Given all the numerous biographies, articles and documentaries about the life and career of Adolf Hitler, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that there is very little left for historians to discover about his early years.
Yet some new and arguably quite astonishing news has emerged about the research findings of a local historian working in Austria, evidence which strongly suggests that the Nazi dictator had a big secret: he was the third, not the fourth, child of his parents, Alois and Klara, and – moreover – he had a disabled younger brother.
In the last few days various newspapers and media outlets across Europe and in the UK have carried some intriguing details about the research of historian Florian Kotanko, chairman of the Braunau historical association, who has revealed to an Austrian newspaper the results of his careful investigation of parish records in Braunau an Inn, the northern Austrian town where Hitler (see photo) was born on April 20th, 1889.
According to this dramatic new information, the files show that not only was the Nazi leader the third child in his family, but that the fourth child was a disabled younger brother who died of hydrocephalus, which is a build-up of fluid on the brain, causing swelling.
The brother, named Otto, was born in June, 1892, but lived for only seven days. Biographers of Hitler have often assumed that Gustav, Ida and Otto, the first three children of Hitler’s parents Alois and Klara, all died in infancy before Adolf was born, and then Adolf was followed by two younger siblings, Edmund and Paula (Edmund died of measles in 1900).
If this new information is correct, it is a ground-breaking discovery, and illustrates how there are still facts about the Fuhrer that can be unearthed, even all these years later.
More significantly, for scholars with a research interest in Nazism and the Third Reich, it raises all sorts of questions about the extent to which Adolf Hitler may have been aware of, or possibly later influenced by, the memory of his brother.
Hitler, of course, placed ‘racial hygiene’ at the core of his ideology and promoted a vision of German Aryans as perfect racial specimens. This entailed the eradication of any individual German citizen who was classed as ‘weak’ or a ‘burden’ on the state. To this end, he signed orders for an extensive euthanasia programme which secretly began in 1939 and, in many ways, was a prelude to the wartime Final Solution. As Richard J. Evans has recently described it, in Nazi Germany mass killing became state policy in 1939 and it began with the mentally and physically handicapped. The Nazi euthanasia programme thus included orders for the murder by doctors of German patients with life-threatening disabilities.
Florian Kotanko said his new research findings raised the possibility that Adolf, aged three, may have been aware of his mother Klara’s pregnancy and even briefly saw his disabled brother.
As Kotanko himself put it when speaking to an Austrian newspaper: ‘The conclusions of many biographers about the psychological development of Hitler – who was said to have received special care from his mother, Klara, as the sole surviving child after the death of three siblings – is no longer tenable’. Kotanko added that the extent to which Hitler’s brother’s condition ‘affected the subsequent behaviour of Hitler towards people with disabilities is an open question’.
The new findings also challenge the version of their family history recounted by Paula Hitler when she was interrogated by American military intelligence officers in 1945. Born in 1896, Paula was the only one of the children to survive the Second World War. In the details she gave to the military authorities, she claimed that the first two siblings died of diptheria in infancy, followed by Otto. But she did not mention the latter’s disability or the cause of his death. Either she covered up Otto’s disability or simply had no knowledge of it.
I have no doubt that scholars and future biographers will already be weighing up this new information carefully. Interestingly, it follows not long after some other genuinely new evidence about Hitler’s early life emerged in 2011. In Hitler’s First War, the historian Thomas Weber presented some important new findings on Hitler’s military service in the First World War, evidence which challenged Hitler’s own highly questionable autobiographical version of his wartime career.
Weber’s evidence was also based on hard digging in local and state archives in Germany and Austria, which still held military records and other vital information kept by Hitler’s Bavarian regiment.
Steve Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University