Adolf Hitler: Biography & Role in World War II

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the biography of the German dictator of the 1930s and 40s, Adolf Hitler, and the role he played in German and European affairs during WWII.

Adolf Hitler

It's hard to write objectively about some figures in history. For example, some past U.S. leaders, like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, are nearly universally loved. At the same time, some figures are universally loathed. Perhaps the greatest example of this second category is Adolf Hitler. The dictatorial, highly anti-Semitic leader of 1930s and 40s Germany is largely responsible for one of the largest wars in the history of mankind and the death of approximately six million Jews. In this lesson, we will explore Hitler's early life as well as the military and domestic policies that helped him achieve his goals.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler

Early Life

Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, the son of an Austrian customs official, and spent most of his childhood in the Linz area. When Hitler was 18, he used some of the money from his father's inheritance and moved to Vienna to study art. Hitler was deeply disappointed when his applications to art school in Vienna were rejected, and he drifted for several years afterward. According to Hitler in his autobiography, it was in this listless period that he first encountered the anti-Semitic ideas which would help sculpt his fascist political views.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Hitler immediately applied to join the Germany army. He was embittered by Germany's defeat in the war, and felt its leaders had betrayed the country. He felt both the demilitarization of Germany and its being forced to pay the full costs of the war were enormous humiliations for the German people.

Rise to Power

Soon after the war, Hitler began working side-by-side with German ultranationalists. Over the following years he helped create the National Socialist German Worker's Party (NSDAP, or more commonly, Nazi). Hitler gained power within the party leadership and a reputation as an orator. His public speeches, often in beer halls, attracted disgruntled Germans by the hundreds and thousands.

Early Hitler-designed logo of Nazi Party
Nazi Party logo

In 1923, Hitler was arrested after an attempted coup and was sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served less than a year.

In that short time in prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, literally ''My Struggle,'' which was part autobiography, part anti-Semitic political treatise. Hitler's ideology appealed to everyday Germans; Hitler blamed Germany's problems not on Germans themselves but upon foreign powers and Jews.

Hitler's popular message saw the Nazi Party gain seats in the German government each election. In the 1932 German elections, the Nazi Party won more seats in the Reichstag (Germany's parliament) than any other party. Hitler was narrowly defeated in the race for the presidency by Paul von Hindenburg, and Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor instead.

However, Hindenburg's health was failing and before long Hitler held most of the legitimate power in the German government. In 1933, all other parties beside the Nazi Party were outlawed, and in 1934, Hitler abolished the presidency and merged its powers with his own, making him the de facto dictator of Germany. Over the next few years, Hitler consolidated his power and used his position to persecute Jews and other minorities in Germany.

Military Tactics

By the end of the 1930s, Hitler's Germany was ready to expand. He built up Germany's military, and in 1938 he unilaterally annexed Austria, claiming his intentions were to unite all German-speaking people in one German state. The same year, he got several European leaders to sign off on the Munich Agreement, which gave a portion of Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to avoid war. Still not satisfied, Germany seized all of Czechoslovakia in 1939. His invasion of Poland in September 1939 triggered the beginning of World War II.

Germany was initially successful militarily because of Hitler's blitzkrieg strategy. A German term meaning ''lightning war,'' blitzkrieg utilized the relatively new technology of tanks to crash through enemy territory quickly, focusing on cities and other strategic points and avoiding entrenched battle. Miles behind this advanced vanguard of tanks the German infantry mopped up the remaining opposing forces. The innovative strategy was highly successful, and by the end of 1941 Germany had conquered much of Eastern and Western Europe.

German Tanks in Poland, 1939
German tanks

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