The Early Life of Adolf Hitler

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF HITLER'S EMPIRE, 2ND EDITION

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The emergence of the German Workers’ Party, or the DAP, changed the world of German politics in 1919. It sowed the seeds for a new actor to make his way into Germany’s politics. This new actor was Adolf Hitler. Read on to take a look at his early life to better understand the enigma that still surrounds his name.

Adolf Hitler with other German soldiers during the First World War.
Adolf Hitler, seated on the left with a thick moustache, was an obscure personality in 1919. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

There was absolutely nothing in the background of Adolf Hitler to lead one to suspect that this was a man with any special talents or any particular claim on the public’s attention.

He happened to attend a meeting of the DAP as a young corporal of the German army. The speech in this meeting left a great impression on the young man, and within a short amount of time, he joined the DAP.

Hitler’s Birth and Family

Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in the town of Braunau am Inn. His father, Alois Hitler, was the illegitimate son of a woman named Schicklgruber, and before Adolf’s birth, he changed his name to Hitler.

It was probably one of the best things that happened to Hitler’s political career, since “Hail Schicklgruber” would not have had quite the same political clout.

There was a good deal of speculation during the Third Reich by enemies of Hitler, and then later, speculation that Alois Schicklgruber’s father was Jewish. But there’s no evidence to substantiate this.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Deep Bond between Mother and Son

A photograph of Adolf Hitler's mother.
Adolf Hitler’s mother cultivated his interest in art. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Adolf Hitler had a typical sort of Austrian upbringing. His father was a minor bureaucrat in the old Austrian system. He was a distant father who liked to spend most of his time down at the pub enjoying a beer with his fellows.

He would come home—Hitler had a younger sister—but he didn’t spend very much time with the children, certainly not with Adolf.

Hitler formed a very strong attachment to his mother, who was everything his father wasn’t. She was loving and giving, spent time with him, and cultivated his and his sister’s interest in art.

He carried a photograph of his mother with him when he went off to Vienna, when he went in the army, and all the way through the war. The photograph of his mother was still on his desk in the bunker when he committed suicide in 1945.

Hitler and the Loss of His Mother

His mother’s death in 1907 was a great blow to the young Hitler. She had supported him in many ways and she had cultivated his interest in going to the Viennese Academy of Art. Shortly after his mother died he did, in fact, attempt to enroll in the academy.

In a series of competitive examinations, he was not admitted. Probably, he’d never really considered the possibility that his artwork would be turned down at the academy. It’s significant that one of the things the instructors at the academy noted was that he seemed to have trouble drawing people.

Hitler’s As a Young Artist in Vienna

In Vienna, he adopted the lifestyle of a young artist. He spent most of his days hanging around the cafes in Vienna drinking coffee. Hitler was a teetotaler and a vegetarian.

He sat around; there’s no indication that he read in any systematic fashion. His reading seems to have been comprised of pamphlets—political agitation of the sort that was found in Vienna in those pre-World War I days. One of the central themes of Viennese politics in this period was anti-Semitism.

Learn more about Hitler’s war against the Jews.

The Milieu of Anti-Semitism and Hitler

The old Austrian Empire was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, with its Polish population, its Czech population, and into the southeast, it had a much larger Jewish presence than in Germany proper.

Certainly, the mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, was a major anti-Semite and had organized anti-Semitism in Vienna. Hitler seems to have been quite impressed with him and with this sort of milieu of anti-Semitism.

He developed characteristics there, too, that would be typical of him for the rest of his career: a kind of indolence, this sense of—even though he wasn’t an artist—wanting the lifestyle of one with these bizarre hours, staying up very late, sleeping until noon, and going to the cafes.

Hitler During the Great War

Then in 1914 came the event that would change his life and would have the greatest effect on his political ideas and his future—the outbreak of the Great War.

The photo of young Adolf Hitler.
Hitler wrote Mein Kamph when he was in prison in 1924. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Hitler described in Mein Kampf, the book that he wrote in prison in 1924, of being there in front of the Rathaus in Munich when the declaration of war was read out, and that he was wild with enthusiasm. He said it was the happiest day of his life.

The war would bring Hitler, as he said, the happiest years of his life. For the first time, he felt that he belonged; he was committed; he was involved in a society of peers. His fellows saw him as something of an oddball.

He didn’t visit the houses of prostitution in France, where he was stationed, as most of them did. He never seemed to receive mail from home, they said. He was a loner, read things—pamphlets and so on.

He was quiet, and would be furious with them for their going off to be with French women of ill repute: he said the nationality was as important as the breach of traditional morality.

Learn more about the First World War and its legacy.

Hitler Decides to Join Politics

In August 1918, Hitler won the Iron Cross First Class for bravery in action. He was a runner, he carried messages between the trenches which was a very dangerous job. Then in 1918, he was wounded in a mustard gas attack on Ypres and temporarily blinded. He was sent back to a hospital in northern Germany for recovery.

He was still blinded at this point, and it was there, while he was recovering, that he heard the announcement that Germany had signed an armistice, that the war was over, and that Germany was defeated. He claimed in the writing of Mein Kampf that, then and there, he decided to become a politician.

Common Questions about the Early Life of Adolf Hitler

Q: What was Adolf Hitler awarded in August 1918?

Adolf Hitler won the Iron Cross First Class for bravery in action in August 1918.

Q: Why couldn’t Adolf Hitler join the Viennese Academy of Art?

Adolf Hitler didn’t pass the series of competitive examinations at the academy. The instructors at the academy noted that he seemed to have trouble drawing people.

Q: What was Adolf Hitler’s job during the Great War?

Adolf Hitler was a runner, he carried messages between the trenches which was a very dangerous job.

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