Adolf Hitler did not always show signs of paranoia and anti-Semitism. The would-be artist failed at life until World War I. He found purpose in the army. It may have been his military experience which infected the future dictator with anti-Semitism. His first experience with hate may have come while convalescing after being wounded at the front. Hitler’s wartime experience soured his attitude toward Jews, propelled his political career, and led to Mein Kampf.
Hitler wanted to go to art school. His overbearing and abusive father disagreed and sent him to a more traditional school. Eventually, the youth rebelled against his father and the school. After being expelled, Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. They rejected him twice. After turning 21, he tried to earn a living as a painter but failed, ran out of money, and became homeless.
The cosmopolitan Vienna housed a large population of Orthodox Jews that escaped a Russian pogrom. Hitler claimed Vienna made him anti-Semitic. Some childhood friends claim he hated Jews as a youth. There is no hard evidence for anti-Semitism before the war. However, a young man without prospects might scapegoat others to rationalize his own problems. Additionally, Vienna had its share of anti-Semitic demagogues at the time.
Regardless of his personal beliefs, Hitler ended up living in a homeless shelter. Literally, he had no prospects in life. When World War I broke out in 1914, he found his place. Although Austrian, Hitler grew obsessed with Germany. Indeed, he became a German nationalist rejecting his Austrian roots. His heroes were Germans. He worshiped Martin Luther, Richard Wagner, and Frederick the Great. As a result of German pride, he joined the German army instead of Austria’s.
Hitler won two Iron Crosses for bravery and was wounded twice. In 1916, he was shot in the groin at the Somme. On October 15, 1918, mustard gas temporarily blinded him. Interestingly, Hitler resisted using poison gas on the battlefield during World War II. When Germany lost the first war, Hitler was shocked. He believed that the German government in Berlin stabbed the military in the back. By this point, he had been indoctrinated.
Hitler spent some time in Berlin during the war recovering from his Somme wounds. During this period, many people blamed the Jews for the faltering war effort. Hitler ingested the hate. It must have reinforced the anti-Semitism from Vienna. By this point, there is evidence that Hitler despised Jews and considered them a race as opposed to a religion. To him, Jews subverted German Aryans and caused the defeat.
After the defeat and his apparent conversion to anti-Semitism, Hitler stayed in the military as long as possible. His superiors sent him to spy on the German Workers’ Party. The party’s views matched Hitler’s. They hated Jews and capitalism. Although supporting socialism, they opposed Marxism. Additionally, they incorporated a hard core nationalist message. Hitler joined the party and impressed its leaders with his oratorical skills.
Hitler’s real education began after joining the party. It helped him articulate his views. Plus, he met his mentor Dietrich Eckart from the Thule Society. This group believed a German messiah would avenge World War I. Also, they dabbled heavily in the occult. Eckart personally instructed Hitler and became a father figure. Meanwhile, the party used Hitler’s speaking skills to recruit members.
After being discharged in 1920, Hitler worked for the party full time. By now, the group changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party. Hitler’s speaking ability mesmerized audiences. Crowds grew bigger and bigger. Eckart began to believe Hitler was the coming messiah. This worried party leadership who feared Hitler’s growing influence. They tried to marginalize him. However, Hitler threatened to quit and demanded more power within the party. His growing popularity forced the leadership to acquiesce. By this point, the Nazi Party could not survive without Hitler.
The early Nazi Party consisted of brutes and thugs. They brawled in the streets with the communists and drove around throwing leaflets out of trucks for publicity. The Nazis chose Munich as their base. Their goals included destroying communism and overthrowing Weimar Germany. By the end of April, 1921, Hitler seized full control and became Fuehrer.
The Nazi Fuehrer organized a revolt against Weimar. He attracted unemployed veterans and created a paramilitary group to organize the thugs. Ernst Rohm headed this group dubbed the SA. They physically attacked political opponents. However, the Nazis attracted respectable Germans as well as thugs. War heroes such as Hermann Goring joined and it also attracted local business groups.
By 1923, Hitler felt the Nazis ready for power. He attempted to overthrow Weimar Germany. Hitler wanted to imitate Mussolini’s March on Rome with a dramatic gesture of his own. The SA attacked a public meeting held at a Beer Hall. Hitler declared revolution and began a march on the Bavarian government offices. Afterward, he planned to march on Berlin. The police put down the putsch killing sixteen Nazis. Hitler ended up in prison.
While in jail, he dictated Mein Kampf (My Struggle) to Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess. It became the Nazi Bible and sold over 10 million copies. In it, he attacks the Jews and outlines his entire program. He promised to extend German territory to the east. Many took Hitler’s book as bluster and did not believe his program practical or possible. Eventually, the German government released Hitler from prison, but failed to deport him. He spent the next few years rebuilding and plotting.
Adolf Hitler went from pauper to revolutionary within a decade. World War I shaped his worldview and opened doors. He used his oratorical gifts to grab power within a small political party. At the same time, he rounded out his political views. Until the war, those views, which included anti-Semitism, were not fully formed. After the war, he marshaled his abilities and beliefs in an attempt to overthrow the German government. He failed, but also learned from the experience.