How Adolf Hitler’s Early Life Shaped a Tyrant: The Untold Story

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Start of World War II

Boundaries of the Nazi-planned Greater Germanic Reich

In private discussions in 1939, Hitler declared Britain the primary enemy to be defeated and viewed Poland’s destruction as essential to this goal. Securing the eastern flank and expanding Germany’s Lebensraum were key objectives. Offended by Britain’s guarantee of Polish independence on 31 March 1939, Hitler declared he would make the British regret their decision. On 1 April, during a speech in Wilhelmshaven at the launch of the battleship Tirpitz, he threatened to denounce the Anglo-German Naval Agreement if Britain continued to guarantee Polish independence, perceiving this as a policy of encirclement. Poland was to either become a German satellite state or be neutralized to secure Germany’s eastern flank and prevent a British blockade.

Hitler initially preferred the idea of a satellite state, but after the Polish government rejected this, he decided to invade Poland, making it his main foreign policy objective for 1939. On 3 April, he ordered the military to prepare for Fall Weiss (“Case White”), the plan to invade Poland on 25 August. In a Reichstag speech on 28 April, he renounced both the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. Historians like William Carr, Gerhard Weinberg, and Ian Kershaw suggest that one reason for Hitler’s rush to war was his fear of an early death. He believed he needed to lead Germany into war before he became too old, fearing his successors might lack his determination.

Hitler was concerned that attacking Poland could provoke a premature war with Britain. His foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, assured him that neither Britain nor France would honor their commitments to Poland. Consequently, on 22 August 1939, Hitler ordered military mobilization against Poland. This plan required tacit Soviet support, and the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) included a secret agreement to partition Poland between the two countries. Contrary to Ribbentrop’s prediction, Britain and Poland signed the Anglo-Polish alliance on 25 August. This, along with Italy’s announcement that it would not honor the Pact of Steel, prompted Hitler to postpone the attack on Poland to 1 September. Hitler attempted to maneuver the British into neutrality by offering a non-aggression guarantee, which they rejected. He then instructed Ribbentrop to present a last-minute peace plan with an impossibly short time limit to blame the impending war on British and Polish inaction.

Hitler reviews troops on the march during the campaign against Poland (September 1939).
Scherl Bilderdienst:
Aus dem Film “Feldzug in Polen”.
UBz: eine der packendsten Szenen; deutsche Soldaten, die während ihres Vormarsches am Führer vorüberziehen.
4.2.1940 [Herausgabedatum]

On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded western Poland, claiming they were denied rights to the Free City of Danzig and extraterritorial roads across the Polish Corridor, which Germany had ceded under the Versailles Treaty. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September, surprising Hitler and prompting him to ask Ribbentrop, “Now what?” France and Britain did not immediately act on their declarations, and on 17 September, Soviet forces invaded eastern Poland.

The fall of Poland led to what journalists called the “Phoney War” or Sitzkrieg (“sitting war”). Hitler instructed the Gauleiters of northwestern Poland, Albert Forster of Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia and Arthur Greiser of Reichsgau Wartheland, to Germanize their areas, with “no questions asked” about how this was accomplished. Forster allowed ethnic Poles to sign forms claiming German blood, while Greiser, aligning with Himmler, pursued an ethnic cleansing campaign. Greiser soon complained that Forster’s leniency threatened German “racial purity.” Hitler’s inaction in this dispute exemplifies the “working towards the Führer” theory, where subordinates independently developed policies based on vague directives.

A dispute arose between Heinrich Himmler and Greiser, who favored ethnic cleansing in Poland, and Hermann Göring and Hans Frank (Governor-General of occupied Poland), who wanted to turn Poland into the “granary” of the Reich. On 12 February 1940, the dispute was initially settled in favor of the Göring-Frank view, ending mass expulsions. However, on 15 May 1940, Himmler issued a memo advocating the expulsion of Europe’s entire Jewish population to Africa and reducing the Polish population to a “leaderless class of laborers.” Hitler endorsed Himmler’s memo, implementing the Himmler-Greiser policy in Poland.

Hitler visited Paris with architect Albert Speer (left) and sculptor Arno Breker (right), on 23 June 1940.

On 9 April 1940, German forces invaded Denmark and Norway. Hitler proclaimed the birth of the Greater Germanic Reich, envisioning a united empire of Germanic nations under German leadership. In May 1940, Germany attacked France and conquered Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium. These victories led Mussolini to join forces with Hitler on 10 June. France and Germany signed an armistice on 22 June. Hitler’s popularity within Germany peaked after his swift victories, and he promoted twelve generals to field marshal during the 1940 Field Marshal Ceremony.

Britain, forced to evacuate France from Dunkirk, continued fighting alongside its dominions in the Battle of the Atlantic. Hitler made peace overtures to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which were rejected. He then ordered aerial attacks on Royal Air Force airbases and radar stations in southeast England. On 7 September, the systematic bombing of London began. The Luftwaffe failed to defeat the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, and by the end of September, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain. The nightly bombings of British cities continued, including London, Plymouth, and Coventry.

On 27 September 1940, the Tripartite Pact was signed in Berlin by Saburō Kurusu of Imperial Japan, Hitler, and Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano, later joined by Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, forming the Axis powers. Hitler’s attempt to integrate the Soviet Union into the anti-British bloc failed after inconclusive talks with Molotov in Berlin in November, leading him to order preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

In early 1941, German forces were deployed to North Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. In February, German troops arrived in Libya to support the Italian presence. In April, Hitler launched invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece, and in May, German forces supported Iraqi forces against the British and invaded Crete.

Path to Defeat

Hitler announced the declaration of war against the United States to the Reichstag on 11 December 1941

On 22 June 1941, contravening the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, over three million Axis troops launched an offensive against the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. The goal was to destroy the Soviet Union, seize its natural resources, and secure more living space for the German people. Hitler believed a successful invasion would force Britain to negotiate a surrender. The offensive rapidly conquered vast territories, including the Baltic republics, Belarus, and Western Ukraine. By early August, Axis troops had advanced 500 km (310 mi) and secured victory at the Battle of Smolensk. Despite being within 400 km (250 mi) of Moscow, Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to halt and divert its Panzer groups to assist in encircling Leningrad and Kyiv. This decision caused a crisis among his generals and allowed the Red Army to mobilize fresh reserves. Historian Russel Stolfi argues that this pause was a major factor in the failure of the Moscow offensive, which resumed in October 1941 and ended disastrously in December. During this crisis, Hitler appointed himself head of the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH).

On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Hitler declared war on the United States. On 18 December 1941, Heinrich Himmler asked Hitler what to do with the Jews of Russia, to which Hitler replied, “Als Partisanen auszurotten” (“exterminate them as partisans”). Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer considers this remark to be the closest historians will get to a definitive order from Hitler for the Holocaust.

In late 1942, German forces suffered a major defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein, thwarting Hitler’s plans to seize the Suez Canal and the Middle East. Overconfident in his military expertise, Hitler became distrustful of his Army High Command and began to interfere in military and tactical planning, with disastrous results. His repeated refusal to allow withdrawal at the Battle of Stalingrad in December 1942 and January 1943 led to the near-total destruction of the 6th Army, with over 200,000 Axis soldiers killed and 235,000 taken prisoner. This was followed by a decisive defeat at the Battle of Kursk. Hitler’s military judgment became increasingly erratic, leading to deteriorating military and economic conditions for Germany, as well as a decline in his health.

The destroyed map room at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s eastern command post, after the 20 July plot

Following the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, Mussolini was removed from power by King Victor Emmanuel III after a vote of no confidence by the Grand Council of Fascism. Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who took charge of the government, soon surrendered to the Allies. Throughout 1943 and 1944, the Soviet Union steadily pushed Hitler’s armies into retreat along the Eastern Front. On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed in northern France in Operation Overlord, one of the largest amphibious operations in history. Many German officers concluded that defeat was inevitable and that continuing under Hitler’s leadership would result in the complete destruction of Germany.

Between 1939 and 1945, there were numerous plans to assassinate Hitler, with some progressing significantly. The most well-known and significant was the 20 July plot of 1944, driven partly by the increasing prospect of Germany’s defeat. Part of Operation Valkyrie, the plot involved Claus von Stauffenberg planting a bomb in Hitler’s headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair at Rastenburg. Hitler narrowly survived because staff officer Heinz Brandt moved the briefcase containing the bomb behind a leg of the heavy conference table, which deflected much of the blast. Hitler ordered savage reprisals, resulting in the execution of over 4,900 people. According to British academic Dan Plesch, Hitler was placed on the United Nations War Crimes Commission’s first list of war criminals in December 1944, after determining that he could be held criminally responsible for Nazi acts in occupied countries. By March 1945, at least seven indictments had been filed against him.

Defeat and Death

Hitler in his last filmed appearance, honoring Hitler Youth members of the Volkssturm in the Reich Chancellery garden

By late 1944, both the Red Army and the Western Allies were advancing into Germany. Recognizing the strength and determination of the Red Army, Hitler decided to use his remaining mobile reserves against the American and British armies, which he perceived as far weaker. On 16 December, he launched the Ardennes Offensive to incite disunity among the Western Allies and perhaps convince them to join his fight against the Soviets. After some temporary successes, the offensive failed. With much of Germany in ruins in January 1945, Hitler spoke on the radio: “However grave as the crisis may be at this moment, it will, despite everything, be mastered by our unalterable will.” Acting on his view that Germany’s military failures meant it had forfeited its right to survive as a nation, Hitler ordered the destruction of all German industrial infrastructure before it could fall into Allied hands. Minister for Armaments Albert Speer was entrusted with executing this scorched earth policy, but he secretly disobeyed the order. Hitler’s hope to negotiate peace with the United States and Britain was encouraged by the death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 12 April 1945, but contrary to his expectations, this caused no rift among the Allies.

On 20 April, his 56th and final birthday, Hitler made his last trip from the Führerbunker to the surface. In the ruined garden of the Reich Chancellery, he awarded Iron Crosses to boy soldiers of the Hitler Youth, who were now fighting the Red Army at the front near Berlin. By 21 April, Georgy Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front had broken through the defenses of General Gotthard Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula during the Battle of the Seelow Heights and advanced to the outskirts of Berlin. In denial about the dire situation, Hitler placed his hopes on the undermanned and under-equipped Armeeabteilung Steiner (Army Detachment Steiner), commanded by Felix Steiner. Hitler ordered Steiner to attack the northern flank of the salient, while the German Ninth Army was ordered to attack northward in a pincer attack.

During a military conference on 22 April, Hitler inquired about Steiner’s offensive. He was informed that the attack had not been launched and that the Soviets had entered Berlin. Hitler ordered everyone but Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Hans Krebs, and Wilhelm Burgdorf to leave the room, then launched into a tirade against the perceived treachery and incompetence of his generals, culminating in his declaration—for the first time—that “everything is lost.” He announced that he would stay in Berlin until the end and then shoot himself.

By 23 April, the Red Army had surrounded Berlin, and Goebbels made a proclamation urging its citizens to defend the city. That same day, Göring sent a telegram from Berchtesgaden, arguing that as Hitler was isolated in Berlin, Göring should assume leadership of Germany. Göring set a deadline, after which he would consider Hitler incapacitated. Hitler responded by having Göring arrested, and in his last will and testament of 29 April, he removed Göring from all government positions. On 28 April, Hitler discovered that Himmler, who had left Berlin on 20 April, was attempting to negotiate a surrender to the Western Allies. He considered this treason and ordered Himmler’s arrest. He also ordered the execution of Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s SS representative at Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin, for desertion.

Front page of the US Armed Forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, 2 May 1945, announcing Hitler’s death. It erroneously states that Hitler died on 1 May; he died on 30 April.

After midnight on the night of 28–29 April, Hitler married Eva Braun in a small civil ceremony in the Führerbunker. Later that afternoon, Hitler was informed that Mussolini had been executed by the Italian resistance movement the previous day; this is believed to have increased his determination to avoid capture. On 30 April, Soviet troops were within five hundred meters of the Reich Chancellery when Hitler shot himself in the head and Braun bit into a cyanide capsule. By Hitler’s wishes, their corpses were carried outside to the garden behind the Reich Chancellery, placed in a bomb crater, doused with petrol, and set on fire as the Red Army shelling continued. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz and Goebbels assumed Hitler’s roles as head of state and chancellor respectively. On the evening of 1 May, Goebbels and his wife, Magda, committed suicide in the Reich Chancellery garden, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

Berlin surrendered on 2 May. The remains of the Goebbels family, General Hans Krebs (who had committed suicide that day), and Hitler’s dog Blondi were repeatedly buried and exhumed by the Soviets. Hitler’s and Braun’s remains were alleged to have been moved as well, but this is most likely Soviet disinformation. There is no evidence that any identifiable remains of Hitler or Braun—except dental bridges—were ever found by them. While news of Hitler’s death spread quickly, a death certificate was not issued until 1956, after a lengthy investigation to collect testimony from 42 witnesses. Hitler’s death was entered as an assumption of death based on this testimony.

The Holocaust

“If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevisation of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

— Adolf Hitler, 30 January 1939 Reichstag speech

A wagon piled high with corpses outside the crematorium in the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp (April 1945)

The Holocaust and Germany’s war in the East were based on Hitler’s long-standing view that the Jews were the enemy of the German people and that Lebensraum (living space) was needed for Germany’s expansion. He focused on Eastern Europe for this expansion, aiming to defeat Poland and the Soviet Union and then remove or kill the Jews and Slavs. The Generalplan Ost (General Plan East) called for deporting the population of occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to West Siberia for use as slave labor or to be murdered. The conquered territories were to be colonized by German or “Germanized” settlers. The goal was to implement this plan after the conquest of the Soviet Union, but when this failed, Hitler moved the plans forward. By January 1942, he had decided that the Jews, Slavs, and other deportees considered undesirable should be killed.

Hitler’s order for Aktion T4, dated 1 September 1939

The genocide was organized and executed by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. The records of the Wannsee Conference, held on 20 January 1942 and led by Heydrich with fifteen senior Nazi officials participating, provide the clearest evidence of systematic planning for the Holocaust. On 22 February, Hitler was recorded saying, “We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jews.” Similarly, at a meeting in July 1941 with leading functionaries of the Eastern territories, Hitler said that the easiest way to quickly pacify the areas would be achieved by “shooting everyone who even looks odd.” Although no direct order from Hitler authorizing the mass killings has surfaced, his public speeches, orders to his generals, and the diaries of Nazi officials demonstrate that he conceived and authorized the extermination of European Jewry. During the war, Hitler repeatedly stated his prophecy of 1939 was being fulfilled, namely, that a world war would bring about the annihilation of the Jewish race. Hitler approved the Einsatzgruppen—killing squads that followed the German army through Poland, the Baltic, and the Soviet Union—and was well-informed about their activities. By the summer of 1942, the Auschwitz concentration camp was expanded to accommodate large numbers of deportees for murder or enslavement

. Scores of other concentration camps and satellite camps were set up throughout Europe, with several camps devoted exclusively to extermination.

Between 1939 and 1945, the Schutzstaffel (SS), assisted by collaborationist governments and recruits from occupied countries, was responsible for the deaths of at least eleven million non-combatants, including the murders of about six million Jews (representing two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe), and between 200,000 and 1,500,000 Romani people. The victims were killed in concentration and extermination camps, in ghettos, and through mass shootings. Many victims of the Holocaust were murdered in gas chambers or shot, while others died of starvation, disease, or while working as slave laborers. In addition to eliminating Jews, the Nazis planned to reduce the population of the conquered territories by 30 million people through starvation in an action called the Hunger Plan. Food supplies would be diverted to the German army and German civilians. Cities would be razed, and the land allowed to return to forest or be resettled by German colonists. Together, the Hunger Plan and General Plan Ost would have led to the starvation of 80 million people in the Soviet Union. These partially fulfilled plans resulted in additional deaths, bringing the total number of civilians and prisoners of war who died in the democide to an estimated 19.3 million people.

Hitler’s policies resulted in the killing of nearly two million non-Jewish Polish civilians, over three million Soviet prisoners of war, communists and other political opponents, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, and trade unionists. Hitler never spoke publicly about the killings and seems to have never visited the concentration camps. The Nazis embraced the concept of racial hygiene. On 15 September 1935, Hitler presented two laws—known as the Nuremberg Laws—to the Reichstag. The laws banned sexual relations and marriages between Aryans and Jews and were later extended to include “Gypsies, Negroes or their bastard offspring.” The laws stripped all non-Aryans of their German citizenship and forbade the employment of non-Jewish women under the age of 45 in Jewish households. Hitler’s early eugenic policies targeted children with physical and developmental disabilities in a program dubbed Action Brandt, and he later authorized a euthanasia program for adults with serious mental and physical disabilities, now referred to as Aktion T4.

Leadership Style

Hitler during a meeting at the headquarters of Army Group South in June 1942

Adolf Hitler ruled the Nazi Party autocratically, adhering to the Führerprinzip (leader principle). This principle demanded absolute obedience from subordinates to their superiors, envisioning a hierarchical government structure with Hitler, the infallible leader, at the top. Positions within the party were filled through appointments by higher-ranking officials, bypassing elections, and those appointed were expected to demonstrate unwavering loyalty to the leader’s will.

Hitler’s leadership approach involved issuing contradictory orders and placing subordinates in roles with overlapping duties and responsibilities. This tactic ensured that “the stronger one [did] the job,” fostering an environment of distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates, which in turn consolidated and maximized Hitler’s power. His cabinet ceased to meet after 1938, and he discouraged independent meetings among his ministers. Instead of providing written orders, Hitler typically communicated verbally or through his close associate Martin Bormann. Bormann handled Hitler’s paperwork, appointments, and personal finances, using this role to control the flow of information and access to Hitler.

During World War II, Hitler exerted unparalleled control over Germany’s war effort. He strengthened his grip on the armed forces in 1938 and made all significant military strategy decisions. Despite military advice, his risky offensives against Norway, France, and the Low Countries in 1940 succeeded, although his strategies to force the United Kingdom out of the war failed. In December 1941, Hitler appointed himself commander-in-chief of the Army, personally directing the war against the Soviet Union while his commanders against the Western Allies retained some autonomy.

As the war turned against Germany, Hitler’s leadership became increasingly detached from reality. His slow decision-making and directives to hold untenable positions hindered effective military defense strategies. Despite these setbacks, Hitler remained convinced that only his leadership could secure victory. In the final months of the war, he refused to consider peace negotiations, preferring the destruction of Germany to surrender. The military did not challenge his dominance, and senior officers generally supported and enacted his decisions.

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