The Enigma of Hitler
by Leon Degrelle
“Hitler — You knew him — what was he like?”
I have been asked that question a thousand times since 1945, and
nothing is more difficult to answer.
Approximately two hundred thousand books have dealt with the Second
World War and with its central figure, Adolf Hitler. But has the real
Hitler been discovered by any of them? “The enigma of Hitler is
beyond all human comprehension,” the left-wing German weekly ‘Die
Zeit’ once put it.
Salvador Dali, art’s unique genius, sought to penetrate the mystery in
one of his most intensely dramatic paintings. Towering mountain
landscapes all but fill the canvas, leaving ony a few luminous meters
of seashore dotted with delicately miniturized human figures: the
last witness to a dying peace. A huge telephone receiver dripping
tears of blood hangs from the branch of a dead tree; and here and
there hang umbrellas and bats whose portent is visibly the same. As
Dali tells it, “Chamberlain’s umbrella appeared in this painting in a
sinister light, made evident by the bat, and it struck me when I
painted it as a thing of enormous anguish.”
He then confided: “I felt this painting to be deeply prophetic. But
I confess that I haven’t yet figured out the Hitler enigma either. He
attracted me only as an object of my mad imaginings and because I saw
him as a man uniquely capable of turning things completely upside
What a lesson in humility for the braying critics who have rushed into
print since 1945 with their thousands of ‘definitive’ books, most of
them scornful, about this man who so troubled the introspective Dali
that forty years later he still felt anguished and uncertain in the
presence of his own hallucinatory painting. Apart from Dali, who else
has ever tried to present an objective portrayal of this extraordinary
man who Dali labeled the most explosive figure in human history?
LIKE PAVLOV’S BELL
The mountains of Hitler books based on blink hatred and ignorance do
little to describe or explain the most powerful man the world has ever
seen. How, I ponder, do these thousands of disparate portraits of
Hitler in any way resemble the man I knew? The Hitler seated beside
me, standing up, talking, listening. It has become impossible to
explain to people fed fantastic tales for decades that what they have
read or heard on television just does not correspond to the truth.
People have come to accept fiction, repeated a thousand times over, as
reality. Yet they have never seen Hitler, never spoken to him, never
heard a word from his mouth. The very name of Hitler immediately
conjures up a grimacing devil, the fount of all of one’s negative
emotions. Like Pavlov’s bell, the mention of Hitler is meant to
dispense with substance and reality. In time, however, history will
demand more than these summary judgements.
Hitler is always present before my eyes: as a man of peace in 1936,
as a man of war in 1944. It is not possible to have been a personal
witness to the life of such an extraordinary man without being marked
by it forever. Not a day goes by but Hitler rises again in my memory,
not as a man long dead, but as a real being who paces his office
floor, seats himself in his chair, pokes the burning logs in the
The first thing anyone noticed when he came into view was his small
mustache. Countless times he had been advised to shave it off, but he
always refused: people were used to him the way he was.
He was not tall — no more than was Napoleon or Alexander the Great.
Hitler had deep blue eyes that many found bewitching, although I did
not find them so. Nor did I detect the electric current his hands
were said to give off. I gripped them quite a few times and was never
struck by his lightening.
His face showed emotion or indifference according to the passion or
apathy of the moment. At times he was as though benumbed, saying not
a word, while his jaws moved in the meanwhile as if they were grinding
an obstacle to smithereens in the void. Then he would come suddenly
alive and launch into a speech directed at you alone, as though he
were addressing a crowd of hundreds of thousands at Berlin’s Tempelhof
airfield. Then he became as if transfigured. Even his complexion,
otherwise dull, lit up as he spoke. And at such times, to be sure,
Hitler was strangely attractive and as if possessed of magic powers.
Anything that might have seemed too solemn in his remarks, he quickly
tempered with a touch of humour. The picturesque world, the biting
phrase were at his command. In a flash he would paint a word-picture
that brought a smile, or come up with an unexpected and disarming
comparison. He could be harsh and even implacable in his judgements
and yet almost at the same time be surprisingly conciliatory,
sensitive and warm.
After 1945 Hitler was accused of every cruelty, but it was not in his
nature to be cruel. He loved children. It was an entirely natural
thing for him to stop his car and share his food with young cyclists
along the road. Once he gave his raincoat to a derelict plodding in
the rain. At midnight he would interrupt his work and prepare the
food for his dog Blondi.
He could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living
creature. He refused to have so much as a rabbit or a trout
sacrificed to provide his food. He would allow only eggs on his
table, because egg-laying meant that the hen had been spared rather
Hitler’s eating habits were a constant source of amazement to me. How
could someone on such a rigorous schedule, who had taken part in tens
of thousands of exhausting mass meetings from which he emerged bathed
with sweat, often losing two to four pounds in the process; who slept
only three to four hours a night; and who, from 1940 to 1945, carried
the whole world on his shoulders while ruling over 380 million
Europeans: how, I wondered, could he physically survive on just a
boiled egg, a few tomatoes, two or three pancakes, and a plate of
noodles? But he actually gained weight!
He drank only water. He did not smoke and would not tolerate smoking
in his presence. At one or two o’clock in the morning he would still
be talking, untroubled, close to his fireplace, lively, often amusing.
He never showed any sign of weariness. Dead tired his audience might
be, but not Hitler.
He was depicted as a tired old man. Nothing was further from the
truth. In September 1944, when he was reported to be fairly
doddering, I spent a week with him. His mental and physical vigor
were still exceptional. The attempt made on his life on July 20th
had, if anything, recharged him. He took tea in his quarters as
tranquilly as if we had been in his small private apartment at the
chancellery before the war, or enjoying the view of snow and bright
blue sky through his great bay window at Berchtesgaden.
At the very end of his life, to be sure, his back had become bent, but
his mind remained as clear as a flash of lightening. The testament he
dictated with extraordinary composure on the eve of his death, at
three in the morning of April 29, 1945, provides us a lasting
testimony. Napoleon at Fontainebleau was not without his moments of
panic before his abdication. Hitler simply shook hands with his
associates in silence, breakfasted as on any other day, then went to
his death as if he were going on a stroll. When has history ever
witnessed so enormous a tragedy brought to its end with such iron self
Hitler’s most notable characteristic was ever his simplicity. The
most complex of problems resolved itself in his mind into a few basic
principles. His actions were geared to ideas and decisions that could
be understood by anyone. The laborer from Essen, the isolated farmer,
the Ruhr industrialist, and the university professor could all easily
follow his line of thought. The very clarity of his reasoning made
His behaviour and his life style never changed even when he became the
ruler of Germany. He dressed and lived frugally. During his early
days in Munich, he spend no more than a mark per day for food. At no
stage in his life did he spend anything on himself. Throughout his 13
years in the chancellery he never carried a wallet or ever had money
of his own.
Hitler was self-taught and made not attempt to hide the fact. The
smug conceit of intellectuals, their shiny ideas packaged like so many
flashlight batteries, irritated him at times. His own knowledge he
had acquired through selective and unremitting study, and he knew far
more than thousands of diploma-decorated academics.
I don’t think anyone ever read as much as he did. He normally read
one book every day, always first reading the conclusion and the index
in order to gauge the work’s interest for him. He had the power to
extract the essence of each book and then store it in his
computer-like mind. I have heard him talk about complicated
scientific books with faultless precision, even at the height of the
His intellectual curiosity was limitless. He was readily familiar
with the writings of the most diverse authors, and nothing was too
complex for his comprehension. He had a deep knowledge and
understanding of Buddha, Confucius and Jesus Christ, as well as
Luther, Calvin, and Savonarola; of literary giants such as Dante,
Schiller, Shakespeare and Goethe; and analytical writers such as
Renan and Gobineau, Chamberlain and Sorel.
He had trained himself in philosophy by studying Aristotle and Plato.
He could quote entire paragraphs of Schopenhauer from memory, and for
a long time carried a pocked edition of Schopenhauer with him.
Nietzsche taught him much about the willpower.
His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He spend hundreds of hours
studying the works of Tacitus and Mommsen, military strategists such
as Clausewitz, and empire builders such as Bismark. Nothing escaped
him: world history or the history of civilizations, the study of the
Bible and the Talmud, Thomistic philosophy and all the masterpieces of
Homer, Sophocles, Horace, Ovid, Titus Livius and Cicero. He knew
Julian the Apostate as if he had been his contemporary.
His knowledge also extended to mechanics. He knew how engines worked;
he understood the ballistics of various weapons; and he astonished
the best medical scientists with his knowledge of medicine and
The universality of Hitler’s knowledge may surprise or displease those
unaware of it, but it is nonetheless a historical fact: Hitler was
one of the most cultivated men of this century. Many times more so
than Churchill, an intellectual mediocrity; or than Pierre Lavaal,
with him mere cursory knowledge of history; of than Roosevelt; or
Eisenhower, who never got beyond detective novels.
THE YOUNG ARCHITECT
Even during his earliest years, Hitler was different than other
children. He had an inner strength and was guided by his spirit and
He could draw skillfully when he was only eleven years old. His
sketches made at that age show a remarkable firmness and liveliness.
He first paintings and watercolors, created at age 15, are full of
poetry and sensitivity. One of his most striking early works,
‘Fortress Utopia,’ also shows him to have been an artist of rare
imagination. His artistic orientation took many forms. He wrote
poetry from the time he was a lad. He dictated a complete play to his
sister Paula who was amazed at his presumption. At the age of 16, in
Vienna, he launched into the creation of an opera. He even designed
the stage settings, as well as all the costumes; and, of course, the
characters were Wagnerian heroes.
More than just an artist, Hitler was above all an architect. Hundreds
of his works were notable as much for the architecture as for the
painting. From memory alone he could reproduce in every detail the
onion dome of a church or the intricate curves of wrought iron.
Indeed, it was to fulfill his dream of becoming an architect that
Hitler went to Vienna at the beginning of the century.
When one sees the hundreds of paintings, sketches and drawings he
created at the time, which reveal his mastery of three dimensional
figures, it is astounding that his examiners at the Fine Arts Academy
failed him in two successive examinations. German historian Werner
Maser, no friend of Hitler, castigated these examiners: “All of his
works revealed extraordinary architectural gifts and knowledge. The
builder of the Third Reich gives the former Fine Arts Academy of
Vienna cause for shame.”
In his room, Hitler always displayed an old photograph of his mother.
The memory of the mother he loved was with him until the day he died.
Before leaving this earth, on April 30, 1945, he placed his mother’s
photograph in front of him. She had blue eyes like his and a similar
face. Her maternal intuition told her that her son was different from
other children. She acted almost as if she knew her son’s destiny.
When she died, she felt anguished by the immense mystery surrounding
Throughout the years of his youth, Hitler lived the life of a virtual
recluse. He greatest wish was to withdraw from the world. At heart a
loner, he wandered about, ate meager meals, but devoured the books of
three public libraries. He abstained from conversations and had few
It is almost impossible to imagine another such destiny where a man
started with so little and reached such heights. Alexander the great
was the son of a king. Napoleon, from a well-to-do family, was a
general at 24. Fifteen years after Vienna, Hitler would still be an
unknown corporal. Thousands of others had a thousand times more
opportunity to leave their mark on the world.
Hitler was not much concerned with his private life. In Vienna he had
lived in shabby, cramped lodgings. But for all that he rented a piano
that took up half his room, and concentrated on composing his opera.
He lived on bread, milk, and vegetable soup. His poverty was real. He
did not even own an over-coat. He shoveled streets on snowy days. He
carried luggage at the railway station. He spent many weeks in
shelters for the homeless. But he never stopped painting or reading.
Despite his dire poverty, Hitler somehow managed to maintain a clean
appearance. Landlords and landladies in Vienna and Munich all
remembered him for his civility and pleasant disposition. His
behaviour was impeccable. His room was always spotless, his meager
belongings meticulously arranged, and his clothes neatly hung or
folded. He washed and ironed his own clothes, something which in
those days few men did. He needed almost nothing to survive, and
money from the sale of a few paintings was sufficient to provide for
all his needs.
SEARCH FOR DESTINY
Impressed by the beauty of the church in a Benedictine monastery where
he was part of the choir and served as an altar boy, Hitler dreamt
fleetingly of becoming a Benedictine monk. And it was at that time,
too, interestingly enough, that whenever he attended mass, he always
had to pass beneath the first swastika he had ever seen: it was
graven in the stone escutcheon of the abbey portal.
Hitler’s father, a customs officer, hoped the boy would follow in his
footsteps and become a civil servant. His tutor encouraged him to
become a monk. Instead the young Hitler went, or rather fled, to
Vienna. And there, thwarted in his artistic aspirations by the
bureaucratic mediocrities of academia, he turned to isolation and
meditation. Lost in the great capital of Austria-Hungary, he searched
for his destiny.
During the first 30 years of Hitler’s life, the date April 20, 1889,
meant nothing to anyone. He was born on that day in Braunau, a small
town in the Inn valley. During his exile in Vienna, he often thought
of his modest home, and particularly of his mother. When she fell
ill, he returned home from Vienna to look after her. For weeks he
nursed her, did all the household chores, and supported her as the
most loving of sons. When she finally died, on Christmas eve, his
pain was immense. Wracked with grief, he buried his mother in the
little country cemetary. “I have never seen anyone so prostrate with
grief,” said his mother’s doctor, who happened to be Jewish.
A STRONG SOUL
Hitler had not yet focused on politics, but without his rightly
knowing, that was the career to which he was most strongly called.
Politics would ultimately blend with his passion for art. People, the
masses, would be the clay the sculptor shapes into an immortal form.
The human clay would become for him a beautiful work of art like one
of Myron’s marble sculptures, a Hans Makart painting, or Wagner’s Ring
His love of music, art and architecture had not removed him from the
political life and social concerns of Vienna. In order to survive, he
worked as a common laborer sided by side with other workers. He was a
silent spectator, but nothing escaped him: not the vanity and egoism
of the bourgeoisie, not the moral and material misery of the people,
nor yet the hundreds of thousands of workers who surged down the wide
avenues of Vienna with anger in their hearts.
He had also been taken aback by the growing presence in Vienna of
bearded Jews wearing caftans, a sight unknown in Linz. “How can they
be Germans?” he asked himself. He read the statistics: in 1860 there
were 69 Jewish families in Vienna; 40 years later there were 200,000.
They were everywhere. He observed their invasion of the universities
and the legal and medical professions, and their takeover of the
Hitler was exposed to the passionate reactions of the workers to this
influx, but the workers were not alone in their unhappiness. There
were many prominent persons in Austria and Hungary who did not hide
their resentment at what they believed was an alien invasion of their
country. The mayor of Vienna, a Christian-Democrat and a powerful
orator, was eagerly listened to by Hitler.
Hitler was also concerned with the fate of the eight million Austrian
Germans kept apart from Germany, and thus deprived of their rightful
German nationhood. He saw Emperor Franz Josef as a bitter and petty
old man unable to cope with the problems of the day and the
aspirations of the future.
Quietly, the young Hitler was summing things up in his mind.
First: Austrians were part of Germany, the common fatherland.
Second: The Jews were aliens within the German community.
Third: Patriotism was only valid if it was shared by all classes. The
common people with whom Hitler had shared grief and humiliation were
just as much a part of the fatherland as the millionaires of high
Fourth: Class war would sooner or later condemn both workers and
bosses to ruin in any country. No country could survive class war;
only cooperation between workers and bosses can benefit the country.
Workers must be respected and live with decency and honor. Creativity
must never be stifled.
When Hitler later said that he had formed his social and political
doctrine in Vienna, he told the truth. Ten years later his
observations made in Vienna would become the order of the day.
Thus Hitler was to live for several years in the crowded city of
Vienna as a virtual outcast, yet quietly observing everything around
him. His strength came from within. He did not rely on anyone to do
his thinking for him. Exceptional human beings always feel lonely
amid the vast human throng. Hitler saw his solitude as a wonderful
opportunity to meditate and not to be submerged in a mindless sea. In
order not to be lost in the wastes of a sterile desert, a strong soul
seeks refuge within himself. Hitler was such a soul.
The lightning in Hitler’s life would come from the word.
All his artistic talent would be channeled into his mastery of
communication and eloquence. Hitler would never conceive of popular
conquests without the power of the word. He would enchant and be
enchanted by it. He would find total fulfillment when the magic of
his words inspired the hearts and minds of the masses with whom he
He would feel reborn each time he conveyed with mystical beauty the
knowledge he had acquired in his lifetime.
Hitler’s incantory eloquence will remain, for a very long time, a vast
field of study for the psychoanalyst. The power of Hitler’s word is
the key. Without it, there would never have been a Hitler era.
Did Hitler believe in God? He believed deeply in God. He called God
the Almighty, master of all that is known and unknown.
Propagandists portrayed Hitler as an atheist. He was not. He had
contempt for hypocritical and materialistic clerics, but he was not
alone in that. He believed in the necessity of standards and
theological dogmas, without which, he repeatedly said, the great
institution of the Christian church would collapse. These dogmas
clashed with his intelligence, but he also recognized that it was hard
for the human mind to encompass all the problems of creation, its
limitless scope and breathtaking beauty. He acknowledged that every
human being has spiritual needs.
The song of the nightingale, the pattern and color of a flower,
continually brought him back to the great problems of creation. No
one in the world has spoken to me so eloquently about the existence of
God. He held this view not because he was brought up as a Christian,
but because his analytical mind bound him to the concept of God.
Hitler’s faith transcended formulas and contingencies. God was for
him the basis of everything, the ordainer of all things, of his
Destiny and that of all others.
From the Journal of Historical Review, May/June 1994, Vol. 14, No. 3,