Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description.  America and the Holocaust Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience

People & Events
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)


Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) In the final hours of his life, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler hastily dictated a Political Testament that he left for the German people. The document was little different from many speeches and articles he had written before. After causing the destruction of huge areas of Europe, demanding the sacrifice of millions of lives in pursuit of his political ambitions, and ordering the murder of millions of others, Hitler showed no remorse. Instead, he blamed the Jews for the war he himself had started. "It is untrue that I, or anyone else in Germany, wanted the war in 1939," he stated. "It was desired and instigated solely by those international statesmen who were either of Jewish descent or worked for Jewish interests." This earliest obsession of Hitler's, a deep loathing of the Jewish people, remained with him to the very end. And he returned to it once more in the final paragraph of his will. "Above all," he urged, "I charge the leaders of the nation and those under them to scrupulous observance of the laws of race and to merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry."

Hitler grew up on the Austrian-Bavarian border, the fourth son of an irascible, authoritarian customs official. As a child, the future German Führer was lazy and temperamental. Years later, one of his school teachers would remember him as lacking in "self-discipline, being notoriously cantankerous, wilful, arrogant and bad-tempered." As a young man Hitler moved to Vienna in the hopes of becoming an artist, but he wasn't accepted into the city's academy of art and spent several years peddling postcards and living off a small inheritance. In his autobiography, "Mein Kampf," Hitler traced his anti-Semitism to his years in Vienna. For Hitler, Jews came to represent everything he despised and feared. They were responsible for Capitalism and Socialism, for Modernism in art, which Hitler hated, for pornography, for the anti-nationalism of the press, and for Hitler's own personal failures. "Thus I finally discovered who were the evil spirits leading our people astray...," Hitler claimed. "My love for my own people increased correspondingly. Considering the satanic skill which these evil counselors displayed how could their unfortunate victims be blamed?.... The more I came to know the Jew, the easier it was to excuse the workers."

In 1919, Hitler joined one of the many right-wing parties that sprung up in Germany after World War I, as its 55th member. The organization would come to be called the National Socialist German Workers' Party or the Nazi Party. It was in the early years of the organization that Hitler formulated his theories of political leadership and propaganda that would lead to his tremendous political success. His first principle was to rely on the support of one group: "The movement must avoid everything which may lessen or weaken its power of influencing the masses." Equally important was his theory that a big lie is always better than a little one because the masses "more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie."

In 1923, Hitler misread the political situation in Bavaria and led an unsuccessful coup to unseat the liberal Weimar government. He was arrested and spent nine months in prison. After his release he rebuilt the collapsed National Socialist movement. But it was the world economic crisis of 1929 and the hardship this inflicted on the German people that gave his party a tremendous boost. Disenchanted with parliamentary democracy, Germans began joining the Nazi party in droves. In the September 1930 election the Nazis won 18.3% of the vote, and from 1931 on they became the largest party in the country. On January 30th, 1933, President Hindenburg named Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

Within months, Hitler began to firmly entrench himself in power. Following the mysterious burning down of the German Parliament building, the Enabling Act of March 1933 allowed him to enact laws without the approval of the Reichstag. The following year, after Hindenburg's death, Hitler assumed the functions of both president and chancellor taking the title of "Führer and Reich Chancellor." Having effectively become the dictator of Germany, Hitler began to pass a series of increasingly severe anti-Semitic laws that excluded Jews from all spheres of public and economic life. Jewish life in Germany became one of terror and abject misery. In mid-1941, Hitler began to realize his repeated threats to rid Europe of the Jews and, with his approval, a cold-blooded, systematic program for their annihilation was set in place. By the end of World War II, the Nazis had murdered an estimated six million Jews.

The last few hours of Hitler's own life had their own macabre quality. With Germany lying in ruins after six devastating years of war, and with defeat imminent, the Nazi dictator decided to take his own life. But before doing so, he wanted to thank one of the few people who'd remained completely loyal to him until the very end. On April 29, 1945, in a civil ceremony in his bunker, Hitler married his mistress of many years, Eva Braun. Before a handful of Hitler's closest advisors, the bride and groom swore they were both "of pure Aryan descent." The following day, Hitler shot himself in the mouth and his wife of less than 24 hours took a fatal dose of poison. Their bodies were carried outside and torched. Twelve years and three months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the nightmare he had unleashed was over.

previous | return to people & events list | next

THE FILM & MORE | SPECIAL FEATURE | TIMELINE | MAPS | PEOPLE & EVENTS | TEACHER'S GUIDE | WEB CREDITS