Becoming Hitler

The Making of a Nazi


By Thomas Weber

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An award-winning historian charts Hitler’s radical transformation after World War I from a directionless loner into a powerful National Socialist leader

In Becoming Hitler, award-winning historian Thomas Weber examines Adolf Hitler’s time in Munich between 1918 and 1926, the years when Hitler shed his awkward, feckless persona and transformed himself into a savvy opportunistic political operator who saw himself as Germany’s messiah. The story of Hitler’s transformation is one of a fateful match between man and city. After opportunistically fluctuating between the ideas of the left and the right, Hitler emerged as an astonishingly flexible leader of Munich’s right-wing movement. The tragedy for Germany and the world was that Hitler found himself in Munich; had he not been in Bavaria in the wake of the war and the revolution, his transformation into a National Socialist may never have occurred.

In Becoming Hitler, Weber brilliantly charts this tragic metamorphosis, dramatically expanding our knowledge of how Hitler became a lethal demagogue.


Germany after the First World War

Munich after the First World War


December 14, 1918, was National Socialism’s greatest day yet. On that mild day, the first candidate for a National Socialist party was elected to a national parliament. After all votes had been counted, it emerged that 51.6 percent of the electorate in the working-class constituency of Silvertown, on the Essex side of the border between London and Essex, had voted for John Joseph “Jack” Jones of the National Socialist Party to represent them in the British House of Commons.1

National Socialism was the offspring of two great nineteenth-century political ideas. Its father, nationalism, was the emancipatory movement aiming at transforming dynastic states into nation states, born in the age of the Enlightenment and toppling dynastic empires and kingdoms in the century and a half following the French Revolution. Its mother, socialism, had been born when industrialization took hold in Europe and an impoverished working class was created in the process. Its mother had come of age in the wake of the great crisis of liberalism, which had been triggered by the crash of the Vienna Stock Exchange in 1873.

In its infancy, National Socialism had been most successful wherever the economic volatility of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had met multiethnic dynastic empires in crisis. It was thus unsurprising that the first National Socialist parties were formed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Czech National Social Party was formed in 1898. Then, in 1903, the German Workers’ Party was established in Bohemia. It renamed itself the German National Socialist Workers’ Party in May 1918, when it split into two branches, one based in Austria and the other in the Sudetenland, the German-speaking territories of Bohemia. Some Zionists, too, spoke of their Jewish “national-social” dreams.2

National Socialism was therefore not a child of the First World War. Yet it had gone through puberty during the war. It had its political breakthrough when socialists all across Europe battled during the war over the question of whether to support their nation’s war efforts, and politicians equally opposed to capitalism and internationalism broke with their previous parties. It was that battle that allowed National Socialism to have its breakthrough in Britain, in the Palace of Westminster.3

Germany, by contrast, was in the history of National Socialism a belated nation. It took six years after Jack Jones’s election to the lower chamber of the British Parliament for the first National Socialist politicians in Germany (then under the banner of the National Socialist Freedom Party) to be voted into the Reichstag. And not until 1928, ten years after Britain had its first National Socialist member of Parliament, were candidates from a party headed by Adolf Hitler voted into a national parliament.

When the National Socialist Party was founded in Britain in 1916, Adolf Hitler, the would-be leader of Germany’s National Socialist Party, was still an awkward loner with fluctuating political convictions. This book tells the story of his metamorphosis into a charismatic leader and conniving political operator with firm National Socialist ideas and extremist political and anti-Semitic convictions. His transformation did not begin until 1919, and was only completed in the mid-1920s. It took place in Munich, to which Hitler had moved in 1913: a city that, compared with Silvertown and many cities in the Habsburg Empire, had remained politically stable until the end of the First World War.

While this book focuses on the years between 1918 and the mid-1920s, crucial years in the life of Hitler, it likewise tells the story of National Socialism’s belated success in Germany. This is also the story of the political transformation of Munich, Bavaria’s capital, in which Hitler rose to prominence—a city that only a few years earlier would have been considered one of the most unlikely places for a sudden emergence and triumph of demagoguery and political turmoil.

When I first became a historian, I never would have imagined that I would write at any length about Adolf Hitler. As a graduate student, I felt greatly honored, and I still do, to work in a very minor role—compiling the book’s bibliography—on the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s magisterial Hitler biography. Yet after the many great works of scholarship about Hitler that had been published between the 1930s and the publication of Kershaw’s biography in the late 1990s, I found it difficult to imagine that anything worthwhile and new was left to say about the leader of the Third Reich. As a German raised in the 1970s and 1980s, undoubtedly I also was driven, at least subconsciously, by a concern that writing about Hitler may appear as apologetic. In other words, that it would constitute a return to the early 1950s, when many Germans tried to blame the many crimes of the Third Reich solely on Hitler and a small number of people around him.

However, by the time I finished writing my second book in the mid-2000s, I had started to see the flaws in our understanding of Hitler. For instance, I was no longer so sure that we really knew how he had become a Nazi and, hence, that we were drawing the right lessons from the story of his metamorphosis for our own times. Not that earlier historians lacked talent. Quite the contrary; some of the very best and most incisive books on Hitler had been written between the 1930s and the 1970s. But all these books could only be as good as the evidence and research available at the time, as we all necessarily stand on the shoulders of others.

By the 1990s, the long-dominant idea that Hitler had already become radicalized while growing up in Austria had been exposed as one of his own self-serving lies. Scholars therefore concluded that if Hitler had not been radicalized as a child and teenager in the Austrian-German borderlands, nor in Vienna as a young man, his political transformation must have come later. The new view was that Hitler became a Nazi due to his experiences in the First World War, or the combination of those with the postwar revolution that turned Imperial Germany into a republic. By the mid-2000s that view no longer made much sense to me, as I had started to see its many flaws.

Thus, I set out to write a book about Adolf Hitler’s years in the First World War and the impact they had on the rest of his life. As I made my way through archives and private collections in attics and basements on three continents, I realized that the story Hitler and his propagandists told about his time in the war was not just an exaggeration with a true core. In fact, its very core was rotten. Hitler was not admired by his army peers for his extraordinary bravery, nor was he a typical product of the war experiences of the men of the regiment in which he served. He was not the personification of Germany’s unknown soldier who, through his experiences as a dispatch runner on the western front, had turned into a National Socialist and who differed from his peers only in his extraordinary leadership qualities.

The book I wrote, Hitler’s First War, revealed someone very different from the man with whom we had been familiar. After volunteering as a foreigner for the Bavarian Army, Hitler had been deployed for the entirety of the war on the western front. Just like the majority of the men of his military unit—the Sixteenth Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, commonly called “List Regiment”—he had not been radicalized by his experiences in Belgium and northern France. He returned from the war with still fluctuating political ideas. Whatever opinions he may have held about Jews, they had not been important enough for him to voice them. There is no indication that tension had existed during the war between Hitler and Jewish soldiers of his regiment.4

His thoughts had been those of an Austrian who hated the Habsburg monarchy with all his heart and who dreamed of a united Germany. Yet beyond that he seems to have oscillated between different collectivist left-wing and right-wing ideas. Contrary to his claims in Mein Kampf, there is no evidence that Hitler already stood against Social Democracy and other moderate left-wing ideologies. In a letter written in 1915 to a prewar acquaintance of his from Munich, Hitler revealed some of his wartime political convictions, expressing his hope “that those of us who are lucky enough to return to the fatherland will find it a purer place, less riddled with foreign influences, so that the daily sacrifices and sufferings of hundreds of thousands of us and the torrent of blood that keeps flowing here day after day against an international world of enemies will not only help to smash Germany’s foes outside but that our inner internationalism, too, will collapse.” He added, “This would be worth much more than any gain in territory.”5

From its context, it is clear that his rejection of Germany’s “inner internationalism” should not be read as being directed first and foremost at Social Democrats. Hitler had something else and something less specific in mind: a rejection of any ideas that challenged the belief that the nation should be the starting point of all human interaction. This included an opposition to international capitalism, international socialism (i.e., to Socialists who, unlike Social Democrats, did not stand by the nation during the war and who dreamed of a stateless, nationless future), to international Catholicism, and to dynastic multiethnic empires. His unspecific wartime thoughts about a united, noninternationalist Germany still left his political future wide open. His mind was certainly not an empty slate. Yet his possible futures still included a wide array of left-wing and right-wing political ideas that included those of certain strands of Social Democracy. In short, by the end of the war, his political future was still indeterminate.6

Even though Hitler, just like most of the men of the List Regiment, had not been politically radicalized between 1914 and 1918, he was, nevertheless, anything but a typical product of the wartime experiences of the men of his unit. Contrary to Nazi propaganda, many frontline soldiers of his regiment did not celebrate him for his bravery at all. Instead, because he served in regimental headquarters (HQ), they cold-shouldered him and his HQ peers for supposedly leading a cushy life as Etappenschweine (literally, “rear-echelon pigs”) a few miles behind the front. They also believed that the medals such men as Hitler earned for their bravery were awarded for having kissed up to their superiors in regimental HQ.7

Objectively speaking, Hitler had been a conscientious and good soldier. Yet the story of a man despised by the frontline soldiers of his unit and with an as yet indeterminate political future, would not advance his political interests when Hitler was trying to use his wartime service to create a place for himself in politics in the 1920s. The same was true of the fact that his superiors, while appreciating him for his reliability, had not seen any leadership qualities in him; they viewed Hitler as the prototype of someone who follows rather than gives orders. Indeed, Hitler never held any command over a single other soldier throughout the war. Furthermore, in the eyes of most of his peers within the support staff—who, unlike many of the frontline soldiers, appreciated his company—he had been little more than a well-liked loner, someone who did not quite fit in and who did not join them in the pubs and whorehouses of northern France.

In the 1920s Hitler would invent a version of his experiences during the First World War that was mostly fictional in character but that allowed him to set up a politically useful foundational myth of himself, the Nazi Party, and the Third Reich. In the years to come, he would continue to rewrite that account whenever it was politically expedient. And he policed his story about his claimed war experiences so ruthlessly and so well that for decades after his passing, it was believed to have a true core.

If the war had not “made” Hitler, an obvious question emerged: how was it possible that within a year of his return to Munich, this unremarkable soldier—an awkward loner with fluctuating political ideas—became a deeply anti-Semitic National Socialist demagogue? It was equally curious that within five years he would write a book that purported to solve all the world’s political and social problems. Since the publication of Hitler’s First War, a number of books have been published that have tried to answer these questions. Accepting to varying degrees that the war had not radicalized Hitler, they propose that Hitler became Hitler in postrevolutionary Munich when he absorbed ideas that were already common currency in postwar Bavaria. They present the image of a revenge-driven Hitler with talents for political oratory that he used to rail against those whom he deemed responsible for Germany’s loss of the war and for the revolution. Beyond that, they treat him as a man who was anything but a serious thinker and as someone who, at least until the mid-1920s, displayed little talent as a political operator. In short, they depict him as having more or less unchanging ideas and little ambition of his own, as being driven by others and by circumstance.8

On reading new books on Hitler in recent years, I instinctively found counterintuitive the idea that he would suddenly absorb a full set of political ideas in the aftermath of the First World War and run with them for the rest of his life. But it was only while writing this book that I realized just how far off the mark those authors were. Hitler was not a revenge-driven man with fixed political ideas, who was driven by others and who had limited personal ambitions. This was also when I came to appreciate the importance of the years of Hitler’s metamorphosis—from the end of the war to the time of his writing of Mein Kampf—to our understanding of the dynamics of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

On encountering new literature on Hitler, I also found implausible the idea that he had simply absorbed ideas that were common currency in Bavaria, as he had already been in a love-hate relationship with Munich and Bavaria during the war. As someone dreaming of a united Germany—as a Pan-German, as such a person was called at the time—Hitler had felt deeply troubled by the Catholic, anti-Prussian Bavarian sectionalism—the undue devotion to the interests of Bavaria—reigning in Germany’s most southern state and among many soldiers in his regiment. It is important to remember that Bavaria is far older than Germany as a political entity. Once Bavaria became part of a united Germany after the establishment of the Prussian-led German Empire in 1871, the new empire was a federation of a number of German monarchies and principalities, of which Prussia was only the largest. They all retained much of their sovereignty, as evident in the fact that Bavaria kept its own monarch, armed forces, and foreign ministry. Kaiser Wilhelm, Germany’s leader, despite all his saber rattling, was only first among equals among Germany’s monarchs.

As a result of encountering a strong resurgence of anti-Prussian sentiment and sectionalism in Munich when he was recuperating in the winter of 1916/17 from the injury on one of his thighs that he had incurred on the Somme, Hitler did not display any interest in visiting Munich on two subsequent occasions when he received home leave from the front. Both times, he opted to stay in Berlin, the capital of both Prussia and the German Empire. That preference for the capital of Prussia over Munich constituted a double rejection of the latter: It was not just a negative decision against Munich and Bavaria, but also a positive one for Berlin and Prussia at a time when nowhere in Germany was Prussia hated quite as intensely as in Bavaria. At the time, many Bavarians thought that it was Prussia’s fault that the war was still going on.9

Contrary to the image that is sometimes conveyed about Bavaria as the birthplace of the Nazi Party, the political development of Bavaria had looked hopeful, at least until the end of the First World War. From a prewar perspective, it would have been a reasonable assumption that a full democratization of Bavaria would be in the cards sooner or later. The often-heard belief that German democracy was stillborn due to an unsuccessful and incomplete revolution at the end of the First World War that would ultimately lead the country into the abyss after 1933 is based on the wrong assumption that revolutionary republican change was a precondition for a democratization of Germany. It results from an exclusive worshipping of the spirit of American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. It also results from the ignorance surrounding what one may call the spirit of 1783, the final year of the American War of Independence. That year marked the beginning of an age of gradual reform, incremental change, and constitutional monarchy in Britain and the rest of its remaining empire. Over the next century or so, the spirit of 1783 was just as successful across the globe as was that of 1776 and 1789 in spreading liberty, the rule of law, and humanitarian ideals, and in fostering democratization. Crucially, Bavaria’s own homegrown political tradition shared central features with the spirit of 1783, but not with that of 1776 and 1789.10

Bavaria had been well on the path toward a democratization of its political system prior to the war. Furthermore, prewar Social Democrats, Liberals, and at least the progressive wing of the Catholic Center Party had all accepted a path toward gradual reform and constitutional monarchy. Through their actions, the members of the Bavarian royal family, too, had accepted a gradual transformation toward parliamentary democracy already prior to the war. This was particularly the case for Crown Prince Rupprecht, nominally the Stuart pretender to the British throne, who was known for his ethnographical travelogues of his adventures around the world, including his explorations of India, China, and Japan, and his travels incognito with a caravan through the Middle East, which also had led him to Damascus, where he had been enthralled by the Jewish community of the city. It was equally true of King Ludwig’s sister, Princess Therese of Bavaria. She had not only made herself a name as a zoologist, botanist, and anthropologist exploring the wilderness in South America, inner Russia, and elsewhere, but she was also known within her family as the “democratic aunt.”11

In many ways, Princess Therese epitomized the city in which she lived and which would give birth to the Nazi Party. Munich was an old medieval city that for centuries had been the seat of the House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria. However, as Bavaria had been one of Europe’s backwaters for a long time, Munich had paled in size and in importance to the great cities of Europe. Yet by the eighteenth century, the transformation of Munich into an elegant city of arts had begun. By the time of Hitler’s arrival, it was famed for its beauty, its arts scene, and its liberalism, which coexisted with traditional Bavarian life, centering on Catholic tradition, beer hall culture, lederhosen, and oompah bands. Life in Schwabing, Munich’s most Bohemian neighborhood, resembled that of Montmartre in Paris, while life only a few streets away had more in common with that of Bavarian villagers, as a large proportion of the Munich population had moved only in previous decades to the city from the Bavarian countryside. Prewar Munich had hardly been the kind of city people expected would give birth to political extremism.

With the writing of Hitler’s First War, it had become clear to me that all our previous explanations of how Adolf Hitler turned into a Nazi were no longer tenable. While researching and composing the book had allowed me to understand what role the war really had played in Hitler’s development and what role his invented narrative about his war experience would play politically in the years to come, it also had posed a new riddle: How was it possible that Hitler turned into a star propagandist of the nascent Nazi Party within just one year, and soon thereafter became not only the party’s leader but a cunning and skillful political operator?

The answer that has been given a number of times, in different variations, to this question since the publication of Mein Kampf, has been to present Hitler as a man returning from the war with a radical but unspecific right-wing predisposition; as someone who kept his head down during the months of revolution that he experienced in Munich, and who then suddenly in the autumn of 1919 becomes politicized by soaking up like a sponge and internalizing all the ideas expressed by the people he encounters in the army in Munich.12 While having the greatest respect for the historians advancing these views, the surviving evidence about how Hitler turned into a Nazi, as I will argue in this book, points to a very different direction.

Becoming Hitler also challenges the view that Hitler was merely a nihilist and an unremarkable man without any real qualities. Neither was he, until the writing of Mein Kampf, the “drummer” for others. This book disagrees with the proposition that Hitler is best understood as someone “run” by somebody else and who subsequently was little more than an almost empty shell onto whom Germans could project their wishes and ideas. Moreover, this book rejects the idea that Mein Kampf was little more than the codification of ideas that Hitler had propagated since 1919.

According to Hitler’s own claim in his quasi-autobiographical Mein Kampf, published in the mid-1920s, he became the man the world knows at the end of the war, amid the left-wing revolution that broke out in early November and that brought down monarchs all over Germany. At the time, he was back in Germany after having recently been exposed to mustard gas on the western front. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described how he had responded to the news broken by the pastor assigned to his military hospital in Pasewalk, close to the Baltic Sea, that revolution had broken out and that the war was over and had been lost. According to Mein Kampf, he had run out of the room while the pastor was still addressing the hospital’s patients: “It was impossible for me to stay any longer. While everything began to go black again before my eyes, stumbling, I groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my cot and buried my burning head in the covers and pillows.”13

Hitler’s description of the return of his blindness, first experienced on the western front in the wake of a British gas attack in mid-October, constitutes the climax of the dramatic conversion that purportedly made him a right-wing political leader. He described how in the nights and days after learning about the Socialist revolution, while experiencing “all the pain of my eyes,” he decided upon his future: “I, however, resolved now to become a politician.”14

The previous 267 pages of Mein Kampf had been but a buildup to this one sentence. They detail how his childhood in rural Austria, his years in Vienna, and, above all, the four and a half years with the Sixteenth Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment on the western front had turned him into a National Socialist, from an unknown soldier to the personification of Germany’s unknown soldier15—in short, how he had metamorphosed first into a person who at the mere thought of a Socialist revolution would turn blind, and from there into a radical right-wing, anti-Semitic, and anti-Socialist political leader in the making. In telling the story of his life in Mein Kampf, Hitler followed the conventions of a Bildungsroman, which at the time would have been immediately recognizable to almost all his readersa novel that tells how the protagonist matures and develops during his or her formative years, both morally and psychologically, by going out into the world and seeking adventure.16

It is in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s discharge from Pasewalk and his purported dramatic conversion that our story begins. It tells in three parts two parallel stories: how Hitler became a Nazi and metamorphosed into the leader immediately recognizable to all of us, as well as how Hitler constructed an alternative, fictional version of his transformation. The two stories are interwoven, because how he created an alternative narrative about his metamorphosis was an integral part of his attempt to build a political place for himself and to create the perception of a political gap or void that only he could fill. In other words, only telling both stories will reveal how Hitler functioned as a manipulative and conniving political operator.




Coup d’État

(November 20, 1918 to February 1919)

On November 20, 1918, shortly after his release from Pasewalk military hospital, twenty-nine-year-old Adolf Hitler faced a choice. Upon his arrival at Stettiner Bahnhof in Berlin en route to Munich, where he had to report to the demobilization unit of his regiment, there were several paths he could take to Anhalter Bahnhof, the station from which trains for Bavaria left. The most obvious route was the shortest, across central Berlin along Friedrichstraße. Going that way, he would likely see or hear faintly in the distance the enormous Socialist public rally and march taking place that day right next to the former imperial palace, from which Kaiser Wilhelm II had so recently fled.1

Another option was to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Socialist revolutionaries. Hitler could do so easily without losing much time by steering west for a while toward the area from which he would rule the Third Reich many years later, as Anhalter Bahnhof lay to his southwest and the demonstration was to his east. A third option was to take a detour eastward to watch from close quarters the Socialist demonstrators honoring the workers killed a week and a half earlier during the revolution.

Following the logic of his own account in Mein Kampf


  • "A well-researched and insightful examination of Adolf Hitler's political awakening in the early 1920s... extremely thought provoking.... Becoming Hitler offers timely lessons, the first and most obvious is to underscore the striking parallels in political psychology between Hitler and Donald Trump."—Forward
  • "This comprehensive work should become the standard text on Hitler and the origins of the Nazi party." Library Journal
  • "[An] intensively researched account.... A satisfying, nuts-and-bolts account of the six-year span during which an obscure ex-soldier became a demagogue the German establishment should have taken more seriously."—HistoryNet
  • "Carefully tracking [Hitler's] life from 1918 to 1926, Weber documents the transformation that turned this rudderless opportunist into a fiery orator enjoying the support of millions who hailed him as a political genius, even a messiah.... An unflinching inquiry."—Booklist
  • "Compelling research and original insights bring a fuller understanding to the mind and motives of the demagogue."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "In his brilliant Becoming Hitler, Thomas Weber offers an original, well-documented, and enthralling account of the how and why of Hitler's rapid metamorphosis from zero to self-defined hero in the where of 1919 Munich-a city ripped apart by a short civil war and its vengeful aftermath. Weber's book makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about the emergence of Hitler as a political leader."
    Robert Jan van Pelt, University of Waterloo, Canada
  • "A splendid account of a vile subject."
    Nicholas Stargardt, author of The German War
  • "Thomas Weber showcases Hitler's terrifying originality as an extremist thinker: committed, from the beginning of his meteoric ascent, to the restoration of German greatness and to the destruction of the Jews. An absolutely compelling and original portrait of a wicked genius in all his grandeur and horror."
    Michael Ignatieff, President, Central European University, Budapest
  • "Thomas Weber is one of the foremost world authorities on Hitler. He refuted the mantra that there was nothing more to say about the German dictator and no new sources to be found with his path-breaking study of Hitler's First War."—Brendan Simms, author of Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present
  • "This is the most important book on Hitler and National Socialism since Ian Kershaw's monumental biography. It is amazing how much new information and documentation Thomas Weber has used to show precisely when, how, and why Hitler's world view was shaped, and precisely where the intellectual, emotional, and social origins of genocide and of the Holocaust lay."
    Harold James, professor of history, Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs, Princeton University

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
464 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Weber

About the Author

Thomas Weber is a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. The award-winning author of several books, Weber divides his time between Aberdeen, Scotland, and Toronto, Ontario.

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