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Adolf Hitler

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Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889, Braunau am Inn, Austria–Hungary—April 30, 1945, Berlin, Germany), the leading figure of National Socialism and dictator of Germany (1933-45), was a dominant world figure before and during World War II. He led Nazi Germany to the conquest of much of Europe and to the murder of six million Jews, until the Allies destroyed his "Third Reich" in 1945. He gained power through the democratic process in January 1933, then made himself Führer, or leader, of Germany, hypnotizing much of the population with his magnetic personality and spellbinding oratory. He began World War II with a series of stunning blitzkrieg victories, then concentrated his attention on military and diplomatic strategy, both of which failed disastrously after his misconceived invasion of Russia in 1941.

Hitler came to power as leader of the NSDAP or "Nazi Party," and propounded a version of fascism called "National Socialism". He restored economic German prosperity and ended mass unemployment, while suppressing all opposition parties, ending the civil rights of individuals. All top officials reported to him and followed his policies, but they had considerable autonomy on a daily basis. The Gestapo and other security organizations in the RSHA, part of the SS under Heinrich Himmler destroyed the liberal, Socialist and Communist opposition and persecuted the Jews, trying to force them into exile, while taking their property. The Nazi party took control of the courts, local government, and all civic organizations except the Protestant and Catholic churches. Nazi propaganda centered on Hitler and was quite effective in creating what historians called the "Hitler Myth"—that Hitler was all-wise and that any mistakes or failures by others would be corrected when brought to his attention. In fact Hitler had a narrow range of interests and decision making was diffused among overlapping, feuding power centers; on some issues he was passive, simply assenting to pressures from whomever had his ear.[1] The Nazi state idolized its Führer, putting all powers in his hands, and tolerating no criticism whatever. Opponents were forced into exile, killed, or sent to concentration camps (which were different from the death camps that were used to kill Jews after 1941). All expressions of public opinion were controlled by Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler did not nationalize industry, but he destroyed the labor unions and his finance ministry worked closely with banks and industry. During the war an alternative state economy was created under the SS, although Goering had major authority over the regular economy as Plenipotentiary for the Four-Year Plan.

Hitler's aggressive foreign policy led to World War II in Europe in September 1939. His racial ideology of Aryan supremacy and hatred of the Jews led to escalating antisemitic measures culminating in the wartime Holocaust that systematically killed 6 million Jews in conquered areas.

Hitler's diplomatic strategy was to make seemingly reasonable demands, threatening war if they were not met. When opponents tried to appease him, he accepted the gains that were offered, then went to the next target. That aggressive strategy worked as Germany pulled out of the League of Nations (1933), rejected the Versailles Treaty and began to re-arm (1935), won back the Saar (1935), remilitarized the Rhineland (1936), formed an alliance ("axis") with Mussolini's Italy (1936), sent massive military aid to Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), seized Austria (1938), took over Czechoslovakia after the British and French appeasement of the Munich Agreement of 1938, formed a peace pact with Stalin's Russia in August 1939, and finally invaded Poland in September 1939.

Hitler in 1938 took direct command of the armed forces, and spent most of the war years focused on military operations, diplomacy and grand strategy. Other Nazis ran the Holocaust and the economy. At first Hitler's military moves were brilliantly successful, as in the "blitzkrieg" invasions of Poland (1939), Norway (1940), the Low Countries (1940), and above all the stunningly successful invasion and quick conquest of France in 1940. Hitler probably wanted peace with Britain in late 1940, but Winston Churchill, standing alone, was dogged in his defiance. Churchill had major financial, military, and diplomatic help from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the U.S., another implacable foe of Hitler. Hitler's emphasis on maintaining high living standards postponed the full mobilization of the national economy until 1942, years after the great rivals Britain, Russia, and the U.S. had fully mobilized.

Troubles began in 1941, when Hitler broke with his Russian allies and invaded the Soviet Union, but was stopped at the gates of Moscow. Hitler had a loose pact with Japan, and was unaware of plans for the Pearl Harbor attack, but nevertheless declared war on the U.S. in December, 1941. With the invasion of Russia the systematic roundup and quick murder or "Holocaust" of all Jews began.

Hitler was technologically oriented and promoted a series of new secret weapons, such as the jet plane, the jet-powered missile (V-1), the rocket-powered missile (V-2), and vastly improved submarines. However he failed to support development of nuclear weapons or proximity fuses, and trailed the Allies in radar. He failed to take advantage of the German lead in jet planes.

In early 1943 the Soviet victory at Stalingrad marked the beginning of the end, as Germany was unable to cope with the superior manpower and industrial resources of the Allies. North Africa, Sicily, and southern Italy fell in 1943. Hitler rescued Mussolini, who became a mere puppet. The Russians pushed forward relentlessly in the East, while the Allies in the west launched a major bombing campaign in 1944-45 that burned out the major German cities, ruined transportation, and signaled to Germans how hopeless was their cause.

The Allies invaded France in June 1944 as the Russians launched another attack on the east. Both attacks were successful and by the end of 1944, the end was in sight. Hitler did launch a surprise attack at the Bulge in December, 1944; it was his last major initiative and it failed, as Allied armor rolled into Germany. Disregarding his generals, Hitler rejected withdrawals and retreats, counting more and more on nonexistent armies. He committed suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin as his last soldiers were overwhelmed by Soviet armies in intensely bloody battles overhead.

All his works and images were systematically destroyed and overthrown, as Germany was denazified and Hitler became a worldwide symbol of evil.

Early Life to 1919

Hitler was born in Braunau, Austria-Hungary to a devout Catholic family of middle class status. Little is known of his ancestry. His father, Alois, was the illegitimate son of a servant girl, Marianne Schickelgruber in Graz. In 1876 Alois legally changed his name to Alois Hitler. He was a minor official of the Imperial Austrian customs service, a prestigious white collar position. Alois was widowed twice. His third wife, Klara Poelzl Hitler--who was 23 years his junior--bore him six children, only two of whom reached maturity: Adolf, and his younger sister Paula, who died in 1960. Hitler did not get along well with his father, who died in 1903; his mother had a pension and sent Adolf to good schools and encouraged his Catholicism. A mediocre student, he dropped out at age 16, as was normal for someone not headed to university.[2]

  • Vienna years
  • War years

Roots of Hitler's antisemitism

Wistrich (2001) examines Hitler's years in Vienna in 1907-13 for the seeds of the anti-Semitism and pan-Germanism that were foundation of his political career. Moving from Linz to Vienna in 1907 at the age of 18, Hitler had most likely already absorbed the pan-German and anti-Semitic sentiments of his schoolteachers and political leaders like Georg von Schoenerer, though not to the deadly and radical degree of his later years. His experiences as a failed artist living in a poorer section of the city, combined with his regard of Vienna from a provincial and antimodernist point of view, contributed to Hitler's hatred of Vienna and his perception of his years there as the most difficult and saddest time of his life. Furthermore, Hitler associated the ills of the big, multicultural, and modern city, particularly the sexual debauchery in early-20th-century Vienna, with Jews, many of whom were Orthodox Eastern immigrants lacking an "Aryan" look.

Historians[3] have discovered the mystical and occult sources of Hitler's racial ideology. For Hitler, race was not simply a political issue, but the foundation of world history. He believed that the Aryan race, "to which all 'true' Germans belonged was the race whose blood (soul) was of the highest degree." To Hitler, the Jews were not members of a religious creed, but a specific race, which was "the embodiment of evil." Hitler's views were influenced by pseudoscientific racial studies and the revival of an interest in occultism in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Leading occultists emphasized the racial superiority of the Aryan Germans and employed a variety of occult symbols, including the swastika. In addition, during the 1920s, Hitler associated with the Thule Society, an occult group in Munich.

Weimar Years 1919-1933

By 1924, certain elements of Hitler's worldview (Weltanschauung) had fully crystallized, namely his concept of history as a racial struggle and the threat of Marxism. However, the notion of Lebensraum (living space) and the idea of a heroic Führer, underdeveloped in 1924, became fully crystallized by 1928. Hitler offered only "distant goals" not a "blueprint for rule." There is scant evidence to support the notion that he was a conscious modernizer; his goal was to destroy Marxism and re-create the Volksgemeinschaft (folk community) that supposedly existed in the past.[4]

The key element in Hitler's success in 1932-33 was the decision of powerful non-Nazi conservative nationalists to support his selection as chancellor, since the Nazis did not have a majority in the Reichstag.

Mein Kampf

Hitler wrote his autobiographical Mein Kampf ("My Struggle") while imprisoned after the Beer Hall Putsch; its two volumes were published in 1925 and 1926. Hitler recounts his personal and intellectual development from childhood to adulthood, including his home life, his student aspirations as an artist, his experience as a soldier on the battlefield, and his evolving political philosophy. Then he lays out the political program of the Nazi movement both theoretically and in terms of German history and the German sociopolitical situation of 1925. Hitler states his goal to realize the German nation's destiny by uniting all Germans geographically and politically into one Reich that is rid of all non-German elements. Geographically he envisions a German homeland stretching out into eastern Europe. For Hitler, the German nation -- the folkish nation -- comprises only those of pure German blood. The race of Slavs naturally competes with and impinges on the German nation, threatening and constraining its development; Hitler, however, designates the Jews as a singularly vile and cultureless race bent on world destruction through Communism. They will eventually self-destruct, he says.

Führer 1933-45

Kershaw (2002) suggests that the character of Hitler's dictatorship was fundamentally different from that of Stalin. A key difference was that the Nazi state was a classic "charismatic" regime, whereas the Soviet state under Stalin was not. This contrast between the essential character of the two dictatorships is used to suggest reasons why ordered government and administration disintegrated in the Third Reich, how this was related to growing radicalization, and how Hitler's ideological imperatives were transformed into practical policy options. In terms of controlling the party, a major challenge came from the SA. Between 1929 and 1933 the SA (Sturmabteilung) was instrumental in Hitler's rise to power. Led by Ernst Röhm, an ambitious professional soldier, the SA became increasingly violent in its support of the Nazi Party. When Röhm refused to curtail the violence after the Nazis came to power, Hitler ordered Röhm and his top aides to be executed. The purge, known as the "Night of the Long Knives," (30 June 1934 to July 2) eliminated rivals, suppressed radicalism and consolidated Hitler's power.

Foreign Policy

Hitler tells the Reichstag he has annexed Austria, 1938

Watt (1989) rejects the idea that appeasement was a mistake. He concludes it is unlikely war could have been prevented by France and Great Britain challenging Germany earlier. Hitler made aggressive action a centerpiece of his long-term strategy and seemed to need it personally. France and Great Britain were, in fact, the ultimate target, not Poland. Had those two powers intervened with force in the earlier crises of 1936 or 1938, Watt argues, neither would have been as well prepared to fight as in 1939. In the end, when France and Great Britain did stand up to German aggression with their guarantees to Poland in 1939, Hitler did not take the threats seriously.

At a key meeting in November, 1937, with his five top military advisors, Hitler revealed his plan to preserve and extend Aryan supremacy, which included the acquisition of new "Lebensraum" in the east. He spoke of seizing Austria and Czechoslovakia, and going to war with Britain, France or Russia. Hitler expected Germany would reach its peak, relative to the strength of its enemies, in about 1943-45, suggesting that was the target date for a major war. The "Hossbach Memorandum" summarized the plans. When two leaders urged caution Hitler purged them, War Minister Werner von Blomberg and Army Commander Werner von Fritsch, thereby reducing the threat of a military coup. Subsequently, he surrounded himself with compliant, but less competent, military advisors.[5]

Antisemitism: Kristallnacht

The most dramatic episode was the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938 known as Kristallnacht in which Nazis (especially SA men) burned several hundred Jewish synagogues and looted about 8,000 Jewish-owned stores across the country, killing about 100 Jews and injuring thousands. The pogrom is partially explained by the complementary goals of three participants: Joseph Goebbels, who determined the timing; Heinrich Himmler and his SS, which ordered the temporary arrest of 30,000 prominent Jews; and Air Minister Hermann Göring, who along with several ministries, implemented preexisting plans to exclude Jews from the German economy and confiscate their property. Hitler's role was to approve of these actions. World reaction was overwhelmingly negative; American leaders started to consider war.[6] Before the war started, Hitler on January 30, 1939 spoke to the Reichstag (parliament), outlining his plan to eliminate the Jewish population under Nazi domination. By threatening to expel European Jews, Hitler hoped to pressure the international community to increase Jewish immigration quotas quickly and to accept the Reich's monetary demands for loans in order to finance the rearmament of the German defense forces. Hitler used inflammatory speeches to inspire radical German elements to transform the threatening rhetoric into systematic annihilation.[7]


Hitler was fascinated with high speed expensive automobiles, but he also admired Henry Ford for mass producing the cheap Model T for the masses. Ford had a small plant in Germany. König (2004) shows American mass consumption and mass motorization, particularly Ford's Model T, influenced Nazi planning for the Volkswagen, which was supposed to turn the German car from an investment into a consumer good. However, Nazi policy was unable to create a sound economic basis for the Volkswagen. In the mid 1930s incomes were still low; Hitler refused to raise wages, choosing instead to use productivity gains for rearmament and economic autarky or independence from the British and American economies. He sought to lower prices through efficiency and to have industries that did not seek profits manufacture the "people's products." The Nazis' demands were so high that companies envisioned that they would fail and declined to cooperate. Consequently, German car manufacturers, including American-owned Ford and GM, pulled out of the Volkswagen project. Its transfer to the Deutsche Arbeitsfront did not resolve the issue of production costs and affordability. Hitler was certain that Germany could emerge as a consumer society without employing Ford's formula of mass production, high wages, and low prices. He did build an autobahn system that was primarily designed as a construction project and as a new transportation system for trucks.

Table 1: German Economy 1928-1939

GNP = 1928 marks; industry = industrial output; Employed in millions[8]
German economy 1928-1938
GNP real industry empl'd  % unemp
1928 90 100 18.4 7.1%
1929 90 101 18.4 9.4%
1932 72 59 12.9 30.3%
1933 75 66 13.4 26.4%
1934 84 83 15.5 14.8%
1935 92 96 16.4 11.8%
1936 100 107 17.6 8.3%
1937 113 117 18.9 4.5%
1938 126 122 20.1 2.0%

Overy argues the German economy in 1939 was not a crisis-ridden one dragged out of control by grumbling managers and laborers, but an economy remarkably resurgent after a severe economic crisis in the early 1930s that brought Germany to the brink of bankruptcy and threw German politics into chaos. Overy argues that domestic political peace and a more stable economy were essential preconditions for the period of active expansion undertaken by Hitler and the Nazi Party. The war was not a reaction to domestic crisis, but a response to the disintegration of the established international power structure during the 1930s. Hitler sought, with support from military and administrative circles in Germany, to pursue a strategy that would free Germany from Western economic and political interests and establish German international power.[9]

War Years 1939-45

Hitler exercised control over the German armed forces through the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, a relatively small staff group, under Feldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, which issued orders to the larger service staffs and the field commands.

War with Soviet Union, 1941

Hitler decided to invade Russia (Operation Barbarossa) in early 1941, but was delayed by the need to take control of the Balkans.[10] Europe was not big enough for both Hitler and Stalin, and Hitler realized the sooner he moved the less risk of American involvement. Stalin thought he had a long-term partnership and rejected information coming from all directions that Germany was about to invade in June 1941. As a result, the Russians were poorly prepared and suffered huge losses, being pushed back to Moscow by December before holding the line. Hitler imagined that the Soviet Union was a hollow shell that would easily collapse, like France. He therefore had not prepared for a long war, and did not have sufficient winter clothing and gear for his soldiers.[11]

Weinberg (1994) argues that decisions concerning the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 must be understood in the broader context of Hitler's ideological motivations and long-term goals. Although Hitler had decided to invade the Soviet Union as early as 1940, German resources never reflected this; armaments production, tank and aircraft construction, and logistical preparations focused on the West. Diplomatic activity was similarly skewed; Hitler granted Stalin any territory he wanted (such as Lithuania), knowing they would soon be at war and Germany would reclaim it anyway. Hitler, blinded by his racist prejudices against Slavs, believed the Eastern campaign would be quick and easy. His real strategic concern was Great Britain and the United States, and his planning consistently demonstrated this. Ukrainian territory was vital to the resolution of the problem of German Lebensraum. In accord with Hitler's conception, the Ukraine was to be fully controlled and exploited for the benefit of Germany. Under the Generalplan Ost, Hitler's projections for the Ukraine were well underway by 1942.[12]

War with the U.S.

Lukacs argues that Hitler felt that Roosevelt was behind Churchill and that the Jews were behind Roosevelt. By the end of July 1940, Hitler's moves were often in response to those of Roosevelt. Hitler ordered the navy not to provoke the U.S. in an effort to prevent Roosevelt from getting popular support for entrance into the war; small incidents did happen, and indeed Roosevelt exaggerated them in building up support for his interventionist policies against the opposition of isolationists. Roosevelt gained more and more public support inside the U.S. and American involvement intensified in 1941 as the "Arsenal of Democracy" sent munitions to Britain and Russia. The declaration of war against the U.S. that followed Pearl Harbor helped mobilize German opinion.[13] By 1944 Hitler and the Germans became more fearful of the invading Russians from the East than of the invading Anglo-American forces from the West. Roosevelt's determination to support the British in 1940 led to Hitler's ultimate defeat. An isolationist president, Lukacs concludes, would have made decisions leading to different outcomes for the war.[14]

Transformation of the military

The war saw not only the expansion of the military but also entirely new forms, especially as the SS created its own armies, and the Luftwaffe grew in importance. Knox (2000) examines the process that transmuted Germany's most hallowed social institution and professional group, the officer corps, into a functional elite of "National Socialist Führer-personalities." Some historians argue that the "structural pressures of modern war" - the immense losses of summer 1942 - compelled the abolition of time-honored educational and social qualifications for officer candidacy and basing promotions almost solely on battlefield prowess, and that "National Socialist elite manipulation" was at best a secondary factor. Knox argues that the pressures of war took second place in the army's official mind to the need to preserve order and tradition, and that it was above all Hitler himself who dictated the timing, shape, and extent of changes that the bureaucrats were largely incapable of imagining. "Führer-selection through battle" was simultaneously the most far-reaching and lasting element in the social revolution that Hitler sought, and a decisive step in steeling the German armed forces for their fight to the bitter end. In this as in other areas, it was National Socialism's very modernity that endowed it with demonic force.

Wartime Antisemitism

Heinsohn (2000) argues Hitler's aims included strengthening Germany by exterminating the nation's weak and by conquering vast eastern territories and annihilating their inhabitants in order to create "Lebensraum" (living space) for Germans. Hitler understood that in order to boost the genocidal effort in the east the German military needed to be rid of its reluctance to kill noncombatants. He targeted the Jewish code of ethics, the principle of the sanctity of life, which had permeated Christianity, as the force which had destroyed the German "killing mentality." For the entire German military to be prepared for the killing deemed necessary for eastward territorial expansion, Germans would have to unlearn the Jewish-Christian code. Hitler reeducated German soldiers (and educated the Hitler Youth) by granting them the license to kill without being court-martialed, substituting neo-archaic commandments about killing, and removing Jewish influence through systematic extermination. Thus, it was not out of racist anti-Semitism that Hitler persecuted the Jews, though German perpetrators - and Hitler himself - justified it in these terms.

Image and Legacy

Historians debate whether or not Hitler was a strong dictator or a weak one.[15] There is no doubt that the Nazi apparatus controlled every phase of German society. Nor is there doubt that Hitler was a spellbinding speaker who mesmerized the Germans, and that he inspired a remarkable level of loyalty among the people, party leaders, and senior military men. His ideas on German expansion to the East and his sure hand in diplomacy shaped Europe in the 1930s. The Nazis believed that every action was done in pursuit of Hitler's will. The problem is that he did not always have much of a will; he was frequently indecisive. At meetings he gave long harangues that were vague as to the exact course of action he wanted followed. He was easily swayed by the inner circle, which meant that those who saw him most had most influence, indeed those who saw him last. Germans admired efficiency but the Nazi governing system was inefficient. Multiple agencies had overlapping agendas and fought each other for budgets and priorities. The successful empire builders were Himmler, Goebbels, Speer, and (in party matters, Bormann). The losers were Goering, Hess, Ribbentrop, and the army. Hitler did have a policy that favored high technology and secret weapons, but his sloppy micromanagement of the jet airplane project wasted Germany's lead in this vitally important weapon system. During the war years he gave few speeches (Goebbels and the propaganda ministry made the statements that were needed, but the hypnotic effect was lost). Abandoning Berlin, he worked at a military headquarters in the field and spent virtually all his time on micromanaging army affairs (ignoring air power and sea power, which he never fully understood). The army was the loser, as he distrusted its expertise and refused to have a general staff or expert advisors. His memory for minutia deceived him into thinking he was an expert in tactics and strategy. Hitler added inflexibility, overstretched his resources, ignored critical logistics, and as the war situation worsened, he deluded himself that new opportunities were just around the corner. He judged the enemy as always morally inferior and therefore fated to lose in the face of his own moral superiority. His mounting rage after the failed assassination attempt in 1944 meant he accused Germany's soldiers and people of cowardice. He wanted Germany to collapse with his own dreams, leaving no future: "If the German people loses this war, it will have proved itself not worthy of me." In sum, the overall Nazi dictatorship was powerful indeed, but Hitler as the man behind the curtain pulled few levers.[16]


  1. Kershaw, The Hitler Myth
  2. Bullock (1962) ch 1
  3. Jackson Spielvogel, and David Redles, "Hitler's Racial Ideology: Content and Occult Sources." Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual 1986 3: 227-246. Issn: 0741-8450
  4. Kershaw (1999)
  5. Bullock (1962) 368ff
  6. See Kershaw 2:137-153; Stefan Kley, "Hitler and the Pogrom of November 9-10, 1938." Yad Vashem Studies 2000 28: 87-112. Issn: 0084-3296.
  7. Hans Mommsen, "Hitler's Reichstag Speech of 30 January 1939." History & Memory 1997 9(1-2): 147-161. Issn: 0935-560x Fulltext in Ebsco
  8. Burton Klein, "Preparation for War: A Re-examination", The American Economic Review, Vol. 38, No. 1. (March 1948), pp. 56-77, at p 62
  9. Overy (1994); also Richard J. Overy, "Germany, 'Domestic Crisis' and War in 1939: Reply" Past & Present 1987 (116): 138-168. in Jstor. David Kaiser and Tim Mason, "Germany, 'Domestic Crisis' and War in 1939," Past and Present, No. 122 (Feb., 1989), pp. 200-221 in JSTOR argued that Hitler called the war to distract attention from domestic economic failures.
  10. Kershaw (2007) argues that spring rains would have delayed the invasion anyway.
  11. Kershaw (2007); Weinberg (1994) ch 5
  12. Wolodymyr Stojko, "Ukraine in Hitler's Projections." Ukrainian Quarterly 1995 51(2-3): 125-138. ISSN: 0041-6010
  13. Kershaw (2007)
  14. John Lukacs, "The Transatlantic Duel: Hitler vs. Roosevelt." American Heritage 1991 42(8): 70-76. Issn: 0002-8738 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  15. Williamson (2000)
  16. Kershaw argues Hitler was a weak leader; Overy has a contrary view of Hitler as all-powerful in Dear and Foot (1995) pp 534-40; see also John Claydon, "Interpretations of Nazi Germany." History Review (2001) PP 28+ online edition
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