Biography History Politics

The Young Hitler I Knew (1953). August Kubizek

Kubizek’s memoir constitutes one of the few reliable sources of Hitler’s years in Linz, and in Vienna before penury made Hitler homeless. Kubizek’s account is sympathetic but balanced. Combining character analysis with narrative of shared ideas and adventures, it provdes not only insights into the gestation of a tyrant — but a delightful read.

August Kubizek is one of our few sources about Adolf Hitler’s adolescence; Kubizek’s memoir of his friendship with the young Hitler constitute the most extensive firsthand account of this formative period of Hitler’s life. Covering 1904-1908 (when Hitler was aged 15-19), this memoir portrays a youth already unmoored from social structures, ambitious, teeming with fantastic and detailed plans, and turning from the arts to politics. While Kubizek’s account has been challenged in some particulars, it constitutes an important historical document. It is also a beautiful book, combing sections of character analysis with narrative of shared adventures: from climbing Mt. Rax and getting stranded on the peak overnight; to Hitler being propositioned by women and homosexuals; to Kubizek’s being forced to stay up listening, night after night, as Hitler paced their tiny room lecturing on parliamentary inefficacy and the books he was devouring.

Linz is the capital of the Austrian state of Upper Austria, where Hitler spent his later adolescence. It was at the town opera-house that Hitler met Kubizek: the son of an upholsterer, nine months his senior. The two youths were drawn together by their passion for music. They stayed together for the next few years in an unlikely friendship. Hitler was the dominant force in this duo from start to finish: from the Linz years when his own family, though not affluent, were better-off than Kubizek’s; through to the Vienna months when Hitler, rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts, roomed with Kubizek, who had been accepted into the Conservatory. Circumstances appeared to lower neither Hitler’s high self-esteem, nor Kubizek’s tolerance for his volatile, short-tempered, voluble roommate. Tellingly, while Hitler never articulated either his dejection at failing at his artistic ambition, nor his resentment that Kubizek was excelling in his – it was, Kubizek (probably correctly) surmises, these feelings that eventually led Hitler to abruptly terminate the friendship. By 1908, Hitler was broke: “he wanted no witness to his poverty,” Kubizek surmises; when Kubizek returned from his summer holidays to Vienna, Hitler had vacated the room without leaving word. This was the strange end to the equally strange friendship that The Young Hitler documents.

When Kubizek met Hitler, Adolf’s father, Alois Hitler, was already dead. Hitler was stumbling reluctantly through Technical (secondary) School, an hour’s walk from his mother’s home. He was a friendless and mediocre student. Hitler seized upon Kubizek; Kubizek, too, had no other friends. Besides their love of music, which nobody else in their small town fully shared, they appear to have been kept together by some shared values underlying contrasting personalities. Kubizek admired Hitler for eschewing “the frivolous pastimes typical of young people.” Hitler, in turn, needed someone to listen to his endless rambles – which would exhaust his colleagues in later years, and which were clearly already an established hobby in his teens.

Kubizek published this memoir in 1953, after having spent years refusing requests by both Third Reich officials and later historians to do so. After the war, Kubizek was arrested by the American forces occupying West Germany, and imprisoned for many months. This, though Kubizek declares himself to have been always “a fundamentally unpolitical individual.” It is because his American imprisonment ruined his health, he says in the Prologue, that he is writing this memoir. (Note: he was also wounded in the Great War, and had a long convalescence; and the few surviving photographs show him as being sickly from youth. Kubizek died in 1956.) This memoir’s 24 chapters contain only firsthand information; Kubizek says he tried to write as if “the young Hitler I knew, I never met afterwards.” As an impartial document of impressions received four decades ago, this book succeeds.

Kubizek’s portrait of the young Hitler is nuanced. His admiration is clear; so is the deep mutual friendship. “I… must mention one of Hitler’s qualities which, I freely admit, seems paradoxical to talk about now. Hitler was full of deep understanding and sympathy. He took a most touching interest in me. Without my telling him, he knew exactly how I felt. How often this helped me in difficult times! He always knew what I needed and what I wanted. However intensely he was occupied with himself, he would always have time for the affairs of those people in whom he was interested. It was not by chance that it was he who persuaded my father to let me [leave the family upholstery business and go to Vienna to] study music. Rather, this was the outcome of his general attitude of sharing in all the things that concerned me. Sometimes I felt that he was living my life as well as his own.”

Here we see the genesis of a trait of Hitler the demagogue on which many who knew him have commented: Hitler seemed able to see into people’s inmost hearts, and to articulate their feelings, as if on their behalf. As early NSDAP member Otto Strasser would later remark: “Hitler had the gift of speaking, not from his own heart, but from his listeners’ hearts.” A wartime American psychoanalyst profile of Hitler analyses how, in speech after speech, Hitler articulated both the basest and the noblest desires of his listeners. Kubizek’s memoir suggests that Hitler’s gift of sympathetic understanding expressed itself early. He was to use this gift to devastating effect.

Kubizek’s young Hitler is an extreme idealist. He is attractive to women, a fact that puzzles Kubizek: for Hitler was poor, and could hardly be called good-looking. Perhaps it was Hitler’s peculiar intensity that was the draw, Kubizek hypothesises: this was a youth who took everything utterly seriously. “Whatever it was, women seemed to sense something extraordinary about my friend – as opposed to men, like his teachers.” Again, Hitler’s magnetism to women would play a pivotal role in his political career. Women were often his most enthusiastic sponsors and followers, drawing their husbands into the party too.

Hitler spent much of the Vienna months he shared with Kubizek drawing up plans to renovate buildings, redesign towns, and institute then-revolutionary improvements such as underground railways and indoor bathrooms. But when Kubizek wanted to know who would fund these ambitious building-projects, Hitler would respond “To hell with money” or “The Reich will fund it.” Here we see, not only Hitler’s lifelong indifference to material pleasures, but also his growing belief in ‘the Reich’ as an ideal entity whose materialising would solve all problems. Hitler appealed to a concept of similar loftiness and vagueness to formalise his chastity: “the flame of life,” which must be preserved by both men and women (and which sounds like something Dr. Strangelove’s Sterling Hayden would be paranoid about).

The young Hitler took idealism to such extreme lengths as to expose the problems with idealism itself. Kubizek notes Hitler’s “gift for ignoring reality and indulging fantasy”; his obsession with the idealised world of “old Germanic myth, which was the world where he thought he himself belonged”; and the paradox that, though clearly moved by the plight of the Viennese poor and working-class as a whole – Hitler never appeared to feel for any of them individually. Hitler spent hours designing well-considered housing projects for the poor, as well as expanding parks and other public facilities for them – but he never attempted to befriend any of the future benefactors of his grandiose schemes.

Kubizek differs from other sources, and from Hitler himself, in dating Hitler’s antisemitism to his Linz days. Most authors date it later: to prewar Vienna (where antisemitism was rife, featuring in violent speeches by mayors and other elected officials, and disgracing the pages of illustrated newspapers), or to postwar Munich (where the stab-in-the-back myth pointed to Jews among others). Kubizek, however, declares that Hitler was confirmed in both his antisemitism and his nationalism before he left Linz. Mien Kampf mentions one nationalist history schoolteacher; Kubizek claims that nationalist groups were thriving both in Linz, and in Linz Technical School. Kubizek’s style is not very analytical – especially regarding Hitler’s political views – but these statements offer insight into the sources of two of Hitler’s lifelong obsessions: nationalism and antisemitism.

Kubizek’s most striking observation about Hitler is how little his ideas had changed in three decades. The two old friends met again in 1938, after the Anschluss, three decades after their abrupt parting. (Kubizek had become a government employee in their native Austria.) Hitler reminded Kubizek of the architectural and city-planning projects he had conceived in his teens; his plans had not changed at all since, and in fact he went on to execute several of these projects per his original plans. Kubizek was surprised, but not very. For, three decades ago, “the 15-year-old [spoke as if he] took for granted that one day he would possess the necessary power and means [to bring these detailed plans to fruition]. This is too much for me to take in. I can only explain it as a ‘miracle,’ for there is no rational explanation for it.”

Others have commented on this rigidity of Hitler’s plans and ideas: including NSDAP Propaganda Minister Goebbels in complimentary epigrams, and George Orwell commenting on the utter stagnation of Hitler’s political views between 1925 (when Eher Verlag published Volume I of Mein Kampf) and 1938 (when WW2 was imminent). Hitler himself valorised this rigidity: in Mein Kampf he declares that no man whose political views alter fundamentally after age 30 can decently remain a politician. He prided himself on his hardness and rigidity – which, too, appear, from The Young Hitler, to have emerged early.

In common with other observers and historians, Kubizek comments also on Hitler’s reading habits (he read extensively, but appeared to be looking less for new knowledge than for confirmation of his existing views); his sensitive and pathological pride (Hitler wanted to write an opera, though he had little formal musical training; he made music student Kubizek his amanuensis, but refused to accept any training or guidance); his formal and correct manners (in letters, he always sent regards to Kubizek’s parents; he was punctilious in their shared financial affairs); and his attitudes to family (he was overcome when his mother died; when his older half-sister requested that he surrender to her his share of the meagre orphan’s pension, he readily agreed, though he was already struggling financially, and was soon to become homeless); and his energy, periodical depressions, and fondness for nature. (Though Hitler had no institutional affiliation for most of the period Kubizek knew him – about to drop out of school, unemployed, rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts – he kept himself continually occupied: reading, attending music performances, walking, sketching, and writing – poetry, then plays, then an opera, all half-finished. Periodically he got the blues, which he cured by rambling alone outdoors.)

Kubizek makes no comment on Hitler’s political actions. After resuming his acquaintance with Hitler in 1938, Kubizek turned down all Hitler’s offers of help, financial and otherwise. But it was through Hitler’s scheme that Kubizek – along with hundreds of other Germans who could otherwise never have afforded this experience – attended the Bayreuth Wagner festival, an experience he describes as “the most beautiful of my life.” The reader gets the sense that, even before the 1930s reacquaintance, his friendship with the tempestuous, fanatical, gifted Hitler was a highlight in the life of this modest, reasonable, peace-loving man.

In 1942, when the tide of war turned against Germany – against the man who he says was the only real friend he ever made – Kubizek, in a gesture of friendship, finally joined the Nazi party. Kubizek closes his memoir with a brief description of his arrest and interrogation by the Americans. Kubizek closes his memoir by asserting: “No power on earth would compel me to deny my friendship with Adolf Hitler.”

The Young Hitler I Knew is a remarkable portrait into Hitler’s formative years by a man who was neither a politician nor a historian, but whose knowledge of Hitler was founded upon the constant companionship of two young men navigating the beginning of adulthood, embarking on very different paths. For an insight into the development of the mind, views, and passions of this key historical figure – and for a delightful reading experience – The Young Hitler is a good place to start.


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Mein Kampf

John Toland’s Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography

Reinhold Hanisch’s memoir of young Hitler

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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