A couple of years ago, I began a series based on a very long college essay I was writing. I decided to start over…here is part one of five.
Young Adolf Hitler was an artist. Most people who don’t follow history closely don’t know this important fact about the man. When he was a teenager, his father insisted on sending him to a technical school so he could learn a trade skill that would make real money; Adolf, raised by a very strict authoritarian father (Alois) and an oversympathetic, doting mother (Klara), deliberately failed at school in his teen years in the hopes of forcing his father to enroll him in art school.
We all know now that his drive was fruitless. Adolf was Austrian and he grew up with friends who believed that Austria belonged to Germany. German nationalism was strong in the run-up to WWI. Only after his father’s passing did Adolf finish school and he only passed by the skin of his teeth – he still wanted to be an artist, and his mother supported his ambition. He ended up living as a bohemian in Vienna while he attempted to gain acceptance to the Art Institute of Vienna. Twice he was turned down because he didn’t have the “aptitude” for painting. By 1909 he’d been selling watercolor landscapes to tourists in Vienna for four years and was living in a homeless shelter. In 1913 the government finally turned over his father’s estate and Adolf moved to Munich.
Adolf’s Austrian citizenship was set aside when he volunteered to join the Bavarian army in August of 1914. He was made a messenger (a job that was extremely hazardous at the time) and was highly decorated – earning the Iron Cross, both second- and first-class, along with the black wound badge. He was wounded at least twice during his duties. When the Germans surrendered in 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Adolf was enraged. During speeches later in his career he proclaimed that, as he lay in a hospital bed blinded by mustard gas, he knew that he would be the one to liberate Germany.
He knew that his career options were nonexistent, so he stayed in the army for the newly-formed Weimar Republic. In 1919, he was assigned to infiltrate the Deutsch Arbiterpartei – or the DAP, in English the German Worker’s Party. It was an anti-Weimar socialist organization formed to represent the working poor and push socialist ideals. During a meeting one evening, Adolf got into a row with a member who suggested the unthinkable: Bavaria separating from Germany, forming with Austria and creating an entirely new country. DAP founder Anton Drexler was so impressed with Adolf’s oratory skills that he immediately offered the young soldier membership in the party. Adolf left the army and joined in 1920.
He rapidly rose to a leadership position. His public speaking skills were so natural that he was described as “mesmerizing” and “hypnotic”. The year he joined, Adolf changed the name of the party to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsch Arbeiterpartei – the NSDAP, or the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The very first syllable is pronounced “Nazi”.
And so, anti-communist socialism became an officially-recognized political party in Germany.
Adolf the artist designed the new NSDAP logo, a swastika – a symbol commonly used by many cultures prior – in a white circle superimposed on a red background. In just one year Adolf had brought a few thousand members into the ranks, but in 1921 a small but vocal group within the leadership attempted to oust him as the party leader. Adolf angrily resigned; the group knew that without him, they would disintegrate, so they offered him anything he wanted to remain. He insisted on being the Fuhrer, the only recognized leader of the NSDAP. His wish was granted. He also formed the Sturmabteilung, or SA – the NSDAP’s “stormtroopers”.
In 1922, reparations payments as ordered by the Treaty of Versailles helped cause the hyperinflation of the German Mark – German paper currency essentially became worthless, at around 8000 Marks on the US Dollar. This further angered the NSDAP, which now commanded a force of thousands of members alongside thousands of SA to do Adolf’s dirty work. Since the Weimar Republic couldn’t get France, Britain, and the US to accept paper Marks anymore, the French moved in and occupied the Ruhr to ensure that reparations were being paid in goods – specifically coal and industrial materials produced in German factories. It got worse when the workers in the mines and factories went on strike; the government printed more money to keep paying the workers.
Germany had descended into economic chaos. In 1922, while Germans were taking wheelbarrows full of worthless Marks to the food lines to buy basic items, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini etched his name into the history books with his March on Rome. Adolf Hitler, growing ever angrier at the state of his beloved country, was taken by Il Duce – so much so that he decided to emulate his actions. On November 9, 1923, Adolf ordered 600 SA to surround the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich. Weimar state commissioner Gustav von Kahr, who had refused to entertain the notion of including Adolf in any new government and laughed the man out of his office, was speaking to a crowd of about 3,000. He dramatically marched into the auditorium surrounded by 20 of his NSDAP associates, fired a round into the ceiling and proclaimed that the government of Bavaria had been taken over and nobody was allowed to leave.
The Beer Hall Putsch ended the next morning after a mass crowd of 2,000 couldn’t figure out exactly what to do and were scattered by a force of only 100 soldiers (incredible considering that most of the rioters were former soldiers themselves). Adolf was taken into custody two days later, and on April 1, 1924, a judge eternally sympathetic to the cause of the accused in his courtroom sentenced Adolf to a measly 5 years. He only served eight months. The Putsch may have been a technical failure, but it ended up being a massive propaganda victory for the NSDAP. Adolf’s prison guards showed him respect and even pledged loyalty to his cause. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess.
On December 20, 1924, Adolf walked free. He didn’t receive the hero’s welcome he expected; during his incarceration, the economy had greatly improved and politics had become far less violent since workers did not feel nearly as put upon. What’s more, the NSDAP had become a banned organization in Bavaria and Adolf himself was barred from public speaking. He refused to give up, though. In January 1925, he promised government officials that he would only seek political power through honest public elections. He was hoping to have the ban on the NSDAP lifted, although he still wasn’t allowed to speak. Instead, Mein Kampf was published, and in 1925 the first volume was published to wide praise from the general population. He and his associates moved to Northern Germany to re-found the NSDAP. Joined by a group of highly skilled community organizers, Adolf Hitler went to work slowly working his way into government – he had realized that a sudden takeover would never be tolerated.
Then came the Great Depression. In October 1929, the US economy crashed and sent the still-recovering German economy into a tailspin. Millions lost jobs. President Paul von Hindenburg began ruling through emergency decrees. Adolf and the NSDAP, long telling the people that the Treaty of Versailles had been grossly unfair, found their stride during this time: they promised to end the promises of Versailles and renew pride in Germany.
In 1930, NSDAP members – all previously unknown to the public – won 107 seats in the Reichstag. The rise of Nazism had officially begun.