In 1994, a German woman in her late 80s, elegantly dressed and wearing large gold-rimmed glasses, sat down for a videotaped interview to share her memories of Adolf Hitler as a young man. The future Führer had boarded in her family home in Munich for over a year before volunteering in August 1914 to fight in the Great War.
In the interview in Munich, Elisabeth Grünbauer recalled that Hitler, while living with her family, had commented on his dislike of Jews, suggesting that his anti-Semitic outlook had been cemented even before the war. Until now, the consensus among historians has been that it came to the fore only after World War I, as Thomas Weber, a German historian and Hitler biographer, notes in a new article in The Journal of Holocaust Research.
Grünbauer’s recollections could potentially help fill in gaps in Hitler’s biography, making it possible to date more precisely the timing of his evolution as an anti-Semite. Her testimony, writes Weber, was “evidence of anti-Semitic statements by Hitler that predate any other known reliable anti-Semitic expressions by him by about six years.”
Historians usually date Hitler’s becoming a radical hater of Jews to his tumultuous years in Munich following World War I, a period when anti-Semitic sentiment raged in the city. Jews were blamed for the conditions under which Germany agreed to end the war, as well as for the economic ruin and political upheaval that followed.
But according to Grünbauer, who died in 1999, the young Hitler “always complained about what was going on in Austria, and, above all, he [said] that he did not want to serve in the military in Austria because Austria was too swamped with Jews [verjudet]. … That was one of his recurring themes, that he said that Vienna and Austria were so ‘verjudet’ that he had left the country and was unwilling to fight in the war for Austria.” Hitler ultimately was able to sign up to fight for Germany, even though he was not German-born.
She says these complaints came up repeatedly in Hitler’s conversations with her father, who, like her mother, appeared to have become close with the future tyrant. Hitler, she adds, “also said that the Jews were exploiters, as they controlled Austria and the stock exchange.”
Hitler’s comments describing Jews as exploiters were not something Grünbauer had heard personally – she was 8 at the time Hitler rented a room in her family’s home – but she says it was a sentiment clearly recounted to her by her parents.
Weber, a professor at the University of Aberdeen and author of “Hitler‘s First War” and “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi,” defends Grünbauer’s credibility as a historical witness. He wrote in his article, “The Pre-1914 Origins of Hitler’s Anti-Semitism Revisited,” how, “her testimony should be read less as the personal recollections of a young girl... than as an account of the collective memories of her family about Hitler’s time with them. In fact, her interview... really has two parts: one focusing on things that her parents shared with her and another in which she shares her own personal recollections – for instance, of how she and her friends had tried to play harmless tricks on Hitler.”
Weber came across the transcripts of the interview conducted by Karl Hoeffkes, a German author and collector of personal accounts of the Nazi era, when a publisher and editor he knows, Wieland Giebel, shared it with him this past July. The transcript was part of a manuscript of a forthcoming book based on transcripts of interviews conducted by Hoeffkes of 1,500 people, among them perpetrators and victims, who had direct access to Hitler and had also been interviewed by Hoeffkes. Giebel is editing and publishing the book. Hoeffkes had not previously shared the Grünbauer interview and transcript, which was kept with his collection of other interviews and research materials.
“As it turned out,” Weber told Haaretz in an email, “neither Wieland nor Karl Hoeffkes had realized what the significance of the interview is. I suggested that I would try to explore the full significance of the interview and publish it ahead of the publication of their book.”
Grünbauer was the daughter of Anna and Joseph Popps, with whom Hitler lodged for 15-16 months before enlisting in the Bavarian army at the start of World War I. As evidence that Hitler became close with the family, Weber cites several letters and postcards that he sent the Popps, most of them from the front in Belgium along the French border, the first two from his time in training and en route to the front in late 1914 and early 1915.
“What makes Grünbauer’s statement significant is both the date of Hitler’s anti-Semitic remarks and the arguments used to justify them. Prior to the surfacing of Grünbauer’s interview, no reliable document had ever come to light relating to Hitler’s anti-Semitism prior to the summer of 1919,” Weber writes, “Crucially, the anti-Semitic statements Hoeffkes recorded predate World War I and thus call into question the accepted wisdom of how Hitler turned into an anti-Semite. And they invite us to revisit the question as to what happened to Hitler in his final years in Vienna.”
Hitler had moved to that city in 1908, at age 18, with a plan to attend the art academy there, where he hoped to become a great artist. Instead, he was greeted with rejection and poverty.
In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler’s 1925 autobiographical manifesto, he writes that he became an anti-Semite before moving from Vienna to Munich – which this new evidence appears to back up. Nonetheless, Weber argues that Hitler’s account of his anti-Jewish epiphany at the end of World War I, as described in “Mein Kampf,” appears to be more a case of grandstanding and presenting his own version of his political evolution as a “genius,” than the truth. What we do know, the historian says, is that Hitler’s views about Jews changed over time while he was in Vienna. Hitler writes that his political awakening was sparked by hearing in 1918 about the beginning of what would become known as the German Revolution, inspired by socialist ideas. Jews ranked among its leaders and supporters. It was then, he wrote, that he decided to become a politician who could “save” Germany.
Other historians respond
Robert Jan van Pelt, a Holocaust historian and professor at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, says Weber has raised an important question about the formation of Hitler’s ideology.
In an email exchange with Haaretz, van Pelt wrote that “it appears increasingly clear that Hitler’s anti-Semitism, or better anti-Semitisms (plural), evolved into a complex, many-layered phenomenon that contained earlier strata that embraced popular tropes about Jews as having too much influence, etc., to what turned out to be the genocidal version that did not focus on particular Jews, or for that matter the Jewish people, but on ‘the Jew’ – a nefarious ogre-like pestilence that somehow had acquired some human form.”
He noted that the latter form of Hitler’s anti-Semitism evolved around 1920 in an ongoing dialogue with Alfred Rosenberg, a key ideologue of the Nazi Party, whom he met in Munich and who went on to become one of the masterminds of the Holocaust.
Moshe Zimmermann, emeritus professor of German history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote an article for the Journal of Holocaust Research entitled “The Riddles of Conversion to Anti-Semitism” that was published as a response to Weber’s article.
Zimmermann notes that historians and laypeople alike have become suspicious of new revelations and documents about Hitler, in particular those relating to Hitler as a youth and young man, both because there have been cases of fraud in the past and because of the challenges of corroborating information.
In his article, however, he takes less issue with the validity of Grünbauer’s account regarding the timing of Hitler’s anti-Semitic conversion, than with its significance, suggesting that what still matters most was his post-war formulation of a radicalized, virulent anti-Semitism, despite the more “garden variety” anti-Semitism that may have preceded it.
“We may assume beyond any doubt that Hitler’s Viennese experience acquainted him with anti-Semitism, as well as with radical solutions to the ‘Jewish problem.’ At the same time,” Zimmerman writes, “we may also assume that anti-Semitism was not a dominant element in his Weltanschauung until after the war.”