Adolf Hitler had a charismatic personality of overpowering forcefulness. An amoral man, rootless and incapable of personal friendships, he looked on his fellow humans as mere bricks in the world structure he wished to erect. He knew how to appeal to people's baser instincts and made use of their fears and insecurities. He could do that, however, only because they were willing to be led, even though his programme was one of hatred and violence. His impact was wholly destructive, and nothing of what he instituted and built survived.
Adolf Hitler, German political and government leader and one of the 20th century's most powerful dictators, who converted Germany into a fully militarized society and launched World War II. Making anti-Semitism a keystone of his propaganda and policies, he built up the Nazi party into a mass movement. For a time he dominated most of Europe and North Africa. He caused the slaughter of millions of Jews and others whom he considered inferior human beings.
Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, on April 20, 1889, the son of a minor customs official and a peasant girl. A poor student, he never completed high school. He applied for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but was rejected for lack of talent. Staying in Vienna until 1913, he lived first on an orphan's pension, later on small earnings from pictures he drew. He read voraciously, developing anti-Jewish and antidemocratic convictions, an admiration for the outstanding individual, and a contempt for the masses.
In World War I, Hitler, by then in Munich, volunteered for service in the Bavarian army. He proved a dedicated, courageous soldier, but was never promoted beyond private first class because his superiors thought him lacking in leadership qualities. After Germany's defeat in 1918 he returned to Munich, remaining in the army until 1920. His commander made him an education officer, with the mandate to immunize his charges against pacifist and democratic ideas. In September 1919 he joined the nationalist German Workers' party, and in April 1920 he went to work full time for the party, now renamed the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) party. In 1921 he was elected party chairman (Führer) with dictatorial powers.
Organizing meeting after meeting, terrorizing political foes with groups of party thugs, Hitler spread his gospel of racial hatred and contempt for democracy. He soon became a key figure in Bavarian politics, aided by high officials and businessmen. In November 1923, a time of political and economic chaos, he led an uprising (Putsch) in Munich against the post-war Weimar Republic, proclaiming himself chancellor of a new authoritarian regime. Without military support, however, the Putsch collapsed.
As leader of the plot, Hitler was sentenced to five years' imprisonment and spent the eight months he actually served dictating his autobiography Mein Kampf. Released as a result of a general amnesty in December 1924, he rebuilt his party without interference from those whose government he had tried to overthrow. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, his explanation of it as a Jewish-Communist plot was accepted by many Germans. Promising a strong Germany, jobs, and national glory, he attracted millions of voters. Nazi representation in the Reichstag (parliament) rose from 12 seats in 1928, to 107 seats in 1930.
During the following two years the party kept expanding, benefiting from growing unemployment, fear of Communism, Hitler's self-certainty, and the diffidence of his political rivals. Nevertheless, when Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933, he was expected to be an easily controlled tool of big business.
Once in power, however, Hitler quickly established himself as a dictator. Thousands of anti-Nazis were hauled off to concentration camps and all signs of dissent suppressed. An Enabling Act passed by a subservient legislature allowed him to Nazify the bureaucracy and the judiciary, replace all labour unions with one Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, and ban all political parties except his own. The economy, the media, and all cultural activities were brought under Nazi authority by making an individual's livelihood dependent on his or her political loyalty.
Hitler relied on his secret police, the Gestapo, and on jails and camps to intimidate his opponents, but most Germans supported him enthusiastically. His armament drive wiped out unemployment, an ambitious recreational programme attracted workers and employees, and his foreign policy successes impressed the nation. He thus managed to mould the German people into the pliable tool he needed to establish German rule over Europe and other parts of the world. Discrediting the churches with charges of corruption and immorality, he imposed his own brutal moral code. He derided the concept of human equality and claimed racial superiority for the Germans. As the master race, they were told, they had the right to dominate all nations they subjected. The increasingly ruthless persecution of the Jews was to inure the Germans to this task.
Setting out on his empire-building mission, Hitler launched Germany's open rearmament in 1935 (in defiance of the World War I peace treaty), sent troops into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in 1938. In March 1939 he brought the remainder of Czechoslovakia under German control. He also came to the aid of Francisco Franco's rebels in Spain's civil war (1936-1939). Outmanoeuvred and fearful of war, no national leader offered resistance to his moves.
World War II
Hitler realized, however, that any further moves might lead to a European conflict, and he unhesitatingly prepared for the struggle, which he believed would strengthen Germany's moral fibre. Having neutralized the Soviet Union with the promise of a partition of Poland after the latter's defeat, he attacked Poland in September 1939. The Poles were quickly overpowered, and their allies, the British and French, who had declared war on Germany, would do nothing to help. In the spring of 1940 Hitler's forces overran Denmark and Norway and a few weeks later routed the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. The defeat of Britain was averted by the Royal Air Force, which fended off the German Luftwaffe.
Driven by his ambitions and his hatred of communism, Hitler then turned on the Soviet Union. To protect his flank, he first subdued the Balkan Peninsula. The invasion of the USSR in June 1941 quickly carried the German armies to the gates of Moscow, but in December they were pushed back by the Russians, just as the United States entered the war. Hitler then realized that the war was lost militarily, but he resolved to play for time in the hope that some new miracle weapon or a diplomatic manoeuvre might still save the situation.
As time passed and defeat became more certain, Hitler still refused to give up, feeling that Germany did not deserve to survive because it had not lived up to its mission.
Throughout this period, moreover, the campaign to destroy world Jewry continued, and endless trains took millions of Jews to extermination camps, seriously interfering with the war effort. An officers' plot to assassinate Hitler and end the war failed in 1944. Finally, on April 30, 1945, with all of Germany overrun by Allied invaders, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, as did his long-time companion, Eva Braun, whom he had married the day before.
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