The beautiful old world city of Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, with its magnificent culture that had seen the likes of Beethoven
and Mozart, now had a new resident, a pale, lanky, sad looking 18-year-old named Adolf Hitler.
Vienna was a city alive with music and full of diverse people who loved
the arts and felt lucky to call the place home. In February 1908, Hitler
moved there with the goal of attending the art academy and becoming a great
Sixty years before him, Hitler's father also came to Vienna seeking
opportunity. At that time the Hapsburg Empire was ruled by Emperor Franz
Josef. When Adolf Hitler arrived, it was still ruled by him, although he
was now senile and under the influence of corrupt ministers. His empire,
which had ruled Austria and surrounding countries for centuries, was now
in great decline. Vienna, however, remained a city of opportunity and attracted
a multicultural population from all over the empire.
Hitler's friend from his hometown of Linz, August Kubizek, also came
to Vienna and they roomed together. In Vienna, Hitler continued the same
lazy lifestyle he had enjoyed in Linz after dropping out of school. Kubizek
described Hitler as a night owl who slept till noon, would go out for walks
taking in all the sights, then stay up late discussing his ideas on everything
from social reform to city planning. Hitler made no effort to get a regular
job, considering himself far above that. He dressed like an artist and
at night dressed like a young gentleman of leisure and often attended the
Kubizek also recalled Hitler displayed an increasingly unstable personality
with a terrible temper. At times he was quite reasonable but he was always
prone to sudden outbursts of rage especially when he was corrected on anything.
He had no real interest in women, preferring to keep away from them and
even smugly rebuffed those who showed any interest in him. He strictly
adhered to his Catholic upbringing regarding sex, believing men and women
should remain celibate until marriage.
Hitler was also prone to sudden bursts of inspiration and had many interesting
ideas but never finished anything he started. Whether composing his own
opera or redesigning the city of Vienna, he would start with much enthusiasm
and work hard, only to eventually lose interest.
In October 1908, Hitler tried for the second time to gain admission
to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. However, his test drawings were judged
as so poor that he was not even allowed to take the formal exam. It was
a bitter disappointment to Hitler and effectively left him on the outside
looking in at the artistic community in Vienna. His friend Kubizek had
successfully gained entrance to the Vienna Conservatory and was studying
music there, doing quite well, in contrast to Hitler.
Hitler soon parted company with his friend in a rather strange manner.
When Kubizek returned to Vienna after two months of military training in
November 1908, he found Hitler had moved out of their shared apartment
and left no forwarding address.
Hitler now had no use for his friend and made no attempt to find him
again. He lived by himself, moving from place to place as his savings gradually
dwindled and his lifestyle spiraled downward. Despite the need for money,
Hitler made no attempt to get regular employment. He eventually pawned
all his possessions and actually wound up sleeping on park benches and
begging for money. He quickly became a dirty, smelly, unshaven young man
wearing tattered clothes and did not even own an overcoat. In December
of 1909, freezing and half starved, he moved into a homeless shelter. He
ate at a soup kitchen operated by the nuns from a nearby convent.
In February 1910, he moved into a home for poor men where he would
stay for the next few years. Hitler sometimes earned a little money as
a day laborer, shoveling snow and carrying bags at the train station. He
then discovered he could earn a meager living selling pictures of famous Vienna
landmarks which he copied from postcards. Another resident at the home, Reinhold
Hanish, acted as his agent, hawking Hitler's works of art to various shops
where they were mostly used to fill empty picture frames. Hitler also painted
posters for shop windows.
Hanish recalled Hitler as undisciplined and moody, always hanging around
the men's home, eager to discuss politics and often making speeches to
the residents. He usually flew into a rage if anyone contradicted him.
Eventually, Hitler quarreled with Hanish, even accusing him of stealing
his property and falsely testified against him in court in August 1910,
getting Hanish an eight-day jail sentence. (In 1938 Hanish was murdered
on Hitler's orders after talking to the press about him).
Hitler took to selling his own paintings to mostly Jewish shop owners
and was also assisted by Josef Neumann, a Jew he befriended.
Hitler had a passion for reading, grabbing all the daily newspapers
available at the men's home, reading numerous political pamphlets and borrowing
many books from the library on German history and mythology. He had a curious
but academically untrained mind and examined the complex philosophical
works of Nietzsche, Hegel, Fichte, Treitschke and the Englishman, Houston
Stewart Chamberlain. Hitler picked up bits and pieces of philosophy and
ideas from them and wound up with a hodgepodge of racist, nationalistic,
anti-Semitic attitudes that over time became a die-hard philosophy, later
to be described in his book, Mein Kampf.
The utter misery of his poverty also deeply influenced Hitler. He adopted
a harsh, survivalist mentality, which left little room for consideration
of kindness and compassion – an attitude that would stay with him until
"I owe it to that period that I grew hard and am still capable
of being hard," Hitler stated in Mein Kampf.
Even before he came to Vienna, Hitler had a personality notable for
its lack of empathy. Many historians have concluded Hitler suffered psychological
distress partly brought on by an unhappy childhood, notably his relationship
with his father, a domineering, at times cruel man. At the same time, Hitler
had also shown extraordinary attachment to his over-indulgent mother.
In Vienna, and later, Hitler suffered bouts of depression. Other times
he experienced extreme highs, only to be followed by a drop back into the
depths. One consistent personality trait was the hysteria evident whenever
someone displeased him. Hitler's personality has been described as basically
hysterical in nature.
Now, at age 21, he was becoming keenly interested in politics, watching
events unfold around him in Vienna.
After witnessing a large protest march by workers, he immersed himself
in an intensive study of the politics of the workers' party, the Social
Democrats. He gained appreciation of their ability to organize large rallies
and use propaganda and fear as political weapons.
From the sidelines, he also watched the two other main parties, the Pan
German Nationalists and the Christian Social Party, which heightened his
interest in German nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Vienna, a city of two million, had a Jewish population of just under
two hundred thousand, including many traditionally dressed ethnic Jews.
In Linz, Hitler had only known a few "Germanized" Jews. The poor
men's home Hitler lived in was near a Jewish community.
Among the middle class in Vienna, anti-Semitism was considered rather
fashionable. The mayor, Karl Lueger, a noted anti-Semite, was a member
of the Christian Social Party which included anti-Semitism in its political
Hitler admired Lueger, a powerful politician, for his speech-making
skills and effective use of propaganda in gaining popular appeal. He also
admired Lueger's skill in manipulating established institutions such as
the Catholic Church. He studied Lueger carefully and modeled some of his
later behavior on what he learned.
There were also anti-Semitic tabloids and pamphlets available at the
newsstands and at local coffee shops. On first reading them, Hitler claims
in his book Mein Kampf to have been put off.
"...the tone, particularly of the Viennese anti-Semitic press,
seemed to me unworthy of the cultural tradition of a great nation."
But also in Mein Kampf, Hitler describes the transformation in his thinking
regarding the Jews. It began with a chance meeting.
"Once, as I was strolling through the inner city, I suddenly encountered
an apparition in a black caftan and black hair locks. Is this a Jew? was
my first thought."
"For, to be sure, they had not looked like that in Linz. I observed
the man furtively and cautiously, but the longer I stared at this foreign
face, scrutinizing feature for feature, the more my first question assumed
a new form: is this a German?"
To answer his own question, he immersed himself in anti-Semitic literature.
Then he went out and studied Jews as they passed by.
"...the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished
in my eyes from the rest of humanity..."
A jubilant young Hitler among the crowd celebrating the German proclamation
of war on the Odeonplatz in Munich, Germany, August 2, 1914. Below: Close-up of the photo highlight showing Hitler.
"For me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I
have ever had to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan
and become an anti-Semite."
But at this point Hitler's anti-Semitism was not apparent in his personal
relationships with Jews. He still did business with Jewish shop owners
in selling his paintings and maintained the friendship with Josef Neumann.
However, the seeds of hate were planted and would be nurtured by events
soon to come, laying the foundation for one of the greatest tragedies in
all of human history.
Hitler left Vienna at age 24, to avoid mandatory military service in
the Austrian army, and thus avoided serving the multicultural Austrian Empire
he now despised.
Twenty-four years after leaving Vienna, Adolf Hitler would make a triumphant
return as Führer of the German Reich. However, the memory of those
miserable days of failure in his youth and the attitudes and ideas he acquired
would forever remain.
In May of 1913, he moved to the German Fatherland and settled in Munich.
But he was tracked down by the Austrian authorities in January 1914.
Faced with the possibility of prison for avoiding military service, he
wrote a letter to the Austrian Consulate apologizing and told of his recent
years of misery.
"I never knew the beautiful word youth," Hitler stated in
The tone of the letter impressed the Austrian officials and Hitler was
not punished for dodging the service. He took the necessary medical exam
which he easily failed and the matter was dropped altogether.
In Munich, Hitler continued painting, once again
making a small living by selling painted pictures of landmarks to local
shops. When asked by an old acquaintance how he would make a permanent
living, Hitler said it did not matter since there soon be a war.
August 1st, 1914, a huge, enthusiastic crowd including Hitler gathered in
a big public plaza in Munich – the occasion – to celebrate the German proclamation
Two days later, Hitler volunteered for the German Army, enlisting in
a Bavarian regiment.
"For me, as for every German, there now began the greatest and
most unforgettable time of my earthly existence. Compared to the events
of this gigantic struggle, everything past receded to shallow nothingness,"
Hitler said in Mein Kampf.
On first hearing the news of war Hitler had sunk to his knees and thanked
heaven for being alive.