journalist, Hans V. Kalterborn, in April, 1932, Hitler reflects his aggressive upbringing through his behaviour with his dog- he expects absolute obedience from his dog, and makes him comply to his wishes, the same way his father behaved with him. There is a need to understand the great Fuhrer of Germany and analyse the ‘myth’ he embodied. No personality in the world has succeeded by chance, and there is an urgent need to overlook the myths and legends surrounding Hitler, his rise to power, and his aversion to Jews. Also, as students of History, we need to ascertain facts from fiction. Yes, Hitler was an anti- Semite. No, he did not become one because of catching syphilis from a Jewish prostitute. Myths are necessary for constructing images of great personalities, but one needs to be careful in using them, as they can be distorted images too.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay

B.A History (Hons.)

III year


[1] Manvell Roger, Fraenkel Heinrich, ‘Adolf Hitler: The Many and the Myth’, Granada Publishing, 1977

[2] Hitler, Adolf, ‘Mein Kampf’

[3] Hamann, Brigitte, ‘Hitler’s Vienna’, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2010

[4] Manvell Roger, Fraenkel Heinrich, ‘Adolf Hitler: The Many and the Myth’, Granada Publishing, 1977

[5] Stackelberg, Roderick, ‘Hitler’s Germany’, Routledge, 2009

[6] Kershaw, Ian, ‘The Nazi dictatorship’, Edward Arnold, 1985

chiranjivi chakraborty
2/13/2013 05:00:32 am

An intriguing work!! Thank you so much!!

Ankita Mukhopadhyay
2/13/2013 10:12:04 pm

You're welcome! :-)

2/14/2013 10:01:43 pm

Stephen J Lee. Now that's a name i recognise :) Such a nice article. The syphilitic theory of anti-semitism is something i didn't know about.

3/11/2014 03:15:34 pm



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    February 2013