Was Hitler a freak of history? Or was he an extreme example of a recurring type of demagogue, who will do and say anything to seize power; who thrives on chaos; and who personifies, in his words and in his actions, the darkest prejudices of humankind?
Hitler never accepted German defeat in the Great War. Out of his fury rose a white-hot hatred, an unquenchable thirst for revenge against the 'November criminals' who had signed the Armistice, against the socialists who he accused of stabbing the army in the back and, most violently, against the Jews – a direct threat to the master race of his imagination – on whose shoulders he would pile all of Germany's woes. The seeds of that hatred lay in Hitler’s experiences on the Western Front, a period of his life that has been underplayed or misrepresented. In this concise biography of Hitler's youth, Paul Ham probes the Führer's early years to uncover the influences - profound and terrible - that would forge the architect of the Holocaust.
Loses his mother:
Mercifully, Klara Hitler died on 21 December 1907, aged forty-seven. Hitler was found by her bedside the next morning, distraught. ‘It was a dreadful blow,’ he later wrote, ‘particularly for me. I had honoured my father, but my mother I had loved.’ Recalling the impact on the boy, Dr Eduard Bloch would write, in 1938: ‘In almost forty years of practice, I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler.’
Returns to Vienna:
Hitler displayed no signs of vicious anti-Semitism or ‘racial’ hatred towards the Jews in Vienna. He himself stated in Mein Kampf that he barely registered the city’s Jews at first, and when he did, he studied them as if they were a passing oddity: ‘For the Jew was still characterized for me by nothing but his religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I maintained my rejection of religious attacks in this case as in others.’
Enlists in the German Army, August 1914:
Distempered, marginalized characters like Hitler were in thrall to the greatest excitement of their time, as he wrote: 'I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.' War put meaning into their meaningless lives. And few were bathed so completely in the exuberance of those warm July days as this solitary young man, just twenty-four years old, friendless, orphaned and unemployed, for whom the declaration of war gave his life a sacred new direction. War would rescue Hitler from the pattern of serial failure, rejection and loneliness.
Witnesses the 'Massacre of the Innocents' (Kindermord) at First Ypres:
Hitler would never forgive or forget the slaughter at First Ypres, particularly the battle at Langemarck... the legend was seared in his mind until he persuaded himself that he had fought there. For Hitler, Langemarck would forever be sacred ground, scene of the greatest sacrifice of the young heroes of the Reich.
Wounded in Pasewalk medical clinic, 1918:
The bandages on Hitler’s face were removed. Slowly, the gassed corporal’s eyes came blinking into the light. He looked out on a new world: a defeated Germany, a humiliated people, his beloved army surrendered and broken... Hitler would portray that moment in Pasewalk hospital as a terrible awakening, in which his entire life coalesced around a single, urgent idea: to avenge the German Army against its enemies at home, whom he blamed for stabbing the soldiers int he back. From the depths of his being he believed in the idea of a monstrous and treacherous conspiracy...
Compares himself to Christ, 22 April 1922:
Hitler portrayed himself as the avenger of Christianity against ‘the userers, the vipers and cheats’ whom Christ had driven from the temple: ‘I recognise with deep emotion, Christ’s tremendous fight for this world against the Jewish poison,’ he continued:
'As a man, it is my duty to see to it that humanity will not suffer the same catastrophic collapse as did an old civilisation about 2,000 years ago... Two thousand years ago a man was likewise denounced by this particular race...'
His audiences revelled in the comparison: here was a leader prepared to name those responsible for their humiliation, their joblessness and their financial loss. Here was a messiah-like figure, willing to banish the Jews from the Lutheran temple.
Starts writing Mein Kampf (1924):
To read Mein Kampf is to subject your brain to an incessant verbal hammering: ‘Submit to my will or die!’ Hitler’s sentences shout. There is no denying that the book has flashes of clarity, even lyrical beauty; yet for the most part Hitler’s ‘autobiography’ is a document of savage banality, striking for its dearth of human decency and any sense of humour. In the final analysis, Mein Kampf is simply, astonishingly vicious.
On the Master Race:
A basic error in Mein Kampf arises from Hitler’s use of the term ‘Aryan’...
Though their provenance is unclear, the ‘Aryans’ appear to have been a nomadic Indo-Iranian people who spread over northern India between 1500 and 500 BC and worshipped Vedic deities. ‘Aryan’ loosely defined their shared language and religious beliefs, not their ‘race’. In sum, the blonde, white supermen and -women of the Nazi imagination were modelled on a ‘race’ that never existed; and the Vedic Indo-Iranians from which the word ‘Aryan’ derives were as far removed as can be imagined from Hitler’s pot-bellied Brownshirts.