10 Facts About Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) in Munich in the spring of 1932.
Heinrich Hoffmann/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Among the world leaders of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler is among the most notorious. The founder of the Nazi Party, Hitler is responsible for starting World War II and unleashing the genocide of the Holocaust. Although he killed himself in the waning days of the war, his historical legacy continues to reverberate in the 21st century. Learn more about Adolf Hitler's life and times with these 10 facts.

Parents and Siblings

Despite being so readily identified with Germany, Adolf Hitler wasn't a German national by birth. He was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, on April 20, 1889, to Alois (1837–1903) and Klara (1860–1907) Hitler. The union was Alois Hitler's third. During their marriage, Alois and Klara Hitler had five other children, but only their daughter Paula (1896–1960) survived to adulthood.

Dreams of Being an Artist

Throughout his youth, Adolf Hitler dreamed of becoming an artist. He applied in 1907 and again the following year to the Vienna Academy of Art but was denied admission both times. At the end of 1908, Klara Hitler died of breast cancer, and Adolf spent the next four years living on the streets of Vienna, selling postcards of his artwork to survive.

Soldier in World War I

As nationalism roiled Europe, Austria began conscripting young men into the military. To avoid being conscripted, Hitler moved to Munich, Germany, in May 1913.

Ironically, he volunteered to serve in the German army once World War I began. During his four years of military service, Hitler never rose higher than the rank of corporal, though he was decorated twice for valor.

Hitler sustained two major injuries during the war. The first occurred at the Battle of the Somme in October 1916 when he was wounded by shrapnel and spent two months in the hospital.

Two years later, on Oct. 13, 1918, a British mustard gas attack caused Hitler to go temporarily blind. He spent the remainder of the war recuperating from his injuries.

Political Roots

Like many on the losing side of World War I, Hitler was furious at Germany's capitulation and the harsh penalties that the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended the war, imposed. Returning to Munich, he joined the German Workers' Party, a small right-wing political organization with anti-Semitic leanings.

Hitler soon became the party's leader, created a 25-point platform for the party, and established the swastika as the party's symbol. In 1920, the party's name was changed to National Socialist German Workers' Party, commonly known as the Nazi Party. Over the next several years, Hitler often gave public speeches that gained him attention, followers, and financial support.

An Attempted Coup

Motivated by the success of Benito Mussolini's seizing power in Italy in 1922, Hitler and other Nazi leaders plotted their own coup in a Munich beer hall. In the overnight hours of Nov. 8 and 9, 1923, Hitler led a group of about 2,000 Nazis into downtown Munich in a putsch, an attempt to overthrow the regional government.

Violence broke out when police confronted and fired upon the marchers, killing 16 Nazis. The coup, which came to be known as the Beer Hall Putsch, was a failure, and Hitler fled.

Apprehended two days later, Hitler was tried and sentenced to five years in prison for treason. While behind bars, he wrote his autobiography, "Mein Kampf" (My Struggle). In the book, he articulated many of the anti-Semitic and nationalist philosophies he would later make policy as German leader. Hitler was released from prison after only nine months, determined to build up the Nazi Party in order to take over the German government using legal means.

The Nazis Seize Power

Even while Hitler was in prison, the Nazi Party continued to participate in local and national elections, slowly consolidating power throughout the rest of the 1920s.

By 1932, the German economy was reeling from the Great Depression, and the ruling government proved unable to quell the political and social extremism that roiled much of the nation.

In the July 1932 elections, just months after Hitler became a German citizen (thus making him eligible to hold office), the Nazi Party obtained 37.3 percent of the vote in national elections, giving it a majority in the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor.

Hitler, the Dictator

On Feb. 27, 1933, the Reichstag burned under mysterious circumstances. Hitler used the fire to suspend many basic civil and political rights and to consolidate his political power. When German President Paul von Hindenburg died in office on Aug. 2, 1934, Hitler took the title of führer and Reichskanzler (leader and Reich chancellor), assuming dictatorial control over the government. 

Hitler set about rapidly rebuilding Germany's military, in clear defiance of the Versailles Treaty. At the same time, the Nazi government began swiftly cracking down on political dissent and enacting an ever-harsher series of laws disenfranchising Jews, gays, the disabled, and others that would culminate in the Holocaust. In March 1938, demanding more room for the German people, Hitler annexed Austria (called the Anschluss) without firing a single shot. Not satisfied, Hitler agitated further, eventually annexing Czechoslovakia's western provinces.

World War II Begins

Emboldened by his territorial gain and new alliances with Italy and Japan, Hitler turned his eyes east to Poland.

On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded, quickly overrunning Polish defenses and occupying the western half of the nation. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany, having pledged to defend Poland. The Soviet Union, having signed a secret nonaggression treaty with Hitler, occupied eastern Poland. World War II had begun, but the real fighting was months away.

On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway; the following month, the Nazi war machine crossed through Holland and Belgium, attacking France and sending British troops fleeing back to the U.K. By the following summer, the Germans seemed unstoppable, having invaded North Africa, Yugoslavia, and Greece. But Hitler, hungry for more, made what would eventually be his fatal mistake. On June 22, Nazi troops attacked the Soviet Union, determined to dominate Europe.

The War Turns

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drew the U.S. into the world war, and Hitler responded by declaring war on America. For the next two years, the Allied nations of the U.S., the U.S.S.R., Britain, and the French Resistance struggled to contain the German military. Not until the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, did the tide truly turn, and the Allies began to squeeze Germany from both east and west.

The Nazi regime was slowly crumbling from without and within. On July 20, 1944, Hitler barely survived an assassination attempt, called the July Plot, led by one of his top military officers. Over the following months, Hitler assumed more direct control over German war strategy, but he was doomed to failure.

The Final Days

As Soviet troops neared the outskirts of Berlin in the waning days of April 1945, Hitler and his top commanders barricaded themselves in an underground bunker to await their fates. On April 29, 1945, Hitler married his long-time mistress, Eva Braun, and the following day, they committed suicide together as Russian troops approached the center of Berlin. Their bodies were burned on grounds near the bunker, and the surviving Nazi leaders either killed themselves or fled. Two days later, on May 2, Germany surrendered.