A line from Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” may serve us as a starting point in the following glimpses into the life of Adolf Hitler: “The child is father of the man.” Probe the depths of childhood and you will discover the man; that is, provided you have access to those depths.
Pastor B. Gephart, of New Orleans’ Fellowship in the World, states it simply, “Hurt people hurt people.” It is the hurts of childhood that are the psychoanalyst's starting point. As a child, Hitler had his share of growing pains; however, we know nothing of his early mental life that could shed light as to the monstrous adult he grew up to be.
Hitler never underwent psychoanalysis. Freud, who practiced in Vienna and was a contemporary, when asked to offer a diagnosis of Hitler declined, stating he would not diagnose anyone he had not treated.
The family’s Jewish doctor in Linz, Austria, Eduard Bloch, told the FBI in New York -- Hitler allowed Bloch to emigrate to the United States after his annexation of Austria in March 1938 -- that he found the adolescent Adolf to be “quiet, well-mannered and neatly dressed [who] lived within himself. What dreams he dreamed I do not know.”
The future Fuhrer (“leader”) attended the Linz Realschule (state technical school) beginning in 1903 when he was 14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, six days his junior, was a schoolmate. Years later, British mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell would say of Wittgenstein, his Cambridge student (who went on to become a major figure in 20th-century philosophy), “His disposition is that of an artist, intuitive and moody.” Russell’s description of Wittgenstein could be applied to the youthful Hitler as well, whose ambition actually was to become an artist.
Earlier, for the school year of 1898-9, Adolf had attended the third grade in Lambach's 11th-century Benedictine abbey. Lambach is a farm town half way between Linz, capital of the state of Upper Austria, and Salzburg, famous as the birthplace of Mozart. He did well in the monastery school, where he sang in the boys’ choir, enjoyed the liturgy, and even talked about becoming a priest.
He knew his Bible, and God remained part of his vocabulary to the end of his life. Surviving the assassination plot of July 20, 1944, he commented: “Almighty God has called me to lead the German people – not to final defeat but to victory.” And earlier from Mein Kampf, “I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
From his youth, Hitler had his heart set on studying art and architecture at Vienna’s Academy of Visual Arts, but twice failed the entrance exam. In 1907, his watercolors didn’t impress the examiners, and when he reapplied the following year to pursue architecture, he was rejected again but only because he lacked a high-school diploma. He took the rejection in stride and “resolved to continue as an autodidact [self-taught person].”
On his own, he studied music, art, literature – and politics. After serving 13 months in Landsberg Prison following his failed attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government (the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923), where he continued his voracious reading (and wrote Mein Kampf), he commented,” I received a university education at state expense.”
Between October 1918 and January 1933, not quite fifteen years, Hitler went from a corporal in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment to chancellor of Germany, following in the footsteps of the man he admired the most, Benito Mussolini, who in 1917 was a corporal in the Italian army and five years later dictator of Italy.
Corporal Hitler suffered two episodes of blindness during the Great War, the first by mustard gas in October 1918, from which he recovered, and the second on November 9, when he heard there would be an armistice on the 11th. Professor Edmund Forster, a consulting psychiatrist and chief of the Berlin University Nerve Clinic, found no organic basis for the soldier’second blindness and diagnosed him as “a psychopath with hysterical symptoms.” This is the earliest psychiatric assessment we have of Hitler.
It was during the episode of hysterical blindness -- his unconscious (subconscious) mind chose blindness so as not “to see” the ignominious surrender of Germany -- that Hitler made a life-defining decision: if he did recover his eyesight, he would abandon his plans to become an architect and enter politics. So goes the story.
There may be some evidence to support this account. While undergoing treatment with hypnotherapy, the corporal experienced what he called a “supernatural vision,” This is described in the novel, The Eyewitness (1938), by Forster’s medical doctor friend turned writer, Ernst Weiss. Under hypnosis, “A.H.,” Weiss’ designation for the blind patient, heard voices entreating him to become the savior of Germany. As historian John Toland wrote in his monumental work Adolf Hitler, “the most portentous force of the twentieth century was born.”
In Hitler’s time, and for centuries before, antisemitism was endemic in Austria. In fact, anti-semitism ran so deep, you can consider Vienna, in particular, to have been saturated with it. Young Hitler lived in his homeland’s capital from 1907 until 1913 and soaked up his share of antisemitic sentiment from reading newspaper articles, books, pamphlets, and brochures about and by such personages in the public eye as Georg Schonerer, Karl Lueger, and Guido von List, just to name a few, names that do not strike a bell today but made the headlines almost every day in Hitler’s time.
Schonerer, leader of the “Pan-German movement” (German Austrians advocating union with Germany), was fond of mouthing political slogans. One went: “Through purity to unity.” By purity, he meant, of course, purity of blood. Another one, from his “Away from Rome movement,” rhymes better in English than in German: “Without Judea, without Rome, we’ll build Germany’s church and dome.”
Thus, Jews were not Germany’s only blood-contaminators for Schonerer. He also targeted Freemasons, Jesuits (in addition to the Pope), capitalists, parliamentarians, Bolsheviks, Czechs, and a number of other groups, but succeeded only in overextending himself and as a consequence weakening himself politically. Hitler learned an important lesson from Schonerer. In Mein Kampf, he wrote: “…one should on purely psychological grounds never show the masses two or more opponents, since this leads to a total disintegration of their fighting power.” Instead, he recommended zeroing in on one enemy, “the Jew” – who would become his scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong in Austria, in Germany, in his life, in the world.
Lueger, Vienna’s mayor, enjoyed repeating his favorite antisemitic slogan at political rallies: “Greater Vienna must not turn into Greater Jerusalem,” and its variant, “We fight against…the replacement of the old Christian Empire of Austria by a new Palestine.”
He did not hesitate to employ the centuries-old label of Jews as the “Christ killer people,” for he understood how to stir the hearts and minds of voters by invoking formula one – “If something is wrong, the Jews are to blame” -- whenever the situation called for scapegoating.
Vienna-born Guido List added the aristocratic “von” to his name so as to convince his fellow right-wingers that he was a member of the “Aryan master race.” List divided members of our species into Aryan masters, the Chosen Ones, and the “herd people,” representing the rest of humanity. Aryans originated near the North Pole but during the last Ice Age migrated to southern parts carrying culture wherever they went. Nordics, such as the Germans, were supposedly direct descendants of Aryans, and thus had a special place in the scheme of things: they were to be the rulers of mankind.
Hitler swallowed Guido’s racism, as did Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, short for Schutzstaffle (“Protective Squadrons,”). Himmler even sent an anthropological team to Tibet in the 1930s, where he believed the original Aryans were still to be found.
During his six years in Vienna, Hitler read his way through every page of the major local newspaper day in and day out overlooking nothing. The one thing the newsmakers -- Schonerer, Lueger, List, Karl Hermann Wolf, Franz Stein, Otto Weininger, Josef Greiner, and the list goes on and on – had in common was that they were all virulently antisemitic. To drive home the point, the words “Jew” or “Jewish” appear on nearly every page of German historian Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna: A Portrait of the Tyrant as a Young Man, a book of 400 pages (41 lines to the page), which ends in 1913 when Hitler was 24 and leaving Vienna for Munich, where his life really begins! Actually, Hitler’s Vienna tells us more about antisemitism in Old Vienna than it does Hitler’s early life.
In 1919, while still with the 16th Bavarian Regiment, Hitler’s superiors had him join a fledgling group, the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, DAP for short). One of his first acts was to respond to an inquiry from a trainee in the regiment about the “Jewish menace.” Hitler wrote a lengthy response, concluding with: “…the final aim must unquestionably be the irrevocable Entfernung of the Jews.” The German word in italics can be translated as “removal” or “expulsion,” but also as “amputation” and “liquidation.” Which meaning did Hitler have in mind in 1919?
When interviewed in November 1922 in Munich by Truman Smith, our assistant military attaché in Berlin, about antisemitism, Hitler replied that he merely “favored the withdrawal of citizenship and the exclusion from public affairs.” He could lie with the best of them.
Smith had to return to Berlin and passed the free ticket Hitler gave him for a speech he was to deliver at the Kindlkeller beer hall to the bilingual, Harvard-educated, pianist Ernst Hanfstaengl. “What Hitler was able to do to a crowd in 2-1/2 hours,” Hanfstaengl would later relate to Smith, “will never be repeated in ten thousand years. Because of his marvelous throat construction, he was able to create a rhapsody of hysteria.” And with that extraordinary endowment, go on to beguile a nation, I might add. It wasn’t just the anatomy of his throat but his persona. He mesmerized his audience with his magnetic personality and theatrical gesticulating, in addition to his spell-binding oratory.
At a time when European nations – Great Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Portugal – were trying to enlarge their territorial limits by adding distant colonies, Hitler’s idea was to enlarge Germany by extending its borders – in German, Lebensraum (“living space”). He got his ideas about Lebensraum from geopolitician Karl Haushofer – through Rudolf Hess, second to Hitler at the time in the DAP [add National Socialist to DAP and you get NSDAP, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, Nazi, for short], who had studied geopolitics under Haushofer at the University of Munich – and reading Hans Grimm’s 1926 book, Volk ohne Raum (A People without Space).
Expelling Jews from Germany was one thing; exterminating them as a people sounded incomprehensible. Yet the thought kept creeping into his consciousness until it became an idee fixe. And it originated with the hero of World War l, Erich Ludendorff.
Along with General Paul von Hindenburg, General Ludendorff ran the German war machine during the Great War (World War l). Not as well known to historians as he should be, Ludendorff authored The Total War (Der Totale Krieg) in 1935, in which he affirmed that war was man’s natural state and peace represented only an interval between wars – a time to catch one’s breath, lick one’s wounds, and procreate the next generation.
Earlier, In his book Conducting War and Politics (1922), also entitled Warfare and Politics in English, and Kriegfuhrung und Politik in the original German, Ludendorff wrote that “Germany must make herself Jewish-free (Judenrein) before undertaking the next war.” Hitler was to turn the general’s ideas into action. Will and Denise Brownell describe Ludendorff aptly in their book The First Nazi: Erich Ludendorff, the Man Who Made Hitler Possible (2016).