Biography of Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Third Reich

Hitler in a crowd

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Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was the leader of Germany during the Third Reich (1933–1945). He was the primary instigator of both the Second World War in Europe and the mass execution of millions of people deemed to be "enemies," or inferior to the Aryan ideal. He rose from being a talentless painter to the dictator of Germany and, for a few months, emperor of much of Europe. His empire was crushed by an array of the world's strongest nations; he killed himself before he could be tried and brought to justice.

Fast Facts: Adolf Hitler

  • Known For: Leading the German Nazi party and instigating World War II
  • Born: April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria
  • Parents: Alois Hitler and Klara Poelzl
  • Died: April 30, 1945 in Berlin, Germany
  • Education: Realschule in Steyr
  • Published Works: Mein Kampf
  • Spouse: Eva Braun
  • Notable Quote: "In starting and waging a war it is not right that matters but victory."

Early Life

Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, on April 20, 1889 to Alois Hitler (who, as an illegitimate child, had previously used his mother’s name of Schickelgruber) and Klara Poelzl. A moody child, he grew hostile towards his father, especially once the latter had retired and the family had moved to the outskirts of Linz. Alois died in 1903 but left money to take care of the family. Adolf was close to his mother, who was highly indulgent of him, and he was deeply affected when she died in 1907. He left school at age 16 in 1905, intending to become a painter. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't a very good one.


Hitler went to Vienna in 1907 where he applied to the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts but was twice turned down. This experience further embittered the increasingly angry Hitler. He returned to Vienna again when his mother died, living first with a more successful friend (Kubizek) and then moving from hostel to hostel as a lonely, vagabond figure. He recovered to make a living selling his art cheaply as a resident in a community "Men's Home."

During this period, Hitler appears to have developed the worldview that would characterize his whole life, and which centered on hatred for Jews and Marxists. Hitler was well-placed to be influenced by the demagogy of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s deeply anti-Semitic mayor and a man who used hate to help create a party of mass support. Hitler had previously been influenced by Schonerer, an Austrian politician against liberals, socialists, Catholics, and Jews. Vienna was also highly anti-Semitic; Hitler's hate was not unusual, it was simply part of the popular mindset. What Hitler went on to do was present these ideas more successfully than ever before.

The First World War

Hitler moved to Munich in 1913 and avoided Austrian military service in early 1914 by virtue of being unfit for service. However, when the First World War broke out in 1914, he joined the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, serving throughout the war, mostly as a corporal after refusing promotion. He proved to be an able and brave soldier as a dispatch runner, winning the Iron Cross on two occasions (First and Second Class). He was also wounded twice, and four weeks before the war ended he suffered a gas attack that temporarily blinded and hospitalized him. It was there he learned of Germany’s surrender, which he took as a betrayal. He especially hated the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany had to sign after the war as part of the settlement.

Hitler Enters Politics

After WWI, Hitler became convinced he was destined to help Germany, but his first move was to stay in the army for as long as possible because it paid wages, and to do so, he went along with the socialists now in charge of Germany. He was soon able to turn the tables and drew the attention of army anti-socialists, who were setting up anti-revolutionary units. In 1919, working for an army unit, he was assigned to spy on a political party of roughly 40 idealists called the German Workers Party. Instead, he joined it, swiftly rose to a position of dominance (he was chairman by 1921), and renamed it the Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). He gave the party the Swastika as a symbol and organized a personal army of "storm troopers" (the SA or Brownshirts) and bodyguards of black-shirted men, the Schutzstaffel (SS), to attack opponents. He also discovered, and used, his powerful ability for public speaking.

The Beer Hall Putsch

In November 1923, Hitler organized Bavarian nationalists under a figurehead of General Ludendorff into a coup (or "putsch"). They declared their new government in a beer hall in Munich; a group of 3,000 marched through the streets, but they were met by police who opened fire, killing 16.

Hitler was arrested in1924 and used his trial to spread his name and his ideas widely. He was sentenced to just five years in prison, a sentence often described as a sign of tacit agreement with his views.

Hitler served only nine months in prison, during which he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a book outlining his theories on race, Germany, and Jews. It sold five million copies by 1939. Only then, in prison, did Hitler come to believe he was destined to be a leader. The man who thought he was paving the way for a German leader of genius now thought he was the genius who could take and use power.


After the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler resolved to seek power through subverting the Weimar government system, and he carefully rebuilt the NSDAP, or Nazi, party, allying with future key figures like Goering and propaganda mastermind Goebbels. Over time, he expanded the party’s support, partly by exploiting the fears of socialists and partly by appealing to everyone who felt their economic livelihood threatened by the depression of the 1930s.

Over time, he gained the interest of big business, the press, and the middle classes. Nazi votes jumped to 107 seats in the Reichstag in 1930. It's important to stress that Hitler wasn't a socialist. The Nazi party that he was molding was based on race, not the idea of socialism, but it took a good few years for Hitler to grow powerful enough to expel the socialists from the party. Hitler didn't take power in Germany overnight and took years for him to take full power of his party overnight.

President and Führer

In 1932, Hitler acquired German citizenship and ran for president, coming in second to von Hindenburg. Later that year, the Nazi party acquired 230 seats in the Reichstag, making them the largest party in Germany. At first, Hitler was refused the office of Chancellor by a president who distrusted him, and a continued snub might have seen Hitler cast out as his support failed. However, factional divisions at the top of government meant that, thanks to conservative politicians believing they could control Hitler, he was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Hitler moved with great speed to isolate and expel opponents from power, shutting trade unions and removing communists, conservatives, and Jews.

Later that year, Hitler perfectly exploited an act of arson on the Reichstag (which some believe the Nazis helped cause) to begin the creation of a totalitarian state, dominating the March 5 elections thanks to support from nationalist groups. Hitler soon took over the role of president when Hindenburg died and merged the role with that of chancellor to become führer ("leader") of Germany.

In Power

Hitler continued to move with speed in radically changing Germany, consolidating power, locking up “enemies” in camps, bending culture to his will, rebuilding the army, and breaking the constraints of the Treaty of Versailles. He tried to change the social fabric of Germany by encouraging women to breed more and bringing in laws to secure racial purity; Jews were particularly targeted. Employment, high elsewhere in a time of depression, fell to zero in Germany. Hitler also made himself head of the army, smashed the power of his former brownshirt street warriors, and expunged the socialists fully from his party and his state. Nazism was the dominant ideology. Socialists were the first in the death camps.

World War II and the Failure of the Third Reich

Hitler believed he must make Germany great again through creating an empire and engineered territorial expansion, uniting with Austria in an Anschluss and dismembering Czechoslovakia. The rest of Europe was worried, but France and Britain were prepared to concede limited expansion with Germany, taking within it the German fringe. Hitler, however, wanted more.

It was in September 1939, when German forces invaded Poland, that other nations took a stand and declared war. This was not unappealing to Hitler, who believed Germany should make itself great through war, and invasions in 1940 went well. Over the course of that year, France fell and the Third Reich expanded. However, his fatal mistake occurred in 1941 with the invasion of Russia, through which he wished to create lebensraum, or "living room." After initial success, German forces were pushed back by Russia, and defeats in Africa and West Europe followed as Germany was slowly beaten.


During the last years of the war, Hitler became gradually more paranoid and divorced from the world, retreating to a bunker. As armies approached Berlin from two directions, Hitler married his mistress Eva Braun and on April 30, 1945, he killed himself. The Soviets found his body soon after and spirited it away so it would never become a memorial. A piece remains in a Russian archive.


Hitler will forever be remembered for starting the Second World War, the most costly conflict in world history, thanks to his desire to expand Germany’s borders through force. He will equally be remembered for his dreams of racial purity, which prompted him to order the execution of millions of people, perhaps as high as 11 million. Although every arm of German bureaucracy was turned to pursuing the executions, Hitler was the chief driving force.

In the decades since Hitler’s death, many commentators have concluded that he must have been mentally ill and that, if he wasn’t when he started his rule, the pressures of his failed wars must have driven him mad. Given that he ordered genocide and ranted and raved, it is easy to see why people have come to this conclusion, but it’s important to state that there is no consensus among historians that he was insane, or what psychological problems he may have had.


Adolf Hitler.”, A&E Networks Television, 14 Feb. 2019.

Alan Bullock, Baron Bullock, et al. “Adolf Hitler.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 19 Dec. 2018.

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Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Third Reich." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Biography of Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Third Reich. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Biography of Adolf Hitler, Leader of the Third Reich." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).