As the absolute dictator of the German Third Reich and self appointed commander of its military, Adolf Hitler conquered the largest portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa ever subdued by a single armed force. In the process, he initiated World War II, which led to the deaths of more than 35 million people. In earning his position as one of the most influential military leaders of all time, Hitler also became the most diabolical and barbaric.
Born the son of a minor customs clerk of German ancestry and an Austrian peasant on April 20, 1889, in Braunau am Inn, Austria, Hitler failed high school and spent his early twenties as a laborer and street artist, sleeping in parks and eating in soup kitchens. Embittered by continuous failures, Hitler moved from Vienna to Munich, hoping to find his father’s German homeland an improvement over his native Austria. He later summed up his feelings:
“I was convinced that the State (Austria) was sure to obstruct every really great German…. I hated the motley collection (in Austria of Czechs, Ruthenians, Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, and above all that ever-present fungoid growth – Jews…. I became a fanatical anti-semite.”
In 1914 Hitler volunteered for the Sixteenth Bavarian Infantry Regiment and, for the remainder of World War I, served on the Western Front, acting as infantryman and foot messenger. Although wounded once, the victim of a gas attack on another occasion, and decorated for bravery four times, Hitler never advanced beyond the rank of corporal.
Hitler returned to Munich at war’s end and joined the embryonic German’s Workers Party in 1919. in April the following year, he assumed its leadership, enlarged the organization, and changed its name to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis). Using his mastery or oratory and his organizational abilities, Hitler increased the Nazi Party membership and conspired with local military units to seize control of Bavaria. Despite the region’s severe economic and political turmoil, local officials put down the putsch of November 8-9, 1923, and arrested Hitler.
The Bavarian government convicted Hitler of treason and confined him in the Landsberg Prison for nine months before releasing him through a general amnesty. While in jail, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), outlining his Nazi philosophies and hinting at his future expansion plans. By 1927, Hitler had restored the Nazi Party to prominence and increased its numbers through his public-speaking ability. The Great Depression of 1929 brought Hitler to the attention of the mainstream German public, who fell under his spell of promises to provide jobs, strengthen the economy, and return Germany to national glory and power.
What Hitler had been unable to achieve with force, he accomplished through the ballot. The election of 1932 gave the Nazi Party control of the Reichstag, and the following year, the former army corporal became the chancellor of Germany.
Once in power, Hitler quickly established himself as a popular leader through his personal charm and as an absolute dictator via the murder or imprisonment of opponents. He blatantly violated the World War I armistice condition by rearming Germany, an action which gave him a strong military, provided sufficient jobs, and boosted the German economy. Hitler, who considered himself a veteran frontline soldier, disdained the titled military elites, whom he blamed for defeat in World War I, and replaced them with his own favorites.
Militarily, Hitler was extremely well read, with an excellent grasp of the emerging concept of armor and maneuver warfare. He funded the building of the Panzer Corps and other weaponry to make blitzkrieg warfare a reality; he also authorized the formation of an air force and a U-boat fleet. Although Hitler readily adopted new technology and understood the importance of mass and surprise in modern warfare, he was, overall, a poor military commander. He did not pay heed to the advice of his experienced subordinated and on occasion sacrificed his service personnel and endangered the civilian population for no apparent reason.
In 1936, Hitler began his offensive to return glory – and land – to Germany by occupying the Rhineland. Two years alter, he annexed his native Austria and took over the Sudentenland and Czechoslovakia while the rest of the world stood in awe of Germany’s military might. Not until Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 did France and Great Britain finally declare war on Germany, but their efforts barely slowed the German advance. In 1940, Hitler occupied Scandinavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, and the following year, he took over Greece and Yugoslavia. Only a brilliant air defense and the barrier of the English Channel prevented Germany from invading Great Britain.
By 1941, Hitler had accomplished all, if not more, than could be expected from a country the size of Germany, but it was not enough for the Fuhrer (undisputed leader). In June he broke a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded Russia. At about the same time, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States.
Hitler and Germany were at their height of power. However, the German eastern offensive against the Soviets stalled outside Moscow in the face of the Red Army and the Russian winter, adding Hitler’s name to the list of commanders defeated there. Hitler fired his senior generals and refused to accept the possibility that his army could fail, allowing his soldiers to be killed or captured rather than giving his permission to retreat.
For the next four years, Hitler acted as his own military commander in chief. He dealt with the army through a Chief of Staff and with the other services through a command organization of his own design. Hitler now dressed mostly in uniform and commanded every move of the German military, relishing the title Grofaz, an acronym of the German for “the greatest commander of all time.” Despite such able subordinates as Karl Doenitz, Erwin Rommel, and Heinz Guderian, Hitler retained full command authority and often disregarded his commanders and advisers.
Even though it was becoming obvious that Germany did not have the strength to sustain fronts against both the Soviets to the east and the Americans and other Allies to the west, Hitler rationalized the deterioration of his army, believing that Germany did not deserve to survive if it did not attain world dominance. At this critical time, Hitler, and Germany as a whole, continued to deploy trains, men, and supplies, in great demand at the front, to transport Jews and other “undesirables,” including political opponents, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the physically and mentally disabled, to the gas chambers and crematoriums. To the very end, Hitler continued his efforts to destroy entire peoples by killing more than 6 million innocents, most of them Jews. This Holocaust alone marks Hitler as history’s most deplorable, barbaric character.
Even as his military crumbled, Hitler promised the delivery of “superweapons” and boasted that he and Germany would fight “until five past midnight,” which they very nearly did. However, in the end, with Soviet troops closing in on his Berlin command bunker, Hitler, fifty-six, committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Seven days alter, World War II came to an end, leaving more than 35 million dead and countless more wounded, maimed, and homeless.
For nearly a decade, Hitler stood as the world’s mightiest military commander. He rates a ranking high on this list of influential military leaders not for any enduring personal achievement but as the impetus for world change. His aggression started World War II, which killed millions and redrew the map of Europe. In the wake of the war, old world powers declined, and new ones replaced them. Germany endured nearly a half century of division before reuniting. The British and French empires have yet to recover. The Soviets rose to superpower status, only to later collapse. The United States abandoned its isolationist doctrine and became the only superpower. The independent state of Israel emerged and has already survived longer than Hitler’s Nazi Germany.