Hitler as Human Being - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 13. Hitler as Human Being

Who was the man who on 30 January 1933, at the relatively young age of 43, moved into the Chancellery, the building where his idol and founder of the German Reich, Otto von Bismarck, had once resided? This is not an easy question to answer: it is hard to penetrate behind Hitler’s public persona and get at the private person. Hitler remained a mystery even to some of his closest associates. In his memoirs, Hitler’s press spokesman, Otto Dietrich, wrote of his “non-transparent, Sphinx-like personality.”1 Likewise Hitler’s early friend Ernst Hanfstaengl, who observed the Nazi leader from close proximity for many years, admitted that he was never able to find the key to unlock the depths of Hitler’s being. “What he really thought or felt,” Hanfstaengl confessed, “remained a book with seven seals.”2 During his first interrogation at Kransberg Castle in June and July 1945, Albert Speer told his captors that for him Hitler remained “a riddle, full of contrasts and outright contradictions.”3 In 1947, the former French ambassador André François-Poncet concluded: “It seems as though there was something to him that we’ll never grasp.”4 And the head of the office of the German president, Otto Meissner, who served Hitler as loyally as he had the Führer’s predecessors, wrote in his memoirs: “Judging the essence of this strange person…will remain forever controversial…Even those who knew him for years and followed his development have difficulty drawing reliable conclusions. He was a loner, full of mistrust, who closed himself off and only occasionally permitted a glance at his inner life.”5

Previous biographers have tried to make a virtue of necessity by attributing Hitler’s seeming opacity to the “emptiness of what was left of an existence outside politics,” as Ian Kershaw put it.6 But these are hasty conclusions. As we saw with regard to Hitler’s relationships with women, we cannot strictly distinguish between the private and political spheres. Upon closer examination, we can see that the putative void was part of Hitler’s persona, a means of concealing his personal life and presenting himself as a politician who completely identified with his role as leader and who had renounced all private relationships for the sake of his historic mission. Thus, as German chancellor, Hitler repeatedly claimed that he no longer had a private life.7 If we refuse to accept this self-styled image, we need to look behind the curtain that separated Hitler’s public persona and role from the human being with his characteristic habits and behaviour.

The main reason it is so difficult to decipher “the riddle of Hitler” is the fact that his personality contained so many astonishing contrasts and contradictions. As early as 1936, Konrad Heiden described Hitler’s “dual nature.” Like a medium, Heiden argued, the human being Adolf Hitler channelled and created, through a monstrous act of will, the phenomenon Adolf Hitler: “In moments of repose, the latter lies curled up and hidden within the former, only to emerge in moments of intensity to conceal the former behind its larger-than-life puppet’s mask.” For Heiden, this split personality is what made it so difficult to reach reliable conclusions about Hitler.8

More than one of Hitler’s acquaintances confirmed this impression. Otto Dietrich pointed to Hitler’s “uncanny dual nature,” arguing that the Führer’s internal contradictions were so intense that they became “the dominant characteristic of his entire being.” On the one hand, Dietrich asserted, Hitler possessed extraordinary capabilities and gifts. On the other, and particularly in conjunction with his fanatical anti-Semitism, he could be intellectually primitive and boorish. In Hitler’s breast, Dietrich wrote, “respectable sensibilities and ice-cold heartlessness, love and horrific cruelty lived side by side.”9 Looking back, Albert Speer was also struck by the many faces Hitler had displayed. In 1965, twenty years after the end of the Third Reich, Speer noted in his Spandau cell:

I could easily say that he was cruel, unjust, unapproachable, cold, lacking restraint, self-pitying and crude, for he was indeed all those things. But he was also the precise opposite. He could be a caring patriarch, an understanding superior, a likeable, measured, proud man who was enthusiastic about everything great and beautiful.10

Hanfstaengl painted a similar picture when he recalled Hitler. “He could be charming and then, a short time later, utter views that intimated terrible abysses,” Hanfstaengl wrote.

He could develop grandiose ideas and be primitive to the point of banality. He was able to convince millions that his iron will and strength of character alone would guarantee victory, and yet even as German chancellor he remained a bohemian whose unreliability had those who worked with him pulling out their hair.11

There are countless statements of this kind, and they are more than just belated attempts to justify fascination with the figure of Hitler.

As a rule, people who got a close look at the Führer for the first time were rarely impressed. After a meeting with Hitler in December 1931, the industrialist Günther Quandt deemed him the very definition of average.12 Sefton Delmer described him as an everyday person reminiscent of a travelling salesman or a junior officer.13 As we saw, the American reporter Dorothy Thompson called Hitler the exact prototype of the little man on the street.14 William Shirer, the correspondent for America’s Universal News Service, also came away disappointed after seeing Hitler in September 1934 at the Nuremberg rally. “His face,” Shirer wrote in his diary, “had no particular expression at all—I expected it to be stronger—and for the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosened in the hysterical mob which was greeting him so wildly.”15

Hitler’s appearance was hardly winning. Finance Minister von Krosigk, who met Hitler for the first time when the new chancellor was sworn in on 30 January 1933, recalled the Führer’s face as being unremarkable. “There was nothing harmonious about his features, nor did they have the irregularity that expresses individual human spirit,” Krosigk wrote. “A lock of hair that flopped down over his forehead and the rudiments of a moustache only two fingers wide gave his appearance something comic.”16 Hitler’s moustache was the feature that everyone noticed. Early on, Hanfstaengl had urged him to shave it off, arguing that it was fodder for caricaturists. “My moustache will be all the rage one day—you can bet on that,” Hitler replied.17 Around 1925 or 1926 he told Adelheid Klein, a friend in Munich: “Imagine my face without the moustache!…My nose is much too big. I have to soften it with the moustache!”18 Indeed, Hitler’s large, fleshy nose was rather disproportionate to the rest of his face. Klaus Mann called it the “most foul and most characteristic” aspect of Hitler’s physiognomy.19 For his part Albert Speer claimed that he only noticed how ugly and disproportionate Hitler’s face was in the final months of the Third Reich, when the Führer’s appeal was declining. “How did I not notice that in all the years?” he wondered in his Spandau prison cell in late November 1946. “Curious!”20

Almost everyone who came into contact with Hitler was struck by another feature. Upon seeing the young Hitler for the first time in 1919, Karl Alexander von Müller immediately noted his “large, light-blue, fanatically and coldly gleaming eyes.”21 Lieselotte Schmidt, an assistant and nanny to Winifred Wagner, had a different impression. Like her mistress, she admired Hitler and found that his eyes shone with goodness and warmth. “One glance from his lovely violet-blue eyes was enough to sense his gentle temperament and good heart,” Schmidt said in 1929.22 Otto Wagener, the economic adviser who entered Hitler’s service that same year and still professed his admiration of the Führer in a British POW camp in 1946, recalled:

From the first moment, his eyes captivated me. They were clear and large and calm. He stared at me full of self-confidence. But his gaze did not come from his eyeballs. On the contrary, I felt it came from somewhere far deeper, from infinity. You could read nothing in his eyes. But they spoke and wanted to say something.23

Christa Schroeder, one of Hitler’s secretaries from 1933 onwards, was somewhat more sober: “I found Hitler’s eyes very expressive. They looked interested and probing and always became more animated whenever he spoke.”24 The playwright Gerhart Hauptmann also noted Hitler’s “strange and lovely eyes” after meeting the Führer at the inauguration of the Reich Culture Chamber in November 1933.25

Whether people perceived Hitler’s gaze as cold or benevolent, impenetrable or friendly and inquisitive depended both on the given situation and their political views. “What admirers praise as the power of his eyes strikes neutral observers as a greedy stare without that hint of decency that makes a gaze truly compelling,” wrote the Hitler detractor Konrad Heiden. “His gaze repels more than it captivates.”26 But even critical observers sometimes praised his eyes. “Hitler’s eyes were startling and unforgettable,” wrote Martha Dodd, the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Edward Dodd, after being introduced to Hitler by Hanfstaengl in 1933. “They seemed pale blue in colour, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”27

Alongside his eyes, Hitler’s hands attracted the most attention. “So expressive in their movements as to compete with the eyes” was how Houston Stewart Chamberlain put it in a fawning letter to Hitler in 1923.28 For Krosigk, Hitler’s hands were nervous, delicate and “almost feminine.”29 In 1933, when the philosopher Karl Jaspers voiced doubts as to whether someone as uneducated as Hitler could lead Germany, his colleague Martin Heidegger replied: “Education is irrelevant…just look at those lovely hands.”30 Many of Heidegger’s contemporaries shared his admiration for the Führer’s hands. In an article for the December 1936 edition of New Literature, the head of German radio characterised Hitler’s delicate hands as being the tools of an “artist and great creator.”31 And in October 1942, while imprisoned in a British POW camp, General Ludwig Crüwell opined: “His hands are truly striking—lovely hands…He’s got the hands of an artist. My eyes were always drawn to his hands.”32

But more impressive than his eyes and hands was Hitler’s talent for speaking. His appearance may have made him seem average and everyday, but as soon as he took to the stage, he was transformed into a demagogue the likes of which Germany had never known. Admirers and detractors were in absolute agreement on this point. In his essay “Brother Hitler,” Thomas Mann attributed Hitler’s rise to his “eloquence, which although unspeakably base, has huge sway over the masses.”33 Heiden wrote of “an incomparable barometer of mass moods,”34 while Otto Strasser spoke of an “unusually sensitive seismograph of the soul.” Strasser also compared Hitler to a “membrane” broadcasting the most secret longings and emotions of the masses.35 Krosigk concurred. “He sensed what the masses were longing for and translated it into firebrand slogans,” the Reich finance minister wrote. “He appealed to the instincts slumbering in people’s unconsciousness and offered something to everyone.”36 The American journalist Hubert R. Knickerbocker, who had encountered Hitler as a seemingly polite, small-time politician in the NSDAP’s Munich headquarters in 1931, was astonished by a public appearance that same evening. “He was an evangelist speaking at a tent meeting, the Billy Sunday of German politics,” the Pulitzer Prize winner wrote. “Those he had converted followed him, laughed with him, felt with him. Together they mocked the French. Together they hissed off the Republic. Eight thousand people became one instrument on which Hitler played his symphony of national passion.”37 As Knickerbocker realised, the secret to Hitler’s success lay in the mutual identification between speaker and audience—in the exchange of individual and collective sensitivities and neuroses.

It was not only the faithful whom Hitler managed to put under his spell. “There won’t be anyone like him for quite some time,” Rudolf Hess wrote in 1924 while imprisoned in Landsberg, “a man who can sweep away both the most left-wing lathe operator and the right-wing government official in a single mass event.”38 Hess’s view was no exaggeration. Numerous contemporaries who rejected Hitler and his party struggled to resist the lure of Hitler’s overwhelming rhetoric—indeed, some succumbed to it. In his memoirs, the historian Golo Mann described the impression a Hitler speech made on him as a 19-year-old student in the autumn of 1928. “I had to steel myself against the energy and persuasive force of the speaker,” Mann wrote. “A Jewish friend of mine, whom I had brought along, was unable to resist. ‘He’s right,’ he whispered in my ear. How many times had I heard this phrase ‘He’s right’ uttered by listeners from whom I would have least expected it?”39

Hitler’s talent for persuasive oration gave him a hypnotic sway over crowds. Part of his secret was his unusually powerful and variable voice. “Those who only know Hitler from the events of later years, after he had mutated into an immoderately thundering dictator and demagogue at the microphone, have no idea what a flexible and mellifluous instrument his natural, non-amplified voice was in the early years of his political career,” noted Hanfstaengl.40 It was Hitler’s voice, at a speech in Weimar in March 1925, that won over Baldur von Schirach, later the Nazis’ Reich youth leader, at the age of 18. “It was a voice unlike any other I had heard from a public speaker,” Schirach recalled. “It was deep and rough, resonant as a cello. His accent, which we thought was Austrian but was actually Lower Bavarian, was alien to central Germany and compelled you to listen.”41

But Hitler was not only a gifted orator. He was also an extraordinarily talented actor. “Once, in a moment when he let his guard down, he called himself the greatest actor in Europe,” Krosigk recalled.42 That statement was one of the excessive flights of fancy to which the dictator became increasingly prone in his later years. Nonetheless, Hitler had an undeniable ability to don different masks to suit various occasions and to inhabit changing roles. “He could be a charming conversation partner who kissed women’s hands, a friendly uncle who gave children chocolate, or a man of the people who could shake the callused hands of farmers and artisans,” remarked Albert Krebs, the Gauleiter of Hamburg.43 When invited to the Bechstein and Bruckmann salons or to afternoon tea at the Schirachs’ in Weimar, he would play the upstanding, suit-and-tie-wearing bourgeois to fit in with such social settings. At NSDAP party conferences, he dressed in a brown shirt and cast himself as a prototypical street fighter who made no secret of his contempt for polite society.

Hitler adapted his speeches to people’s expectations. In front of the Reichstag, he talked like a wise statesman. When he spoke to a circle of industrialists he was a man of moderation. To women he was the good-humoured father who loved children, while in front of large crowds he was a fiery volcano. To his fellow party members he was the truest and bravest soldier who sacrificed himself and was therefore allowed to demand sacrifices of others.44 André François-Poncet, who witnessed Hitler’s various appearances at the Nuremberg rally in 1935, was impressed by the Führer’s ability to intuit the mood of each given audience. “He found the words and tone he needed for all of them,” the French ambassador remarked. “He ran the gamut from biting to melodramatic to intimate and lordly.”45 The man who succeeded François-Poncet in 1938, Robert Coulondre, was also surprised by the man he met at the Berghof retreat when he presented his letter of credence in November. “I was expecting a thundering Jove in his castle and what I got was a simple, gentle, possibly shy man in his country home,” Coulondre reported. “I had heard the rough, screaming, threatening and demanding voice of the Führer on the radio. Now I became acquainted with a Hitler who had a warm, calm, friendly and understanding voice. Which one is the true Hitler? Or are they both true?”46

As flexible as Hitler may have been in choosing from his repertoire of roles in response to various situations and demands, he was all the more stubborn as Reich chancellor in adhering to the ideological fixations that had become a coherent world view from the early 1920s. First and foremost in this outlook were his fanatic anti-Semitism, which saw the removal of Jews from German society as an absolute necessity, and his aggressive expansionism, which went far beyond mere revision of the Treaty of Versailles to include the central imperative of conquering “living space” in eastern Europe.

Still, when Hitler wanted to win someone over, he could turn on the charm. Albert Krebs described a typical scene in which Hitler greeted Count Ernst von Reventlow, a prominent member of a radical anti-Semitic and anti-Communist party, the DVFP, who had come over to the NSDAP in 1927. As Krebs recounted it, Hitler came rushing down the steps of the Nazi headquarters in Munich, gave Reventlow a two-handed handshake and greeted him as “My dear Count” with a slight quaver in his voice. “Everyone in attendance knew that Hitler’s real feelings about the count were anything but affectionate and benevolent,” a bemused Krebs remarked.47 Hitler was even able to fake affection for people whom he despised in reality. In 1931, he won over the second wife of deposed German emperor Wilhelm II to such an extent that she spoke of how charming he had been and how his mien and eyes had been “without a trace of falsehood.”48 Likewise in 1933, Hitler addressed Prince August Wilhelm, who helped win over members of the aristocracy to the Nazis, with a subservient “Your Imperial Majesty.”49 As soon as he had assumed power, Hitler quickly abandoned August Wilhelm—as well as any support he may have hinted at for a restoration of the monarchy. Indeed, he repeatedly expressed to Goebbels his utter contempt for the Hohenzollern family.50

If necessary Hitler could even cry at will. He did so at the melodramatic ceremony in August 1930 when the Berlin SA pledged its loyalty and on the morning of 30 January 1933 when he apologised to Theodor Duesterberg.51 Friends and foes alike saw him as a master of deception, which makes it so difficult to comprehend the essence of the man.52 “He had a form for expressing everything—agitation, moral outrage, sympathy, emotion, fidelity, condolence and respect,” wrote Ernst von Weizsäcker, state secretary at the German Foreign Ministry from 1938 to 1942, in his post-war memoirs.53 “Those who had not observed in other contexts what Hitler really thought about human rights and other higher principles could easily be taken in by his act.”54 Even Speer wrote that in retrospect he was “entirely unsure when and where Hitler was truly himself, independent of play-acted roles, tactical considerations and gleefully told lies.”55

Among Hitler’s skills was his ability to mimic people’s gestures and speech. He enjoyed entertaining his entourage by imitating Max Amann, who had lost his left arm and who spoke quickly and repetitively in Bavarian dialect. “You could just picture Amann shrugging his armless shoulder and frantically waving his right hand,” Christa Schroeder reported. Hitler’s caricature of Mathilde von Kemnitz, Erich Ludendorff’s second wife, was also a big hit. “Hitler peeled away the pious, philosophic, rationalist, erotic and other layers of this high-born woman until all that was left was an evil, pungent onion,” recalled Krebs.56 After Hitler visited Goebbels and his family in December 1936, the propaganda minister noted: “The Führer was very funny, ridiculing the pastors and princes. It was very refreshing. He imitated them one after another like a professional actor.”57 Nor was Hitler above parodying foreign leaders. After a visit by Mussolini to Berlin in September 1937, Speer recalled Hitler mocking Il Duce’s characteristic posturing: “His chin thrust forward, his legs spread and his right hand jammed on his hip, Hitler bellowed Italian or Italian-sounding words like giovinezza, patria, victoria, macaroni, belleza, bel canto and basta. Everyone around him made sure to laugh, and it was indeed very funny.”58

Hitler could imitate sounds as well as voices and typically enlivened his recollections of serving in the First World War with sound effects. “In order to depict the barrage of fire at the Battle of the Somme more vividly, he used a large repertoire of the firing, descent and impact noises made by French, English and German howitzers and mortars,” wrote Hanfstaengl, “the general impression of which he would vividly augment by imitating the hammering tack-tack of the machine guns.”59

In addition to his rhetorical and thespian skills, Hitler possessed a third great gift: a stupendous memory.60 Fritz Wiedemann, Hitler’s former regimental commander who became the Führer’s personal assistant in 1934, was astonished at the number of wartime details Hitler could recall that he himself had forgotten.61 Legendary and much feared by military leaders was Hitler’s head for numbers—whether they were the calibre, construction and range of firearms or the size, speed and armour of a warship.62 He knew the navy calendar, which he kept by his bedside, by heart.63 Indeed, from all indications he had a nearly photographic memory.64 He would not only recognise people, but recall when and where they had met, leading Christa Schroeder to wonder how so many facts could fit inside one human brain.65 The speed with which Hitler read was also an indication of his astonishing memory. “He could scan not just one but three or four lines at a time,” reported Otto Wagener. “Sometimes it looked as though he had only glanced at a paragraph or a whole article, and yet afterwards he knew what it contained.”66 Hitler could recite whole passages of Clausewitz or Schopenhauer, sometimes passing them off as thoughts of his own.67 He could also hum or whistle all the motifs in complex pieces of music like the prelude to Wagner’s Meistersänger.68

Hitler had never completed his basic education, let alone graduated from university, and he tried to catch up by reading the books he had missed out on in his youth. A typical autodidact, he delighted in showing off what he knew to the university-educated members of his entourage. The young Rudolf Hess was just one of the people who admired how much Hitler had taught himself. “No matter whether he speaks about the construction of streets, the future of the automobile as a means of mass transport, like in America, or the armaments on warships, you notice how deeply he’s studied things,” Hess gushed.69“Where did he get all of that?” Wagener asked himself after being impressed by Hitler’s knowledge of geography and history.70 “He reads and knows a lot,” noted Goebbels. “A universal mind.”71

Of course, Hitler’s knowledge was just as unsystematic and incomplete as it was varied. He simply ignored whatever did not mesh with his world view. “He had no concept of knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” Karl Alexander von Müller wrote. “Everything he knew was thoroughly connected with some purpose, and at the heart of every purpose were Hitler himself and his political power.”72 The school drop-out never overcame his need to display his self-taught and carefully memorised selective knowledge. He was forever in search of others’ recognition and approval, and getting it made him “happy as a young boy,” as Hess observed in Landsberg in 1924 after praising some early passages of Mein Kampf. When in April 1927 the Bochumer Zeitung called Hitler “Germany’s best rhetorician,” his private secretary found him to be “all smiles.” It was, Hitler said, “the first time this had been acknowledged by a newspaper not associated with us.”73 Hitler may have projected exaggerated self-confidence in his public role as charismatic leader, but his feelings of inadequacy from early failures also ran deep. As a result he was very prickly when confronted with people who obviously knew more about a topic than he did.74 His antipathy towards intellectuals, professors and teachers was particularly pronounced. “The vast majority of people who consider themselves educated,” he fumed to Wagener in the early 1930s, “are a superficial demimonde, pretentious and arrogant bunglers, who don’t even realise how laughably amateurish they are.”75 Once, over lunch at the Reich Chancellery, he even proclaimed that in the future there would only be one book of any real significance, and that he himself would write it “after he retired.”76 Conversely, Hitler was visibly flattered when, in July 1932, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Bonn announced a lecture entitled “Political Psychology as Practical Psychology in Mein Kampf.” Hitler spoke of his “great joy” that for the first time a university professor had used his book as the basis for a lecture.77

As is typical for many autodidacts, Hitler believed he knew better than specialists and experts and treated them with an arrogance that was but the reverse of his own limited horizons. Speer called him “a genius of dilettantism.”78 Hitler was very reluctant to admit to any gaps in his education, even when filling them would have been in the interest of his political career. Hanfstaengl tried in vain to get Hitler to learn English after he was released from his imprisonment in Landsberg. Although Hanfstaengl himself offered to tutor Hitler twice a week, the party leader dismissed the idea with the words “My language is German, and that suffices.”79 Attempts to get him to travel abroad and see the world from a different perspective also fell on deaf ears. Sometimes Hitler would claim that he did not have any time to travel; on other occasions he argued that his party rivals would exploit his absence and challenge his supremacy.80 As a result, the politician who assumed power in Germany in 1933 had seen nothing of the world except for four years of military service in Belgium and France during the First World War.

As a parvenu, Hitler lived in constant fear of not being taken seriously or, even worse, making himself look ridiculous. He frequently stumbled in his attempts in the 1920s to adapt to new social demands. The widow of Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, one of the sixteen Nazis who died during the putsch of November 1923, remarked that Hitler always seemed “somewhat gloomy” in society.81 Hitler had to ask his salonnière patroness Elsa Bruckmann to show him how to eat dishes like lobster or artichokes.82 Helene Bechstein kitted him out with a new suit, starched shirts and patent leather boots, whereupon Hanfstaengl reported: “The result was that for a while Hitler always turned up in patent leather boots, regardless of the time of day, until I took the liberty of suggesting that such footwear was hardly appropriate for daytime—not to mention for a leader of a workers’ movement.”83 Hitler’s fondness for lederhosen also clashed with the Führer cult his acolytes began to celebrate from 1922. Hess was appalled when Hitler turned up at the Obersalzberg with exposed knees and rolled-up sleeves.84 In late 1926 and early 1927, he posed in lederhosen and a brown shirt for a series of portraits by his official photographer Heinrich Hoffmann.85 After that, Hitler gradually gave up traditional southern German forms of dress because they clashed with his self-styled image as the messiah for all Germans. Nonetheless he retained his habit of commissioning a photo by Hoffmann before wearing a new article of clothing in public.86 He never allowed himself to be seen in a bathing suit. For one thing, Hitler could not swim and refused to learn. For another, he cited the cautionary example of a cover of the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung from August 1919 that had depicted Reich President Friedrich Ebert and Reich Defence Minister Gustav Noske in swimming trunks during a visit to the Baltic Sea. That image gave the right-wing press in Germany a welcome opportunity to ridicule those leaders of the Weimar Republic.87

Hitler also refused to take dance lessons, something he found as contemptible as learning foreign languages. “Dancing is an occupation unworthy of a statesman,” he proclaimed. Even when Hanfstaengl pointed out that Hitler’s role model Friedrich the Great had been no stranger to the dance floor, the Nazi leader remained adamant: “All these balls are a pure waste of time, and what’s more the waltz is much too effeminate for a man.”88 At the Reich president’s reception for the diplomatic corps on 9 February 1933, many people noticed how uncertain the freshly appointed Chancellor Adolf Hitler was on his new terrain. Bella Fromm, the society reporter for the Vossische Zeitung newspaper, noted in her diary:

Everyone’s eyes were on Hitler, and the former military private, somewhat grumpy and awkward, seemed to feel ill at ease with his role. The tails of his tuxedo constrained him, and he repeatedly reached for the area where his uniform belt would be. Every time he felt the absence of this cooling and encouraging handhold, he seemed to get more uncomfortable. He constantly played with his handkerchief and betrayed all the signs of stage fright.89

“I believe my life is the greatest novel in world history,” Hitler wrote in late September 1934 to Adelheid Klein, a friend who some people suspected was his lover.90 Hitler was perhaps echoing the statement attributed to Napoleon: “What a novel my life is!” Like the French emperor, the German Führer was never completely able to escape the aura of the arriviste. Even after a series of domestic and foreign political triumphs had bolstered his self-confidence, he still appeared quite nervous during official receptions. He was plagued, in the words of Christa Schroeder, “by fear of making a faux pas.”91 When he entertained, he checked every detail, casting a final eye over his table and even inspecting the flower arrangements. He seemed most relaxed when he received artists: among them he seemed at his most natural.92

Against this backdrop, it is easier to understand Hitler’s pronounced and oft-noted tendency to engage in extended monologues: it was most likely an attempt to conceal his own social inadequacies. In early 1920, Hitler reverently received Heinrich Class, the founder of the Pan-Germanic League, only to leave the older far-right agitator “dizzy” with a monologue that lasted for hours.93 After interviewing Hitler for the first time in early May 1931, Sefton Delmer described how the oral floodgates were opened: “I asked a question, and his answer swelled into a speech as new thoughts poured into his imaginative and unusually lively mind. Before you could stop him, he was yelling as if he had a huge crowd in front of him and not a single English reporter.”94 The diplomat Ulrich von Hassell described a similar transformation after a meeting with Hitler in Munich in early February 1932, at which the Führer “repeatedly suffered outbreaks of passion and reverted to his public-speaking voice, his lips quivering and his eyes fixed in their peculiarly intense stare.”95 Often a single word was enough to prompt Hitler’s manic need to talk. People at the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich dreaded such moments because every item of business that day would have to be postponed.96 Anyone with the temerity to interrupt Hitler would immediately attract the ire of the loquacious party leader. “Hitler was an indefatigable talker,” Otto Dietrich remarked. “Talking was an element of his very being.”97 Such verbal diarrhoea was a burden on those around him. Hitler’s interlocutors had to tolerate his endless monologues without contradiction, signalling their encouragement and interest while interjecting the odd word that would inspire the speaker to further flights of fancy. As a rule, Hitler was so intoxicated by his own words that he never noticed whether they were having any real effect on those who had to listen.

Yet Hitler could behave entirely differently in smaller, more private circles. In such situations, he was a likeable conversationalist who told entertaining stories instead of holding lectures. He enjoyed recalling his wartime experiences, the founding of the Nazi Party and the November putsch.98 Here, Hitler assumed the role of good-humoured patriarch who told jokes and laughed at the harmless jokes of others.99 It was a seductive persona. “Hitler is as touching as a father,” Goebbels noted in his diary in June 1929. “I like him very much. He’s the most likeable of men because he’s so kindly. He has a big heart.” Eighteen months later, Goebbels wrote: “With Hitler this noon…He’s very relaxing. The boss as a family father. He’s very interested in my welfare.”100

The Gauleiter of Berlin and later propaganda minister was doubtlessly the colleague with whom Hitler maintained the most intense contact and discussed the most personal matters. But Goebbels was mistaken to believe that Hitler took him into complete confidence and told him everything that was on his mind.101 In fact, there was no one to whom Hitler completely opened up. Even in the early 1920s, Karl Alexander von Müller was struck by the “deep loneliness that surrounded and doubly separated him from every environment.” Nor did he reveal himself to Elsa Bruckmann and her husband despite their seeming intimacy—while they believed he did because he allowed them a tiny glimpse of himself here and there.102 In his memoirs, Speer wrote that he had never met a man who “so rarely showed his true feelings or concealed them again so quickly when he did.” There had been moments when Speer felt he and Hitler had grown closer, but they were illusory: “If you cautiously took up his affectionate tone, he would immediately erect an insurmountable, defensive wall.”103 Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, also concluded that the man worshipped by millions of Germans was essentially a loner. “Just as I never got close to him, I never observed anyone else doing so either,” Ribbentrop wrote. “There was something indescribably distancing about his very nature.”104

Hitler’s need to maintain distance from others was probably less the product of inferior social skills than of his conviction that he was a messiah who should be surrounded by an aura of unapproachability. Familiarity and intimacy were anathema to him. Even in his closest circles very few people were allowed to address him informally,105 and he seems to have never had anything approaching a best friend. Hitler was afraid of “moments of uncontrolled affection and spontaneous intimacy,” claimed Otto Strasser. “For him the idea of letting himself go was a sheer horror.”106 Perhaps that helps explain Hitler’s difficult relationships with women. The Führer particularly hated the thought that people knew him before 1914 or were aware that he had been a lowly private in the First World War. Typically, when he attended a reunion of his regiment during the 1920s, he was unable to connect with his former comrades and quickly left.107

Hitler felt most comfortable with the street thugs from the Nazi Party’s “early years of struggle,” whom he regularly met up with in Munich’s Café Heck. Among them, he could let out his vulgar, petit-bourgeois side without fear of being greeted with wrinkled noses. “It’s awful to see him talking nonsense with those philistines,” Goebbels complained in March 1931.108 Yet after coming to power, Hitler largely divorced himself from such circles. The comradely tone his old acquaintances would habitually strike up did not suit his new role as Reich chancellor, so Hitler kept them at a distance, insisting that they too address him as “my Führer.”109 The only exception was the evening of 8 November, when the tradition of beer-cellar meetings was revived for a night. Then and only then did Hitler allow himself to sit down with his oldest party comrades in Café Heck.110

Beginning in 1933, the Führer also distanced himself from his earlier social patrons. On 21 April of that year, Helene Bechstein complained that the previous day she wanted to congratulate Hitler personally on his birthday but had been prevented from seeing him by his assistant Wilhelm Brückner, who told her that the Reich chancellor did not have a minute to spare.111 Hitler did repay his former patron with the occasional acknowledgement, such as having her awarded the Golden Party Emblem in December 1933, but their relationship was never again what it had been—particularly as Bechstein repeatedly criticised aspects of the Nazi regime.112 Hitler kept in somewhat closer contact with the Bruckmanns in Munich, giving them not just the Golden Party Emblem but presenting them with a car.113 Still, Elsa Bruckmann could not help but notice that her former protégé visited her much less frequently than before. In a letter written in March 1934, she griped that the Führer was “now quite hard to get hold of.”114

So did Hitler truly exist “without any inner connection to other people,” as Gregor Strasser claimed and as every one of his biographers from Heiden to Kershaw have suggested? 115 Put in such black-and-white terms, that was certainly not the case. Hitler enjoyed something like substitute families in several private circles, including the Hoffmanns. Even after becoming chancellor, he paid regular visits to his court photographer in the latter’s villa in the Bogenhausen district of Munich. “When the weather was nice, the chancellor and Führer often took off his jacket and lay down on the lawn in his shirtsleeves,” noted one eyewitness. “He felt at home with the Hoffmanns. Once he had them bring him a volume of [Bavarian satirist] Ludwig Thoma, from which he read aloud.”116

Hitler also enjoyed the status of unofficial family member with the Wagner clan in Bayreuth. Speer noticed that the Führer appeared more relaxed than usual in their company: “With the Wagner family he felt comfortable and freed from the need to represent political power.”117 He had been on informal terms with the matron of the house, Winifred Wagner, since 1926, and he was also quite relaxed with the four Wagner children, letting them photograph him, taking them for rides in his big Mercedes and telling them bedtime stories. “He was very touching with the children,” Winifred Wagner later recalled. Her assistant Lieselotte Schmidt described a private visit by Hitler to Bayreuth in early May 1936 in bathetic terms: “He looks with increasingly misty eyes from the children to their mother and back again and knows that if there is such a thing as home for him on this earth, there is none better than in the Villa Wahnfried among these people.”118

In Berlin, Hitler’s social contacts were by and large restricted to the Goebbels family. He was the best man at Magda and Joseph Goebbels’s wedding in December 1931, and before 1933 he often spent his evenings at their Berlin apartment. After taking power, he also paid frequent visits to their summer houses in Kladow and on Schwanenwerder Island in Lake Wannsee. They would go boating together, and often Hitler’s visits would stretch well into the night.119 The dictator took an intense interest in the Goebbelses’ family life. He visited Magda in hospital when she gave birth to her children, and the family and Hitler jointly celebrated their birthdays. Hitler enjoyed playing with the Goebbelses’ daughters, especially the eldest one, Helga, once even declaring that if Helga were twenty years older, and he twenty years younger, she would have been the woman of his life.120 On the Goebbelses’ fifth wedding anniversary on 19 December 1936, Hitler personally brought congratulatory flowers late in the evening. “We are very moved and honoured,” noted the propaganda minister in his diary. “He feels very at home with us.”121 In the autumn of 1938, when Goebbels was pondering a divorce to pursue an affair with the Czech actress Lida Baarova, Hitler vetoed the idea. Part of his motivation was no doubt that he did not want to lose his ersatz family.122

When choosing his subordinates, Hitler was guided not by emotions, but by his estimation of people’s usefulness. The most important criteria were absolute loyalty, discretion and obedience. Hess, who became Hitler’s private secretary in 1925, was an ideal subordinate and enjoyed great favour in the years leading up to 1933. When Hess married his long-time fiancée Ilse Pröhl on 20 December 1927, Hitler as a matter of course assumed his place beside Hess’s old friend Karl Haushofer as a best man.123 “Wolf [Hitler’s nickname] is so attached to Hess—he’s constantly singing his praises,” Winifred Wagner wrote in June 1928.124 It was also a bonus for those who aspired to join the elite ranks of the future leadership if they were good public speakers capable of whipping up a crowd. That was the reason why Hitler stuck by an obviously corrupt functionary like Hermann Esser—and why Goebbels could launch such a meteoric career in the NSDAP and secure a special place in Hitler’s estimation.125 It is striking that Hitler tended to surround himself with men from humble origins who did not have an overabundance of formal education. He was not terribly bothered if a subordinate had a “flaw in the weave,” a dark secret in their past or family history: on the contrary, Hitler knew that such “flaws” made it easier to tie that person to him, or remove him if necessary.126

Hitler did not, however, enjoy parting with people to whom he had become accustomed. He felt a pronounced sense of solidarity with the “old street brawlers,” and it took a lot for the Führer to formally break with any of them.127 Astonishingly, he was quite skittish about reprimanding anyone face to face. Instead he tended to vent his displeasure to others over lunch or dinner. That, recalled Nazi Agriculture Minister Richard Walter Darré, “was enough since through various channels the person concerned would get word and immediately beg for forgiveness.”128

Hitler had a keen eye for others’ weaknesses and deficiencies and knew how to exploit them. He could assess someone’s personality after only a brief acquaintance, leading his first biographer, Konrad Heiden, to dub him “a good judge and captor of people.”129 In response to the question of why he and so many others had succumbed to Hitler’s spell, Speer wrote: “He not only knew how to play the masses like an instrument. He was also a master psychologist vis-à-vis individuals. He could sense the most secret hopes and fears of everyone he met.”130 Hitler instinctively knew who had submitted completely to him and who retained reservations, reacting to the latter with knee-jerk animosity.131 Anyone attempting to penetrate his carefully guarded private life was sure to earn his ever-watchful mistrust, and those who had seen his moments of weakness or unsettled him would inevitably become targets for revenge.132 Hitler’s prodigious memory ensured no insult would ever be forgotten. The deeply insecure arriviste was a man who held a grudge.

Even before 1933, Hitler tended to give the same task to various subordinates, assuming that competition would yield better results. At the same time, he realised that they would neutralise one another and therefore be unable to threaten his own leadership. Divide and conquer was Hitler’s strategy, and he would perfect and personify it during his years as Germany’s dictator.133 Speer characterised Hitler style of leadership as “a carefully balanced system of mutual enmity.” No matter how significant his area of responsibility, none of Hitler’s subordinates could imagine he possessed any stable authority of his own.134

Part and parcel of this style of rule was Hitler’s tendency to inform as few people as possible about his plans—or to keep them secret altogether. Even Goebbels, who believed that he was on an intimate footing with the “boss,” occasionally got upset about Hitler’s secrecy. “We’re all left feeling around in the dark,” the propaganda minister once complained.135 Christa Schroeder bore witness to Hitler’s extraordinary capacity to keep a secret: “He was convinced that people only had to know as much as they needed to fulfil the tasks of their office.”136 Doling out small doses of powerful knowledge was one of Hitler’s preferred means of playing his subordinates against one another and encouraging them to compete for his favour.

For all the self-confidence he projected, Hitler’s shaky sense of self-worth made him overreact whenever anyone dared to contradict him. Before 1933, he may have been willing to listen to alternative views and change his own in one-to-one conversations. But as Wagener made clear, he would not tolerate anyone correcting him in public: “On those occasions, he would rage like a tiger who suddenly found himself in a cage and was now trying to break through the bars.”137 Nearly all of his subordinates had to endure fits of rage similar to the one Franz Pfeffer von Salomon was treated to in 1930. “He just started screaming, yelling at me,” the later head of the Gestapo in Kassel reported. “A thick blue vein swelled on his forehead, and his eyes bugged out. His voice broke. I feared that he was going to hurt himself.”138 The spectacle of an enraged Hitler was neither very pleasant nor all that impressive. “Spittle literally dripped from the corners of his mouth and ran over his chin,” Albert Krebs noted, although he also asked himself whether such fits of rage were genuine or play-acted, since Hitler seldom lost control of himself.139 There was a similar ambiguity to Hitler’s speeches. No matter how ecstatic Hitler seemed to get, he rarely let himself get carried away to the point where he made ill-considered statements. “His temperament appeared to get the better of him, releasing itself in cascades of bellowed sentences,” remarked Baldur von Schirach, “but in reality he had himself totally under control.”140 Schwerin von Krosigk made a similar observation. Hitler may have let himself get carried away by his emotions, but he always knew how to steer them with cold rationalism. “That was perhaps the most extraordinary gift of this born public speaker,” concluded the Reich finance minister, “this mixture of fire and ice.”141

The paradoxical phrase “fire and ice” is an apt description for the most curious aspect of Hitler’s behaviour. The more likeable, warm and considerate he could be in his private life, the colder, more unfeeling and ruthless he behaved when it came to achieving his political goals. Possibly, this was the result of the violence to which Hitler, like many men of his generation, had been exposed in the First World War. Soldiers had been trained to be hard, inured to human suffering, and that had left its mark, particularly as it was reinforced by the violent confrontations, just shy of a civil war, that followed in post-war Germany. The former Private Hitler may not have taken part himself in the street battles fought by paramilitary Freikorps, but he had begun his political career within a Munich milieu of counter-revolutionary militancy in which right-wing brawlers and neighbourhood vigilantes were the norm. From the very beginning, violence had been an acceptable means of combating one’s political adversaries, and during the November putsch, Hitler showed that he was not above risking people’s lives. At the same time, his martial speechifying in the Bürgerbräu beer cellar that day revealed that the role of the firebrand who did not shy away from violence had not come entirely naturally. Before he could act, he had to whip himself into a psychological frenzy. The same pattern would repeat itself when Hitler purged the SA leadership on the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934.

In early 1931, to deal with Stennes’s revolt, Hitler called together Berlin Brownshirts and associated groups to a meeting in the Sportpalast auditorium. There he employed an extraordinary tactic for assuring himself of their loyalty. For Speer, then a member of the Nazi Transport Corps, it was his initial first-hand experience of Hitler. “We stood there in silence for hours,” Speer recalled.

Finally he appeared with a small entourage…But instead of taking the podium as we expected, Hitler waded into the ranks. Everyone was completely still. Then he began to walk past the columns of men, one by one. All you could hear in this huge space were his footsteps. It took hours. Finally, he came to my column. His eyes were locked on the men standing at attention, as though he were trying to bind them with his gaze. When he got to me, I had the feeling that a pair of staring eyes had taken possession of me for the foreseeable future.142

Hitler also used the ritual of fixing people with a stare on lesser occasions when he wanted to test the loyalty of a subordinate. Speer reported him doing this in a tearoom on the Obersalzberg. “I had to summon up almost superhuman energy to combat the growing urge to look down,” Speer recalled. “Then suddenly Hitler closed his eyes and turned to the woman seated beside him.”143

The suggestive, binding power Hitler exercised over others reflected the self-delusional power he had over himself. Other people found Hitler so convincing, Krosigk remarked in 1945, because he was carried away himself by the momentum of his own words and thought, and completely believed in the truth of what he said. Even intelligent, strong-willed people found it difficult not to be moved and convinced by Hitler. People sometimes approached the Führer with the intention of contradicting him, Krosigk said, only for Hitler to “turn their heads round completely—in no time and with a minimum of effort.”144 The regional Nazi leaders—the Gauleiter—may have acted like dictators in their respective districts, but in Hitler’s presence they became small and obedient. “They couldn’t summon the courage to contradict him,” wrote Speer. “They seemed to have abandoned themselves to him.”145

A portrait of Friedrich the Great hung in Hitler’s office at the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, but the Prussian king’s sense of duty and work ethic were in many respects foreign to his Austrian admirer. Hitler did not keep regular office hours, and he placed no value on punctuality. For a brief period after he assumed power, that seemed to change. “The boss seems unusually solid,” raved Hess in the first weeks of Hitler’s chancellorship. “And the punctuality!!! Always a few minutes early!!!…A new era is dawning!”146 But soon Hitler reverted to his old habits. Before 1933, Hanfstaengl would often have to comb the streets of Munich to find the party leader and drag him to foreign press interviews.147 Hitler’s unpredictability and contempt for rules constantly tried the patience of his subordinates. Schirach would later claim he had never seen Hitler work at a desk, either at his Munich apartment or at the Nazi Party headquarters. “For him, desks were mere pieces of decoration,” the Nazi youth leader wrote.148 Otto Wagener also noted that Hitler’s desk at party headquarters was always empty. Sometimes, when others were talking, Hitler would doodle with a pencil or colouring pens, but Wagener never saw his boss write anything down. “He created by speaking,” Wagener concluded. “He thought things through while he was talking.”149 It was up to his subordinates to identify the core of Hitler’s digressive flights of fancy and translate it into practical instructions. That was not always easy, even for his closest associate Goebbels. In March 1932, the future propaganda minister noted in his diary: “Too erratic. Big plans, but difficult to realise and overcome opposition.”150

Nonetheless, there is little truth to the idea that Hitler’s bohemian pretensions left him incapable of doing concentrated work. When necessary, for instance when he had to prepare major speeches for the Reichstag or the Nuremberg rallies, he could devote himself to his political tasks with great diligence. Sometimes he would disappear for days. “The amount he worked was enormous,” Fritz Wiedemann reported. “He worked through half the night.”151 Even as chancellor, Hitler did not use ghost writers: he dictated his speeches himself to his secretaries. Christa Schroeder remembered how Hitler would begin by writing down some main points while standing at his desk. Then he would start dictation, at first calmly but growing ever faster. “One sentence would follow the next without pause, while he paced up and down the room,” Schroeder recalled. “Sometimes he would stop and stare silently at Lenbach’s portrait of Bismarck, lost in thought and collecting himself before he started to wander around again.” Gradually his voice would rise to maximum volume, and Hitler would gesticulate wildly, his face turning red. “Sometimes during dictation, my heart would start violently pounding—that’s how infectious Hitler’s excitement was,” Schroeder remembered. When he was finished dictating, Hitler would correct the manuscript with a fountain pen. It would then be copied, often multiple times. When he had finished with a speech, Schroeder recalled, Hitler always seemed relieved.152

As a politician, the Führer oscillated between phases of seeming lethargy—in which he actually, away from the public eye, thought intensely about his plans—and periods of feverish, almost frenetic activity.153Hitler had a lifelong habit of postponing difficult decisions for as long as possible, once leading Goebbels to complain that his boss was a “hesitator” and “procrastinator.”154 Such was the stress Hitler felt when faced with such decisions that he started biting his fingernails.155 But when he had reached a decision, he would erupt with great energy, and no cautionary words or objections from others could deter him from taking enormous risks. Hitler often followed what he called his “intuition.” Frequently, he would greet his underlings out of the blue with the announcement: “I thought things over last night and have come to the following conclusion…”156 In his first interrogation by the Allies in the summer of 1945, Speer told them that Hitler would get “intimations,” displaying a kind of sixth sense for coming events and developments.157 Goebbels, too, credited him with “a fabulous nose, instinctual political genius.”158 What his admirers overlooked was the fact that despite his alleged infallible instincts Hitler made numerous blunders on the road to power and ultimately only achieved his goal because others opened the door to the Chancellery for him.

Hitler’s idiosyncratic work habits and decision-making reflected his self-image as an artist who had been forced into politics. And his entourage lapped up the idea of the artist-politician. “You know Hitler,” Gregor Strasser once remarked to Otto Wagener. “He’s an artist. His ideas come to him from somewhere in the beyond. They’re intangible even to him. He develops them in front of our very eyes. He murmurs them to himself in our presence.”159 Goebbels concurred. “Hitler is himself an artist,” the future propaganda minister noted in early December 1932 after a party attended by Leni Riefenstahl and the actress Gretl Slezak. “That’s why all artists like him so much.”160 Speer also thought of Hitler as a frustrated artist who would have much rather been an architect than a politician.161

As we know from Hess’s letters during their joint incarceration in Landsberg, Hitler was obsessed with architectural plans. Among other things, he made a sketch for a “great national building” in Berlin with a “100-metre covering dome” that would be larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.162 After his release, Hitler continued to pursue his plans. In December 1928, Hess wrote to his parents: “As an architect he already has plans in his head for expanding Berlin into the metropolis of the new German empire, and he’s put some of them on paper in the form of marvellous sketches…We’ve often laughed, though with a serious undertone, when we’ve walked through Berlin, which he knows like the back of his hand, and he’s swept away ugly, old housing blocks with a wave of his hand so that other existing or coming ones will have more room to shine.”163 From the very beginning, the construction projects Hitler envisioned were monumental: he was enamoured of everything gigantic.164 The autodidact Hitler was keen to keep abreast of the latest publications on architecture, construction and art history. His Munich housekeeper, Anni Winter, said in 1945 that his private library consisted mainly of such works and that he read avidly in them.165 Hitler bought them at the L. Werner bookshop in Munich, which specialised in architecture, and receipts preserved from 1931 to 1933 attest that he was a very good customer.166 As he revealed in a private letter, he did not just get involved in architecture as a way of “resting and recuperating” from being Reich chancellor.167 With the help of his favourite architect Speer, he actually set about making his megalomaniacal ideas reality—something few of his pre-1933 followers would have thought possible.

After architecture, Hitler’s great passion was for the fine arts, in particular painting, although his understanding of and taste in art had hardly developed since his Vienna years. The failed artist and architect who considered himself a neglected genius felt deep-seated antipathy for avant-garde modernism, which he saw as a socially corrosive phenomenon advanced by “world Jewry.” He never tired of railing against the art of the Weimar “system.” “What has been foisted as art on the German people since 1922 is just some deformed spatters,” Hitler raged in one of his table talks. “From the rapid demise of art in the ‘system period,’ you can see how devastating the influence of the Jews has been in this area.”168 By contrast, Hitler regarded the nineteenth century as an artistic heyday in which Germans had brought forth their “greatest artistic achievements.”169 Hitler’s favourite artists—Adolph von Menzel, Anselm Feuerbach and Arnold Böcklin—all worked during that epoch, and the main rooms in a sketch Hitler made in 1925 for a new German national museum were dedicated to those three painters.170 Hitler began collecting paintings in the late 1920s. At first he hung them in his private apartment in Munich. Later he also decorated the walls of his residence in the Reich Chancellery and the Berghof. With Hoffmann at his side, he was always in search of new acquisitions, especially works by Carl Spitzweg and Eduard von Grützner.171 Even after becoming chancellor, Hitler would occasionally announce, all of a sudden, that he was going to a gallery such as Karl Haberstock’s in Berlin’s ritzy Kurfürstenstrasse. When he acquired Böcklin’s Battle of the Centaurs in May 1935, Goebbels wrote that Hitler was “as happy as a child.”172

Another constant from his early years in Linz and Vienna was Hitler’s passion for Richard Wagner. “The Führer told me about Richard Wagner, whom he deeply reveres and knows better than any other,” Goebbels noted in June 1937.173 On 13 February 1933, a scant two weeks after taking power, Hitler was the guest of honour at the celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner’s death at Leipzig’s Gewandhaus. Until the start of the Second World War, he travelled every year to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, declaring it “his only chance to relax.”174 Hitler made sure that the chronically money-losing festival was given sufficient funds. He also declared that it was to be held annually and offered his opinions about which singers and musicians should be cast.175 Alongside Wagner, Hitler enjoyed operettas—he saw Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus multiple times—and he was also a ballet enthusiast.176

In addition, Hitler was an avid cinema-goer. Even in the tense months leading up to the November putsch, he regularly went to the movie theatre on Munich’s Sendlinger Torplatz. There, together with Ernst Hanfstaengl, he enjoyed the silent film Fridericus Rex. Hanfstaengl recounted that Hitler especially liked the scene in which the young Friedrich the Great is forced to witness the execution of his childhood friend Katte. “Off with the head of anyone who goes against the reasons of state,” Hitler exclaimed, “be it even your own son!”177 In October 1926, he and Hess went to see Ben Hur 178 and even in the hectic years before he took power, Hitler kept up with all the new releases, either in Berlin or elsewhere. In early 1932, he and Goebbels took in the erotically charged feature Girls in Uniform. “A fabulous, unpretentious, compelling film,” Goebbels raved. “Achieves the greatest effects by the simplest means. Charming girls. I’m completely taken in and dumbfounded. Hitler too.”179 A bit later, the two men admired Greta Garbo in Yvonne.180And as 30 January 1933 approached, Hitler watched the historical film The Rebel not once but twice.181 Hitler remained a film buff after becoming chancellor, but instead of going to the cinema, he had films screened privately in the Chancellery or at his retreat on the Obersalzberg.

Hitler was passionate about cars in general and Mercedes-Benz in particular. “I love automobiles,” he admitted in January 1942. “I have to say that I owe the best moments of my life to the automobile.”182 He was intimately acquainted with all models of cars and, according to Schirach, was constantly reading up in magazines about valves, camshafts, suspensions, steering systems, motor specifications and handling.183In Landsberg, Hess was struck by Hitler’s admiration for the Taylor system that allowed the Ford factory in Detroit to produce 800 cars a day. “Our industry should put in the effort and achieve similar results,” Hitler opined.184 There was no way, however, that Hitler would have bought an American car: all his life he remained true to Mercedes-Benz. The company had helped him at the start of his political career to acquire his first car, and Jakob Werlin, who ran the Mercedes dealership in Munich, was part of Hitler’s entourage. In 1931, Hitler got the latest Mercedes, the eight-cylinder 770 with 7.7 litres of cubic capacity, the largest and most expensive passenger car of the time. Racing driver Rudolf Caracciola personally delivered the vehicle to Munich.185 Hitler would have liked to see all prominent Nazis drive Mercedes, but he was never able to implement this wish.186 Conversely, in the decisive year of 1932, the southern German carmaker intensified its connections with the NSDAP leadership. “There is no reason to decrease the attention we’ve paid to Herr Hitler and his friends,” Mercedes director Wilhelm Kissel wrote to Werlin. “He will be able to count on us…just as he has in the past.”187 The carmaker made good on its word, providing the new Reich chancellor with a further luxury Mercedes for a song in June 1933. In return, Mercedes expected to be given preferential treatment in the blossoming automobile sector.188

As Hitler himself could not drive, he had himself chauffeured around by a series of drivers—Emil Maurice, Julius Schreck and Erich Kempka.189 Hitler always sat in the front seat next to his chauffeur, studying the map. Before 1933, he loved going fast, and the luxury Mercedes models easily did over 100 kilometres an hour. “He couldn’t see another car on the road in front without ordering his driver to pass it and leave it in the dust,” Otto Dietrich reported.190 After he became chancellor, Hitler set his drivers a speed limit, and for security reasons he now never went anywhere without a commando of bodyguards. But in the years before he took power, Hitler logged hundreds of thousands of kilometres, and sometimes it was inner restlessness and not business that made him take to the roads. “We lead the lives of gypsies,” Goebbels remarked in January 1929.191 Hitler often travelled the 150 miles between Munich and Berchtesgaden in an open-top car, regularly stopping at the Lambach Inn on the northern shore of Lake Chiemsee. He loved to picnic for hours by the side of the road with his entourage. It was a chance for him to briefly slip out of the role of Führer. “Picnic under the pines,” Goebbels jotted down in July 1933. “Four hours amidst nature. Hitler very happy. A normal person among normal people.”192

Hanfstaengl reported that when he was in a good mood, Hitler was an unusually entertaining travel companion, who would hum whole passages from Wagner operas.193 He and his entourage usually stayed up late in hotels, although Hitler often began to brood at some point. “The cheerful conversation would die down, if he no longer took part,” Wagener recalled. “One or the other person would say good night, and Hitler would ask others to keep him company. You’d still be sitting there hours later…talking about everything under the sun except matters of work and present concerns.”194

Various sources from his inner circle describe Hitler as leading an extremely simple, almost ascetic existence.195 But that is only half the story. Hitler’s supposedly modest personal needs were part of his carefully cultivated, partly fictional persona as a man of the people. His passion for fast and expensive cars, his choice of the Palais Barlow as Nazi Party headquarters and his huge apartment on Munich’s posh Prinzregentenstrasse do not conform to that image. Speer turned up his nose at the interior design:

Carved oak furniture, books in glass cases, embroidered cushions with delicate inscriptions and resolute party slogans. In one corner was a bust of Richard Wagner. The walls were full of idyllic paintings, framed in gold, by Munich School artists. Nothing betrayed the fact that this man had been the chancellor of Germany for three years. The air smelled of heated oil and sour leftovers.196

Schirach on the other hand found Hitler’s apartment too bourgeois: “A wealthy factory owner or merchant might have lived like that, or an artistically aware but old-fashioned collector.”197

“My surroundings have to make a grand impression so that they highlight my own simplicity,” Hitler once remarked, and his modesty concerning his wardrobe was similarly calculated.198 Hitler favoured unfussy uniforms made by the tailor Wilhelm Holters near the Chancellery. His suits were made by Michael Werner in Munich.199 Hitler did not like to have his tailors take his measurements, and when they were allowed to do so, the procedure could not take more than a few minutes.200 Hitler personally had little use for medals. He himself wore only the Iron Cross, First Class and the Golden Party Emblem—although he had no objections to those around him filling their chests with medals and badges: that too only increased the effect of his calculated modesty.201

Hitler had a relatively relaxed attitude towards money and seems not to have possessed a normal bank account.202 Nor did he carry a wallet. If he needed money, an assistant would give it to him, or he would carry it loosely in his pocket. His aides Julius Schaub and Wilhelm Brückner paid his bills,203 and Max Amann managed Hitler’s income, which grew rapidly thanks to royalties from the sales of Mein Kampf. That income allowed him to initially refuse to accept his salary as Reich chancellor. He announced that decision in February 1933 with great pomp, underscoring his desire to nourish the public legend of the ascetic Führer.204 In fact, he silently reversed that decision a year later. After Hindenburg’s death, Hitler also received the Reich president’s salary and an annual expense fund.205

Part of the legend of Hitler’s asceticism was the fact that he did not eat meat or smoke cigarettes and only rarely drank alcohol. Wagener and Hitler’s housekeeper Anni Winter reported that Hitler decided to become a vegetarian after the death of Geli Raubal in 1933.206 In fact he had already begun to cut down his consumption of meat and alcohol after being released from Landsberg in late 1924. “In my experience, meat and alcohol harm my body,” he told Hanfstaengl. “I have decided to summon the will-power necessary to do without both, as much as I enjoy them.”207 He stuck to his resolution, although aside from occasional scornful remarks about “cadaver-eaters,” he did not mind if others chose not to follow him down this path. At dinner during the wedding of Schirach and Henriette Hoffmann in late March 1932, Hitler shook his head in dismay at the gigantic roast of beef and sighed: “Oh you Venus flytraps!” He himself only had some spaghetti with tomato sauce and an apple.208 Sefton Delmer characterised meals with Hitler on the campaign trail in April 1932 as being a bit of trial. An “aura of isolation” surrounded the teetotalling vegetarian, making everyone at the table feel rather uncomfortable.209

Contrasting markedly with this sort of asceticism was Hitler’s insatiable appetite for cake and sweets. When first introduced to Hitler, Hanfstaengl immediately noticed that he could not seem to get enough of Viennese pastries with whipped cream.210 Schirach was completely dumbfounded when he first sat down with Hitler in 1928, shortly after he himself was named leader of the Nazi Students’ Association:

At tea time, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He put so many lumps of sugar in his cup that there was hardly any room for the tea, which he then slurped down noisily. He also ate three or four pieces of cream pie. Hitler noticed my surprise. He glanced down critically at himself, smiled mischievously and said, “I shouldn’t be eating this much. I’m getting fat. But I’ve got such a sweet tooth.” He said this and then ordered another slice of pie.211

Years of consuming such huge quantities of sugary food took their toll. Hitler had very bad teeth and was forced to submit to extensive dental work in late 1933.212

As Schirach’s anecdote illustrates, the Hitler of the late 1920s was indeed able to laugh at himself. He gradually lost this capacity as the Führer cult became increasingly excessive, and Hitler identified more and more with the role in which he was cast by his disciples and by Nazi propaganda. As Speer described the change: “He usually let others tell the jokes, and his laughter was loud and unconstrained. Sometimes, he would be bent over in laughter and have to wipe the tears from his eyes. He liked to laugh, but fundamentally it always came at others’ expense.”213 There was nothing liberating about Hitler’s laughter. It always contained a hint of ridicule and scorn, and Hitler habitually concealed his face with his hand whenever he laughed.214

The Führer was very mindful of his health. Indeed, his fear of illness betrayed unmistakable signs of hypochondria. Hitler was worried that he would die young and be unable to realise his plans. “ ‘When I’m no longer here’ has become his mantra,” noted Goebbels in February 1927. “What a horrible thought!”215 The following year, when he suffered a bout of severe stomach cramps, Hitler believed he had contracted cancer and was fated to die young like his mother. Initially he refused to consult a doctor, but eventually Elsa Bruckmann convinced him to see a certain Dr. Schweninger—the son of the Bismarck’s personal physician. He diagnosed a chronic irritation of Hitler’s stomach lining and put the Nazi leader on a strict diet.216 Hitler’s health improved, but he never lost his fear of dying young.

In February 1932, the morning after a speech by Hitler in Hamburg during the Reich presidential election, Albert Krebs found him hunched at his breakfast table in the Hotel Atlantic, looking tired and morose. Hitler then gave a long lecture about the advantages of vegetarianism, which incongruently revealed his fear of getting cancer. “ ‘I’ve got no time to wait!’ he said, looking at me over the edge of his plate of soup,” Krebs recalled. “ ‘If I did, I wouldn’t be running for this office…But I can’t afford to lose another year. I must come to power soon, if I’m to be able to take care of the gigantic tasks ahead in the time I have left. I must! I must!’ ” Krebs saw this “pathological mix of fear of mortality and messianic conviction” as the key to understanding why Hitler was so impatient about pursuing his political plans. “Someone who plans things beyond all normal dimensions and simultaneously fears that he won’t live to see fifty has no option to move slowly and wait for his goal to come into reach and the fruits of his labours to ripen,” Krebs concluded.217 Even after Hitler attained power, he still regularly worried that he would not live long.218 The irony was, as one of his doctors attested, that Hitler was in robust health. The symptoms of the nervous condition that he began to show over the years are hardly surprising, considering the pressure he was under.219

Hitler’s fear of assassination was only slightly less pronounced than his anxiety about dying from illness. Thus, when Hitler moved into the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin in 1932, he suspected the kitchen staff were trying to poison him, and Magda Goebbels had to deliver him food prepared in her kitchen.220 The director of household at the Reich Chancellery, Arthur Kannenberg, repeatedly complained about how difficult it was to cook for Hitler. “You would not believe how careful we have to be,” he sighed. “When my wife cooks his food, no one’s allowed to get within ten metres of the pots.” Lieselotte Schmidt also reported that when Hitler stayed in Bayreuth, one of his entourage was posted to make sure no one poisoned his food.221 One of the reasons Hitler appointed Wilhelm Brückner as his assistant was his hefty stature. Brückner, Hitler said, “offered a certain assurance that no one will dare approach me.”222 Hitler took other precautions as well. He carefully locked not only his hotel rooms, but also his bedroom at the Chancellery, and as of 1933, two commandos of police and SS bodyguards watched over his safety.223 Both Hitler and his chauffeur carried pistols when they went out for drives.224 Still the Nazi Party leader and Reich chancellor knew that there was no such thing as absolute safety. He worried that one day he would be gunned down by a sharpshooter in some auditorium. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” Hitler said in the summer of 1936. “The best protection will always be enthusiastic masses of people.”225

Hygiene was very important to the Führer. Hitler often took multiple baths a day, especially when he returned sweaty from public-speaking appearances.226 Part of his morning routine from his early days on Thierschstrasse was doing expander exercises to strengthen his arms. This allowed him to keep his right arm raised for extended periods of time as columns of SA paraded past him for inspection. “It was a matter of years of training,” Speer wrote. “None of his underlings could have matched that feat.”227 Hitler did not play any sports, but he did follow major sporting events with great interest. After car racing, his favourite was boxing. Not long after assuming power, he invited German heavyweight champion Max Schmeling to visit him at the Chancellery, and when Schmeling defeated Joe Louis in June 1936, Hitler insisted upon being given an extensive summary of the fight. Two years later he stayed up late to follow the rematch and was reportedly shocked when Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. “A terrible defeat,” noted Goebbels. “Our newspapers were too confident of victory. Now our entire people is depressed.”228

Even after 1933, Hitler tended to go to bed late, frequently after midnight, and get up late as well. He traced his night-owl rhythm back to his “street-fighting years”: “After the meetings I had to get together with my comrades, and anyway I was so wound up by speeches that I couldn’t sleep until morning.”229 But there was another reason for Hitler’s nocturnal habits: he hated being alone. “It was striking how he shied away from it,” Dietrich reported. “It often seemed to me that he was afraid of his own inner dialogues.”230 Goebbels offered a similar analysis: “Hitler needs to have people around him. Otherwise, he broods too much.”231 This provides another example of Hitler’s peculiar dual personality: a dictator who kept other people at a distance but sought out company to avoid being alone with himself. Hitler may have had a keen eye for others’ weak spots, but he was clearly unwilling to acknowledge his own psychological shortcomings.

In 1924, a graphologist who sympathised with the Nazis analysed Hitler’s handwriting. The results, which he communicated by letter to a local Nazi leader in Göttingen, Ludolf Haase, were anything but positive. The analyst was deeply concerned about Hitler’s downward-sloping handwriting, which “clearly indicates a personality who, despite whatever energy it possesses, will inevitably fail in the final, decisive moment.”232 The philosopher Hermann von Keyserling offered an even more damning appraisal a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor. Having studied the Führer intensely, Keyserling wrote to Harry Kessler, he had come to the following conclusion: “The handwriting and physiognomy are of a decidedly suicidal character. He is someone longing for death and he therefore embodies a basic characteristic of the German people, who have always been enamoured by death and whose recurrent experience is the fate of the Nibelungs.” Keyserling was right, Kessler commented.233 But there were not many people in Germany who saw things this way. On the contrary, it was not long after 30 January 1933 that the new man in the Chancellery would achieve unforeseeable popularity.