Hitler: The Formative Years

From around fourteen years of age – no precise age can be determined – Hitler started experiencing delusions of grandeur. He wanted to become a world famous painter. More insightful into Hitler’s character than this fantasy, was the fact that he scorned the notion of having to earn one’s daily living. Being a loner he seldom had friends. To use an expressive modern term, Hitler was an odd-ball, the archetypal non-entity, the little grey man who blended into the background. As such, detailed records and acounts of Hitler’s youth are sparse at best but whatever is extant all points to an eccentric misanthropic youth. What was Hitler like as a child and why did he develop these surreal notions about life?

Main picture: One of Hitler’s water colours

Early childhood

Hitler’s father, Alois Schicklgruber – he only changed it to Hitler in 1876 – had descended from peasant farming stock. With little education Alois had entered the civil service and had slowly risen up through the ranks. As a low-level civil servant, Alois earned a steady wage. This would afford the Schicklgruber’s a comfortable middle class existence. After the death of Alois’s second wife, he invited a second cousin, Klara Potzl to become his maid and to assist with the children from his previous marriages. In spite of the 20 year age difference, Klara being 20, a child was soon expected.

Alois Schicklgruber - Adolf Hitler's overbearing father

Alois Schicklgruber – Adolf Hitler’s overbearing father

Hitler – born on 20th April 1889 – was the fourth of six children that would be the issue of this relationship of which only two would survive to adulthood – Adolf and his younger sister Paula.

This was not a marriage made in heaven. Alois was a stern disciplinarian whose motto could well have been: my way or the highway. Apart from that he was characterised as being pompous, status conscious, dour, authoritarian, overbearing and humourless. On the other hand Klara was the opposite in many ways: simple, kind and devoted to her children.

Klara was the quintessential ham in the sandwich, forever acting as the intermediary between some perceived infraction by one of the children especially Adolf and her husband. The pattern was soon established. Adolf would receive his daily beating for some misdeed, or his increasingly sullen rejection of his father, only to be comforted by his mother afterwards.

Klara Hitler, most likely in the 1890s

Klara Hitler, most likely in the 1890s

Even though Adolf felt extreme affection for his mother, the fact that she was unable to challenge or confront Alois also left an indelible mark upon young Hitler. Despite Klara showering love and affection onto young Adolf in order to compensate for her husband’s ill-treatment of the boy, Adolf was unable to appreciate its value to him or why his mother would not confront his father directly. This fact would ultimately confirm his misogynist view of all females as being too weak to play any meaningful role in society.

Age 14 to 16: 1903 – 1905

The challenge that all biographers face is that little reliable information is available about Adolf’s formative years, especially those while he still lived with his parents. Adolf’s “autobiography” is fraught with errors, misstatements and outright lies. For instance in attempting to establish the exact date when Adolf’s virulent anti-Semitism first manifested itself has been extremely difficult. Most of his limited number of acquaintances during those formative years cannot vouch for the fact that he held anti-Semitic view. In fact one goes the other way and claims that his attitude was developed years before he met him. By this ruse Gustl in his autobiography hopes not to be associated with the development of Adolf’s anti-Semitism. These revelations do not discount the possibility that Adolf did not hold anti-Jewish sentiments but rather that they were not as pronounced as those expressed after WW1. The probably reason for Adolf placing the development of his extreme views further back in his past was that it accorded with the timeline of the development of his world view as expounded in Mein Kampf. No more and no less.

Adolf as a baby

Adolf as a baby

It was during this period that he had to attend Middle School. The options were the Gymnasium – for the intellectually inclined – and the Realschule which offered a more pragmatic set of courses. Alois selected the Realschule as more relevant to his son.

Whereas in his previous small primary school Adolf could receive the teacher’s attention, now it was different. Adolf’s introverted loner tendencies came increasingly to the fore. He did not socialise with the other children and would rather draw or read than get involved with the other children’s’ games.

Adolf as a child

Adolf as a child

It was apparently in 1903 at the age of 14 that Adolf revealed to his father that he wished to become an artist. Alois attempted to convince his stubborn son of the virtues of a career in the civil service. Adolf could not envisage himself sitting in an office at a desk all day. Alois’ unpredictable bad temper predictably flared. Both being stubborn men, neither would concur with the others view. Adolf’s careworn mother, Klara was again between the two with their intractable views. Unlike Adolf who strenuously rebuffed his father’s notions of how he should live his life and hence was beaten mercilessly by his father, Klara silently endured the abuse that Alois subjected her to.

November 1898 - Alois Hitler purchases a respectable two and a half-story house in Leonding, 3 miles west of Linz

November 1898 – Alois Hitler purchases a respectable two and a half-story house in Leonding, 3 miles west of Linz

Alois found Adolf’s rejection of his suggested career as particularly galling & a searing indictment of himself. Both young Adolf and his mother Klara had to bear his recriminations as he vented his spleen on them. But Adolf was resolute in his determination to become a successful painter and equally as scornful of the fact that his father was cooped up in an office all day.

Young Adolph with Father Alois Schicklgruber (1837-1903)

Young Adolph with Father Alois Schicklgruber (1837-1903)

Shortly after this existential row, Alois Hitler suddenly died of a heart attack in 1903.

Adolf was extremely close to his mother. It was probably the closest female bond that he ever established. He would carry a photo of her with him throughout his life and he even had it with him when he committed suicide in the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin underneath the Reichstag.

This was a pivotal period in Adolf’s life. His school grades deteriorated and were now between poor and mediocre. As Adolf escaped more and more into his own fantasy world, even his limited connection to his fellow pupils became more restricted. Ultimately Adolf left school at age 16 in 1905 undistinguished and unnoticed having made no friends or even acquaintances.

Klara Hitler, once Alois' maid but then his wife

Klara Hitler, once Alois’ maid but then his wife

What Adolf did not realise was that his formal studies were at an end.

16 – 18: 1905 to 1907

After the death of Alois, Klara relocated her family from a village on the outskirts of Linz to the town Linz itself. Whereas all his peers at school who had finished their studies rapidly found jobs of some description, Hitler did not even attempt to obtain part-time work in order to supplement the pension that Klara received.

Hitler's paintings#2

Instead he slept until midday, rose to paint, read and write poetry and finally, when night fell, he would wander the streets of Linz. Adolf’s life of parasitic idleness had commenced. His mother and his spinster aunt Johanna – or Hanitante as she was known – would cater for Adolf’s every whim. Adolf was the archetypal spoilt child. Whenever anyone broached the subject of finding a job, Adolf would resist.

His day dreaming about achieving fame as a renowned artist during this period knew no bounds. Apart from regularly attending the Opera in Linz, he lived a frugal life. For the opera however he dressed like a suave gentleman dressed to the nines in his black outfit. He even carried a black cane with an ivory handle. It was during one of these performances that Adolf met August Kubizek whose father owned an upholstery business in Linz and at which he worked during the day. This relationship would follow the same path as his later followers. Adolf would enrapture the impressionable Gustl – as Adolf would refer to August – with his knowledge of the arts and the working of society in general. Even though Gustl’s musical knowledge was superior to that of Adolf’s, Adolf was persistent and adamant that his views were correct. These talks could not be categorised as discussions but rather as monologues.

August Kubizek in his youth

August Kubizek in his youth

Adolf was haughty, dominant and superior, holding strong views about everything. On the other hand, Gustl was compliant and weak willed; the ideal relationship for Hitler.

Adolf’s friendship to Gustl would be mentioned by in Mein Kampf. In addition Gustl wrote a book about their friendship. Both are long on fantasy and short on fact as Gustl embellished what he recalls and in some instances blatantly plagiarises what Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf but what is stated confirms both of the character and the nature of their relationship.


Like Adolf’s future “discussions” with his minions, they were in reality monologues. Hitler would hold forth on any topic whether he was au fait with it or not and expound his views in such a forthright manner as if he was the master of the subject. His stance was superior, dominant and determined. Adolf held strong views about everything. On the other hand, Gustl was impressionable, compliant and weak-willed. Perhaps Gustl can be regarded as Adolf’s first disciple.

Even though Gustl’s knowledge of music was far superior to that of Adolf however Gustl never argued with Adolf’s verdict on an opera. Hitler’s attitude to a piece was either critical or effusively positive. Never did he judge anything other than at the extreme. Like in later life, nothing was judged in colours of grey. It was either black or white. This is the psychological development stage of small child where all situations are judged to be right or wrong without any subtle variations.

Many of Hitler's recollections in the Mein Kampf are certainly fictitious

Many of Hitler’s recollections in the Mein Kampf are certainly fictitious

This would imply some form of arrested development.

While still living at home in Linz, Hitler had observed a young female by the name of Stefanie. Even though he never ever spoke to her or let alone was introduced to her, he would refer to her as his girlfriend. For Adolf, an imaginary girlfriend was easier to handle than a real life one.

Adolf had his mind set on attending the prestigious Viennese Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. As the family now lived in Linz, that would mean that Adolf would be have to relocate to Vienna. With the proceeds of a loan which his aunt had arranged for him together with a small sum that his mother could afford, Hitler set off for Vienna.

Hitler's 2nd Apartment in Vienna

Hitler’s 2nd Apartment in Vienna

In late 1906 at the age of 17, Adolf paid a visit to Vienna to acquaint himself with the place. Adolf was enchanted by the architecture especially of the Schonbrunn Palace. He wandered through the streets by day and by night he would attend an opera, usually in the standing stalls. His favourites were German composers with Wagner topping the bill.

When he heard that his mother was suffering from cancer, he returned to be with her and arrange finance for his studies. Whilst in Linz, their Jewish doctor informed the family that Klara’s condition was critical.

Adolf’s spinster aunt Johanna – Hanitante – agreed to arrange a loan for him.

Hitler's favourite spot in Vienna was a stone bench not far from the Gloriette

Hitler’s favourite spot in Vienna was a stone bench not far from the Gloriette

A supremely confident Adolf travelled back to Vienna to write his entrance examination. With him was a stack of sketches which he had to present for assessment. He passed the test but the evaluators were not impressed with his pieces of work. Their explanatory note read, “Test drawings unsatisfactory. Too few heads.” Presumably what they meant was that his drawings were of buildings and none were of people. Furthermore they advised him that his aptitude lay in architecture and not fine arts.

Adolf was distraught, devastated and inconsolable. Having told everybody who would listen that he was an accomplished artist, what was he to do? His first response was to do nothing and tell nobody. He would act as if his art studies were progressing well.

Hitler's first apartment in Vienna

Hitler’s first apartment in Vienna

It is a testament to the power of fantasies that despite his bubble being burst and the reality within being exposed as a chimera, Hitler clung to it. This summary rejection would profoundly influence Hitler for his whole life. Hitler explanation in Mein Kampf that the examiners did not recognise his artistic talent was – I believe – Adolf’s coping mechanism.

Due to Klara’s rapidly declining health, Adolf was again forced to visit Linz. Whilst there, she died. Within a short time span, Adolf had suffered two immense body blows – rejection of his artistic ability and the death of the person with whom he was closest to; his mother.

Everybody in Linz was blissfully unaware that Adolf had failed his entrance examination.

House where Hitler was born

House where Hitler was born

This episode was revealing in two ways. Instead of adjusting his views to accord with the reality of a lack of talent, he cast aspersions on the examiners and their inability to recognise his artistic talent. Unlike most other people with an all-consuming passion, they would have obtained as much information on the subject and secondly they would have used the time between assessments to practice their skill. Not so Hitler. Instead he brooded and did nothing. The old languid, dissolute, insouciant and indolent Hitler was even more in evidence. Hitler only arose from bed during the late morning and then busied himself by doing nothing by cogitating on his rejection. This reaction is synonymous with his reaction at home. After being rebuked by his father for some infraction, Adolf’s mother would over-compensate and smother him with love, catering for his every whim.


Aged 19: 1908

1908 was to be a pivotal year for Adolf. With his orphan’s pension and Hanitante’s loan, in February Adolf was back in Vienna.

Even though Gustl had been convinced by his father to work in his father’s business, Hitler wrote imploring letters to him to rather study music. Finally Gustl relented and declared his intention to study music in Vienna at the Vienna Conservatoire. Strikingly Adolf failed to inform him that he had already failed his first entrance examination. Hitler was so cock-sure that he would pass it at his second attempt that he continued to regale Gustl with stories of how he would become a famous painter earning lots of money and not having to work. Being none the wiser, Gustl continued to accept Adolf’s capabilities without question.

August Kubizek

August Kubizek

Tellingly, another Hitlerian character trait came to the fore. Instead of practicing sketching faces as the examiner had suggested, Hitler continued his practice of painting buildings. Systematic preparation and hard work were anathema to Adolf!

Kuzibek was accepted into the Conservatoire without question. This meant an addition to their tiny flat: a grand piano. This was to lead to rows between the two as Kuzibek would practice scales during the morning while Adolf slept until late morning. Finally Hitler snapped. The reason for Hitler’s profound irritation became clear. Hitler finally blurted out that he had failed his entrance examination. Gustl was dumbstruck. How could such as an excellent artist as Hitler claimed himself to be, be rejected?

The Academy Of The Fine Arts in Vienna

The Academy of the Fine Arts in Vienna

Gustl innocently enquired, “What now?”

This set Adolf off into an explosive rage. Gustl had broached the topic that was like a raw exposed nerve to Adolf. He had been unable to come to terms with the fact that he probably would never be a world famous painter who could idle away the days without having to exert himself. It had been a profound blow to his self-esteem. Nevertheless he does not appear to have been wracked with doubts about his future.

After calming down, the first order of business was the little matter at hand: practicing hours.

What neither Gustl’s autobiography The Young Hitler I Knew nor Mein Kampf make clear is whether their relationship was transformed when Hitler was exposed as a fraud. For obvious reasons Mein Kampf is silent in this aspect but curiously Gustl was also taciturn on this point. It can conjecture that like other boastful people who I know, they will be circumspect for a short while but no more than that.

Vienna Conservatory of Music

Vienna Conservatory of Music

Immediately prior to moving out of their shared flat, another aspect of Adolf’s unusual psyche was exposed. When Gustl brought a fellow female student to their apartment, Hitler was apoplectic. Distraught. Inconsolable. He lectured Gustl on venereal diseases and the dangers of prostitutes in spite of Gustl assuring him that their relationship was purely platonic.

Aside from this, another incident arose during Adolf’s relocation process. When the dressing gown landlady of an apartment which they were viewing slipped open and her knickers were displayed. Hitler was disgusted and literally ran away. Would a normal testosterone filled youth not have been aroused under similar circumstances? On both counts, the answer must be yes, yet in both Hitler was disgusted instead. This leads me to wonder what type of relationship that he enjoyed with his cousin Geli and ultimately his lover Eva. Both were unusual relationships as in both cases the age difference was at least 20 years and in the case of Angela – Geli to Hitler – she was his cousin. Ultimately both would attempt to commit suicide but only Geli was successful.

Men's hostel in Meldemannstrasse Vienna

Men’s hostel in Meldemannstrasse Vienna

1909 -1913: Ages 20 to 24

By the age of 20, Hitler was no closer to deciding on a career or even obtaining a job. He had vague pretensions of becoming an architect, but appears not to have taken any concrete steps to that end. The typical solution arose. Do nothing. Hitler moved into a Men’s House, a form of YMCA or shelter for unemployed people in transit. During the day he had his meals at soup kitchens and then he wandered the streets.

By autumn 1909 his money had run out. Hitler would have to downgrade again. This time it was to the streets of Vienna. Adolf had reached his nadir with no plan and no money. He was now sleeping rough like the tramps of Vienna.

Reinhold Hanisch, painted by Adolf Hitler, signed and dated Vienna 1910

Reinhold Hanisch, painted by Adolf Hitler, signed and dated Vienna 1910

For Christmas 1909 he stayed in a doss house. It was here that he met one of his series friends – Reinhold Hamisch, a Czech from the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Hamisch was a petty thief with no occupation other than being a labourer. For the first time in his life, Hitler was convinced to do some manual labour rather than leech off other people as he had for the rest of his life. After a few odd manual jobs such as carrying luggage at the train station, Hitler declared to Reinhold that he was not meant to be a labourer.

In appearance Hitler was little more than the other despised labourers in the doss house. With long hair and scraggly beard, Reinhold even had the temerity to refer to Adolf as Ohm Paul Kruger after the previous President of the Transvaal Republic. [Ohm is uncle in German]

Vienna Art School

Vienna Art School

Even though Hitler found this comparison particularly galling, but hardly in a position to argue the point, Hitler purchased a second hand overcoat at a pawn shop courtesy of 50 Kronen that his aunt Joanna send him.

Hitler was now about to make the first entry in his CV/resume: painter. When Hitler divulged in passing that he was a painter, Hamisch immediately proposed a business partnership which could end the bleak situation and prospects: Hitler would paint and Hamisch would sell the output on a 50:50 basis.

Hitler's paintings#4

On the basis of the sale of a few paintings, each for 10 Kronen a piece, the pair was able to once again stay in the Men’s Home costing 50 Heller per night. From the canteen they could purchase a basic but filling wholesome meal. Below was a work room which Hitler used as his workshop during the day. It was here that Hitler spent the day sketching and painting the buildings of Vienna from pictures and postcards that he had acquired. None of his drawings was ever based upon Adolf’s own perspective of a scene.

The money earned from painting would suffice to keep the wolf for the door but would never afford them any luxuries except for the bare necessities. To earn more, Hitler would either have to increase his rate of production or he had to change his style; neither of which he was prepared to do. Hamisch quickly became aware that whenever he had a good day selling paintings, Hitler would produce little or nothing for days thereafter.

Hitler's 3rd Apartment in Vienna

Hitler’s 3rd Apartment in Vienna

Reinhold attempted to chivvy Hitler up but to no avail. A single abiding reality prevailed. It became clear to Reinhold in an epiphanous moment that despite being down-at-the-heel, Hitler did not intend to work any harder to uplift himself.

Realising that it was Fool’s Errand to convince Hitler otherwise, Reinhold disappeared.

Gumpendorf Strasse

For the following two years – 1912 & 1913 – nothing is known of Hitler’s whereabouts and what he did for a living. Either Adolf beseeched Aunt Joanna with his begging bowl or he leeched off the citizens of Vienna by begging unashamedly. Perhaps he even painted a few pictures as his fancy took him.

Whatever he did to support himself is now lost in the mists of time until he flees to Munich at 25 years of age with no job, no training and no prospects.

Mannerheim Men's Home

Mannerheim Men’s Home

Fact versus mythology

Hitler’s formative years were obscured by mythology generated by his autobiographical account and political vision expressed in his turgid self-serving tome entitled Mein Kampf. Combined with the fact that Hitler was a loner with only two friends in his first 25 years, very little of substance can be ascertained with any certainty. Even Gustl’s autobiography, the only contemporary source, is of dubious veracity. It was hardly likely that he would recant any glaring errors of fact after the war as this would place his own integrity in doubt.


Nonetheless, the vague obscure outline of the soul of the future Fuhrer can be discerned through the mists of time. Long before the word Hitler became a byword for misanthropism and misogynism, the first impressions based upon his dysfunctional childhood are visible. It forms the bedrock of both these traits.

Furthermore it becomes increasingly obvious that by his mother’s compensatory response to his father’s harsh treatment of him, was the direct cause of a spoilt indolent child.

Then there is the matter of his arrogance to explain. Clearly it arises from the same wellspring as the other maladies. I contend that it was a self-protection mechanism.

Another painting by Hitler

Another painting by Hitler

As events were to prove 40 years later, whatever heartless evil ran through his veins had very deep roots all formed early in his development.


Book: Hitler by Ian Kershaw

Pictures: Wikipedia and various blogs

Paintings: Adolf Hitler – No permision sought


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