Hitler family letters reveal a complex early home life

Adolf’s father, Alois, was the source of his son’s least attractive features, letters suggest

Alois Hitler: a poor father. Photograph: Ullstein bild via Getty

Alois Hitler: a poor father. Photograph: Ullstein bild via Getty

 

At first glance the bundle of 31 yellowing letters that have spent the past century in an Austrian attic contain little more than village gossip.

But their historic value becomes obvious with a closer look at the sender’s name, in antiquated script: Alois Hitler.

The cache of letters, published for the first time in a book titled Hitler’s Father, fills in crucial blanks in the early family life of the man who would go on to become one of history’s most notorious figures.

Nearly 80 years after he took his own life, what little historians know to date of Adolf Hitler and his parents has, through countless retellings, taken on the tired patina of a Freudian trope: distant, tyrannical father; soft, ineffectual mother.

But the letters Alois Hitler wrote regularly to his friend Josef Radlegger paint a more complex picture of their home life.

Alois, born in 1837 in imperial Austria, spent most of his life battling two early disadvantages: an “illegitimate” birth and almost no formal schooling. Despite this he joined the civil service and rose through the ranks of the customs office.

His first marriage, to a woman 14 years his senior, was childless, while his second wife, 18 years younger, ended with her premature death. His third wife, Klara, a distant cousin, was already pregnant when they married, and the couple lost four of their six children before she died of cancer aged 47.

Young Adolf

Adolf was born on April 20th, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, a small town 60km north of Salzburg.

Author Roman Sandgruber says the newly discovered letters indicate Alois was the source of his son’s least attractive features: authoritative personality, arrogance, pig-headedness, and contempt for the church, science and the nobility.

Alois failed on many fronts: as a father, husband and as a person, with few friends and no real home, argues Prof Roman Sandgruber, author of Hitler’s Father.

“There’s an almost slavish imitation of the father through the son, from the strikingly similar signatures to the shared contempt of school knowledge and the confidence of an autodidact,” he writes.

From the letters, Alois provides a more complex – and flattering – picture of the dictator’s mother.

“She was not uneducated and was no downtrodden spouse who was merely exploited,” writes the historian. Instead, he says the letters portray a smart woman who appears to have been involved in decision-making at home.

“My wife likes to be busy,” wrote Alois in 1894, “and has the necessary joy but also understanding for [good] housekeeping.”