Probably to avoid compulsory military service, Hitler left Austria in May 1913 and settled in the south German state of Bavaria. On the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the Bavarian army and served in it with distinction. Here he found the sense of purpose he had always previously lacked. He saw extensive military action, was wounded, and served in the dangerous position of Meldegänger (runner). Temporarily blinded in a British gas attack, Hitler ended the war in a military hospital. He had risen to the rank of lance corporal and won the Iron Cross First Class, an unusual distinction for someone of his rank.
After the war, Hitler returned to Munich and worked for the military, reporting to it on political groups, and he then became involved in politics full time. In the summer of 1919, Hitler joined the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Worker's Party), later known as the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, National Socialist Party or Nazi party). His oratorical skills soon made him one of its leaders. Disgruntled by Germany's loss in the war, Hitler became the voice of the dispossessed and angry. He blamed Germany's defeat on the "November criminals"—the communists, the Jews, and the Weimar Republic.
Taking a cue from Benito Mussolini's march on Rome the previous year, on 8 November 1923 Hitler and his followers attempted to seize power in Bavaria as a step toward controlling all of Germany. This Beer Hall Putsch was put down by the authorities with some bloodshed. Hitler was then arrested and brought to trial for attempting to overthrow the state. He used his trial to become a national political figure in Germany. Sentenced to prison, he served only nine months (1923–1924). While at the Landsberg Fortress, he dictated his stream-of-consciousness memoir, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). Later, when he was in power, royalties on sales of the book and his images made him immensely wealthy, a fact he deliberately concealed from the German people.
Hitler formed few female attachments during his life. He was involved with his niece, Geli Raubal, who committed suicide in 1931, and later with Eva Braun, his mistress whom he hid from the public. Deeply distrustful of people, Hitler was a vegetarian who loved animals and especially doted on his dogs. He was also a severe hypochondriac, suffering from myriad real and imagined illnesses.
Hitler restructured the NSDAP, and by 1928 the party had emerged as a political force in Germany, winning representation in the Reichstag. In April 1932, Hitler ran against Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg for the presidency of Germany. Hitler railed against the Weimar Republic for the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I, the catastrophic inflation of 1923, the threat posed by the communists, and the effects of the Great Depression. Hindenburg won, but Hitler received 13 million votes in a completely free election, and by June 1932 the Nazis were the largest political party in the Reichstag.
On 30 January 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor. Hitler quickly acted against any political adversaries. Fresh elections under Nazi auspices gave the Nazis in coalition with the Nationalists a majority in the Reichstag. An Enabling Act of March 1933 gave Hitler dictatorial powers. On the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, Hitler amalgamated the office of president and took control of the armed forces. In the "Night of the Long Knives" of July 1934, Hitler purged the party and also removed several political opponents. Hitler also reorganized Germany administratively, dissolving political parties and labor unions and making Germany a one-party state. Nazi Germany became a totalitarian state that Hitler, now known as the Führer (leader), ruled alone.
Resistance to the Nazis was crushed, and many dissidents were sent to concentration camps. The ubiquitous Gestapo kept tabs on the population, but the state was not characterized solely by repression by any means. In the first several years, Hitler was carried forward on a wave of disillusionment with the Weimar Republic, and a plebiscite showed that a solid majority of Germans approved of his actions.
Almost on assuming political power, Hitler initiated actions against the Jews. They were turned into a race of "untouchables" within their own state, unable to pursue certain careers and a public life. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 defined as Jewish anyone with one Jewish grandparent. That a terrible fate would be their lot was clear in Hitler's remarks that war in Europe would lead to the "extinction of the Jewish race in Europe."
In 1934, Hitler took Germany out of the League of Nations and the Geneva disarmament conference. Germans were put back to work; and rearmament, albeit at first secret (it was announced openly in 1935), was begun. Hitler's most daring gamble was in March 1936, when he marched German troops into the Rhineland and remilitarized it. In November 1937, he announced plans to his top advisers and generals for an aggressive foreign policy and war, and in March 1938 he began his march of conquest with the Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. That fall, he secured the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, and in March 1939, he took over the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Poland was the next pressure point. To secure his eastern flank, in August 1939 Hitler concluded a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. On 1 September 1939, German forces invaded Poland, touching off World War II.
Applying new tactics of close cooperation between air and ground elements centered in a war of movement that came to be known as the blitzkrieg (lightning war), the German military enjoyed early success on the battlefield. Poland was taken within one month. When Britain and France, which had gone to war with Germany on the invasion of Poland, rejected peace on a forgive-and-forget basis, Hitler invaded the west. Norway and Denmark were taken beginning in April 1940. France and Benelux fell in May and June. Hitler's first rebuff came in the July-October 1940 Battle of Britain, when the Luftwaffe failed to drive the Royal Air Force from the skies, a necessary precursor to a sea invasion. After next securing his southern flank in the Balkans by invading and conquering Greece and Yugoslavia in April 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union that June. When the United States entered the war against Japan in December 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States.
Increasingly, Germany suffered the consequences of strategic overreach: German troops not only had to garrison much of Europe, but they also were sent to North Africa. Hitler's constant meddling in military matters, his changes of plans, and his divide-and-rule concept of administration all worked to the detriment of Germany's cause. On Hitler's express orders, millions of people, mainly Jews, were rounded up and systematically slaughtered.
From mid-January 1945, Hitler took up residence in Berlin. He refused negotiation to the end, preferring to see Germany destroyed. Hitler married Eva Braun on 29 April 1945, and—rather than be taken by the Russians, who were then closing in on Berlin—he committed suicide in the bunker of the Chancellery on 30 April 1945. Wendy A. Maier
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Wendy A. Maier