Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna, Part 3:
Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist
Hitler is awake all the 24 hours of the day in perfecting his sadhana [self-transcendence]. He wins because he pays the price. His inventions surprise his enemies. But it is his single-minded devotion to his purpose that should be the object of our admiration and emulation. Although he works all his waking hours, his intellect is unclouded and unerring. Are our intellects unclouded and unerring? — Mahatma Gandhi
Hitler’s Vienna really is a parallel dual biography, both of young Hitler and of fin-de-siècle Vienna, highlighting the confirmed and plausible influences of the city on the future Führer. Hamann’s “portrait of the artist as a young man,” delivered with great detail and sensitivity, is largely congruous with what we learn from other sources.
All of the accounts suggest that Hitler, fundamentally, never changed. Again and again there are the same characteristics and habits: an artistic sensibility leading him to outright “intoxication” with painting, cinema, opera, and architecture; an obsession with all these things as well as politics and war; an unquenchable thirst for knowledge reflected in constant consumption of newspapers, books, and films; a total inability to hold down a “day job” or even to have a healthy daily routine, staying up till four or five in the morning whenever the opportunity arose; the crystallization of his thoughts about these topics by endlessly talking about them to whomever would listen; and an absolute pigheadedness in all these things.
Hitler would engage in this as an unemployed youth in Vienna (reported by Kubizek), as a rising revolutionary leader in Munich (reported by Wagener), and indeed as Reich chancellor in Berlin or Berchtesgaden (reported in the Table Talk). Only in his early days as Reich chancellor, wanting to impress President and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, did Hitler have the discipline to get up early and go to the office. Once the “old gentleman” died, the newly-enthroned Führer went back to his usual habits.
Already in his hometown of Linz in 1905, “young Hitler frequented the regional theater and even outlined plans for its reconstruction” (23). Forty years later:
One of the last photographs of Adolf Hitler depicts him shortly before his suicide as he sits in the bunker of his Chancellery. While the Red Army advanced into the ruins of Berlin outside, he pondered a pompous architectural model of the Upper Austrian provincial capital of Linz, the gigantic buildings illuminated by a sophisticated arrangement of spotlights: Linz in the morning sun, at midday, at sunset glow, and at night. “No matter at what time, whether during the day or at night, whenever he had the opportunity during those weeks, he was sitting in front of this model,” the architect Hermann Giesler reported, saying that Hitler stared at it as if at “a promised land into which we would gain entrance.” (3)
He planned to retire with Eva Braun and his dog Blondi on Mount Frein, just above Linz, saying: “I climbed these rocks when I was young. On this hilltop, looking over the Danube, I day dreamed. This is where I want to live when I’m old” (5-6). Hitler was always Hitler.
Hitler’s youth is then the confrontation between a great decadent city, Vienna — the reflection and foreshadowing of a decadent European civilization — and this man of considerable intelligence, of intense artistic sensibility, and above all of unbelievably stubborn will. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: “Vienna was and remained for me the hardest, though most thorough, school of my life . . . In it I obtained the foundations for a philosophy in general and a political view in particular which later I only needed to supplement in detail, but which never left me” (404). Hamann says Hitler “hated the Viennese way of always yielding and their dull indifference” (403).
Hamann provides a great deal of information and detail on hostile myths about Hitler’s life, as well as about the early development of what we might call “the Hitler method.” Hitler went about systematically educating himself by reading books and newspapers, and by consciously observing various facets of life in the city. He gradually developed the world-view and technique which would spectacularly burst upon the scene of German politics in the 1920s. He would communicate this same world-view by appealing to national feeling, of course, but also by sharing his intoxicating esthetic sensibility.
I am rather struck at how mainstream portrayals of Hitler do not show most of this. We are told he was a demonic lunatic and power-grasping thug/totalitarian mass-murderer of Jews. Fine. But why not also point out that he was a classical-music-loving bookworm and a Bohemian esthete so feckless and restless he would regularly stay up until the wee hours of the morning? Or does that already complicate the official narrative and anti-fascist mythology a bit too much? Perhaps for instance Hitler’s simple statement in Mein Kampf of his revulsion at the prospect of a lifetime of office work would resonate with too many people:
I yawned and grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of a whole life into blanks that had to be filled out.
For my part, I would say Hitler was, if not a philosopher-king, than at least an artist-dictator. (And by “dictator” I mean something of a revolutionary and tribune as well, as opposed to some cloistered absolute monarch or Bolshevik tyrant at war with his own people. The Third Reich’s press chief, Otto Dietrich says this of Hitler’s tireless itinerant preaching: “we must realize that over the years Hitler spoke directly to some 35 million Germans — aside from the many millions who thronged to see him whenever he rode through the streets of towns and villages.” That is almost half the nation’s population. How many of our bourgeois “democratic politicians” of today can claim to such contact with the people?)
Hamann is by no means a Hitler apologist, fairly highlighting his negative traits, stressing his ideology had disastrous implications, and arguing that Mein Kampf is mostly political propaganda rather than reliable autobiography (all the while significantly quoting the book throughout).
Nonetheless, Hamann is appalled by the various anti-Hitler myths that have been peddled by the mainstream historiography and were obviously very fashionable in the postwar years. For instance:
Speculation tracing Hitler’s anti-Semitism back to his rejection by Jewish Academy professors are entirely unfounded: not one of the responsible men during the examination was Jewish. (33)
Speculations to the effect that false, overly expensive, and unnecessarily painful treatment [of his cancer-ridden mother] by the Jewish doctor had triggered Hitler’s hatred are entirely unfounded (36). [Indeed Hitler later helped this doctor as chancellor.]
Hitler is a difficult historical subject because of the constant struggle the glorify or demonize him both during his life and ever since. Hitler had no detectable Czech (42) or Jewish ancestry, however his official genealogist mistakenly included a “Katharina Salomon” among his ancestors:
When [genealogist Karl Friedrich von] Frank’s corrected and extended family tree was published in 1933 — without the name Salomon — this was only viewed as an indication for a deliberate hushup. Soon afterward, writer Konrad Heiden picked up the story about the alleged Jewish grandmother from Pona in his Hitler biography, which was published in Zurich in 1936. The myth became part of the scholarly literature. Yet even though both reporters and genealogists set out to research the matter, nothing ever turned up except for names similar to those of Jewish families. (46)
Hostile papers attempted to use Hitler’s alleged Jewish ancestry and his father’s original “Schicklgruber” last name to influence elections. Numerous people who were related to Hitler (e.g. the Irishman Patrick Hitler) or had some real or imagined relationship with him sought to cash in with biased (glowing or hostile) and unreliable accounts. This is a minefield.
An example of this is provided by Franz Jetzinger’s influential book Hitler’s Youth, which attacks the memoirs of Hitler’s young friend August Kubizek. Hamann argues that Kubizek is actually the more reliable source — with the exception of his accounts of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which he apparently exaggerated to protect himself from the Allies (56). Hamann writes:
Most historians have believed Jetzinger, not Kubizek. For Jetzinger, who was doubtless against Hitler and thus politically correct, deftly knew how to undermine the credibility of Kubizek, “Hitler’s friend,” and to make him politically untenable. And because Kubizek died in 1956, the year in which Jetzinger’s book was published, he could not defend himself.
Above all, two false statements by Jetzinger have had devastating consequences for historiography: one, that Hitler left his mother alone on her deathbed. That was more in line with the political atmosphere than was Kubizek’s statement according to which Hitler had been a caring son — and Hitler’s biographers were eager to accept it. However, Paula Hitler’s and Dr. Bloch’s statements prove unequivocally that Hitler was with his sick mother in Linz and that Kubizek’s statements are true. Via Bradley F. Smith the story about the uncaring, even cruel son entered the American literature on Hitler and inspired the psychiatrist Erich Fromm to his theory that Hitler suffered from “necrophily.” This “migrating mistake” is also common in the German literature on Hitler up to Joachim Fest.
Jetzinger was the originator of yet another widespread myth by claiming that in reality Hitler was not poor, as he posited in Mein Kampf and as Kubizek confirmed, but was well to do. In order to corroborate this theory, he calculated the family income too highly and erroneously claimed that the paternal inheritance of 652 kronen was distributed after Hitler turned eighteen. [. . .]
Furthermore, without offering any proof, Jetzinger claimed that Johanna Pözl [a relative of Hitler’s] had had savings account worth some 3,800 kronen, which Hitler received. [. . .]
This threadbare claim, made mainly in order to accuse Kubizek of lying, was the foundation on which Werner Maser built his study of Hitler. [. . .] Still, without offering any proof, Maser posited as a fact that Hitler received “very high amounts” from this inheritance, which made him “an utterly well-to-do man.” Thus the myth of a prosperous young Hitler was bandied about as an alleged historical fact. (57-59)
Eduard Bloch, the Jewish doctor who took care of Hitler’s terminally ill mother, would later write: “In all my career I have never seen anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler” (35). Bloch’s recollections more generally present a favorable picture of young Hitler.
Hamann also highlights a certain Josef Greiner, who wrote an idolatrous pro-Hitler book in 1938 and an obscenely defamatory one in 1947, hoping both times to profit from his imagined relationship with Hitler (193). Hamann writes:
[T]hose alleged facts about Hitler that originated in Greiner are false. For fifty years they have been readily accepted and repeated in the literature on Hitler, usually without reference to Greiner. Future biographers of Hitler will first painstakingly and carefully have to “cleanse” the extant literature of Greiner to get to a more realistic and genuine picture. This fact also invalidates all those theories that build on Greiner’s book, including the most famous one about Hitler’s alleged infection with syphilis from a Jewish prostitute. (197)
Hamann by no means exonerates Hitler as a myth-builder concerning his own past. She argues that Hitler’s story in Mein Kampf of having been a construction worker was a false or at least massively embellished one (she believes the construction work of that era would have been too strenuous for the young Bohemian). Hitler however liked to tell the tale to better identify himself with the workers and for the esthetic, psychological, and political effects of this imagery (144).
Hitler as Youth
Inevitably, a man’s anonymous youth tends to be rather poorly documented and blurry. Apparently little Adolf was quite playful and indeed a bit of a prankster, contrasting with his later shyness and seriousness. Much is quite congruous however. One schoolmate recalled: “Playing war, always nothing but playing war, even we kids found that boring after a while, but he always found some children, particularly among the younger ones, who would play with him” (9).
The Linz of Hitler’s youth was more concerned with “Czechization” through immigration than with Jews. Apparently Hitler was born very high on the ethnocentricity scale, being instinctively a German nationalist from a very young age. In Mein Kampf, Hitler recounts that the student body of his school was torn between the German ethno-nationalism of many pupils and the official dynastic/Catholic “patriotism” of the Austro-Hungarian state. Thus the students would enrage their teachers by referring to Austria as “Südmark,” singing “Deutschland Über Alles” and “Watch on the Rhine,” using the German colors (red-black-gold), commemorating the Prussian victory over the French at Sedan, and so on. Hitler would troll his teachers by, among other things, arranging crayons in German national colors. Thus, unlike the Reich Germans, Hitler claimed that at 15 he already knew the difference between dynastic (or state) patriotism and folkish (or ethnic) nationalism. He sided with the Boers against England during the South African war.
Some of Hitler’s other traits were also already apparent. Both father and son were extremely stubborn and willful, leading to vicious conflict (beatings) when they disagreed. A schoolmate recalled that already “Adolf liked to read” (10). Hitler later commented on the already-reigning nihilism in his teen years: “I no longer believed anything, certainly none of my friends still believed in the so-called communion” (19). Hamann writes that after his father’s death, “He spent his days taking walks, with nightly entertainments, reading, and drawing. [ . . .] During that time the young man began to devour newspapers” (21). Hitler loved his mother very dearly up to and beyond her death.
“It Began That Hour”: Hitler & Art
A recurring theme in Hamann’s book is young Hitler’s relationship with art, which she demonstrates had a powerful influence as an integral part of his politics. He came to Vienna with the ambition of becoming “a great artist” (38). No doubt he did not expect to become a mere “hunger artist,” overcoming his shyness to peddle cheap postcards and paintings to strangers.
Hitler’s interest in art was an obsession throughout his life. “Intoxicated” is perhaps the word most used to describe the effect of music and architecture upon him. Another example: “From April 1943 to March 1944 alone Hitler purchased 881 works of art, among them 395 Dutch pieces from the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries” (5).
Kubizek reported that in 1905 teenage Hitler was in a “totally transported state” following a rendition of Richard Wagner’s Rienzi. Into the morning he spoke: “In grand, infectious images he outlined to me the future of the German people” (24). Wagner described his story of the people’s tribune as one of an “extreme enthusiast who like a flashing beam of light appeared among a people that had sunk low and was degenerated but which he believed he was called upon to enlighten and lift up high.” Hitler as Reich chancellor met again with Kubizek in 1939, reportedly telling him of that rendition of Rienzi: “It began that hour” (53). The overture to Rienzi would be the Third Reich’s unofficial anthem, often opening Party gatherings.
Upon moving to Vienna, Hitler would frequently attend the opera, seeing every Wagner, including Lohengrin and Meistersinger at least ten times (62). Kubizek reports:
To him [Hitler], listening to Wagner was not what one called going to the theater, but a chance to transport himself into that extraordinary state which he reached while listening to Richard Wagner’s music, that self-forgetfulness, that soaring up into a mystical dreamland which he needed in order to bear the tremendous tensions in his volatile character. (62)
Kubizek goes on to say that Hitler systematically read Wagner’s work and biography “with a feverish heart” and “with incredible tenacity and determination . . . as if he could become part of his own being,” learning music and writings by heart (62). Hamann says Hitler “lived extremely frugally” (63), often having to return home before the closure of operas so as to not be locked out of his apartment block and thus having to pay the warden an extra fee. He would have Kubizek play the finale on the piano.
Hitler systematically learned stage technique:
Hitler gained that knowledge with which he later astonished experts. Many a theater director was surprised at Hitler’s “interest for revolving stages’ diameter, trap door mechanisms, and particularly for the various lighting techniques. He knew all the electric control systems and was able to elaborate in detail on the right lighting for certain scenes.” According to Albert Speer, even when he was Reich chancellor, Hitler still made stage-design drawings for Wagner operas and suggested them to his favorite stage manager, Benno von Arendt. These had been “cleanly executed” sketches, “colored with coloring pencils,” for all the acts of Tristan and Isolde, and at another time sketches for every scene in Ring of the Nibelungs. “Full of satisfaction, Hitler had related at the dinner table how he had “sat over them for three weeks, night after night,” during a period in which he had a particularly full appointment calendar.” (67)
Hamann argues this clearly had an influence on Hitler’s famous political rallies, communicating this same exalted feeling to the Party faithful:
The knowledge he gained in Vienna later clearly influenced the stage-productionlike Nuremberg party conventions and the most varied celebrations and hours of commemoration. Speer’s “domes of light” were to continue Roller’s “direction of light.” The sea of red flags, the marching up during the roll of drums and music by Wagner, preferably in darkness when it is easier to put an audience in a solemn, emotionally charged mood: all this was as if in a perfectly staged Wagner opera, with the Reich chancellor’s entrance and speech as the big climax. (67-68)
Hitler loved Anton Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony and had it played at his parents’ tomb. He had been “very moved” by Faust II (75) but had no appreciation for Ibsen. Unlike Schopenhauer, Hitler was more interested in opera than other forms of music. He mostly stuck with German composers, with the exception of Franz Liszt and Edvard Grieg, but was not enamored with Mozart or Beethoven. He would see, and approve of, the Jewish composer Gustav Mahler’s abridged rendition of Tristan (27). He loved Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, popular in Austria following its premiere in 1905, and would still frequently listen to it in 1943 and 1944.
Hitler’s penchant for artistic “intoxication” and spontaneous spurts of enthusiasm is evident from his sometimes clumsy still-born projects. He dictated to Kubizek a musical composition, bearing in mind he could not read music, producing apparently a rather flawed work. He was too lazy to learn to play piano. He drew up grandiose plans for a traveling opera troupe which would play in churches: “A symphony concert is a sacred hour, so the church’s sacred character is not tainted in any way” (80). Monetary cost and other practical concerns were of no import to Hitler whatsoever and he had (Kubizek says) “such power of conviction in speech and presentation that no doubts whatever could arise” (80). Young Hitler on occasion could summon remarkable powers of persuasion, as when he would convince the parents of Kubizek or Rudolf Häusler to go along with his rather unpredictable plans (e.g. moving to Vienna, to Munich).
Hitler’s other great obsession was architecture, carefully studying Vienna’s great Ring Boulevard, particularly loving Gottfriend Semper’s Burgtheater, the Vienna Court Opera, and the Parliament building, calling the latter “A Hellenic miracle on German soil” (69). He liked to tell the story of how the architects had Eduard van der Nüll and August Siccard von Siccardsburg had been mistreated and died prematurely. Hamann writes:
Kubizek reports that Hitler would “get downright intoxicated” with these buildings, which he studied in detail: “Often he [Hitler] could look at such a building for hours, memorizing even totally minor details.” “At home he would then make drawings for me of the ground plans or the longitudinal sections, or he tried to tackle some interesting detail. He borrowed tomes that taught him about the history of the individual buildings . . . I was astonished at how well-informed he was about side gates, staircases, even about little-known doorways and back entrances . . . Thus the Ring Boulevard became a living object of study to him where he could gauge his architectural knowledge and demonstrate his views.”
According to Kubizek, nineteen-year-old Hitler surrounded himself “increasingly with technical literature,” in particular with a volume on the history of architecture. He enjoyed “randomly opening up an illustrated page, covering the explanation underneath with his hand and telling me by heart what the illustration depicted, for example, the Cathedral of Chartres or the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. His memory was downright remarkable,” as was his diligence: “One time Adolf would sit over his books for hours, another time he would write until the middle of the night, and yet another time the grand piano, the table, his bed and mine, even the whole floor, were covered with drawings.” According to Kubizek, his friend never designed “secular buildings or plants . . . His imagination was always floating on higher plans, and when he made designs he never gave a thought to costs.” (70-71)
Hitler also learned about the Heldenplatz and Heldentor, and later “diligently studied [Munich’s] architectural history [. . .] for years” (395). Architects like Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler would later confirm Hitler’s knowledge in this area. His interest was highly selective, discarding that which did not resonate with him or serve his purposes (his tastes seem to have been almost invariably neoclassical and/or romantic).
Beauty as Religion: Hitler as Political Artist
Hitler’s belief in the sacredness of high art cannot be emphasized enough. For Hitler, the exaltation of contemplating beauty was very much associated with the solemnity of a kind of a religion. This esthetic appeal was central to converting society to a new world-view and to then enforcing this as something sacred. Hitler incidentally was highly disturbed by lack of cleanliness and unhygienic conditions in general.
Thus, to play a symphony in a church was appropriate. And whereas Hitler disliked Christian ethics and superstition, he believed the spiritual effects of the church were positive (8). Nuremberg was to become “a sacred place of pilgrimage” for National Socialism (110). The regalia of the old Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation were moved there, emphasizing Germany’s historical continuity. Hitler planned to found a “Greater Germanic Empire of the German Nation” (which sounds less redundant in German: “Großgermanisches Reich Deutscher Nation”), declaring kinship with other Germanic nations, lineage from the old Aryan conquerors (the Indo-Europeans being often called Indo-Germanics in German), and symmetry with the “First Reich.”
Hamann writes that Hitler carefully cultivated and trained himself:
To these deliberately developed skills [oratory and hypnosis] must have been added a considerable degree of autosuggestion, a fanatical belief in himself — plus a perfect, painstakingly practiced way of staging himself within a theatrical set with all the theater magic available, light effects and music, flags and torches, and all of this underscored by and enveloped in a mood of religious solemnity. This must have added up to the impression of Hitler as a man of suggestive power — the German people’s savior. (404)
Music and architecture were obviously also an integral part of this. Hitler praised the Ring Boulevard in a 1929 speech for
giving the monarchy, which even at that time already was torn apart by destructive forces, a central force, a force of attraction, in a large, outstanding, magnificent center . . . The little man who arrives in the big city, who arrives in the imperial capital, he shall have a sense of that’s where the king, the sovereign, lives. (69)
Hitler’s later friend Reinhold Hanisch reported: “For Wagner he had great enthusiasm, and said sometimes that opera is really the best divine service” (169). Despite his contempt for “crowned ciphers,” Hitler recognized that monarchy had been useful as “Mankind needs an idol” (93).
The civil-religious aspects of National Socialism to some extent went beyond Hitler’s will, as a natural consequence of his successful revolution. His father’s unidentifiable old homes in Waldviertel became “places of pilgrimage” even though, unlike Linz, he did not promote this area (48). Hitler always had faith in science. Despite quite self-consciously founding a new civil religion, he was also witheringly hostile towards Alfred Rosenberg’s suggestion of creating an official National Socialist religion and towards Heinrich Himmler’s Aryan mysticism.
Hitler appears to have imprinted the norms of his youthful Austria-Hungary, particularly the German nationalist subculture, and then sought to spread and crystallize this as the civil-religion of all Germany. Incidentally, all of the political groups in Vienna had similarities with religious sects: forming their own societies and sports clubs, peddling their own literature and narratives, proselytizing and providing solace among lost souls looking for relief and explanation for their sorrow.
Hitler would later say in his private Table Talk (my emphasis):
It’s an immense relief for a man whose business is to breathe life into a movement not to have to bother about affairs of administration. I appreciate the privilege that has been mine, throughout my existence, to meet men who had the liking for responsibilities and the talent necessary to accomplish independently the work that was entrusted to them. (February 22, 1942)
In any case, I don’t believe there’s any sense in teaching men anything, in a general way, beyond what they need to know. One overloads them without interesting either them or anybody else. It’s better to awaken men’s instinct for beauty. That was what the Greeks considered the essential thing. Today people persist in cramming children with a host of unrelated ideas. (March 3, 1942)
Hitler would call his Austrian homeland’s reunification with the German Reich “the greatest accomplishment of my life.” Hamann writes of Hitler’s speech celebrating the Anschluss:
He played the piano of historic symbolism like a virtuoso, using history to legitimize his rule and enthralling many Austrians conscious of their German connection. Very deliberately he stylized Emperor Franz Josef II, the Liberation Wars, 1848, and Bismarck into his predecessors, and himself into the one who was “fulfilling” German-national longings. (115)
1. Mahatma Gandhi, Collected Works (New Delhi: Government of India, 1999), volume 78, 349.
2. Adolf Hitler (Manheim translation), Mein Kampf (London: Hutchison, 1969), 8.
3. Otto Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew: The Memoirs of the Third Reich’s Press Chief (New York: Skyhorse, 2010), 9.
4. Perhaps the same is true of Hitler’s claim of having kept Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in his knapsack throughout the First World War. The blinding insight of Schopenhauer’s laconic aphorisms no doubt powerfully inspired Hitler, but one wonders what use he would have had the many hundreds of pages of epistemological discussion and metaphysical speculation. Guillaume Durocher, “Schopenhauer & Hitler,” North American New Right, March 9, 2016. https://counter-currents.com/2016/03/schopenhauer-and-hitler/
5. Contra Richard Dawkins, a predisposition towards a kind of religious sentiment and unthinking reverence towards certain icons is clearly an in-born human trait. This is most obvious in the innumerable self-consciously non- or anti-religious political revolutions who nonetheless acquired quasi-religious characteristics: the American Revolution culminated with the “apotheosis” of George Washington and reverence for sacred documents, the French Revolution in the “Cult of Reason,” and the Bolshevik Revolution in Lenin’s mummification, that atheist’s corpse still preserved to this day as a sacred relic.
6. This hostility to schools’ cramming pointless information and factoids into people’s heads was one of Hitler’s most recurring grievances.
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