A bestseller in its original German edition and subsequently translated into more than a dozen languages, Joachim Fest’s Hitler has become a classic portrait of a man, a nation, and an era.
Fest tells and interprets the extraordinary story of a man’s and nation’s rise from impotence to absolute power, as Germany and Hitler, from shared premises, entered into their covenant. He shows Hitler exploiting the resentments of the shaken, post–World War I social order and seeing through all that was hollow behind the appearance of power, at home and abroad. Fest reveals the singularly penetrating politician, hypnotizing Germans and outsiders alike with the scope of his projects and the theatricality of their presentation. Perhaps most importantly, he also brilliantly uncovers the destructive personality that aimed for and achieved devastation on an unprecedented scale.
As history and biography, this is a towering achievement, a compelling story told in a way only a German could tell it: “dispassionately, but from the inside” (Time).
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BACKGROUND AND DEPARTURE
The need to magnify themselves, to bestir themselves, is characteristic of all illegitimates.
All through his life he made the strongest efforts to conceal as well as to glorify his own personality. Hardly any other prominent figure in history so covered his tracks, as far as his personal life was concerned. With a carefulness verging on pedantry, he stylized his persona. The concept he had of himself was more like a monument than like a man. From the start he endeavored to hide behind it. Rigid in expression, early conscious of his calling, at the age of thirty-five he had already withdrawn into the concentrated, frozen inapproachability of the Great Leader. In obscurity legends form; in obscurity the aura of being one of the elect can grow. But that obscurity which cloaks the early history of his life also accounted for the anxieties, the secrecy, and the curiously histrionic character of his existence.
Even as leader of the struggling young NSDAP (National Socialist Workers' Party) he regarded interest in his private life as insulting. As Chancellor he forbade all publicity about it. The statements of all those who knew him more than casually, from a friend of his youth to the members of his intimate dinner circle, stress how he liked to keep his distance and preserve his privacy. "Throughout his life he had an indescribable aloofness about him." He spent several years in a "home for men"; but of all the many people who met him there, few could recall him later. He moved about among them as a permanent stranger, attracting no attention. At the beginning of his political career he jealously took care that no pictures of him were published. Some have explained this obsession as the strategy of a born propagandist; it has been argued that as a man of mystery he deliberately aroused interest in himself.
But even if this is so, his efforts at concealment did not spring entirely from the desire to introduce a note of allure into his portrait. Rather, we have here the anxieties of a constricted nature overwhelmed by a sense of its own ambiguousness. He was forever bent on muddying still further the opaque background of his origins and family. When, in 1942, he was informed that a plaque had been set up for him in the village of Spital, he flew into one of his violent rages. He transformed his ancestors into "poor cottagers." He falsified his father's occupation, changing him from a customs official to a postal official. He curtly repulsed the relatives who tried to approach him. For a time his younger sister Paula ran his household at Obersalzberg, but he made her take another name. After the invasion of Austria he forbade Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels to publish; he owed some vague, early suggestions to this man, the eccentric exponent of a racist philosophy. Reinhold Hanisch was his onetime chum from his days in the home for men; he had Hanisch murdered. He insisted that he was no one's disciple. All knowledge had come to him from his own inspiration, by the grace of Providence and out of his dialogues with the Spirit. Similarly, he would be no one's son. The picture of his parents emerges in the dimmest of outlines from the autobiographical chapters of his book, Mein Kampf, and only to the extent that it supported the legend of his life.
His efforts to muddy the waters were favored by the fact that he came from across the border. Like many of the revolutionaries and conquerors of history, from Alexander to Napoleon to Stalin, he was a foreigner among his countrymen. There is surely a psychological link between this sense of being an outsider and the readiness to employ a whole nation as material for wild and expansive projects, even to the point of destroying the nation. At the turning point of the war, during one of the bloody battles of attrition, when his attention was called to the tremendous losses among newly commissioned officers, he replied with surprised incomprehension: "But that's what the young men are there for."
But foreignness did not sufficiently conceal him. His feeling for order, rules, and respectability was always at variance with his rather unsavory family history, and evidently he never lost a sense of the distance between his origins and his claims on the world. His own past always stirred his anxieties. In 1930, when rumors arose that his enemies were preparing to throw light on his family background, Hitler appeared very upset: "These people must not be allowed to find out who I am. They must not know where I come from and who my family is."
On both his father's and his mother's side, his family came from a remote and poverty-stricken area in the Dual Monarchy, the Waldviertel between the Danube and the Bohemian border. A wholly peasant population, with involved kinship ties resulting from generations of inbreeding, occupied the villages whose names repeatedly recur in Hitler's ancestral history: Döllersheim, Strones, Weitra, Spital, Walterschlag. These are all small, scattered settlements in a rather wretched, heavily wooded landscape. The name Hitler, Hiedler, or Hitler is probably of Czech origin (Hidlar, Hidlarcek); it first crops up in one of its many variants in the 1430's. Through the generations, however, it remained the name of small farmers; none of them broke out of the pre-existing social framework.
At House No. 13 in Strones, the home of Johann Trummelschlager, an unmarried servant girl by the name of Maria Anna Schicklgruber gave birth to a child on June 7, 1837. That same day the child was baptized Alois. In the registry of births in Dollersheim parish the space for the name of the child's father was left blank. Nor was this changed five years later when the mother married the unemployed journeyman miller Johann Georg Hiedler. That same year she turned her son over to her husband's brother, Johann Nepomuk Hitler, a Spital farmer — presumably because she thought she could not raise the child properly. At any rate the Hiedlers, the story has it, were so impoverished that "ultimately they did not even have a bed left and slept in a cattle trough."
These two brothers are two of the presumptive fathers of Alois Schicklgruber. The third possibility, according to a rather wild story that nevertheless comes from one of Hitler's closer associates, is a Graz Jew named Frankenberger in whose household Maria Anna Schicklgruber is said to have been working when she became pregnant. Such, at any rate, is the testimony of Hans Frank, for many years Hitler's lawyer, later Governor General of Poland. In the course of his trial at Nuremberg Frank reported that in 1930 Hitler had received a letter from a son of his half-brother Alois. Possibly the intention of the letter was blackmail. It indulged in dark hints about "very odd circumstances in our family history." Frank was assigned to look into the matter confidentially. He found some indications to support the idea that Frankenberger had been Hitler's grandfather. The lack of hard evidence, however, makes this thesis appear exceedingly dubious — for all that we may also wonder what had prompted Frank at Nuremberg to ascribe a Jewish ancestor to Hitler. Recent researches have further shaken the credibility of his statement, so that the whole notion can scarcely stand serious investigation. In any case, its real significance is independent of its being true or false. What is psychologically of crucial importance is the fact that Frank's findings forced Hitler to doubt his own descent. A renewed investigation undertaken in August, 1942, by the Gestapo, on orders from Heinrich Himmler, produced no tangible results. All the other theories about Hitler's grandfather are also full of holes, although some ambitious combinational ingenuity has gone into the version that traces Alois Schicklgruber's paternity "with a degree of probability bordering on absolute certainty" to Johann Nepomuk Hitler. Both arguments peter out in the obscurity of confused relationships marked by meanness, dullness, and rustic bigotry. The long and short of it is that Adolf Hitler did not know who his grandfather was.
Twenty-nine years later, after Maria Anna Schicklgruber had died of "consumption in consequence of thoracic dropsy" in Klein-Motten near Strones, and nineteen years after the death of her husband, the brother Johann Nepomuk Hitler appeared before parish priest Zahnschirm in Dollersheim, accompanied by three acquaintances. He asked for the legitimation of his "foster son," the customs official Alois Schicklgruber, now nearly forty years of age. Not he himself but his deceased brother Johann Georg was the father, he said; Johann had avowed this, and his companions could witness the facts.
The parish priest allowed himself to be deceived or persuaded. In the old registry, under the entry of June 7, 1837, he altered the item "illegitimate" to "legitimate," filled in the space for the name of the father as requested, and inserted a false marginal note: "The undersigned confirm that Georg Hitler, registered as the father, who is well known to the undersigned witnesses, admits to being the father of the child Alois as stated by the child's mother, Anna Schicklgruber, and has requested the entry of his name in the present baptismal register. XXX Josef Romeder, witness; XXX Johann Breiteneder, witness; XXX Engelbert Paukh." Since the three witnesses could not write, they signed with three crosses, and the priest put in their names. But he neglected to insert the date. His own signature was also missing, as well as that of the (long-since deceased) parents. Though scarcely legal, the legitimation took effect: from January, 1877, on Alois Schicklgruber called himself Alois Hitler.
This rustic intrigue may very well have been set in motion by Alois himself. For he was an enterprising man who in the interval had made quite a career for himself. He may therefore have felt the need to provide himself with security and a firm footing by obtaining an "honorable" name. At the age of thirteen he had been apprenticed to a shoemaker in Vienna. But, by and by, he decided against being an artisan and instead entered the Austrian Finance Office. He advanced rapidly as a customs official and was ultimately promoted to the highest civil service rank open to a man of his education. He was fond of appearing as the representative of constituted authority on public occasions and made a point of being addressed by his correct title. One of his associates in the customs office called him "strict, precise, even pedantic," and he himself told a relation who asked his advice about a son's choice of occupation that working for the treasury demanded absolute obedience and sense of duty, and that it was not for "drinkers, borrowers, card players, and other people who go in for immoral conduct." The photographs that he usually had made on the occasion of his promotions show a portly man with the wary face of an official. Underneath that official mask, bourgeois competence and bourgeois pleasure in public display can be discerned. He presents himself to the viewer with considerable dignity and complacency, his uniform aglitter with buttons.
But this respectability overlaid an obviously unstable temperament marked by a propensity for impulsive decisions. Among other things, his frequent changes of residence suggest a restiveness that the sober practical work of the customs service could not satisfy. He moved at least eleven times in barely twenty-five years — although some of these moves were connected with his job. He also married three times. While his first wife was still alive, his subsequent second wife expected a child by him, and the same was true for the subsequent third during the life of the second. His first wife, Anna Glassl, was fourteen years his senior; his last, Klara Pölzl, twenty-three years younger. She had first entered his household as a maid. Like the Hiedlers or Huttlers, she came from Spital; and after his change of name she was his niece, at least legally, so that a dispensation from the church had to be obtained for them to marry. The question of whether she was indeed related to him by blood remains as unanswerable as the question of who Alois Hitler's father was. She quietly and conscientiously carried out her domestic tasks, regularly attended church — in accordance with her husband's wishes — and was never quite able to rise above the status of housemaid and bedmate. For many years she had difficulty in regarding herself as the customs official's wife, and used to address her husband as "Uncle Alois." Her picture shows the face of a modest village girl, earnest, impassive, with a trace of despondency.
Adolf Hitler, born April 20, 1889, in Braunau am Inn, in the suburban house numbered 219, was the fourth child of this marriage. Three older children, born 1885, 1886, and 1887, had died in infancy; of the two younger, only the sister, Paula, survived. The family also included the children of Alois's second marriage, Alois and Angela. The small border town had no influence on Adolf's development, for the following year his father was transferred to Gross-Schonau in Lower Austria. Adolf was three years old when the family moved again to Passau, and five when his father was transferred to Linz. In 1895 his father bought a farm of nearly ten acres in the vicinity of Lambach, site of a famous old Benedictine monastery where the six-year-old boy served as choir boy and acolyte. There, according to his own account, he often had the opportunity "to intoxicate myself with the solemn splendor of the brilliant church festivals." But his father soon sold the farm again. That same year he retired on pension, at the age of only fifty-eight. Soon afterward he bought a house in Leonding, a small community just outside Linz, and settled down to his retirement years.
In spite of obvious signs of nervous instability, the dominant feature of this picture is one of respectable solidity and instinct for security. But the cloak of legend Hitler threw over this background (later, with the beginnings of the Hitler personality cult, to be embellished by melodramatic touches and sentimental embroidery) contrasts strongly with the reality. The legend suggests deep poverty and domestic hardship, with the chosen boy triumphing over these dire conditions and over the tyrannical efforts of an obtuse father to break the son's spirit. In order to introduce a few effective touches of black into the picture, the son actually made Alois a drunkard. Hitler tells of scolding and pleading with his father in scenes "of abominable shame," tugging and pulling him out of "reeking, smoky taverns" to bring him home.
Hitler portrays himself as invariably victorious in battles on the village common and in the vicinity of the old fortress tower — nothing else would be in keeping with the precocity of genius. According to his story, the other boys accepted him as a born leader, and he was always ready with masterful plans for knightly adventures and exploration projects. Through these innocent games young Adolf developed an interest in warfare and the soldier's trade that pointed toward the future. In retrospect the author of Mein Kampf discovered "two outstanding facts as particularly significant" about the "boy of barely eleven": that he had become a nationalist and had learned "to understand and grasp the meaning of history." The whole fable is brought to a neat and affecting conclusion with the father's sudden death, the privations, illness, and death of the beloved mother, and the departure of the poor orphaned boy "who at the age of seventeen had to go far from home and earn his bread."
In reality Adolf Hitler was a wide-awake, lively, and obviously able pupil whose gifts were undermined by an incapacity for regular work. This pattern appeared quite early. He had a distinct tendency to laziness, coupled with an obstinate nature, and was thus more and more inclined to follow his own bent. Aesthetic matters gave him extraordinary pleasure. However, the reports of the various grammar schools he attended show him to have been a good student. On the basis of this, evidently, his parents sent him to the Realschule, the secondary school specializing in modern as opposed to classical subjects, in Linz. Here, surprisingly, he proved a total failure. Twice he had to repeat a grade, and a third time he was promoted only after passing a special examination. In diligence his report cards regularly gave him the mark Four ("unsatisfactory"); only in conduct, drawing, and gymnastics did he receive marks of satisfactory or better; in all other subjects he scarcely ever received marks higher than "inadequate" or "adequate." His report card of September, 1905, noted "unsatisfactory" in German, mathematics, and stenography. Even in geography and history, which he himself called his favorite subjects and maintained that he "led the class," he received only failing grades. On the whole, his record was so poor that he left the school.
Excerpted from "Hitler"
Copyright © 1973 Verlag Ullstein.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Hitler and Historical Greatness,
An Aimless Life,
Background and Departure,
The Shattered Dream,
The Granite Foundation,
The Flight to Munich,
Redemption by War,
The Great Dread,
The Road to Politics,
A Part of the German Future,
Challenging the Powers that Be,
The Long Wait,
Crises and Resistances,
Deployment for Battle,
The Time of Struggle,
From Provincial to National Politics,
At the Gates of Power,
At the Goal,
German Catastrophe or German Consistency?,
Seizure of Power,
On the Way to the Führer State,
The Röhm Affair,
The Years of Preparation,
The Age of Faits Accomplis,
View of an Unperson,
The "Greatest German in History",
Unleashing the War,
The Wrong War,
Victors and Vanquished,
The Third World War,
The Dead End,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought the book was brilliant insofar as it provided insight into the mind of Adolf Hitler and the political climate of the time. However, the book provides an enormous amount of detail in respect of Hiler's rise to power but lacked the same amount of information on the period during the Second World War. In this regard the book is somewhat unbalanced, as I believe that this is actually what most readers would have been interested in. For example one would have liked to have known Hitler's personal experience of the holocaust or the war in North Africa but the book provides very little information on these subjects. Nevertheless Joachim Fest's detailed research and pleasant pace of writing makes this book beyond doubt a milestone for books on the Second World War.
This book is definitely written by an anti-Hitler author. So expect the usual lampooning and name-calling here. From birth to death, nothing Hitler ever done was right, according to the author. Hitler's triumphs and strengths are grudgingly recorded in the minimal of sentences. Whereas, Hither's mistakes and shortcomings are elaborated at great length. In the chapter 'Local triumphs', the author even criticizes Hitler's nostrils!! True, Hitler was not a good man. But to depict him as a larger-than-life, 100% pure evil monster certainly won't help the readers get any nearer to an understanding of this historical figure. In short, this book is not balanced,fair and objective. For a much more matured and professional biography, I recommend John Toland's 'Adolf Hitler'.
I want to kill him for almost killing my great grandpa! I hate him more then hell! I'm only 9