Thursday, 8 August 2013

BRIGITTE HAMANN Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999)

Oxford University Press, 1999

Hitler's Vienna is not the artistic-intellectual 'fin-de-siécle Vienna' – that is to say, the Vienna that has long since turned into a lifeless cliché –– we associate with Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Hitler's Vienna is the Vienna of the 'little' people, who viewed Viennese modernity with incomprehension and rejected it as 'degenerate,' too disconnected from the people, too international, too 'Jewish,' too libertine.  It is the Vienna of the disadvantaged, of those who were living in Männerheime (men's hostels), typically full of fear and susceptible to obscure theories, particularly ideas that despite their misery made them feel to be part of an elite, to be 'better than' other people after all.  To these men, being 'better' in this multinational 'Babylon of races' meant belonging to the 'noble German people' rather than being a Slav or a Jew.


The Book:  No politician, past or present, has dominated the Western imagination in quite the way that Adolf Hitler has succeeded in dominating it for the past three-quarters of a century.  Even today, seventy-four years after the Nazi invasion of Poland which marked the beginning of World War Two and sixty-eight years after his suicide in a bunker located beneath the ruined Reichskanzlei building in Berlin, the Nazi leader remains a terrifying and dangerously emblematic figure – the maniacally apoplectic, seemingly larger-than-life demagogue whose plan to cold-bloodedly eliminate all of Europe's Jews continues to be the yardstick by which all of humanity's ongoing atrocities are invariably measured.  

So powerful has the Hitler myth become that it's easy to forget that he and the National Socialist Party – a party he did not found but successfully bullied his way into gaining control of in 1921 – did not spring into existence overnight out of thin air.  Nor were the ideas he propounded with such a devastatingly popular combination of invective and plain old-fashioned show business very original or even very new.  Like Hitler himself, these ideas were the product of a specific place and time and that place and time was the Austrian capital between the years 1906 and 1913.

This is the period of Adolf Hitler's well-documented life that Brigitte Hamann examines in her excellent and occasionally surprising 1999 biography.  Beginning with the future dictator's birth in the Austrian village of Braunau-am-Inn on 20 April 1889, she discusses his early upbringing as the pampered youngest son of a young kindhearted mother and an old, foul tempered, physically abusive father (Alois Hitler, a customs official, was twenty-three years older than his timid third wife Klara Pölzl), his firmly resisted education in the small town of Leonding and the nearby city of Linz (young Adolf preferred reading the Wild West romances of German author Karl May or shooting rats in the cemetery located next to his house to studying his lessons and already had a well-earned reputation for flying into rages on the slightest provocation) and his initial exposure, during his equally unrewarding high school years, to the ideas of Georg Schönerer and the Pan-German political movement – a movement which wanted to see Austria, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, absorbed into the Greater German Reich to prevent it being 'overrun' by non-German speaking, 'non-Aryan' races like the Jews and the Slavs.  Pan-Germanism was merely one of many 'nationalistic' movements popular in Austria at the turn of the century, all of which would leave their mark on Hitler both prior to and following his 1906 departure for Vienna, where he hoped to enroll as a painting student at its famous Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien [Academy of Fine Arts].

Vienna was arguably the most vibrant and interesting city in Europe when the young Hitler first arrived there.  Home to the Court of the Emperor Franz Josef –– the isolated elderly ruler of the sprawling and unwieldy Dual Monarchy – the Austrian capital served as both the meeting place of 'alien' Eastern and acceptable 'Aryan' Western civilizations and as something of a magnet for artists, composers, writers and other 'Modernist' intellectuals.  It was also the ideal breeding ground –– in the heart and mind of a penniless would-be student who had somehow convinced himself that he possessed the artistic talent necessary to become the next Peter Paul Rubens –– for pro-Germanic political extremism fuelled, in equal measure, by widespread xenophobia and rabid anti-Semitism.  

Tauris-Parke Books, 2010
Hamann does an extraordinary job of pulling together the various seemingly unrelated strands of the young Hitler's pre-Nazi era life –– his unrealized ambition to study art, his interest in drama, theatre design and the operas of Richard Wagner, his deepening conviction that it was the Jews who were eroding what had been and should continue to be a strictly Aryan identity (he was not, according to her research, a confirmed Jew-hater prior to his arrival in the city) as well as his emerging gifts as a public speaker and fledgling political opportunist.  She demonstrates how his ideas were influenced by the city's politicians (including Dr Karl Lueger, its widely beloved Christian Democrat mayor), its journalists, its many racist cranks and even by socio-economic factors such as inflation, the chronic housing shortage and its soaring unemployment rate.  Anti-Semitism was the key social and political issue of the day, debated at length in Parliament, in Vienna's many cafés as well as in its wide variety of daily and weekly newspapers (all of which the young Hitler apparently studied with the devotion of a monk studying scripture).  It was also the key component in the writings of crackpot 'visionaries' like Guido von List, Otto Weininger (a Jew who converted to Protestantism and committed suicide at twenty-three) and Arthur Trebitsch (another Jew whose failure to find acceptance as a top-rank intellectual led to his denouncing of Judaism and virulent espousing of the 'pure Aryan' cause) –– men whose work was sold in many of the city's bookstores and could even be read for free in some of its larger municipal libraries.

But the most fascinating aspect of Hitler's Vienna is the light it sheds on the day-to-day life and developing mindset of this uncertain, frustrated, sexually insecure, socially inept, emotionally volatile outsider from Linz who was twice rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts (due to what his examiners classified as his 'unfitness for painting') and found himself living on the streets by Christmas 1909, obliging him to seek shelter in one of the city's privately-run Männerheime before finding a more permanent 'home,' of a sort, in a new, ultra-modern (and mostly Jewish-funded) men's hostel in the outlying working class suburb of Brigittenau.  Hitler's stay in the Brigittenau shelter, where he at last began to eke out a living by selling mediocre watercolour and postcard paintings to tourists and picture frame manufacturers (who weren't at all fussy what the art looked like as long as it displayed their wares to their best advantage) was to prove crucial to his political development and subsequent emergence as a gripping if somewhat radical public speakerExposed to men of virtually every racial background hailing from virtually every corner of the ailing and unwieldy Austro-Hungarian Empire –– including many Jews, some of whom he liked and even allegedly befriended –– he was able to talk politics in its reading room whenever he felt like it and hone his rapidly improving skills as an orator whose favourite trick of angrily shouting down his opponents ensured that he was certain of holding the floor for as long as he felt like talking.

The hostel – which was his home from February 1910 until he left Vienna in May 1913 for the German city of Munich –– became both his refuge (from poverty and women, whom he simultaneously idealized as symbols of 'perfection' and feared for their 'immorality') and his private university, a safe haven in a city and nation sliding slowly but inexorably towards war.  While it would be his experiences as a soldier in World War One and its disastrous aftermath –– the Treaty of Versailles, the Depression and the economic hardships these events would impose upon his newly adopted homeland –that would turn Hitler into the confirmed anti-Semite and the clever, ruthlessly astute German politician he had become by 1921, it was the years he spent in Vienna – hungry, lonely, humiliating and politically turbulent years – which taught him that the swiftest route to power is to capitalize on a nation's already existing prejudices by demonizing its most visible but basically defenseless minoritiesAlthough his apprenticeship was a relatively short one, it enabled him –– a penniless young nobody from the provinces who in 1909 could not even earn enough to feed and house himself –– to become Chancellor of one of Europe's largest and most powerful nations within the space of only twenty years.   

It's tempting to speculate what might have happened to Hitler, and to the world, had he stayed in Linz or been accepted as a painting student by the instructors at Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts.  There's little doubt that what he experienced in the streets, cafés, libraries, hostels, museums and concert halls of the Austrian capital set the stage for his phenomenal rise to power and consolidated the anti-Semitism which allowed him and the Nazi Party to undertake what they so chillingly described as 'the Final Solution to the world's Jewish problem.'

The WriterBrigitte Hamann (née Dietert) was born in the German city of Essen in 1940 and studied history at the University of Münster, after which she returned to Essen where she worked briefly as a journalist.  She married Austrian history professor Günther Hamann in 1965 and moved to Vienna with him, where they worked side by side in that city's university for many years while raising their three children.  She obtained her PhD in 1978 for her thesis on the life of Austria's doomed Crown Prince Rudolf –– Franz Josef's heir who scandalously shot himself and his aristocratic nineteen year old mistress at his hunting lodge in Mayerling in 1889 – which was published as a book later that same year.  In addition to her biographies of Crown Prince Rudolf and Hitler, she has also published biographies (in English) of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the Austrian novelist, pacifist and first female Nobel Laureate Bertha von Suttner and Winifred Wagner, the English-born daughter-in-law of Richard Wagner who was also one of Nazism's earliest, wealthiest and most influential patrons. 

The winner of many prizes and other literary honours, in November 2012 Dr Hamann was awarded the Honorary Prize of the Austrian Booksellers Association for 'tolerance in thought and deed.'  She continues to live and work in Vienna and considers herself Austrian, even if, as she herself explains it, 'I don't talk like one.'

The 2010 English paperback edition of Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship –– superbly translated by THOMAS THORNTON –– should still available via your local library, bookstore or favourite online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #3: Louis-Ferdinand Céline
ANNA AKHMATOVA Selected Poems 1909-1963 (1985)


  1. I will seek out a copy immediately. The condition of the times and the development of the person.

  2. I hope you do seek it out, RT. A book definitely worth reading for the light it sheds on Hitler's childhood & political education & the impact these had on Germany & the world. Appreciate the comment too. Thanks.