Hitler, Adolf (1889-1945)Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) - Voted the most evil man of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler was directly responsible for about 9 million deaths, and as the instigator of World War II, was indirectly responsible for millions more.  Though Austrian, he rose through the political ranks of Germany to become Der Führer (leader) and set out to avenge the loss Germany suffered in World War I.  For the first two years of World War II, it looked like he might succeed, and had he been a rational human being, he might have.  But he failed and at the close of the war, took his own life.  Hitler's story begins in World War I as a young soldier fighting for the Central Powers.  Although Austrian, he fled to Germany and was admitted into the Bavarian army.  He later stated that he would not fight for his own country because of the multi-ethnic makeup of the Austro-Hungarian military.  This was about the time he began formulating his views on German nationalism and the Aryan race.  When the war ended in 1918, he was devastated by Germany's loss, as well as outraged by the terms under which it was forced to surrender.  Only a year  later, he joined the German Workers' Party, which, in 1920 became the National Socialist German Workers' Party (or Nazi Party).  By 1921, he rose to the top of the Nazi Party, no doubt due to his charisma and fiery rhetoric.  Two years later, he attempted to take over all of Germany in a Munich coup known as the "Beer Hall Putsch".  It failed and Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for treason.  While in prison he wrote (actually dictated to Rudolf Hess) his most famous work, Mein Kampf (my struggle), which outlined his vision for Germany's future domination of Europe as well as his own personal ideology.  Despite his five year sentence, he was released after only nine months.  But his time in prison taught Hitler that he should try to rise to power legitimately through the political system rather than overthrow it.  And that's exactly what he set out to do.  Conditions were miserable in Germany after the war and Hitler played off that in order to endear the people to his message.  The combination of a worldwide depression and crushing war indemnity resulted in severe economic hardship for the average German.  The Deutsche Mark experienced one of the most extreme examples of hyperinflation in history.  Citizens famously burned their money to stay warm because it was virtually worthless.


Hitler blamed capitalism, communists and most notoriously Jews for Germany's hardships and his message began to resonate throughout the population.  In 1932, he ran for president and finished second behind incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg.  Hitler had broad support and prominent members of the community pressured Hindenburg to appoint him chancellor (the second highest office within the Weimar government) in order to appease his supporters.  He reluctantly agreed.  This gave Hitler the inside track on becoming Germany's next leader because Hindenburg was in his mid-80s and in poor health when he was re-elected.  Everyone knew he did not have long to live; and, in fact, he died in August 1934.  But only months earlier, there was a power struggle within the Nazi Party.  Few people realize that Hitler had a potential rival who might have outmaneuvered him for leadership.  His name was Ernst Röhm, and he was head of the military wing of the Nazis known as the "Storm Battalion" (or SA; more commonly known as the "brownshirts").  So, in an event known as the "Night of the Long Knives", Hitler (and Heinrich Himmler) purged (killed) Röhm and several of his supporters to insure that Hitler could rule uncontested.  Upon Hindenburg's death, Hitler immediately began consolidating power.  He abolished the office of the president and merged its powers with those of the chancellor.  He also amended the constitution to give his office authority over the courts.  This guaranteed that he could not be removed from office by any legal methods available.  Finally, he made himself supreme commander over the German Military.  These three steps gave him total power in Germany and he could now begin to execute his plan outlined in Mein Kampf.  This, of course, would lead to World War II (see below).