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Adolf Hitler and the Story of World War II

Hitler, leader of the German Nazi party and, from 1933 until his death, dictator of Germany. He rose from the bottom of society to conquer first Germany and then most of Europe. Riding on a wave of European fascism after World War I and favoured by traditional defects in German society, especially its lack of cohesion, he built a Fascist regime unparalleled for barbarism and terror. His rule resulted in the destruction of the German nation-state and its society, in the ruin of much of Europe’s traditional structure, and in the extermination of about 6 million Jews. He was eventually defeated, but his temporary success demonstrated frighteningly, at the brink of the atomic age, the vulnerability of civilization.

Early Years

Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Braunau-am-Inn, Austria. Alois, his father, had risen from a poor peasant background to become an Austrian customs official and was able to provide his son with secondary school education. Adolf, a bright and talented student at his village school, felt out of place in the much larger urban secondary school. He gave himself up to aimless reading, dreamed about becoming an artist, and developed a talent for evading responsibilities. Poor school marks prevented him from obtaining the customary graduation certificate. After the death of his father, he left his home in Linz, Upper Austria, in 1907 to seek his fortune in Vienna.

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Hitler’s professed aim in Vienna was to study art, especially architecture, but he twice failed, in 1907 and 1908, to get admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts. These failures destroyed what little order he had established in his life. He withdrew completely from family and friends and wandered aimlessly through the city, observing its life.

Though he continued to read voraciously, he derived most of his knowledge from secondhand sources, coffeehouse talk, newspapers, and pamphlets. He encountered the writings of an obscure author whose racist and anti-Semitic ideas impressed him. Politically, he turned to a fervent German nationalism and a vague anti-Marxism. But at this time he was probably mainly interested in being accepted as an artist and architect.

When the money left by his parents ran out, Hitler fell into total poverty, lodging in a men’s hostel. Grudgingly, he decided to support himself by painting postcards and watercolours and to accommodate himself to the mixed company of tramps, outcasts, cranks, and transients that populated his lodgings. In both respects he did the barest minimum; he never learned to work regularly, and he remained essentially a loner. But he learned an invaluable lesson: how to evaluate and exploit the mentality of these marginal people, the Lumpenproletariat. He never considered that they posed a social problem, however, and for the rest of his life, he mistook them for the real working class.

Military Service

In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich in the hope both of evading Austrian military service and of finding a better life in Germany he admired so much. Opportunities for making a living, however, were even fewer in Munich than in Vienna, which partly explains his relief and enthusiasm at the outbreak of World War I. Hitler served throughout the war as a volunteer in a Bavarian infantry regiment, operating mostly in the front line as a headquarters runner.

He was wounded in the leg in 1916 and gassed in 1918. Significantly enough, he was never promoted to a leadership position, but he was awarded unusually high decorations for bravery in action. The war had a profound influence on him. It provided him, finally, with a purpose that filled the void in his life. He was especially impressed by and learned much about, violence and its uses. Hitler the artist was dead, and the politician was soon to emerge.

Rise to Political Leadership

The end of the war and Germany’s humiliating defeat again deprived his life of meaning, and he turned against the revolution in Germany and the pacifist Weimar republic that he imagined had caused him to be so deprived. Soon afterward he discovered his power as a public speaker when, after his return to Munich, the Bavarian military command appointed him an instructor in a program for the political indoctrination of the troops. In September 1919, while an army political agent, he encountered the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), a small group interested in extending the message of nationalism to the workers. It later renamed itself the Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party, NSDAP, or Nazis).

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Hitler quickly recognized that this party offered him a better chance for his new goal: political power. In April 1920 he left the army to devote all his time to his position as chief propagandist for the party. He developed a new system of political propaganda, one that emphasized mass emotionalism and violent provocation. Hitler was a masterly demagogue, and the party soon became a factor in Bavarian politics, mainly attracting the urban petty bourgeoisie. In July 1921, he became party chairman with dictatorial powers.

His goal was to overthrow the government, but he had to compete with numerous other Bavarian right-wing groups and with his friend Ernst Roehm, a Bavarian staff officer. Roehm advocated the primacy of the military and wanted to incorporate the party’s paramilitary units, called the SA, or Storm Troopers (Sturmabteilung) into his secret army, while Hitler insisted on the primacy of politics. When the French occupied the Ruhr in January 1923, German nationalist feelings ran high, and military authorities prepared for mobilization. The views of Roehm and the other right-wingers now seemed to be prevailing; Hitler thereupon tried to regain control of the movement by his Beer Hall Putsch of Nov. 8-9, 1923. The putsch was aimed at capturing, first, the government of Bavaria, and then the nation’s, but the Bavarian authorities were able to suppress it.

The failure of the putsch destroyed the party organization, severed its army ties, and resulted in prison terms for Hitler and other leaders. Hitler used his trial to gain nationwide attention for his cause. He served nine months of his 5-year sentence in the fortress of Landsberg, where he wrote Mein Kampf in an effort to demonstrate that his leadership was based on intellectual as well as political superiority.

Hitler’s writing in Mein Kampf is crude and disorganized, and his ideas are not original, but the book is still an important document. The most persistent theme is social Darwinism: the struggle for life governs the relationships of both individuals and nations. He argued that the German people, supposedly racially superior, were threatened by liberalism, Marxism, humanism, and bolshevism, which were directed from behind the scenes by the Jews.

Relief would come from a plebiscite dictatorship that would fight a relentless war against internal and external foes, in the process of conquering Lebensraum (living space) that would make Germany militarily and economically unassailable. Hitler was much more effective when writing about the techniques of power and demagoguery. He appears in the book as a man determined, and to some degree able, to implement even the maddest schemes.

Rebuilding the Nazi Party

When Hitler left prison and tried to rebuild the party, he met with great difficulties. He was challenged in northern Germany by the ” socialist Nazi left leader Gregor Strasser, who aimed his appeal at the workers. To meet the challenge, Hitler wooed certain extremist military groups, the leftovers from World War I. While the workers ignored Strasser’s program, the military outcasts eagerly followed Hitler. At a party conference in May 1926, Hitler outflanked Strasser and won back the dictatorial chairmanship, which he subsequently reinforced by declaring the party program unalterable, thus undercutting any attempt to revive the controversy over socialism.

Social conditions still prevented the party from growing, however. Interest in extremist solutions had waned as Germany had regained economic and political stability. In addition, Hitler was prohibited from speaking, which deprived him of his most powerful weapon. His breakthrough came in 1929 when the German Nationalist party made him politically respectable by soliciting his help in its vicious campaign against the Young Plan’s arrangements for German reparations.

In September 1930, after the depression had hit Germany, the Nazis made their first substantial showing (18.3% of the vote) in national elections, and from then on Hitler seemed to rise irresistibly. He still used propaganda, demagoguery, and terror, but he now proclaimed and defended against strong party opposition, a policy of legality. While his propaganda appealed to the lower class victims of the depression, his insistence on legality made him acceptable to the conservatives, nationalists, and the military.

Personal Life and Rise to Power

During this period, Hitler lived mainly from royalties for his book and fees for newspaper articles. He was able to afford an apartment in Munich, a villa in the Alps, and a car, but his style of life remained modest. He had a craving for pastries, movies, and Richard Wagner’s music. His behaviour still alternated between outbursts of energy and periods of inactivity and laziness. His sex life seems to have been abnormal. In 1928 he began a passionate affair with his niece Geli Raubal. The affair ended tragically in 1931 when Geli, feeling suffocated by his tyranny, committed suicide. After he became dictator, he made Eva Braun, a clerk, his mistress, but refused to marry her in order to preserve his image as a self-denying public servant.

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In 1932, with Germany close to anarchy, Hitler’s career approached its crisis. He narrowly lost to the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg in the presidential elections in April, and the Nazis polled their highest vote (37.2%) in the July elections. In the November elections, however, the Nazi vote decreased to 33.1%. Hitler had lost prestige through his stubborn insistence on “total power; the party was psychologically and financially exhausted, and the depression was beginning to wane. At this moment, a conservative group led by former Chancellor Franz von Papen arranged for Hitler to enter the government. On Jan. 30, 1933, the aged President Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in a coalition government with the conservatives.

The conservatives deluded themselves into thinking they could use Hitler for their own interests. Within four months, Hitler had dramatically established his mastery over them and over all other political groups. He had destroyed the Communist and Socialist parties and the labour unions; forced the bourgeois and right-wing parties to dissolve; emasculated or destroyed the paramilitary organizations; eliminated the federal structure of the republic; and on March 23, 1933, won from a decimated and intimidated Reichstag an enabling law that gave him dictatorial powers. His success came from a combination of pseudo-democratic mass demonstrations; terror by the SA and the Nazi-controlled police, which accelerated after the Reichstag fire in February; and a seemingly conservative program that kept the conservatives quiescent.

Consolidation of Power

In early 1934, however, he faced new conflicts, mainly from within the party. The SA, still led by Roehm, and the Nazi left vigorously opposed his alliance with business and military leaders, and a group of monarchists was campaigning for a restoration of the monarchy. Hindenburg’s deteriorating health raised the question of his succession. Hitler survived the crisis by adopting the most radical methods. He rallied behind himself the party leaders, the army, and HIMMLER ‘s SS (the Schutzstaffel, or Blackshirts), and on June 30, 1934, he struck. A number of SA leaders, monarchists, and other opponents were murdered; the influence of the SA was drastically reduced, and Hitler emerged as the undisputed master of Germany. When Hindenburg died on August 2, Hitler officially assumed the title of Fuhrer or supreme head of Germany.

From 1935 to 1938 he consolidated his dictatorship. The basis of his power was still his control over the masses, who admired him as the “man of the people and falsely credited Germany’s economic recovery to him. (Its real architect had been Hjalmar Schacht, a conservative banker.) In 1937-1938 the economy reached full employment, thanks to an increasingly reckless rearmament policy.

Hitler also protected his position by promoting rivalries among his subordinates, and he encouraged Himmler to build a formidable apparatus of terror by means of the SS, the Gestapo, and the concentration camps. He then escalated the persecution of the Jews through the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which deprived Jews of their citizenship and forbade marriages between Jews and non-Jews. Additional restrictive laws were passed during the next few years, and Hitler’s policies resulted in a large-scale emigration of Jews, socialists, and intellectuals and in the virtual destruction of Weimar Germany’s highly creative culture.

Preparations for War

In foreign affairs, as long as Hitler felt weak, he shielded his regime by peaceful declarations and by treaties, such as those with the Vatican in July 1933 and with Poland in January 1934. Nevertheless, he indicated his true intentions in October 1933, when he withdrew from the League of Nations. As his strength increased, he proceeded to remove the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty by proclaiming open rearmament in March 1935 and by remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936. Simultaneously, he tried to win the neutrality of Britain through a naval treaty in June 1935, and gained Italy’s allegiance by supporting MUSSOLINI’s Ethiopian war (1935-1936). The Italian alliance materialized in October 1936, strengthened by their joint interference in the Spanish Civil War.

From the outset, Hitler had been determined to conquer Lebensraum. In November 1937 he disclosed his war plans to his ministers, and when they objected, he dismissed Schacht and the heads of the army and of the foreign ministry. By replacing these men, he eliminated the last traces of the conservative alliance and cleared the way for war. Under the guise of a policy of self-determination, Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland, the German-inhabited border areas of Czechoslovakia, in October.

By disclaiming any further expansionist aims, he won the approval of the Sudetenland occupation from Britain, France, and Italy at a conference in Munich. When he nevertheless extended his rule over all of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and then threatened Poland, Britain and France abandoned their appeasement policy and guaranteed Poland’s integrity. Unimpressed, Hitler continued his preparations by signing a nonaggression pact with Russia on August 23. When he attacked an unyielding Poland on September 1, Britain and France surprised him by declaring war.

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Early Successes in World War II

Allied inactivity and a lightning victory over Poland permitted Hitler to mobilize his forces fully and to persuade his reluctant generals to intensify the war effort. In April 1940, German troops conquered Norway and Denmark; in May and June, they swept through the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. On June 22, a triumphant Hitler forced France to sign an armistice at Compiegne, the site of the armistice of 1918.

He was at the peak of his career, having now proved himself a superior military commander, and he began to build his New Order in Europe. The New Order’s only tangible result was Heinrich Himmler’s policy of racial reorganization. It combined senseless resettlement of racially “valuable populations with a relentless suppression and extermination of “subhumans, among them about 6 million Jews, through slave labour, concentration camps, gas chambers, firing squads, and starvation.

Meanwhile, Britain’s determination and the imminent conflict with Russia forced Hitler to go on. After unsuccessfully trying to defeat Britain through a heavy bombing attack on the British Isles and a ground offensive against British troops in North Africa, Hitler turned with full force to the east. On June 22, 1941, he launched his attack on the Soviet Union. But the German advance was stopped before Moscow by a harsh winter and a Russian counterattack. At the same time Japan, with which Germany had a nonaggression pact, attacked Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.

Military Reversals

In 1942, Hitler was still scoring victories in Ukraine and in North Africa, but his judgment increasingly failed him. He withdrew into his headquarters, concentrating on military affairs to the exclusion of politics and diplomacy, and quarrelling with his generals’ judgments. With the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Allied reconquest of North Africa in 1943, the war was lost. Hitler, however, ordered the total mobilization of the economy and tried to rebuild Mussolini’s regime in northern Italy after its collapse in July 1943. He also maintained his almost hypnotic power over his entourage and the masses, assisted by Allied air raids against the cities, which rekindled the fighting spirit of the people.

Hitler’s Last Days

A group of civilians and officers had been conspiring since 1938 to overthrow Hitler. But Hitler’s popularity with the masses, the conspirators’ need for complete secrecy, and their recurring doubts about the rightness of their cause handicapped them. Furthermore, they failed to reach an understanding with the Allies. The energy of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg finally brought the plot to a head on July 20, 1944, but his attempt on Hitler’s life and the subsequent putsch failed, confirming Hitler’s belief in his own invincibility.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies invaded France; later, the Russians broke through in the east, forcing Hitler to move his headquarters to Berlin. He showed increasing signs of physical and mental disintegration, intensified by an illness that had not been properly treated by his physician, a quack doctor, upon whom Hitler had become dependent for injections. With the Allies crossing the Rhine River and the Russians closing in on Berlin, he, at last, acknowledged defeat and decided to commit suicide; but he wanted Germany to follow suit. Germany, he argued, had proved itself unworthy of his genius and had failed to prevail in the struggle for life.

As his personality disintegrated, however, so did the loyalty of his lieutenants. Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and munitions, refused to carry out Hitler’s order to institute a scorched-earth policy in Germany; Goering, from his retreat in Bavaria, tried to usurp Hitler’s leadership; and Himmler attempted to negotiate with the Allies. Hitler condemned them, but without effect. Only Goebbels, Bormann, and Eva Braun, whom he now married, remained with him. Hitler dictated his political testament and appointed Adm. Doenitz his successor. With the Russians rapidly approaching his bunker in Berlin, Hitler and Eva committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

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