Hitler, Adolf (1889–1945)

Adolf Hitler was the dictator of Germany from 1933 until his suicide in 1945. His dreams of conquest started World War II (1939–45). Hitler also thought that Germany should be "racially pure." And he had an extreme hatred for Jews. This led to the murder of millions of Jews, Romanies, Slavs, and others he thought were inferior.

Hitler’s legacy is one of great cruelty and destruction. By the end of World War II, some 3.5 million German soldiers had been killed in battle. Another 500,000 German civilians had died as a result of the war. Worldwide, 15 million to 20 million soldiers and 25 million civilians had died.

Early Life

Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, at Braunau-am-Inn, Austria-Hungary. His father had risen from poverty to become an Austrian customs official.

In 1907, after the death of his father, Hitler left home for Vienna, Austria. He hoped to study art and architecture there. But he was not admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts. He fell into poverty and earned money by painting postcards.

Military Service

In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich, Germany. Like many German-speaking citizens of Austria-Hungary, he considered himself a German. But he found few opportunities for work in Munich.

During World War I (1914–18), Hitler joined the Germany army. He served mostly as a runner on the front line. He was wounded in the leg in 1916 and gassed in 1918. He was awarded many decorations for bravery.

Germany’s defeat in the war was a blow to Hitler. But the war had taught him a great deal about violence and its uses. It had a deep influence on him.

Rise to Nazi Party Leader

In Munich after the war, Hitler met people who shared his views. Like him, they believed that the German race was superior to others. He also read literature that blamed democracy for Germany’s defeat in the war. Germany’s postwar government, the Weimar Republic, was democratic. He was against it.

In 1919, Hitler became interested in the German Workers' Party. This small party preached violent nationalism and anti-Semitism (hatred of the Jews). The party was later renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party.

Hitler quickly saw that the Nazi Party offered a route to political power. In 1920 he began to work full-time for the party. Hitler was a masterly speaker. The party soon became a factor in the politics of the German state of Bavaria. (Munich was its capital.) In July 1921 he became party chairman.

Hitler’s goal was to overthrow the government. In November 1923 he believed the time was right. He launched an uprising in Munich that became known as Beer Hall Putsch (plot). But the authorities quickly suppressed the uprising.

Hitler in Prison

Hitler and other leaders of the uprising were arrested. Hitler used his trial to gain nationwide attention for his cause. He served nine months of a five-year sentence. In prison, he wrote a book, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"). In it he argued that the Germans were threatened by liberalism, Marxism, and Bolshevism (Communism). These movements were directed by the Jews, he claimed.

Only a dictatorship could save Germany, Hitler wrote. The dictatorship would relentlessly fight Germany’s foes. In the process, the country would acquire territory—Lebensraum (living space). This would make Germany secure.

Rebuilding the Nazi Party

When Hitler left prison, he began to rebuild the Nazi Party. He faced many difficulties at first. Germany was regaining its stability. People were less interested in extremist views. But by September 1930 the Great Depression had hit Germany. The Nazis made their first good showing (18.3 percent of the vote) in national elections. From then on Hitler seemed to rise unchallenged.

Rise to Power

In April 1932, Hitler ran for the German presidency. He narrowly lost to Paul von Hindenburg, who had been president since 1925. In national elections in July, the Nazis won 37.2 percent of the vote. In the November elections, however, the Nazi share fell to 33.1 percent. Hitler had lost prestige through his insistence on "total power." Then a conservative group arranged for him to enter the government. And on January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor (prime minister) of Germany in a coalition government with the conservatives.

Consolidation of Power

The conservatives thought they could use Hitler for their own interests. But Hitler quickly established his mastery. A fire at the Reichstag (Germany’s legislative assembly) on February 27, 1933, gave him an opening. Communists were blamed for the fire. The government suspended civil liberties. Hitler used mass rallies and propaganda to raise public alarm. Within months, the Reichstag voted to give him sweeping powers. Hitler then destroyed the Communist and Socialist parties and forced the right-wing parties to dissolve.

Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934. Hitler then took the title of Führer, or supreme leader. He was the undisputed master of Germany. The basis of his power was still his control over the masses. They admired him as the "man of the people."

But Hitler also held power through fear. The state secret police, the Gestapo, enforced Nazi rule. And Hitler increased the persecution of the Jews. New laws deprived Jews of their citizenship and imposed other restrictions. Hitler’s policies prompted a large-scale flight of Jews and others from Germany.

The Road to War

In October 1933, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. Hitler then began to violate restrictions imposed on Germany after World War I. He openly rearmed the military. And in 1936 he sent troops into the Rhineland. (The Rhineland was a demilitarized zone along Germany’s western border.)

In March 1938, Hitler took control of Austria. In October he took the Sudetenland, a border area of Czechoslovakia. Many Germans lived there. Hitler claimed he only wished to let Germans unite. He had no further plans to expand, he said. But in March 1939 he took all of Czechoslovakia. He attacked Poland on September 1. Britain and France, who had signed a security pact with Poland, then declared war on Germany.

German victories in 1939–41 made Hitler master of most of Europe. But the tide turned against him. He saw one after another of the conquered countries lost. As Russian troops closed in on his bunker in Berlin, Germany, on April 30, 1945, Hitler committed suicide.

SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge

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