Adolf Hitler is remembered as one of the most infamous dictators in history, largely due to his role in leading Germany during World War II. But what is less known is that his rise to power was fueled by his upbringing as a youth. Born in Braunau am Inn, Austria-Hungary in 1889, Hitler’s early childhood was spent in poverty in the lower-middle income category of his family. His father, Alois, was a customs official who held his family to extremely strict standards, often with physical punishment when those standards were not met. Hitler’s mother, Klara, was a more sympathetic figure, more likely to console and be understanding during times of conflict.
Hitler had two siblings, Gustav and Ida, plus a half-brother and half-sister from his father’s previous marriages. He was close to his brother and sister but in competition with them for their father’s approval. At age 6, Hitler began school at the close-by Fischlham village, but was often in trouble for clashing with his teachers over authority, and that of his father. In 1895, Hitler’s father received a promotion and the family moved to the city of Linz, where Hitler’s mother took him to the opera and he became increasingly immersed in German culture.
After his father’s death when Hitler was 13, his mother allowed him to pursue his dreams of entering the fine arts academy—a dream that was never realized. Historians have debated over the years whether the instability of his background, his father’s strong disciplinary tactics, and his mother’s emotional protests, combined with his early rejection from the Academy, marked Hitler’s childhood with emotional trauma or if his childhood was no more difficult than any other of his time. Whatever the case, his early years gave way to his leadership style as an adult: careless of the minds of others, obsessive with perfection, and unwilling to compromise.
Hitler’s childhood experiences left a lasting impression on him and were reflected in tales he would tell his inner circle. Adolf’s childhood encounters with authority also showed up repeatedly throughout his adulthood, with his opposition to any kind of authority that displaced his own and his tendency to blame anything but himself when things did not go his way. Some historians argue that Hitler’s psychologically abusive and distorted environment led him to see the world in the same way, and this subsequently drove him to be restrictive and forcefully lead others.
Experts agree that Hitler’s childhood was likely more influential than is often discussed. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson theorized that during the first stages of childhood, the child needs to learn a sense of identity in order to further grow and thrive, yet Hitler lacked a sense of identity and purpose during his childhood, likely due in part to his unsettled and inconsistent home life. His poor academic performance was also a possible factor.
Others believe that instead of being caused by a traumatic upbringing, Hitler was influenced by his elitist and nationalistic opinions, deeply held beliefs he developed alongside his limited academic performance—which was likely rooted in a lack of economic and educational support. These beliefs of superiority became the basis of his mission to rid society of anyone unlike himself and to invent a new and powerful Germany.
Hitler’s childhood was forever marked by extreme instability, continual anxiety due to rules and expectations, and a deep sense of envy and resentment towards others. He was fighting an internal struggle between wanting to rebel against his father and the society he was born into and the need to fit in and be accepted.
Psychologist Kie J. Fromme theorizes that the intense struggle Hitler experienced during his childhood was likely internalized as an adult and included an exaggerated perception of the world around him, and ultimately manifested itself in his desire to take control of it. His childhood struggles caused Hitler to develop a paranoia of being controlled or overlooked, and in response he sought to gain an inordinate amount of power and authority.
Historians also debate whether or not Hitler’s formative years caused him to have a superiority complex. Hitler was adamant about his countrymen’s superiority compared to other nations, and the need to rid Germany of those he deemed unworthy or of inferior stock. Hitler attributed much of his worldview and its manifestation in his leadership to his turbulent childhood and pre-world war political unrest, which created a climate full of fear and confusion.
Another key factor in Hitler’s upbringing was economic tension. As a lower-middle class family, Hitler’s parents were constantly struggling to make ends meet. This led to their children being exposed to poverty more than most, and Hitler’s education was limited.
Fromme believes that this economic tension and instability was another contributing factor to Hitler’s rise to power—especially the power he held in politics. He used his newfound power to make sure Germans had the basic human needs fulfilled, like stable housing, food rations, and clothing — something his own parents were not always able to provide for him and his siblings.
In one of his speeches, he said “As Chancellor, I do not want to leave any German in need! I have decided that hunger, cold, and need will no longer be permitted in Germany!” It is in this way that Hitler sought to bring the German people out of need—from the same need that surrounded him as a child.
Adolf’s Connection to Germany
Whether economic instability or simply a lack of proper parenting, Hitler’s experiences during childhood left him with a deep longing to belong. When the family moved to Linz, Austria in 1895, Hitler was exposed to German culture, which he gradually became more enamored with.
This explains why Hitler later viewed Germany as a place of power and greatness. At his core, he wanted to be a part of that greatness and to gain acceptance, something he felt lacking in his family and during his educational career. In many ways, Hitler felt this connection more than any other and wanted to bring a unified Germany to its rightful place in the world.
Hitler himself even admitted this desire. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, “It was only natural that we of the younger generation should become passionate advocates of a Greater Germany, and it was only logical that the ideal of uniting all German-speaking people, which had so often been expressed and advocated, was the final outcome of this inner urge of the will, strengthened by our own experiences.”
Hitler’s childhood and upbringing were marked by two major influences: Austria’s laid back, anti-Semitic sentiment and Germany’s own brand of nationalism, racial purity, and authoritarianism. Hitler’s racism was fueled by a combination of his experiences in his hometown of Linz, his belief in Germany as a great nation, and his resentment of those he blamed for his lack of academic success and economic comfort.
Hitler was also exposed to the ideas of aristocratic nationalism, fueled by a belief in the superiority of the German race. This obviously had a profound effect on Hitler’s views of race, with all non-Aryans being classified as inferior. In many ways, Hitler’s childhood experiences, both good and bad, shaped his beliefs and influenced the decisions he made as a ruler that would ultimately lead to World War II.
When Hitler moved to Linz in 1895, he was exposed to an anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic culture. This area of Austria, and of Europe more generally, was rife with hatred for those seen as different. This cultural influence was just as important as any parental influence in shaping Hitler’s views of the world — views that he brought with him to Germany.
Hitler was exposed to the idea of a racial power structure and of grouping people into categories of moral and physical superiority. He internalized this kind of thinking and brought it with him to Germany when he went into politics. This is why he was so adamant about racial purity and the superiority of the Aryan race.
It is clear that Hitler’s childhood was an influential factor in his ideology and eventual rise to power. His unstable home life, economic struggles, and cultural influences all combined to shape Hitler’s views and created an environment of resentment, elitism, and anger.
Hitler’s childhood experiences left a lasting impression on him and were reflected in the way he governed Germany. While it is impossible to know for sure how Hitler’s childhood impacted his adulthood, it is clear that his past had a profound influence on his ideologies, views of the world, and ultimately his rise to power.