Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)
Chapter 2. The Vienna Years
“Vienna was and is the most difficult, if also the most thorough, school I went through,” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf. “I came to the city half a boy and left it as a quiet, serious adult.”1 The five years from 1908 to 1913 that Hitler spent in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were deeply significant. In many respects the impressions his new environment made upon him and the experiences he had there greatly influenced his character and his political views. It was no accident that he would always come back to these years in the monologues he later held in his headquarters.
Fin-de-siècle Vienna was a major European metropolis—with around two million inhabitants, it was the continent’s fourth most populous city after London, Paris and Berlin. The seat of the Habsburg monarchy was not only famous for its glorious past. With its industry, large commercial firms, banks and modern means of transport, it was also a vibrant economic centre, and its theatres, concert halls, artists’ studios, publishing houses and newspapers made it a hive of culture as well. “Hardly any other city in Europe had such cultural urgency as Vienna,” wrote Viennese author Stefan Zweig, looking back on the years before the First World War.2 Modernists in various branches of culture—the painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, the architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the writers Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the composer Arnold Schönberg and many others—were creating a furore.3 Emperor Franz Josef I, nearly 80 years old, still resided in the Hofburg Palace. When Hitler moved to Vienna in 1908, the aged monarch—a guarantee, so it seemed, of absolute stability and a symbol of lasting leadership—celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of his rule with a series of gala dinners and a parade full of pomp.4
But the glamorous façade concealed deep social cracks. The splendid architecture of Ringstrasse and the broad boulevards that expressed the self-confidence of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, as well as their need to show off, stood in stark contrast to the shabby tenement buildings in the outer districts where working-class families lived in cramped quarters. “From a social perspective, Vienna around the turn of the century was one of the most difficult cities,” Hitler remarked in Mein Kampf. “Gleaming wealth alternated abruptly with repellent poverty.”5 But Vienna was more than just a city of stark social contrasts. It also attracted and magnified the problems of the multinational Austro-Hungarian state. Other than Berlin, no European city had such a high rate of immigration. Between 1880 and 1910 the city’s population doubled. The largest group of immigrants were the Czechs—by 1910 every fifth person in Vienna had Czech roots.6 Vienna’s Jewish population was also proportionally larger than in most other European cities. In 1910, over 175,000 Jews lived there—that was 8.7 per cent of the total population. The poorer segment of this group, chiefly immigrants from the eastern parts of the empire—Hungary, Galicia and Bukovina—lived in the Leopoldstadt district, nicknamed “Matzo Island” in the local slang.7
Among Vienna’s ethnic Germans and in the German-speaking parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this massive immigration gave rise to fears of “foreignisation,” of losing the cultural and political hegemony that German Austrians considered their birthright. In reaction, numerous radical nationalist associations, political parties and popular movements had formed since the end of the nineteenth century.8That, of course, provoked counter-reactions from other ethnic and cultural groups. One of the main arenas for nationalist conflict was the Reichsrat or Imperial Council, the parliament of the western half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1907, with the introduction of universal suffrage for men over the age of 24, Germans were no longer the strongest faction there, and the verbal duels fought between the spokesmen for various nationalities, right out in the public eye, were so bitter that many people believed the Habsburg monarchy was in crisis and the multinational state would soon be dissolved. Nowhere was the oft-cited fin-de-siècle mood—the intimation of coming seismic shifts and catastrophes—more palpable than in Vienna. “Everyone is stopped and waiting, maître d’s, hansom cab drivers and governments,” wrote the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus in 1899. “Everyone’s waiting for the end. Let’s hope the apocalypse is pleasant, Your Highness.”9
Immediately upon arriving in Vienna, Hitler told readers of Mein Kampf, he was cast into “a world of misery and poverty.”10 This was intentionally misleading. The financial cushion of his maternal inheritance, his orphan’s pension and occasional gifts from Aunt Hanni meant that the new arrival could continue his idle existence. In late February 1908, after Kubizek had joined him, the two friends moved into the larger room in Maria Zakrey’s apartment on Stumpergasse. Their rent was 20 crowns a month. Kubizek passed the entrance examination to the conservatory on the first go, so while his friend pursued his studies, Hitler whiled away his days with no goal or plan. He tended to get up late, a habit he retained even as Nazi Party leader and Reich chancellor, and when Kubizek returned from the conservatory, he usually found Hitler making sketches or brooding over his books.
Hitler would often read until the early hours of the morning. “Books, always books,” recalled Kubizek. “I can’t picture Adolf without books. Books were his whole world.”11 Hitler’s favourite reading material was Germanic myths and heroic sagas, closely followed by art and architectural histories. But he also read contemporary works such as the plays of Ibsen and Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening.12 He quickly memorised everything he found important and useful and forgot the rest. In Mein Kampf, he would devote a long section to the “Art of Proper Reading,” which he claimed to have mastered from an early age. This consisted of “separating what’s valuable from what’s worthless so as to retain the former in your head for ever while not even seeing the latter, if possible, and definitely not carrying around senseless ballast.”13
Whenever they could, the two friends attended the Vienna State Opera. “Before the world war, the opera was something wonderful!” Hitler still rhapsodised in 1942. “The culture there—unparalleled!”14 Often he and Kubizek had to stand in line for hours to get one of the coveted standing-room tickets. As they had in Linz, they found Wagner particularly intoxicating. “For Adolf everything else receded in importance before this unique mystical world the great master conjured up for us,” Kubizek recalled.15 Gustav Mahler had got fed up with being attacked by anti-Semites, and given up the directorship of the opera in 1907, but both young Wagnerians took the side of the Jewish conductor and composer in the controversy surrounding his interpretations of the operas.16
Otherwise, Hitler’s taste in art remained utterly uninfluenced by Viennese modernism. He had no time for the works of Klimt and the Secession. Hitler preferred traditional art: the late romanticism of Arnold Böcklin, the neo-baroque monumental paintings of Hans Makart and above all the idyllic genre works of the Munich painter Eduard Grützner.17 “As a young man in Vienna I once saw a Grützner in the window of an art dealership,” he later told his “court photographer” Heinrich Hoffmann. “I was so thrilled I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”18 By contrast, Hitler regarded all abstract painting as “nothing more than crippled spattering.”19 He had equally little sympathy for the pioneers of a new functionalism in architecture like Adolf Loos. Hitler’s architectural heroes were the neoclassicists Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Gottfried Semper, and he spent hours staring up at the majestic buildings on Ringstrasse.20 “He forgot not just the time, but everything around him,” Kubizek wrote. “At home he would make me sketches of floor plans and longitudinal cuts, trying to recreate every interesting detail…For him Ringstrasse became a living object of study that allowed him to test his architectural knowledge and argue for his ideas.”21
As time passed, Kubizek began to notice a change in his friend’s behaviour. Hitler would explode in rage at the slightest provocation, cursing a world that allegedly conspired against him. He was also prone to bouts of depression, in which he tortured himself with self-critical reproaches. Phases of frantic activity alternated with stretches of lethargy in which he succumbed to total idleness.22 One day, Hitler stunned Kubizek by announcing that he was going to write an opera called “Wieland the Blacksmith,” although he had only had a few months of piano lessons—from early October 1906 to late January 1907—and no idea at all how to compose music. Kubizek was forced to assist him in this adventurous project, until one day after several sleepless nights in which Hitler had worked himself into a frenzy, he gave up on the idea.23The same thing happened with other projects. When an idea took hold of him, Hitler would immediately set to work in a blaze of activity only to suddenly lose interest and devote his attention to something else.
In his 1938 essay “Brother Hitler,” Thomas Mann recognised “a manifestation of an artist’s nature” in the young man’s daydreaming. “Although it makes me feel ashamed,” Mann wrote,
everything is there: the tendency to be “difficult,” the laziness and pathetic amorphousness of adolescence, the refusal to be accommodated, the what-do-you-really-want, the semi-idiotic vegetation of a social and spiritual bohemian, the arrogant, self-inflated refusal of all reasonable and honourable activity—and on what basis? For the sake of an obscure intimation that one is destined for something indefinable, which would make people burst into laughter if it were ever possible to name.24
In their room on Stumpergasse, the two friends began to get on each other’s nerves. Not only did Hitler feel disturbed in his autodidactic studies whenever Kubizek practised the piano, he was also jealous that his room-mate proudly went to the conservatory every morning and enjoyed one success after another, while he, who felt himself called to be an artist, had had the doors of the Academy of Fine Arts slammed in his face. The excitable 19-year-old had still not told Kubizek about his rejection, but one night after they had fought yet again, it burst out of him. “They rejected me,” Hitler confessed. “I was thrown out, excluded.” His confession was accompanied by a wave of insults. As Kubizek recalled:
“This academy!” Hitler yelled. “Nothing but a pack of cramped, old, outmoded servants of the state, clueless bureaucrats, stupid creations of the civil service! The whole academy should be dynamited!” His face was pale, his lips were pressed so tightly together that they went white. His eyes were glowing. How uncanny his eyes were! As if all the hatred of which he was capable were burning in those eyes.25
It was one of the rare moments when the otherwise secretive Hitler opened up to another person. The arrogant pose, with which Hitler sought to demonstrate his superiority over his friend, actually concealed his own massive uncertainty as to his future as an artist.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the young Hitler, in Kubizek’s account, began to get interested in politics. On numerous occasions, he visited the Imperial Council and listened in the gallery to the debates, which were conducted in ten different languages. In retrospect, he claimed to have been outraged by what he called a “pathetic spectacle—a gesticulating, wildly motioning mass shrieking in every key at once and over them all a harmless old uncle, who worked himself into a sweat, ringing a bell and trying to restore the dignity of the house with words of conciliation, then warning.”26 Such scenes, Hitler would have his readers believe in Mein Kampf, had produced his deeply ingrained contempt for parliamentarianism and the entire concept of democratic majority rule. Kubizek, who once tagged along with Hitler and soon decided to leave, disgusted by the tumult, observed his friend reacting quite differently: “He stood up, his fists clenched and his face burning with excitement. I decided to remain seated quietly, although I had no idea what the debate was about.”27
There can be no doubt that the incendiary political climate in Vienna greatly influenced the young man from the provinces, who was susceptible to radical slogans. As a pupil back in Linz, he had got involved in the German School Association, whose mission was to set up German-language schools and kindergartens in multilingual areas.28 Hitler was convinced of the cultural superiority of everything German before he arrived in the Austrian capital. “When I came to Vienna, my sympathies were already fully and exclusively with the pan-Germanic movement,” he wrote—this time plausibly—in Mein Kampf.29 Georg Ritter von Schönerer, the founder of the movement in Austria, was one of the politicians the new arrival in Vienna most admired. Schönerer’s desire to unite the German part of Austria with Imperial Germany, which entailed the dissolution of the multinational Habsburg state, must have exercised a considerable fascination on the young Hitler. He would later praise the fervent nationalist and Bismarck admirer Schönerer for “recognising more clearly than anyone else the inevitable end of the Austrian state.”30 It is uncertain whether the 19-year-old Hitler had much time for the cult of personality that grew up around Schönerer within the pan-Germanic movement. But he did take over some elements of that cult, for example the “Heil” greeting and the title Führer, into the NSDAP.31
By the turn of the century Schönerer was past the height of his power—1907 was the last time he had a seat in the council. His fight against the Catholic Church, pursued under the slogan “Let’s get free of Rome,” had offended a lot of his Catholic sympathisers. In Mein Kampf, Hitler criticised the “free of Rome” campaign as a major mistake, saying that Schönerer had possessed “insufficient understanding of the psyche of the broad masses.”32 But what Schönerer lacked, Hitler found in another politician: Karl Lueger, the Vienna mayor and founder of the Christian Social Party, who was at the height of his popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lueger’s political activity, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, was focused on the middle classes, which were threatened with extinction and who gave him an “unshakeable base that was willing to make sacrifices and fight tenaciously.”33
As a disciple of Schönerer, Hitler maintained in one of his later monologues, he had initially opposed the Christian Social Party, but with time he had developed a “great personal respect” for Lueger. “I heard him speak for the first time in the Volkshalle in the city hall,” Hitler recalled. “I was of two minds. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t help admiring him. He had a great talent for speaking.”34 Lueger’s oratorical skills were not the only quality Hitler admired. He also appreciated Lueger’s rigorous Germanophile policies, advanced with the slogan “Vienna is German and must remain German.”35 Moreover, Hitler was impressed with the remarkable modernisation of the city’s infrastructure for which the mayor had been responsible since taking office in 1897. Lueger had not only municipalised Vienna’s gas and electricity suppliers and its public transport system, he also oversaw improvements to healthcare and social benefits, and established parks and other green areas. “Lueger was the greatest example of a local politician and the most brilliant mayor we’ve ever had,” Hitler later said as Reich chancellor.36 When Lueger died in March 1910, his young admirer Hitler was among the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets to watch the funeral procession.37
Next to Lueger’s Christian Social Party, the Social Democrats were the strongest political force in pre-war Vienna. Hitler’s relationship with them was strangely ambiguous. On the one hand, he was moved by the social misery that he encountered everywhere in the city. He spent weeks drawing up plans for social housing blocks so that the working population would have cheaper and better accommodation.38 On the other hand, he was scared of sinking down into the proletariat himself. “Perhaps,” Kubizek mused, “the unbelievable energy he poured into his autodidactic studies masked the instinctive attempt to protect himself from the misery of the masses by acquiring the broadest and most thorough education he could.”39 Hitler attended a number of workers’ demonstrations in Vienna, but he found them more threatening than inspiring. “For almost two hours,” he wrote in Mein Kampf of one such incident, “I stood there and watched with bated breath the unsettling human dragon-worm that slowly crawled by. Anxious and downcast, I finally left the square and wandered home.”40
As a pan-Germanic sympathiser and a radical nationalist, Hitler loathed the Austrian Social Democrats’ internationalist policy of mutual understanding with Slavic peoples. He suspected the Social Democratic leadership of exploiting the hardship of the working populace for their own gain. “Who are the leaders of these people living in misery?” Kubizek recalled Hitler asking after a demonstration. “They’re not men who have experienced the hardships of the little guy themselves, but rather ambitious, power-hungry politicians, some of whom have no idea of reality and who are getting rich off the misery of the masses.”41Hitler concluded his bitter indictment with a tirade against political profiteering. Opposition to the Social Democratic outlook, which he considered “un-German” and corrupt, would remain a constant in Hitler’s political world view. It was part of the poisonous legacy of his Vienna years.
In early June 1908, at the end of his second semester, Kubizek travelled back to Linz to spend the holidays with his parents. When Hitler brought him to the train station Kubizek did not suspect that it would be thirty years before he would see his friend again. Left behind in Vienna, Hitler sent Kubizek several postcards and two longish letters in which he described his “hermit’s existence” with forced good cheer. He reported that he had killed a “monster bedbug” in their room and got over a “bronchial flu.” Hitler also stressed that he had been anything but lazy in his friend’s absence: “I’m writing a lot right now, usually in the afternoons and evenings.”42 In the latter half of August, Hitler sent one last postcard from Waldviertel, where he was visiting relatives. Then he broke off all contact. When Kubizek returned to Vienna in November 1908, Zakrey informed him that Hitler had moved out without leaving a forwarding address.43
In September 1908, Hitler had applied for a second time to the Academy of Fine Arts. This time he was not even invited to take the entrance exam.44 This may well be the reason he abandoned his friend so suddenly and with no explanation. Hitler’s self-confidence was badly shaken. His dream of a great artistic career seemed to be over. Hitler’s recurrent tirades even as Reich chancellor against the Academy “schoolmasters” who had “rejected him as untalented” showed how deeply he had been insulted.45 The young Hitler no doubt felt that he and his mission were being utterly neglected and he decided to withdraw completely in the autumn of 1908. He broke off contact not only with Kubizek but with his family as well. On 18 November, he rented a new apartment on Felberstrasse 22, near the western train station and not far from Stumpergasse. He lived there until 20 August 1909.46
We have no reliable information about Hitler’s time on Felberstrasse. For three quarters of a year, it is as though he had disappeared from view. But we can assume that his financial situation was getting worse and worse every month. He must have just about used up his maternal inheritance by that point, and his orphan’s pension alone was not enough to live on. For the first time, Hitler had to make the sort of hard sacrifices he later boasted about. “For months I didn’t have a hot meal,” he claimed in one of his monologues. “I lived off milk and dried bread.”47
An episode Hitler described at length in Mein Kampf may have happened at this time. “In order not to starve,” Hitler claimed, he had worked on a building site. Here the conversations of the unionised construction workers had “enraged him to the extreme.” Everything was dragged through the dirt—the nation, the fatherland, the authority of law, religion and morality. When he dared contradict them, the construction workers threatened to throw him from the scaffolding. He quit the job, one experience richer.48 It seems unlikely, however, that this story was true. Hitler probably invented it as an illustration of how heroically he had combated the “false teachings” of Marxism even as a 20-year-old.49
On 22 August 1909, Hitler moved to cheaper quarters on Sechshauser Strasse 58. Previously, when registering his address, he had described himself on the forms as an “artist” or a “student.” Now he called himself a “writer,” although he had yet to publish a line.50 On 16 September, he had to vacate his room, probably because he could not pay the rent. Under the heading “new address,” his deregistration card read “unknown.” It seems that Hitler had no fixed address during the following months. Looking back on the autumn of 1909 in January 1914, he wrote that it had been an “endlessly bitter time.” Even five years later, he still carried “mementoes in the form of frost boils on my fingers, hands and feet.”51 This may be one of Hitler’s typical exaggerations, but there is no doubt that he had hit rock bottom.52 The young man, who according to Kubizek had always dressed properly and was extremely conscious of hygiene, was now one of the army of homeless people who slept on Vienna’s park benches or gathered in the city’s soup kitchens for a hot meal and to warm up when the weather was cold.53
In the late autumn of 1909, Hitler went to the Meidling homeless shelter, which offered some 1,000 people a bed and soup and bread every night. There he made the acquaintance of the man in the neighbouring cot, a convicted vagrant named Reinhold Hanisch. As Hanisch recalled in May 1933: “On the metal cot to my left was a spindly young man with bloody feet. I still had some bread from the farmers, and I shared it with him. Back then, I spoke in a thick Berlin dialect. He was crazy about Germany. I had wandered through his home town Braunau am Inn so it was easy to follow his stories.”54 Every morning the men using the shelter had to pack their things. They were not allowed to return until the evening. In the meantime, Hanisch and Hitler tried to earn some money as day labourers, but Hitler did not hold out long shovelling snow. “He had no winter coat and was frozen blue,” Hanisch recalled.55
When the 20-year-old Hitler, who was too weak for physical labour, boasted to his new friend that he had gone to the Academy of Fine Arts, Hanisch hit upon the idea of exploiting Hitler’s artistic talent. He suggested that Hitler paint postcards, which Hanisch would then sell in taverns. They would split the profits. Pressed by his new partner, Hitler asked his aunt Hanni for 50 crowns to buy paint and brushes. Business was better than expected: on 9 February 1910, the two men were able to quit the homeless shelter for a men’s home on Meldemannstrasse 27.56 Hitler would spend his next three years there.
The men’s home in the working-class district of Brigittenau on the periphery of Vienna was a modern facility for its time, offering its more than 500 residents comfortable accommodation compared with the homeless shelter. Residents did not have to sleep in large halls; instead, every man got a small sleeping chamber with a bed, a table, a bureau and, as a special attraction, electric light. There were also a number of common rooms including a large reading room with a library, where nine newspapers were laid out, and a small “writing room.”57 Hitler sat there during the day, drawing and painting. Mostly he depicted Viennese landmarks such as the Karlskirche, the Stephansdom and the town hall on his postcards which Hanisch sold to tourists and frame-sellers. At 8 p.m. each night, Hitler withdrew to his chamber to devote himself to his autodidactic studies. “I painted to earn money and learned for the joy of it,” he wrote in Mein Kampf. “I think the people around me then thought I was an oddball.”58
And indeed the 21-year-old would-be artist was an outsider in the colourful society of the men’s home, in which unmarried workers and small-time clerks lived side by side with dissipated university graduates. Hitler avoided other people’s company. He did not drink or smoke and had little to say when the conversation turned to women. Female visitors were strictly forbidden on Meldemannstrasse as they were in all men’s homes, but Hitler does not seem to have tried to find female companionship anyway. He would have had ample opportunities to do so during his time with Kubizek, who reported that female eyes were always on Hitler whenever the two friends went to the opera. Kubizek had asked himself what the attraction was. Was it Hitler’s “extraordinarily light eyes” or the “strangely strict expression on his ascetic face”? Perhaps, Kubizek concluded, it was Hitler’s “manifest uninterest in the members of the opposite sex” that had made women “want to test this male source of resistance.”59 Whatever the reasons may have been, the young Hitler was an ascetic within the erotically charged atmosphere of pre-war Vienna, in which Arthur Schnitzler’s sex-themed play La Ronde and Klimt’s explicit paintings caused such scandals. But there is no plausible reason to conclude that Hitler was attracted to men and was unable to acknowledge his true inclinations.60 He had no shortage of potential contacts of this sort in his time in the men’s home, but there is not the slightest indication of any homosexual orientation.
Paying prostitutes to initiate him into the ways of love, as was common among men of his age from middle-class backgrounds, was out of the question for Hitler: according to Kubizek, he was terrified of contracting syphilis.61 Perhaps Hitler was following his role model Schönerer, who recommended that male members of the pan-Germanic movement remain celibate until they were 25. “Nothing is more beneficial to young people than extended celibacy,” Schönerer argued. “It trains every muscle, makes the eyes gleam, quickens the wits, refreshes the memory, inspires the imagination and fortifies the will. With this feeling of strength, one sees the world, as it were, through a colourful prism.”62 If Hitler stuck to such a vow of celibacy, which seems likely, he would have still been a virgin when he left Vienna at the age of 24.63
We can only speculate about the consequences of Hitler’s dormant sex life. Perhaps it was connected to his aversion, recognisable from a young age, to physical contact with others and his idealised views of women such as we encountered in his silent love for Stefanie in Linz. Possibly it was one cause of the short-temperedness from which Kubizek had suffered so much during their time together. But many men and women at the turn of the century suffered from nervousness—or as doctors fashionably called it, “neurasthenia.” This had less to do with repressed sexuality than with the enormous acceleration of every aspect of daily life thanks to modern means of transport and communication.64
The business partners Hanisch and Hitler soon quarrelled. To keep both their heads above water, Hitler had to paint a postcard a day. But sometimes he preferred to read the newspaper or take part in political discussions in the reading room. He needed to be in the “proper mood for artistic creation,” Hitler said whenever Hanisch nagged him to get on with his painting.65 Hanisch also resented the fact that Hitler increasingly befriended another resident of the men’s home, a 31-year-old copper-polisher from a Jewish family named Josef Neumann, who peddled wares of various sorts. Neumann also sold Hitler’s paintings, putting him in direct competition with Hanisch. In June 1910, Hitler disappeared with Neumann from the men’s home, only to return five days later.66 Quite possibly the two men had tried to establish an economic existence elsewhere. If so, the plan had quickly failed and, in July, Neumann informed the authorities that he was leaving Vienna. Hitler was forced to depend on Hanisch.
Nonetheless, the two fell out for good a few weeks later. Hitler accused Hanisch of cheating him out of the price of two paintings, and an acquaintance of his from the men’s home officially filed charges against Hanisch. On 5 August 1910, Hitler testified at the Brigittenau police station that “For roughly two weeks, Hanisch has not returned to the men’s home, taking with him a painting by me entitled ‘Parliament,’ which was worth 50 crowns, and a watercolour worth 9 crowns.”67 Hanisch was given seven days in jail, in part because he had registered in another men’s home in mid-July under a false name. From that point on, Hitler sold his paintings himself, primarily doing business with two Jewish owners of picture-framing and art shops, Jakob Altenberg and Samuel Morgenstern. They paid so well that Hitler was finally able to stand on his own two feet.68
In late March 1911, Hitler’s aunt Johanna died, and the family learned that he had received large sums of money from her. Angela Raubal, whose husband had died the previous year and who was now forced to support not only her own three children but also Hitler’s sister on a widow’s pension, took the chance to claim the entirety of the orphans’ benefit, which had previously been split between Adolf and Paula. In early May, Hitler was summoned at the behest of the district court in Linz to appear before the Leopoldstadt district court in Vienna. There he declared that he was able to support himself and agreed that the entire orphans’ pension should be given to his sister.69 This statement is one of the few documents we have concerning Hitler in 1911 and 1912. He then reappears in 1913, in an account by a man named Karl Honisch who lived in the men’s home for a few months and wrote extensively about his time there for the NSDAP main archive in 1939.70
In this account, Hitler seemed strangely frozen in time. Honisch described him sitting at his familiar working spot in the window arch of the writing room: “Slight of build, with drawn cheeks and a dark shock of hair that kept falling down his forehead, dressed in a worn-out dark suit, he worked diligently from early in the morning until late afternoon.”71 No one even thought of occupying Hitler’s customary spot. He had become something of a fixture in the men’s home, respected and even admired by the others for his painting skills. “We were proud to have an artist among our ranks,” recalled Honisch, who in 1939 was of course at pains to present Hitler in a positive light.72 Hitler was a “friendly and likeable fellow” who “showed an interest in the travails of all the others” while taking care “not to get too close to anyone.” For that reason, the others were careful not to take “liberties.”73
Hitler, as Honisch presented it, rarely revealed much of himself. When he did, it was because the discussion turned to politics, and he felt compelled to take a stand within the small circle of “intelligentsia” in the men’s home. “On such occasions he would stand up, toss his brush or pencil across the table and state his views with a fiery temperament, not shying away from strong expressions,” Honisch recalled. “His eyes flashed, and he would jerk his head back to keep the shock of hair out of his forehead.” At the end of such outbursts, Hitler would suddenly fall silent and sit back down at his easel with a resigned gesture, “as if to say, ‘What a shame that I wasted my words on you since you don’t understand them.’ ”74 Hitler was particularly prone to anger when the talk was of “the Reds and the Jesuits”—Social Democrats and Catholics. Honisch did not recall Hitler making any anti-Semitic statements, however. So what was his attitude towards Jews at this point?
Hitler was no anti-Semite when he arrived in Vienna. The recollections of Dr. Bloch are more plausible on this score than those of Kubizek, who claimed that Hitler had held anti-Semitic opinions even back in Linz.75 In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself wrote that he was first converted to Jew-hatred in Vienna: “At that time, I underwent the greatest internal upheaval I have ever experienced. I went from cosmopolitan weakling to fanatic anti-Semite.”76 Most of Hitler’s biographers have taken this statement at face value, for it seems plausible that Hitler’s obsession with Jews was a compensatory mechanism for his failure as an artist. Joachim Fest, for instance, writes that “his previously vagabond hatred…had finally found an object.”77 But the historian Brigitte Hamann has shown that Hitler’s account was just one of the many legends with which the demagogue, writing in the early 1920s, tried to suggest that his world view had developed in a straight line. Hitler did not experience an anti-Semitic epiphany in Vienna. The reality is far murkier than historians have traditionally assumed.78
One thing is certain: Hitler would not have been able to avoid contact with anti-Jewish movements during his Vienna years. The Austrian capital in the early twentieth century was a major stomping ground for anti-Semites. In particular, the immigration of Jews from eastern Europe had given rise to fears that Vienna was being “Jewified,” and the successes enjoyed by some of these immigrants, who knew the value of education and worked hard to climb the social ladder, elicited envy and resentment among many native Viennese.79 Numerous politicians played on anti-Semitic sentiments. Hitler’s idol Schönerer combined his fight on behalf of “Germanity” with a racial anti-Semitism previously unknown in Austria. Lueger, too, was not above employing slogans like “Greater Vienna must not become Greater Jerusalem” or pillorying the “Jewish press.”80 It would have been unusual if such sentiments had no influence whatsoever on the young Hitler.
Fin-de-siècle Vienna was fertile ground for crass racist theories. Pan-Germanic newspapers and pamphlets discussed the obscure teachings of Guido von List, who divided humanity into Aryan “masters” and the non-Aryan “herd,” as well as the fantasies about racist breeding put forward by List’s disciple Joseph Adolf (Jörg) Lanz von Liebenfels. In 1906, Lanz founded Ostara, “the first and only journal devoted to the researching and cultivation of the master race and its dominance.”81 Hitler read the Alldeutsches Tageblatt (Pan-German Daily), whose offices were located not far from Stumpergasse, and it is likely that he was also acquainted with Ostara. But although Lanz later claimed to have “given Hitler his ideas,” we do not know what sort of influence the journal may have had on the future dictator.82 Without doubt, part of the poisoned legacy of Hitler’s Vienna years was that, in the course of his autodidactic studies, he was introduced to the broad repertoire of anti-Semitic clichés and prejudices popular among local nationalists and racists. But this doesn’t mean that he already identified with them.
On the contrary, Hitler had no problems in his day-to-day interactions with the Jewish residents of the men’s home, and he even maintained something approaching a friendship with Neumann. “Neumann was a good-hearted fellow who liked Hitler a lot and whom Hitler greatly respected,” recalled Hanisch.83 Among Hitler’s Jewish acquaintances in the men’s home were the locksmith’s assistant Simon Robinson, who occasionally gave Hitler small sums of money, and the salesman Siegfried Löffner, who helped Hitler peddle his postcards. The fact that Hitler sold his pictures to Jewish merchants also argues against the notion that he already felt a strong antipathy towards Jews. Hanisch was probably being truthful when he asserted: “Hitler was by no means a Jew-hater in those days—that came later.”84 This statement is backed up by the recollection of an anonymous man from Brünn who resided at the home in early 1912: “Hitler got along well with Jews. Once he said that they were a clever people who stuck together better than the Germans.”85
At the same time, Hitler’s statements about Jews, as quoted by Hanisch, were very contradictory. On the one hand, he praised Jews for being the first civilised nation because they had done away with polytheism in favour of belief in a single god. He also praised charitable Jewish organisations in Vienna, from which he as a pauper had personally benefited, dismissed anti-Semitic claims that Jews carried out ritual murder, and defended the cultural achievements of Jews like the poet Heinrich Heine and the composer Gustav Mahler. On the other hand, he once supposedly answered the question of why Jews always remained foreigners in whatever nation they lived by saying that they were “a race unto themselves.” He also occasionally remarked that Jews “smelled different.”86 Thus Hitler seems to have shared some of the anti-Semitic prejudices and clichés that abounded in German nationalist circles, but he was a long way away from the paranoid Jew-hatred that would become the centrepiece of his political activity. By no means did he have a “closed world view” or strict anti-Semitic convictions, so contrary to what his first biographer Konrad Heiden concluded, Hitler—or at least the public persona of “Hitler”—was anything but a finished product by the end of his Vienna years.87 He would have to have further dramatic, life-changing experiences before he became an obsessive anti-Semitic demagogue lecturing in Munich’s beer halls.
Hitler did not attract any attention with radical views in the coffee house he began to frequent in his final weeks in Vienna. On the contrary, the owner, Maria Wohlrab, later described him as a serious, introverted young man who read a lot and did not say much. Occasionally a woman came with him, and on his last visit, she was quoted as saying, “Dolfi, go to Germany.”88 It is doubtful that, thirty years after the fact, Wohlrab was able to remember her reticent customer quite as well as she made out, but Hitler had talked in the men’s home about his desire to emigrate to Germany. He found Munich, the Bavarian capital, particularly alluring. There, he thought, he would be able to develop his artistic talent better than in Vienna, and he was attracted by the city’s galleries with their impressive art collections. But first he had to wait for his twenty-fourth birthday on 20 April 1913 so he could claim his paternal inheritance. The original sum of 652 crowns in 1903 had grown into 819 crowns, 98 hellers—a sizeable amount of money indeed. The district court in Linz paid it out to Hitler on 16 May.89
Hitler spent the days that followed busily preparing for his move. He bought new clothes and told the authorities in Vienna that he was leaving the city. On 25 May he was on a train to Munich. Travelling with him was a 20-year-old apprentice pharmacist named Rudolf Häusler, who had moved into the men’s home in February 1913. The two probably became close because Häusler’s biography recalled Hitler’s own. Häusler came from a well-situated Viennese family, but had got thrown out of school for playing a youthful prank, whereupon his strict father had banned him from the family home. Hitler, who was four years older, had taken him under his wing, introduced him to the world of Wagner’s operas and persuaded him to come along to Munich. As he had previously done for Kubizek, Hitler had convinced Häusler’s mother Ida, who remained devoted to her son, to let him go.90 Upon arriving in Munich, Hitler and Häusler rented a small room in the fourth-floor apartment of the tailor Joseph Popp on Schleissheimerstrasse 34, on the edge of the bohemian Schwabing district. When he registered himself with the residence authorities on 29 May 1913, Hitler listed his occupation as “artistic painter.” Under the rubric “expected length of stay,” he wrote “2 years.”91 The new arrival thus intended to remain in Munich for the foreseeable future.
Looking back in 1924 on his time before the First World War, Hitler positively gushed about Munich.92 Many aspects of the Bavarian capital could hardly fail to appeal to the young man. By the start of the twentieth century, Munich had become known as the “Athens on the Isar River,” a major cultural metropolis that attracted growing numbers of painters, sculptors and writers.93 Hitler was not interested at all in the avant-garde of the Blaue Reiter school around Vassily Kandinsky, but he was drawn to the Alte Pinothek with its collection of old masters, the Neue Pinothek, which contained the private collection of Ludwig I of Bavaria, and the Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack collection, which included works by Hitler’s favourite Böcklin, Anselm Feuerbach, Carl Spitzweg and the late Romantic Moritz von Schwind.94 He was also impressed by Munich’s imposing architecture and its grand boulevards. In Mein Kampf he rhapsodised about the “magic” of the royal Munich Residenz, “that wonderful marriage of primeval strength and fine artistic sentiment.”95
Hitler apparently also felt quite at home in the bohemian milieu of Schwabing with its vivid mixture of determined artists and eccentric do-gooders. The anarchist writer Erich Mühsam once described Schwabing’s population as “painters, sculptors, poets, models, slackers, philosophers, founders of new religions, revolutionaries, reformers, sexual ethicists, psychoanalysts, musicians, architects, people who do arts and crafts, runaway daughters from respectable families, eternal students, the diligent and the lazy, those hungry for and tired of life, people with bushy locks and dapperly parted hair.”96 Among this cast of eccentrics the introverted, peculiar young Hitler did not stand out, and he could give in to his disinclination towards regular working hours and his fondness for daydreaming. Like many of the regulars at Café Stefanie, nicknamed Café Megalomania, Hitler believed he had a higher calling without knowing precisely what it was or how it could be achieved.
In one of his later monologues, Hitler talked about what he called his “decision to keep working as an autodidact”: “I went to Munich with joy in my heart. I intended to keep learning for three more years and then, when I turned 28, to become a draughtsman at Heilmann and Littmann [a major construction company]. I would have taken part in the first competition, and I told myself that, then, people would see that this fellow had talent.”97 In reality, Hitler did nothing concrete in Munich to prepare himself for a career as an architectural draughtsman. Instead, he continued to pursue his chosen lifestyle. Every two or three days he would paint a picture. As had been the case in Vienna, these were mostly copies of postcards featuring famous city landmarks—the Hofbräuhaus, the Feldherrnhalle, the Frauenkirche, the Alte Hof or the Theathinerkirche. He would then try to sell his works in shops and beer gardens.
The Munich doctor Hans Schirmer recalled that one evening in the Hofbräuhaus garden, a “modest-looking young man who seemed to have been through a lot” approached his table and tried to sell him an oil painting. Schirmer did not have enough money on him, so he asked Hitler to come to his apartment the next day, where he ordered two further works, which Hitler promptly delivered. “I concluded that this man had to work very hard in order to earn money for the basic necessities,” Schirmer remembered.98 Gradually, Hitler built up a set of loyal customers, from whom he could earn a reasonable living.
But on 18 January 1914, Hitler was abruptly ripped from his cosy, bohemian existence. An officer from the Munich criminal police appeared at the Schleissheimerstrasse apartment and handed Hitler a letter from the magistrate’s office in Linz ordering him to appear in two days’ time for military examination.99 As someone born in 1889, Hitler should have registered for the draft in the late autumn of 1909 and submitted to an examination in the spring of 1910, but he had done neither. One likely reason why Hitler left Vienna was to avoid these duties. “Illegally absent because whereabouts unknown,” read his file in Linz. Since August 1913, police there had been trying to track Hitler down, and in mid-January 1914 they succeeded. On 19 January, he was taken to the Austro-Hungarian general consulate in Munich. Only now did Hitler realise that he was in serious trouble: refusing to appear for the draft carried a penalty of four weeks to one year of imprisonment and a fine of 2,000 crowns.
Hitler must have got a nasty shock. On 21 January, he wrote a letter justifying his behaviour. It was three and a half pages, quite long by Hitler’s standards, and represents the most extensive surviving sample of his early handwriting.100 In it, he admitted to not registering in Linz in 1909, but claimed that he had done so in Vienna in February 1910 but had never heard anything further from the authorities. That laid the blame on bureaucratic negligence: it had “never occurred to him” to attempt to evade military service. He also tried to win over the magistrate in Linz with an extensive and sometimes exaggerated description of his years of privation in Vienna:
Despite great desperation, amidst often more than dubious company, I kept my name respectable and remained entirely guiltless in the eyes of the law and untroubled by my own conscience except for my failure to register for military service, which I was not even aware of. That is all I feel responsible for. I would ask to be allowed to pay a small sum of money to atone for this and declare myself willing to do so.
Hitler also asked to be examined in Salzburg, which was closer to Munich, rather than Linz. The general consulate passed on Hitler’s letter to the Linz magistrate, noting that it was “well worth taking into consideration,” and Hitler got what he wanted. On 5 February 1914, he was given a military examination in Salzburg and was deemed “unsuitable for combat and support duty, too weak, incapable of firing weapons.”101 Hitler was then allowed to return to Munich.
Häusler had moved out of their shared room when Hitler was away. In all likelihood, he could no longer bear living in such close confines with a room-mate who read until the early hours and liked to hold forth. But Hitler seems to have had little difficulty paying the entire rent on his own. He continued to frequent the cafés of Schwabing, although he did not make any close friends. Nor did he establish contact with any of the local chapters of ultranationalist organisations like the Pan-Germanic League, which was the largest of its kind in Wilhelmine Germany and had an influential spokesman in the publisher Julius F. Lehmann. His landlady characterised Hitler as a reticent young man who had secluded himself in his room “like a hermit” and refused all invitations to eat dinner together, saying that he had to work.102
Hitler’s lack of social contact was the external symptom of a deep inner uncertainty. Having spent a year in Munich, he had to admit that he had made no progress and that his precarious existence as “artistic painter” did not offer many prospects for the future. But out of nowhere the beginning of the First World War in early August 1914 would release him from his frustrating lack of prospects.