Adolf Hitler died 71 years ago, and since then we've lost touch with who this vile warlord actually was. This is because the dimensions of his evil are so great that we often don't want to see him clearly. He led Germany to begin World War Two, which killed 60 million people (about 3 percent of the planet's population in 1940). The world that survived the war hates Hitler, and this is the way it should be.
But this level of hatred creates a problem for historians, because we are so used to discussing Adolf Hitler as a paragon of pure evil that we've turned him into a cartoon villain, a cliche. We attribute everything evil to his name, even when this departs from well-documented known history. When it becomes important to answer a serious question about, say, whether or not Donald Trump's use of violence in rallies resembles Hitler's well-known use of violence in rallies, the question often provokes such a hysterical over-the-top response that no discussion can follow. We have turned Hitler into such a powerful symbol of evil that we have left ourselves incapable of discussing who he was.
Try this question: was Hitler a wife beater? If you ask any group of people this question you'll probably hear that he was a wife beater, because he was evil and wife beaters are evil. But in fact Hitler generally treated women with tenderness and indifference, and he barely had time to become a wife beater because he only married Eva Braun 40 hours before they both killed themselves in his Berlin bunker. There are rumors that Hitler once staged the suicide of a niece who had spurned his lovesick advances, and this might even be true — but the rumors have not been verified by historians, and historians tend to know what they're talking about.
We'd like to lay out here exactly what historians do know about the real life Adolf Hitler. About half of these historical facts coincide with popular myths about the vile ranting maniac, who really was cartoonishly evil in many ways.
But about half of them don't, and some of the conclusions we'll point to will be very surprising. Here's a serious look at the real human being who led the world down the path to the Holocaust and the Second World War — a look that finally goes beyond the cliches depicted in Quentin Tarantino movies, children's nightmares and hilarious Internet memes. Let's begin with the things most people know about Hitler that actually are true, and then we'll get into the things people think they know that aren't.
Things You Thought You Knew About Hitler That Are True
He Was Obsessed With War
Born in 1889, young Adolf Hitler was a 25 year old drifter and failed artist in Vienna when the First World War began. He joined the Bavarian army and for the first time in his life found something he was good at. The tough life of a soldier appealed to him, and he enjoyed testing himself with daring acts of bravery. He was awarded an Iron Cross, allowing him to present himself as a war hero after Germany's defeat. For the rest of his life, Hitler was a complete guerrophile, devoutly maintaining a military demeanor. He spoke of violent conflict as the natural state of mankind, and believed deeply in war's restorative and character-building power.
He Staged Violent Rallies And Murdered His Political Opponents
The secret of Hitler and his Nazi party's political success was to be more brutal and strategic than their opponents, as many of these opponents found out when they attended Nazi rallies and got beat up. Or when they didn't attend Nazi rallies and got beat up. Street thuggery was a part of the Fascist formula for political dominance in the anarchic era that followed the end of World War One in Europe, and in fact Hitler picked up this technique from his Italian mentor Benito Mussolini, among others.
After Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, the newly empowered Nazis began using the government apparatus to arrest, prosecute, torture and kill opponents, particularly socialists, academics and journalists. Many of Hitler's Nazi associates and former close friends were purged (either by government prosecution or assassination) during the upheaval known as the "Night of Long Knives" in 1934, which took more than a night and left behind a clear impression: Hitler doesn't play around. To oppose Hitler inside Germany was to risk your life. This certainly helps to explain why his opposition was often confused, weak ... or dead.
He Was An Incredible Liar
Hitler had no shame at all about telling elaborate and bold lies, and neither did the Nazi party. It's widely accepted by historians that the Nazis staged a fire that destroyed the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1933 so that they could blame the Communists and declare a state of military emergency. Similarly, Hitler directed the staging of a phony Polish attack on a German radio station in 1939 to justify Germany's invasion of Poland. On an individual level, Hitler's life story shows a remarkable willingness to tell lies — and to be observed telling lies even by his trusting friends and associates, who seemed to regard his plastic notion of truth as a talent. In this, Hitler had much in common with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Both Hitler and Goebbels were known to speak of the power of the "big lie": a falsehood so bold and brazen that it will be believed even when a "small lie" is not.
He Was A Mentally Disturbed Stressed Out Speed Freak
Hitler had a gloomy childhood and adolescence, and appears to have been an insecure, intense and troubled person in early adulthood. He perked up and became positively cheerful once he joined the Army in 1914, and maintained a generally positive demeanor during the decades of his rise to power as leader of the Nazi Party and Fuhrer of Germany. This all changed in September 1939 when World War Two began. The stress and toll of war wore heavily on Hitler, even during the early years when his military ventures were wildly successful. All historical records show that Hitler began to crack around 1939. He aged rapidly, developed various weird physical tics, and began to descend into bizarre moments of uncontrolled rage that truly frightened and alienated his associates. In his great Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer describes Hitler literally sinking to the floor and chewing on the edge of a carpet to comfort himself at one moment of stress. Hitler also kept his energy level constantly amped with massive injections of metamphetamine, which explains a lot about his crazed behavior and erratic thinking during the six years of World War Two.
Things You Thought You Knew About Hitler That Aren't True
He Was Not Obsessed With Killing Jews
There is a widespread myth that Hitler had a personal ambition to kill all the Jews in the world. Some go so far as to believe that Hitler's primary motivation in rising to leadership in Germany and starting World War Two was to kill Jews. This is not supported by any part of the historical record, which indicates instead that his overt political motivation was to avenge Germany's defeat in World War One, and that his covert personal motivation was probably to glorify himself.
The unspeakable pathos of the Holocaust was all too real ... but it was not motivated by Hitler's personal feelings about Jews. Instead, the millions of innocent civilians including women and children who perished in horrifying death camps were the collateral damage of a war that had no mercy for any segment of humanity. The poor Jewish victims of the Holocaust had been left helpless because they lacked the protection of their own nation during an era of violent nationalism. The sickening extremities of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka are too massive to be blamed on any single perpetrator, and it's tragic to realize that most of the horror could have been avoided if nations like the United States of America had been willing to take in Jews as refugees during the many years that Nazi bureaucrats tried to arrange their deportation.
The Holocaust happened, but there is no historical basis at all for the idea that Hitler had ever had a master plan to slaughter Jews. The first mention of Adolf Hitler in the New York Times in 1922 was recently unearthed on social media and made a big sensation because it included these lines:
Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch messes of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.
We don't know what was inside Hitler's malicious brain, but it seems likely that the New York Times had it right in 1922. The political purposes the Times refers to had to do with the battle between Fascists and Communists in 1920s Germany — a battle that many believed Communists would eventually win.
The Nazi movement's most active opposition during the period of Hitler's rise to power were the various German Communist parties, which also strove to overthrow the weak Weimar Republic. In the years after World War One in Europe, Jews were widely considered to be Communists, as indeed they often were. A coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish Communists had taken over Russia in the final year of World War One and fear of Jewish/Communist revolution was absolutely rampant all over Europe after the war was over. Most significantly, there had been an attempted German Communist revolution in 1919, led by two prominent and heroic German Jews, Rosa Luxembourg and Kurt Liebknecht.
Today when we think of European Jews, we think of Anne Frank or Schindler's list. But the fear of Communist revolution formed the entire context for the political meaning of the term "Jew" among the parties fighting for power in 1920s and 1930s Germany. Just as today in the United States of America the word "Muslim" is often used (unfairly) as a synonym for "terrorist", in Weimar Germany the word "Jew" was often used as a synonym for "Communist". This important but often forgotten fact explains a lot about the root causes of the Holocaust.
These root causes are often assumed to involve the long twisted history of Christian anti-semitism, and the envy-based economic anti-semitism and nativism of working class citizens who hate the wealthy Jews in their midst, and the poisonous cultural anti-semitism of well-born snobs who don't want to admit Jews into their refined social circles. We typically think that all these forms of anti-semitism contributed to the shocking tragedy of the Holocaust, and they certainly did play a role. But none of them caused the Holocaust. The Holocaust, like most genocides, was an act of political destruction — an act of war, conducted in the middle of a war, directed at a political enemy. The Jews were not the enemies of Nazi Germany because they were Christ-killers, or because they exploited the poor, or because their genetic makeup was considered inferior. They were the enemies of Nazi Germany because it was believed that they would support Soviet Russia over Germany, and the reason the persecution of the Jews became so much worse in 1941 is that Germany went to war with Soviet Russia in 1941.
There is no way to understand the motivation behind the Holocaust without understanding this single point — and there is also no way to understand Hitler's speeches or his writings in books like Mein Kampf without understanding that Hitler used the word "Jew" to mean "Communist". We are accustomed to thinking of Hitler as a rabid and obsessive anti-Semite because his speeches and writings are filled with hateful accusations about Jews, but if you replace the word "Jew" with the word "Communist" in all of these texts, you will find the meanings unchanged.
Hitler is indeed responsible for the shoah, the deaths of six million Jews, along with the deaths of millions of Germans, Poles, French, Brits, Americans, Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Hungarians and Russians. But there is no evidence in HItler's widely-studied life story to indicate that he ever took a personal interest in killing Jews, nor that he ever gave the matter of killing Jews much thought. His main motivation was always to aggregate power, and as the New York Times indicates, he could play up to nativist, racist or religious prejudices among Germany's dumber and older segments of population in order to increase his support.
The identification of "Jew" with "Communist" provides context without which we cannot understand the motivations behind Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jews, which became official with the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, became more violent and murderous with the Kristallnacht in 1938, and finally transformed into mass mechanized killing after the invasion of Russia in 1941. The identification of "Jew" with "Communist" explains why the construction of massive murder factories in the occupied Eastern territories was considered sane military strategy by the entire bureaucracy of the Nazi party and the German army. The explanation can be found in the records of the Wannsee Conference, at which the Holocaust was planned — a meeting that Hitler did not consider important enough to attend.
Adolf Hitler was not likely to have taken the racist aspects of anti-Semitism personally to heart, since he looked nothing like an Aryan, and probably suspected that he was part Jewish (the plausible rumor followed him his entire life).
He was also not likely to have taken the religious, Christian or Lutheran aspects of anti-Semitism seriously, since he was never even remotely interested in Christianity.
He was also not likely to have been inspired by the snobbish social aspect of upper-crust European anti-semitism, since Hitler styled himself a rough soldier and created his own social circle that was far removed from the refined traditional circles of old world Germany or Austria.
Many of Hitler's close associates such as Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg were obsessed with eugenics and racial science, and Hitler did permit and encourage various horrifying pseudo-scientific practices on behalf of the Aryan race, though there is little evidence that he ever took a personal interest in eugenics or any "scientific" pursuits.
In discussing the sincerity of Hitler's anti-semitism, it's an important point that countless Germans and Nazis who participated in the Holocaust were deeply interested in or inspired by racial, religious, social or pseudo-scientific anti-semitism. But a close study of Hitler's biography does not show that he ever took a personal interest in these matters. Hitler was a politician and a warlord, obsessed with fighting Communism and avenging Germany's defeat in World War One. However, as the 1922 New York Times article suggests, Hitler did realize that racial, religious, social and pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism was useful in stirring up virulent popular support in Germany (just as racist dog-whistling and anti-immigrant can be useful in riling up crowds in America today).
He Was Not A Sadist
If Hitler had ever personally watched a Jew being killed, or had ever personally tortured a political prisoner or participated in the gruesome hangings (with piano wire) of the conspirators who tried to assassinate him, there might be some grounds to believe that he was driven by a sick attraction to psychosexual violence.
We would like to believe that Hitler was a rabid deviant, and it might even help to explain the incredible extent of the violent destruction he caused to conclude that he was a sadist who liked making people suffer. Unfortunately, even his most critical biographers are forced to admit that there is little evidence to support this diagnosis. Hitler appears to have used violence for its considerable political power. He did not involve himself directly in acts of sadistic violence, and remained diffident and uninterested in the details of actual acts of sadism committed by other Nazis (many of whom, apparently, actually were sadistic and deeply depraved).
He Was Not An Egotist Or Megalomaniac
We are accustomed to thinking of Hitler as an incredible egotist and megalomaniac because of his vast cult of personality, which strikes us as bizarre today. It's bizarre that Germans were required to shout "Heil Hitler", that every German soldier or military officer was forced to declare a loyalty oath directly to Adolf Hitler, that the children of the Reich were expected to join the "Hitler Youth". Adolf certainly seemed to have an outsized ego, didn't he?
Not so fast. We are today so far removed from the Napoleonic age that totally dominated Europe's intellectual culture during all of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century that we find all cults of personality strange, but Napoleonic cults of personality were standard in European politics during the Hitler era. If you were a Fascist or Communist leader in Europe and you didn't cultivate a massive cult of personality, you weren't doing it right.
This practice certainly began with Napoleon Bonaparte, whose level of fame and glory is hard to explain today, and who was himself inspired by past European military heroes like Oliver Cromwell and Julius Caesar. But Napoleon's conquest of Europe and his "modern" despoiling of ancient royal regimes made him by far the single greatest celebrity of the 19th Century — imagine every rock star and movie star in the world combined as a single person, and you'll get an idea how famous Napoleon was in the 19th Century. Beethoven wrote a symphony for Napoleon, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace to mock him, and Lord Byron died fighting for a vague notion of Napoleonic glory in Greece. Napoleon's cult of personality would eventually be imitated by Louis Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Simon Bolivar, Guiseppe Garibaldi, George Dewey, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini and countless others ... including Adolf Hitler. For this type of leader, heroic self-celebration was part of the standard package.
The word "dictator" is now considered an insult, but crowds clamored for a dictator in Hitler-era Europe, because a dictator was a powerful leader who could rise above the sniveling compromises of mediocre democracy and lead an army to glorious victory in battle. Hitler appears to us now as a bizarrely self-obsessed megalomaniac, but in fact he and his followers were simply following the Napoleonic template of heroic leadership.
This became particularly clear after Germany conquered Paris: Hitler never visited a concentration camp, but he did visit Napoleon's tomb. This does not show us who Hitler was, but it does show us who Hitler wanted to be. Thankfully, the world has cooled its enthusiasm for Napoleonic military heroes since the disaster of Hitler's reign, and now we glorify rock stars, movie stars and arrogant billionaires instead.
Things You DIdn't Know About Hitler That You Should
He Was A Genius At The "Art of the Deal"
William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is one of the best (and earliest) in-depth studies of the Nazi era, and Shirer's book drives home one point above all others: Hitler's greatest political skill, even greater than his powerful oratory or his sharp military strategy, was his ability to read his opponents, dominate a meeting or conference, and negotiate a great deal. Many of Hitler's deals have gone down infamously in history:
- The deal with President Hindenberg and Chancellor Fritz von Papen that resulted in Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany (despite the Nazis never winning a fair election) in 1933.
- The deal to allow Germany to host the Olympics in 1936, despite much angry political opposition around the world.
- The forcible annexation of Austria in 1938, which resulted from a series of harrowing private conferences with Austria's Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg that took Austria's government completely by surprise.
- The infamous Munich agreement in 1938 that enabled Germany to peacefully destroy Czechoslovokia, a historic mistake in which Great Britain's Neville Chamberlain was completely fooled about Hitler's intentions.
- Hitler's deal with Russia's Joseph Stalin (not a poor negotiator himself, one must presume) that allowed Hitler the benefit of a couple of years of complicity from his Communist enemy before Germany invaded Russia in 1941.
In all of these instances, Hitler is known to have prepared thoroughly before negotiations began. Indeed, as Shirer's important book shows, a meeting with Hitler was often a trap. His method was always to take his opponent by surprise with unexpected (often ludicrous) sudden statements or insults or demands, to dominate the proceedings with theatrical bombast that would often leave his opponent a quivering, nervous mess. In one pathetic incident, Czechoslovakia's gentle, elderly premier Emil Hacha literally had a heart attack while trying to negotiate with Hitler in 1938, and had to be roughly revived long enough to sign a capitulation before he was allowed to pass out again.
It's sometimes said that Hitler was a very talented military leader. This point is debatable, since Germany's military victories in 1939 and 1940 left him with no follow-up strategy, resulting in gradual but total defeat. But one thing is clear: nobody could negotiate a deal like Hitler could. It was only after the invasion of Poland when the conference room was replaced by the battlefield as the primary theater of military strategy that Nazi Germany began to lose its position of strength in Europe.
He Was A Genius At Branding and Marketing
Hitler knew how to touch the German people's hearts, and much of the handiwork was his own. He wrote his own speeches, and collaborated closely with Albert Speer, his favorite architect, on the construction of public works designed to inspire a revival of Germany's imperial spirit. He was even remarkably successful as a graphic designer, since it was Hitler himself who came up with the idea of the swastika as the Nazi symbol, and who personally designed the red, white and black Third Reich flag.
He Did Not Love The German People
It's worth pointing out that the German people were among Hitler's victims — especially in the final years of the war when Hitler literally declared that it would be better for the German people to die "fighting" than to surrender. There was precious little fighting spirit left in Germany by the time Hitler finally shot himself in April 1945, but Hitler could have saved many German lives by helping citizens to evacuate cities before vengeful and rapacious Russian troops arrived. He refused to allow cities like Berlin to surrender, or to consider the needs of massive streams of German former colonists fleeing the Russian advance from Czechoslovakia and Poland. Thus, German families were among the last victims of Hitler's reign of power. As with his non-German victims, Hitler did not seem to particularly relish the suffering he had caused, but he also did not seem to mind it. His obsessive drive for power seems to have been the only thing on his mind, and this points to a general conclusion about who Hitler was and why he was empowered to do so much harm.
Conclusion: Hitler Was A Craven Opportunist
It's frightening to realize that Hitler did not belong to a different species from other politicians of the modern age. He appears to have had a greater capacity for violence and genocidal destruction than most politicians, but that doesn't indicate that violence or genocide were his primary goals. It's frightening to realize that an opportunistic desire for power (in a region shattered by a previous war, and hungry for revenge) can explain nearly everything about his miserable 12 year reign in Germany ... because an opportunistic desire for power is something many politicians share, and there are plenty of war-shattered and vengeance-hungry regions around the world today.
What made Hitler different? Well, he may not have been as different as we want to believe. He was not the worst genocidal murderer of the 20th century: historians give that honor to Mao Zedong of China, with Joseph Stalin in second place and Hitler in third.
As we look forward to our current and future next generations of world leaders, from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jung-un to Donald Trump, it's worth asking if we have learned any lessons from the disaster of Adolf Hitler at all.
Author's Note: This was a difficult and painful article to write, and I understand that many people will find my conclusions questionable or offensive. I welcome any comments, corrections or invitations to debate.
This article is the result of decades of research and intensive reading in history. The topic of Hitler is a personal one for me; I am a Jewish American whose paternal grandmother's entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust, presumably following the German invasion of L'vov in June 1941. I aim to understand Adolf Hitler not because I have any desire to forgive him, but because I wish to prevent his sequel.
Well done I knew a lot of this information about Hitler that you wrote. You did a terrific job
Your research appears exhaustive. Though the narrative appears as a slight Hitler apologist, I know thats not your aim. However, I think you have skipped lightly over the "final solution". The corporal dictator cannot be held blameless had he witnessed or not these atrocities. As for Trump, yes, a cult of personality for his "uneducated" voters. We deserve what we get, in the final analysis.
Thanks for the comments, William and Diane.
William, just to clarify, I would never in a billion years be an apologist for Hitler. As I think you know, my point here is to share the disturbing news that Hitler's crimes were not as unique as we like to delude ourselves to believe, and neither was his twisted personality.