Born in Austria in 1889, Adolf Hitler rose to power in German politics as leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazi Party. Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, serving as dictator for the bulk of his time in power. His policies precipitated World War II and led to the genocide known as the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of some 6 million Jews and another 5 million noncombatants. With defeat on the horizon, Hitler committed suicide with wife Eva Braun on April 30, 1945, in his Berlin bunker.
Background and Early Years
Dictator Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, on April 20, 1889, and was the fourth of six children born to Alois Hitler and Klara Polzl. As a child, Hitler clashed frequently with his emotionally harsh father, who also didn’t approve of his son’s later interest in fine art as a career. Following the death of his younger brother, Edmund, in 1900, Hitler became detached and introverted. He also showed an early interest in German nationalism, rejecting the authority of Austria-Hungary. This nationalism would become the motivating force of Hitler’s life.
Alois died suddenly in 1903. Two years later, Adolf’s mother allowed her son to drop out of school. After her death in December 1907, he moved to Vienna and worked as a casual laborer and watercolor painter. Hitler applied to the Academy of Fine Arts twice and was rejected both times. Lacking money outside of an orphan’s pension and funds from selling postcards, he stayed in homeless shelters. Hitler later pointed to these years as the time when he first cultivated his anti-Semitism, though there is some debate about this account.
In 1913, Hitler relocated to Munich. At the outbreak of World War I, he applied to serve in the German army. He was accepted in August 1914, though he was still an Austrian citizen. Although Hitler spent much of his time away from the front lines (with some reports that his recollections of his time on the field were generally exaggerated), he was present at a number of significant battles and was wounded at the Somme. He was decorated for bravery, receiving the Iron Cross First Class and the Black Wound Badge.
Party Leadership and Imprisonment
After World War I, Hitler returned to Munich and continued to work for the military as an intelligence officer. While monitoring the activities of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), Hitler adopted many of the anti-Semitic, nationalist and anti-Marxist ideas of party founder Anton Drexler. Hitler joined the DAP in September 1919.
To increase its appeal, the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), often abbreviated to Nazi. Hitler personally designed the party banner, appropriating the swastika symbol and placing it in a white circle on a red background. He soon gained notoriety for his vitriolic speeches against the Treaty of Versailles, rival politicians, Marxists and Jews. In 1921, Hitler replaced Drexler as NSDAP chairman.
Hitler’s fervid beer-hall speeches began attracting regular audiences. Early followers included army captain Ernst Rohm, the head of the Nazi paramilitary organization the Sturmabteilung (SA), which protected meetings and frequently attacked political opponents.
On November 8, 1923, Hitler and the SA stormed a public meeting featuring Bavarian prime minister Gustav Kahr at a large beer hall in Munich. Hitler announced that the national revolution had begun and declared the formation of a new government. After a short struggle that led to several deaths, the coup known as the “Beer Hall Putsch” failed.
Hitler was arrested and tried for high treason. He served nine months in prison, during which time he dictated most of the first volume of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) to his deputy, Rudolf Hess. A work of propaganda and falsehoods, the book laid out Hitler’s plans for transforming German society into one based on race.
Rise to Power
With millions unemployed, the Great Depression in Germany provided a political opportunity for Hitler. Germans were ambivalent to the parliamentary republic and increasingly open to extremist options. In 1932, Hitler ran against 84-year-old Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency. Hitler came in second in both rounds of the election, garnering more than 36 percent of the vote in the final count. The results established Hitler as a strong force in German politics. Hindenburg reluctantly agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor in order to promote political balance.
Hitler used his position as chancellor to form a de facto legal dictatorship. The Reichstag Fire Decree, announced after a suspicious fire at parliament, suspended basic rights and allowed detention without trial. Hitler also engineered the passage of the Enabling Act, which gave his cabinet full legislative powers for a period of four years and allowed for deviations from the constitution.
Having achieved full control over the legislative and executive branches of government, Hitler and his political allies embarked on a systematic suppression of the remaining political opposition. By the end of June, the other parties had been intimidated into disbanding. On July 14, 1933, Hitler’s Nazi Party was declared the only legal political party in Germany. In October of that year, Hitler ordered Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations.
Military opposition was also punished. The demands of the SA for more political and military power led to the Night of the Long Knives, which took place from June 30 to July 2, 1934. Rohm, a perceived rival, and other SA leaders, along with a number of Hitler’s political enemies, were rounded up and shot.
The day before Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, the cabinet had enacted a law abolishing the office of president, combining its powers with those of the chancellor. Hitler thus became head of state as well as head of government and was formally named leader and chancellor. As head of state, Hitler became supreme commander of the armed forces.
The Rise of Anti-Semitism
From 1933 until the start of the war in 1939, Hitler and his Nazi regime instituted hundreds of laws and regulations to restrict and exclude Jews in society. The Anti-Semitic laws were issued throughout all levels of government, making good on the Nazis’ pledge to persecute Jews if the party came to power. On April 1, 1933, Hitler implemented a national boycott of Jewish businesses, followed by the introduction of the ”Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933, which was one of the first laws to persecute Jews by excluding them from state service. This was a Nazi implementation of the Aryan Paragraph, a clause calling for the exclusion of Jews and non-Aryans from organizations, employment and eventually all aspects of public life.
In April 1933, additional legislation furthered the persecution of Jews including laws restricting the number of Jewish students at schools and universities, limiting Jews working in medical and legal professions, and revoking the licenses of Jewish tax consultants. In April 1933, the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Union called for “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” prompting students to burn more than 25,000 “Un-German” books, ushering in an era of censorship and Nazi propaganda. In 1934, Jewish actors were forbidden from performing in film or in the theater.
On September 15, 1935, the Reichstag introduced the Nuremberg Laws which defined a “Jew” as anyone with three or four grandparents who were Jewish, regardless of whether the person considered themselves Jewish or observed the religion. The Nuremberg Laws also set forth the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour,” which banned marriage between non-Jewish and Jewish Germans; and the Reich Citizenship Law, which deprived “non-Aryans” of the benefits of German citizenship.
Hitler’s eugenic policies also targeted children with physical and developmental disabilities, and later authorized a euthanasia program for disabled adults. His regime also persecuted homosexuals, arresting an estimated 100,000 men from 1933 to 1945, some of whom were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. At the camps, gay prisoners were forced to wear pink triangles to identify their homosexuality, which Nazis considered a crime and a disease.
Hitler also promoted anti-smoking campaigns across the country. These campaigns stemmed from Hitler’s self-imposed dietary restrictions, which included abstinence from alcohol and meat. Fueled by fanaticism over what he believed was a superior Aryan race, he encouraged Germans to keep their bodies pure of any intoxicating or unclean substance.
In 1936, Hitler and his regime muted their Anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions when Germany hosted the Winter and Summer Olympic Games, in an effort to avoid criticism on the world stage and a negative impact on tourism. However, after the Olympics, the Nazi persecution of Jews intensified with the continued “Aryanization” of Jewish businesses, which involved the firing of Jewish workers and takeover by non-Jewish owners.
World War II & The Holocaust
On November 9 and 10, 1938, a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms swept Germany, Austria and parts of the Sudetenland. Nazis destroyed synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and close to 100 Jews were murdered. Called Kristallnacht, the “Night of Crystal” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” referring to the broken glass left in the wake of the destruction, the pogroms escalated the Nazi persecution of Jews to another level of brutality and violence. Almost 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, signaling more horrors to come.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazis and their collaborators were responsible for the deaths of at least 1 million noncombatants, including about six million Jews, representing two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe. As part of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” the genocide enacted by the regime would come to be known as the Holocaust.
Deaths and mass executions took place in concentration and extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Treblinka, among many others. Other persecuted groups included Poles, communists, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and trade unionists. Prisoners were used as forced laborers for SS construction projects, and in some instances they were forced to build and expand concentration camps. They were subject to starvation, torture and horrific brutalities, including having to endure gruesome and painful medical experiments. Hitler probably never visited the concentration camps and did not speak publicly about the mass killings, but Germans documented the atrocities committed at the camps on paper and in films.
Hitler escalated his military activities in 1940, invading Norway, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. By July, Hitler ordered bombing raids on the United Kingdom, with the goal of invasion. Germany’s formal alliance with Japan and Italy, known collectively as the Axis powers, was agreed upon toward the end of September to deter the United States from supporting and protecting the British.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler violated the 1939 non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin, sending a massive army of German troops into the Soviet Union. The invading force seized a huge area of Russia before Hitler temporarily halted the invasion and diverted forces to encircle Leningrad and Kiev. The pause allowed the Red Army to regroup and conduct a counteroffensive attack, and the German advance was stopped outside Moscow in December 1941.
On December 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Honoring the alliance with Japan, Hitler was now at war against the Allied powers, a coalition that included Britain, the world’s largest empire, led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill; the United States, the world’s greatest financial power, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and the Soviet Union, which had the world’s largest army, commanded by Stalin.
Though initially hoping that he could play the Allies off of one another, Hitler’s military judgment became increasingly erratic, and the Axis powers could not sustain his aggressive and expansive war. In late 1942, German forces failed to seize the Suez Canal, leading to the loss of German control over North Africa. The German army also suffered defeats at the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43), seen as a turning point in the war, and the Battle of Kursk (1943). On June 6, 1944, on what would come to be known as D-Day, the Western Allied armies landed in northern France. As a result of these significant setbacks, many German officers concluded that defeat was inevitable and that Hitler’s continued rule would result in the destruction of the country. Organized efforts to assassinate the dictator gained traction, and opponents came close in 1944 with the notorious July Plot, though it ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Death and Legacy
Hitler’s political programs had brought about a world war, leaving behind a devastated and impoverished Eastern and Central Europe, including Germany. His policies inflicted human suffering on an unprecedented scale and resulted in the death of tens of millions of people, including more than 20 million in the Soviet Union and six million Jews in Europe. Hitler’s defeat marked the end of Germany’s dominance in European history and the defeat of fascism. A new ideological global conflict, the Cold War, emerged in the aftermath of the devastating violence of World War II.