Explaining Hitler

The Search for the Origins of His Evil, updated edition


By Ron Rosenbaum

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Hitler did not escape the bunker in Berlin but, seven decades later, he has managed to escape explanation in ways both frightening and profound. Explaining Hitler is an extraordinary quest, an expedition into the war zone of Hitler theories. This is a passionate, enthralling book that illuminates what Hitler explainers tell us about Hitler, about the explainers, and about ourselves.




In which theories about Hitler's "racial origins" become the origin of a debate about Hitler's psyche


The Mysterious Stranger,
the Serving Girl, and the Family
Romance of the Hitler Explainers

In which the author makes an expedition to the Hitler family "ancestral home" and meditates upon the romantic life of Maria Schicklgruber, as imagined by historical fantasists

I was ready to give up and turn back. A surprise mid-autumn snowstorm had blown out of Russia and was blanketing Central Europe, making the relatively primitive back roads of this backwoods quarter of Austria increasingly impassable.

We were only about twenty miles short of our objective, but our rented Volkswagen was beginning to skid, once bringing us perilously close to the brink of one of the woody ravines that crisscrossed the otherwise featureless reaches of snow-covered farmland stretching north to the Czech border.

I'd timidly suggested to my Austrian researcher, Waltraud, who was at the wheel, that we ought to consider abandoning our quest for the day because of the risk. But she wanted to press on, declaring that, as a native of the mountainous Tyrol, she had experience navigating the far more treacherous mountain roads of the Alps.

Not entirely reassured, I nonetheless felt there was something appropriate about the blizzardy circumstances of this venture: The storm we were heading into was an autumnal version of the blitz of snow that had halted Hitler's panzer divisions just short of Moscow in the winter of 1941—the beginning of the end for him. The place we were fighting through the snow to find—a ghost town called Döllersheim—was the beginning of the beginning: the primal scene of the mysteries behind the Hitler family romance.

The disappearance, the apparently deliberate erasure, of Döllersheim is one of the most peculiar aspects of the deeply tangled Hitler-genealogy controversy. The tiny village was literally blasted off the map and out of existence sometime after Hitler annexed Austria. An effort—some partisans in the controversy contend—to erase all traces of certain irregular and disreputable Hitler family events that took place there. Irregularities that have long cast a shadow over accounts of Hitler's origins. Irregularities that had given rise to repeated pilgrimages to Döllersheim in the prewar years by journalists and other interested investigators, news of which invariably provoked Hitler into near-apoplectic rages.

"People must not know who I am," he was reported to have ranted when he learned of one of the early investigations into his family history. "They must not know where I come from."

And there are those who insist that after 1938 he made Döllersheim pay the price for being the site of such inquiries, made it disappear. Whatever the cause of the erasure, there can be little doubt of its effectiveness. That morning in Vienna, as the snow began gusting in from the east, I searched in vain for a map that still had the hamlet of Döllersheim on it, until I happened on a little shop belonging to a rare-book dealer who was able to dig up a musty 1896 German atlas of the world which still had the hamlet of Döllersheim on its map of Austria. While the map showed no roads, it did provide a means of triangulation: The dot on the map for Döllersheim was just north of a bend in the river Kamp and just east of another little dot on the map called Ottenstein.

Ottenstein: That name conjured up a peculiarly memorable phrase, "scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein." This Heathcliffian heroic epithet appears in a catalog of candidates—list of suspects, one might say—for the shadowy figure at the heart of the Hitler family romance: the man who fathered Hitler's father. The identity of the man who impregnated a forty-two-year-old unmarried serving woman named Maria Schicklgruber sometime in late 1836 was not disclosed on the baby's baptismal certificate filed in her parish church in Döllersheim when the child (christened Alois Schicklgruber) was born on June 7, 1837. That blank line on the baptismal certificate, in the space where the name of the father of the child should be, has become a kind of blank screen onto which journalists, intelligence agencies, historians, psychoanalysts, and other fantasists have projected a wild array of alternative candidates to the man named in the official Nazi genealogies as Hitler's paternal grandfather, Johann Georg Hiedler.

Hundreds and hundreds of pages in scores of books have been devoted to trying to divine the sexual choice behind that blank line, to read the mind of the woman who made the choice: Maria Schicklgruber. She was, in fact, the first of three generations of Hitler-related women whose unfathomable erotic liaisons cast a powerful spell over Hitler's life—and over his subsequent biographers. After Maria, there was Hitler's mother, Klara, and then his half-niece Geli Raubal. Three women—all, interestingly, serving girls—whose greatest service has been to the Hitler explainers.

The flavor of the speculation over Maria Schicklgruber's sexual choices is captured by the partial catalog of candidates for the role of Hitler's paternal grandfather offered by the impressionable German biographer of Hitler, Werner Maser.

"Various candidates have been suggested," Maser writes. In addition to the official nominee on the Nazi Party family tree for Hitler, Johann Georg Hiedler, and Maser's own candidate, Johann Georg's wealthier brother Johann Nepomuk Hiedler, there are "a 'Graz Jew' by the name of Frankenberger, a scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein, and even a Baron Rothschild of Vienna." Maser doesn't believe Adolf Hitler was a Frankenberger, an Ottenstein, or a Rothschild descendant (the latter astonishing suggestion seems to be traceable to the pre-Anschluss anti-Hitler Austrian secret police). But he has concocted an elaborate theory of rural sexual intrigue and greed over a legacy to bolster the candidacy of his man, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler.

One can argue with Maser's Brueghelian explanation of the Döllersheim ambiguities, but it's hard to deny his summary of the confused state of Hitler studies on the paternal-grandfather question: "If there is one fact on which at least some biographers are agreed, it is that Adolf's paternal grandfather was not the man officially regarded as such, namely the journeyman miller Johann Georg Hiedler." (A "fact" only "some" biographers agree upon is hardly a fact to rely upon.) The more judicious Alan Bullock says, "In all probability, we shall never know for certain who Adolf Hitler's grandfather, the father of Alois, really was. It has been suggested that he may have been a Jew, without definite proof one way or the other."


The closer we got to our destination, to Döllersheim, the more empty and remote from civilization the countryside began to look, the further back in time we seemed to be going. This part of Austria, the Waldviertel (the sector northwest of Vienna, between the Danube and the Czech border), and its scattered peasant-farmer inhabitants have remained relatively isolated from cosmopolitan civilization for centuries. With the heavy blanketing of snow shrouding the occasional ancient barn and farmhouse and obliterating almost all remaining visible traces of modernity, the lonely look and feel of the countryside could not have differed much from the way it looked some 156 years earlier. When someone—either a local-yokel miller or a mysterious stranger with "alien blood"—bedded down a middle-aged peasant woman named Maria Schicklgruber, leaving her pregnant with Hitler's father and leaving subsequent historians a legacy of doubt. Doubt that may have haunted Hitler as well as those who tried to explain him.

As we pulled into the courtyard of a three-century-old inn to ask for directions to Döllersheim, the remote snowbound setting and the nature of our search for Maria Schicklgruber's shadowy secret lover recalled to me the opening of Mark Twain's peculiar, posthumously published fable of evil, The Mysterious Stranger: "It was in 1590—winter. Austria was far away from the world, and asleep…. And our village was in the middle of that sleep…. It drowsed in peace in the deep privacy of a hilly and woodsy solitude … news from the world hardly ever came to disturb its dreams."

Of course, someone does then come to disturb the dreams of this insulated Austrian fastness in Twain's tale, "a mysterious stranger" who turns out to be Satan, although Twain's Satan is both more angelic and more diabolical than the conventional Prince of Darkness.

I was surprised when, after I returned home from Döllersheim and reread The Mysterious Stranger, to find in it the following passage from Twain's 1916 fable: "We had two priests [in the sleepy village]. One of them, Father Adolf, was a very zealous and strenuous priest…. [No one] was held in more solemn and awful respect. This was because he had absolutely no fear of the Devil. Father Adolf had actually met Satan face to face more than once."

It's remarkable how accurately Twain evoked the drowsing remoteness of this countryside, the sense of the sinister potential in somber, muffled silence. The little inn we'd stopped at was built sometime around 1600, one of the men huddled in front of the fireplace in the dining room told us. And aside from a poster on the wall announcing a "Disco Abend" next Saturday night at the local parish hall, it didn't look like much had changed in the centuries since. We ordered some wursts and asked the locals if they could help us find Döllersheim. It was they who gave us our first intimation of the nature of the verfallen world we were heading into.

The verfallen world, the ruined wasteland that was once Hitler's "ancestral homeland": It is the ur-source of Hitler's strangeness, the original locus of his alienness, his foreignness, an uncertainty of origins that was more than geographical. Throughout his life, wherever he went, Adolf Hitler was always a Mysterious Stranger. From the moment he first came to public notice, this uncertainty served to generate scurrilous rumors, whispers, and slanders. To some, the aura of strangeness, alienness was a source of his mystique—something that helped give him a mythic dimension, something that elevated him above the ruck of ordinary politicians, a quality of apartness he manipulated to his own advantage. To others who have tried to explain Hitler, the strangeness grew out of a haunting uncertainty about himself—an uncertainty in his own mind—that manipulated him, twisted him, was in fact the wellspring of the deformity of his psyche.

Ambiguity was built into the very geography of Hitler's origins; he was the product of not one but two borderlands: First, there was his actual birthplace in western Austria at Braunau on the river Inn, the river that separates Germany from Austria. (His father. Alois, was, in fact, a customs inspector who commuted back and forth across the riverine border every day.) But more significantly for the psyche of a fanatic believer in the determinism of racial ancestry, Hitler's family came from (and in his childhood he returned to) an "ancestral homeland" (as the local Nazis later proudly called it) two hundred miles east of Braunau, here in the Waldviertel, in a landscape that was for centuries disputed borderland between Austria and Czechoslovakia. It was a no-man's-land between one realm that was Germanic and another that was Slavic—the same Slavic people Hitler professed to loathe as subhuman and would later enslave and slaughter. Indeed, the very name "Hitler" and its older variants "Hiedler" and "Hüttler" are more Slavic than Germanic, a fact that certainly rankled Hitler, casting as it did a shadow on his claim to Aryan purity—although not so dark a one as the rumor that the mysterious stranger who wandered through this borderland was a wandering Jew.

Sir Isaiah Berlin once elaborated a kind of borderland theory of charismatic political genius. Citing Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, and Theodor Herzl as well as Hitler, he speculates that the peculiar psychology of many of the most charismatic, fanatic, possessed nationalist political leaders can be traced to their borderland origins: to the fact that they came "from outside the society that they led, or at any rate from its edges, the outer marches." The borderland syndrome, Berlin argues, has given rise to a disproportionate number of "men of fiery vision, whether noble or degraded, idealistic or perverted," men who developed "either exaggerated sentiment or contempt for the dominant majority, or else over-intense admiration or even worship of it … which leads both to unusual insights, and—born of overwrought sensibilities—a neurotic distortion of the facts."

It's a description that fits Hitler but only in part. There always was—there still is—a sense of strangeness about him that surpassed such a borderland syndrome, a persistent sense even among his allies that there was a deeper sort of aberration, a less explicable alienness than that of Napoleon, even Stalin. He certainly didn't fit, didn't seem to come from the one place to which he should have been native, this countryside, this "ancestral homeland of the Führer" we've been traveling through.

A number of Hitler biographers have made a point of noting that for centuries the peasant farmers inhabiting this isolated quarter of Lower Austria have stuck to their less-than-lush land, intermarrying frequently and producing generation after generation of more farmers—conspicuously failing to give birth to anyone who attracted the notice, much less disturbed the dreams of history. And then suddenly: Adolf Hitler.

One postwar German historian, Helmut Heiber of the highly regarded Munich Institute for Contemporary History, examining this phenomenon in his Hitler biography, voiced the unspoken implication: "The aberrational quality of the Hitler family beginning with the ambitious and enterprising father of Adolf shows that other blood must have entered the Lower Austrian Waldviertel stock which had been weakened by years of inbreeding" (emphasis added).

Other blood: the Hitlerian ring to this phrase is, one hopes, ironic. But the specter of "other blood" is at the heart of the highly charged Hitler family romance. "Family romance," of course, was the term first coined by Freud in 1909 as a way of characterizing a not-uncommon romantic fantasy: that one's parents are not one's real progenitors, that one's real parents are "others who as a rule are of higher social standing" such as "the Lord of the Manor or some member of the aristocracy." The family romance frequently involves a fairytale-like myth of origins in which one has been dispossessed of one's royal, exotic, or privileged origin by misfortune or sinister conspiracy—a theme common to myth, folklore, Shakespeare's late romances, eighteenth-century picaresque novels, and the paranoid fantasies of contemporary schizophrenics who proclaim they're heir to the Rockefeller fortune or they're Howard Hughes's love child.

While its form might evoke fairy tales, the core of the family romance is sexual mystery—the eternal disturbing truth that is at the heart of so much family and literary drama: "Pater semper incertus est," the identity of the father is always uncertain, as the Latin saying quoted by Freud goes. The nature of our reproductive biology has, built into it, an eternal mischief-making source of uncertainty. Men must trust the word of women about the paternity of their child, Freud lamented. In some special circumstances, even the woman cannot know.

Freud argues that the family-romance fantasy arises as soon as the child learns the truth "about sexual process." He "tends to picture to himself [in] erotic situations and relations … situations of secret infidelity and … secret love affairs" that, typically, bring his mother together with a more romantic, more exotic, higher-born mysterious stranger of a father.

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether Hitler himself entertained family-romance fantasies, there is little doubt that his explainers have. The proliferation of candidates for the mysterious stranger who fathered Hitler's father—in particular such high-born candidates as "a Baron Rothschild" and the "scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein"—and the persistent speculation about secret infidelities, illicit love affairs, and ambiguous "erotic situations" involving Maria Schicklgruber represents the family romance of the Hitler explainers.

Like glancing at the head of Medusa, staring too closely at the entangled strangeness of Hitler's origins has its dangers to the would-be explainers, one of them being the need to imagine that their extraordinary subject has a more exotic, more romantic origin than this grim peasant landscape could produce. It's a need that engenders the hope of finding an explicatory elixir such as "other blood" to account for the spectacular anomaly Hitler was, not only in the Waldviertel but in world history.

One reason the temptation to construe fragmentary genealogical evidence into a family romance has been hard to resist is the presence of such classic folkloric, fairy-tale-like elements in the mysterious-stranger-like setting. There's a wandering miller (Georg), an ambitious bastard (Alois), a rumored legacy, a (not quite) Cinderella-like peasant serving girl (Maria), a disappearing village (Döllersheim), rumored assignations with the prince of a nearby castle (Ottenstein), and whispers about intrigue with a powerful prince of "other blood" (Baron Rothschild).

At the epicenter of all these alleged intrigues and family-romance liaisons is that all-but-erased dot on the map that marks the disappearing village of Döllersheim. And at the center of the Döllersheim intrigues is a kind of sacred erasure, the now-obliterated parish church that was the scene of three peculiar, ambiguous ceremonies in the Hitler origins controversies. That church was, first of all, in 1837, the place where Maria Schicklgruber filed the baptismal certificate for the child who would become Hitler's father, the document with the mischief-making blank line. That same church was also, five years later, the site of a curious wedding ceremony between Maria, then forty-seven years old, and forty-three-year-old Johann Georg Hiedler, the wandering miller, who would later, without much solid evidence, assume prominence in Hitler's official genealogies as his paternal grandfather.

What made the wedding curious was what it didn't entail. It didn't entail the wandering miller adopting Maria's five-year-old son, Alois, the future father of Adolf—an adoption that might have been expected if, in fact, Johann Georg was the biological father of the boy. It didn't involve the son going to live under the same roof as his mother and putative father, Johann Georg. Instead, Hitler's father, Alois, went to live with Johann Georg's brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler (one reason Maser believes Nepomuk is his real father), a somewhat more settled and prosperous (but already married) peasant.

It seemed to be a marriage of convenience, but whose convenience? What made the ceremony even more curious in retrospect was yet a third ceremony enacted in the Döllersheim parish church thirty-five years after the marriage, a transaction of dubious legitimacy based on questionable affidavits: the name-change ceremony. This was the one by means of which Maria Schicklgruber's child—Alois Schicklgruber up till then—in his fortieth year suddenly reappeared in his home parish to claim, retroactively, that the long-dead wandering miller Georg, who'd never formally acknowledged paternity during his life, had been his biological father. And that the poor dead dad had dearly wanted him to bear the Hiedler name (although after the change Alois styled it "Hitler").

The questionable circumstances of these three Döllersheim ceremonies and the strange fate of Döllersheim itself would be of no concern to anyone if the newly minted Alois Hitler had not gone on to father a child named Adolf—and perhaps if Adolf had not shown such an exaggerated sensitivity to these Döllersheim aspects of his background.

But not long after he became a player on the world stage with the failed coup attempt of November 1923, another set of mysterious strangers began to show up in Döllersheim, poking into the records in the parish church registry, trying to find out what secret lay behind them. First, there were opposition journalists, then intelligence operatives, then private investigators, and ultimately the Gestapo itself making pilgrimages to the parish church. (At Himmler's request, Gestapo officers made no less than four expeditions to Austria to see if they could get to the bottom of the irregularities in accounts of Hitler's origins.)

The name change was the first issue to surface publicly and the first to provide an indication of Hitler's reaction to the questions shadowing his family history. According to Rudolf Olden's prewar Hitler biography, sometime in the mid-twenties, "an ingenious journalist published the fact in a liberal newspaper in Vienna, that Hitler's father had changed his name from Schicklgruber to Hiedler." Olden added a malicious (and, technically, inaccurate) twist of the knife, to the effect that "it was not correct to say 'Heil Hitler!' it should be 'Heil Schicklgruber!'"

This line in Olden's book has been taken up by several Hitler biographers, who have tended to build up the significance of the name change to world-historical proportions. Olden himself tells us, "I have heard Germans speculate whether Hitler could have become the master of Germany had he been known to the world as Schicklgruber. It has a slightly comic sound as it rolls off the tongue of a south German. Can one imagine the frenzied German masses acclaiming a Schicklgruber with their Heils?" John Toland, in similar language, tells us, "It is difficult to imagine seventy million Germans shouting in all seriousness, 'Heil Schicklgruber!'"

While too much can be made of the name-change explanation of his destiny, clearly Hitler was extraordinarily sensitive to any probing into a family history that was most likely terra incognita to himself. Olden adds that the fury of Hitler over the Schicklgruber disclosure took the form of a brutal assault: "Two young party members attacked the editor of the Vienna paper which printed the 'Heil Schicklgruber' story with truncheons in the café where he used to sit after dinner. The incident had no further consequences except that the change of name was now reported in all the newspapers." But, in fact, there may have been further consequences of which Olden, writing in 1936, could not have been aware. Consequences for the little town of Döllersheim, which was the scene of the dubious Schicklgruber/Hitler name change and which soon became the victim of a far more brutal assault with weapons worse than truncheons, an assault that nearly obliterated all traces of its existence.


On Sale
Jul 8, 2014
Page Count
520 pages
Da Capo Press

Ron Rosenbaum

About the Author

Ron Rosenbaum‘s books include The Shakespeare Wars, How the End Begins, and The Secret Parts of Fortune, a collection of his nonfiction writing which has appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine, among other periodicals. He has also edited an anthology about contemporary anti-Semitism, Those Who Forget the Past.

Learn more about this author