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Biography History Politics

I Was Hitler’s Buddy (1939). Reinhold Hanisch. Article in New Republic

This short memoir by a fellow vagrant from Hitler’s prewar homeless days in Vienna provides insights into how early experiences with destitution and hopelessness shaped a tyrant.

Image credit. Painting of Hanisch by Hitler.

Adolf Hitler moved from Linz to Vienna in 1907, where he roomed with his friend August Kubizek, whose memoir I reviewed last week. In 1908, penury forced Hitler onto the streets. He spent some time sleeping on park benches; eventually he roomed in two hostels for homeless men. It is here that Hitler met Reinhold Hanisch: another vagrant, with whom he developed a business partnership. Hanisch is one of our few sources about Hitler’s homeless years (1908-1913). After Hitler’s rise to power, Hanisch spent much of his time producing and selling Hitler forgeries (Hanisch, like Hitler, had been an aspiring artist), and selling material on Hitler to biographers and journalists. These activities led to repeated encounters with the law; Hanisch was to die in prison in 1937. The article at hand constitutes Hanisch’s short memoir of Hitler, published posthumously. Though historians have questioned its authenticity, it presents an interesting portrait of Hitler’s early homeless years. It is a striking contrast with the picture of Hitler that Kubizek paints. Together, both portraits offer insights into the gestation of Hitler the postwar politician.

During these years, Hitler and Hanisch roomed in two Viennese homeless hostels for men: Miedling Asylum and Meldemanstrasse Mannerwohnheim. Hanisch describes Hitler as shabby and sickly: his blue suit had turned lilac from the hostel’s fumigation procedure; and the other inmates, pitying the hungry but sullen man, fed him horsemeat sausages. Hanisch’s Hitler is inveterately indolent: though starving, he couldn’t be bothered to work more than a few hours at a time. Hanisch questions Hitler’s claims in Mein Kampf that he earned wages as a labourer, arguing: “Building contractors never hire small, weak people [as Hitler then was]. I never saw him do such work, nor do I think he was physically capable of it. Nor did he mention to me having done such work in the past.”

Hitler having introduced himself to Hanisch as an academic painter, Hanisch proposed a partnership: Hitler would paint postcards, and Hanisch would market them. Hanisch claims that, while he himself spent all day tramping about seeking commissions and closing sales, Hitler was a reluctant worker. He had become more immersed in politics than in art (Kubizek’s memoir, covering an earlier period, notes this incipient turn), and spent all morning reading several newspapers and debating politics with fellow residents. When Hitler did work, he was slow and meticulous, ignoring Hanisch’s pleas to eschew fastidiousness and speed up.

Hanisch’s characterisation contrasts to some degree with Kubizek’s. Whereas Kubizek’s Hitler is energetic and always occupied, Hanisch’s Hitler works only when facing starvation – and then reluctantly. Taking at face value both these memoirs (though Hanisch’s, in particular, has been questioned by historians), this trajectory rings true. When Kubizek knew him, Hitler’s grand artistic ambitions were yet untested, and he lived comfortably at home, with the world before him. When Hanisch knew him, he had been rejected twice by the Academy of Fine Arts, had insufficient academic qualifications to study architecture instead, and was impoverished and alone (having lost both parents and suspended relations with his siblings). It seems natural that Hitler – notwithstanding the iron will and high self-esteem that emerged early and fortified him through his life – should have succumbed to the same hopelessness and indolence that afflict many down-at-heel individuals. Where Kubizek remarks on Hitler’s neat and elegant appearance, Hanisch comments on his shabbiness. This, too, is in keeping with the overall psychological trajectory presented by these two memoirs.

Another contrast is presented by the two memoirists’ views on Hitler’s rhetorical abilities. Kubizek had served as captive audience for Hitler’s political rants: an audience of one, mostly willing and silent, though often disagreeing with Hitler’s views (e.g. on antisemitism). Hanisch describes Hitler holding forth to the homeless hostel’s common-room, to little effect and often to great ridicule. Hitler’s views were already strongly anti-Communist, whereas most of his fellow impoverished were pro-Communist: perhaps this difference partly accounts for the ridicule Hitler faced in these early speeches. Hanisch himself cites Hitler’s fervour and wild expressions as the cause. Again, this portrait of Hitler among his fellow homeless contrasts with Toland’s account. Toland has Hitler a popular, well-liked figure who took personal interest in his companions, showing understanding and generosity.

Crucially, and again in contrast with Kubizek’s memoir, Hanisch asserts that Hitler’s relations with Jews were friendly during this period: he “associated mainly with Jews” at hostel, and preferred to do business with Jewish businesses, who were less risk-averse: “They bought new paintings [from us] even before selling their old stock; whereas the gentile shopkeepers waited to clear the old stock.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself describes his antisemitism growing during this prewar period. Hanisch closes his memoir by speculating that perhaps it’s Hitler’s “circle” who have introduced the antisemitism into the NSDAP’s party platform, to broaden its appeal.

Likewise, of Hitler’s socialism, Hanisch says: “Hitler discovered his love for the workers when he needed the vote of the masses. Whether this is a genuine love I cannot say. It hasn’t been the purpose of this story to attempt criticism of that kind.” Again, this contrasts with Kubizek’s account: which has Hitler spending months touring Vienna’s slums, drafting and discussing plans for hygienic and adequate workers’ living quarters. Kubizek discusses these plans in great detail: since Hitler and he were also poor students living in bad quarters, the plans interested them both personally as well was ideologically.

Where Hanisch’s memoir agrees with Kubizek’s (which was published much later) is in what we may call Hitler’s negative virtues: both memoirists note Hitler’s “queer idealism about the relations between men and women” (Hanisch’s words). Writing in 1937, Hanisch goes out of his way to repudiate rumours about Hitler’s sexuality, affirming that Hitler was in fact interested in women, but restrained from sexual relations in this period by idealism and poverty. Both memoirists also agree on Hitler’s abstinence from – and lectures against – drinking and smoking; his ability to survive uncomplainingly on a meagre diet; and, simultaneously, his fondness for sweet things.

Hanisch’s business relationship with Hitler ended abruptly. Hitler and another friend accused Hanisch of having misappropriated proceeds from the sale of two Hitler paintings; Hanisch was sentenced to a brief prison term. Hanisch wrote this memoir years later.

Both Ian Kershaw and Trevor-Roper, in their introductions to separate editions of Kubizek’s memoirs, remark that other memoirs of this period, including Hanisch’s, are suspect: being clearly biased by later events. Trevor-Roper singles out Hanisch’s accounts as especially suspect, having been sought out and written up by an anti-Nazi (Konrad Heiden).

The years Hanisch spent forging Hitler paintings, and selling biographical material to journalists, caught up with him. The Austrian police repeatedly arrested and jailed him for forgery. Finally he died in jail in 1937 – under conditions that at least one Historian has flagged as suspicious. (Pre-Anschluss, Hitler’s influence in Austria was already considerable: via over threats, and via an Austrian branch of the NSDAP secretly funded by the German Nazis. Hitler, having ordered the assassination of numerous political opponents and other thorns-in-the-side, would certainly not hesitate to order the assassination of a nobody forging paintings in his name and selling unflattering accounts of himself as a youth.)

It is clear from Hanisch’s memoir – the ‘Buddy’ in the article’s title notwithstanding – that he had a low opinion of Hitler. Hanisch’s Hitler is a harmless eccentric who, if he committed no sin graver than sloth, also had no positive virtues. Nonetheless, the portrait reads as fair. It is a quick, useful read for anybody interested in how early experiences with destitution and hopelessness shaped a tyrant.

END

Read I Was Hitler’s Buddy for free here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier and more extensive, my reading therefore more mindful and critical. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing and dusty bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Win-win! Try switching to soft copy today. (Yes. This is propaganda. From someone experiencing every day multiple ill-effects of climate change, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. Please have a thought for the earth.)

Mein Kampf

John Toland’s Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography

August Kubizek’s memoir of the young Hitler

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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