In the annals of scholarly research, it is possible that nobody in history has been written about more than Adolf Hitler.
By 1975, 30 years after he killed himself at the end of World War II, more than 50,000 books and scholarly articles had been written him, according to a 2006 study of those studies. Two decades later, the total reached 120,000.
“That computes to more than 24 scholarly books and articles on Hitler and Nazism published every working day for 20 years – and the number is growing exponentially,” the study said. “Thus public interest in the mystery of Hitler continues to grow, with no end in sight.”
Yet among these millions (probably billions) of words, relatively few have illuminated the lives of two central figures in Hitler’s life – his parents Alois and Klara, about whom little-to-no primary research materials survived the world wars.
Or at least that’s what historians had resigned themselves to accepting.
But one of the tropes of history are letters that turn up in dusty attics. And a few years ago, in the tiny Austrian town of Wallern, a pensioner named Anneliese Smigielski was rummaging in her attic when she happened upon 31 letters written by none other than Alois Hitler.
Smiglieski turned the letters over to Roman Sandgruber, an Austrian historian who used them to write “Hitler’s Father: How the Son Became a Dictator,” the first known biography of Alois Hitler. The book, written in German, was published last month in Austria; there is no English translation yet.
Alois wrote the letters to Smiglieski’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph Radlegger, a civil servant who sold his farmhouse in Hafeld, a small village, to Alois Hitler in 1895 when Adolf was 6 years old. While the letters deal with the transaction, they also detail the dynamics of the Hitler family.
“You learn a lot about the family’s financial situation, the type of management planned and life on the farm,” Sandgruber said in an interview over email. “We learn a lot about the rural environment in which Adolf Hitler experienced the beginning of his school days.”
Alois had grown up on a farm but moved to Vienna as a teenager. The letters reveal how he yearned to get back to farm life, taking courses on agrarian life. They also reveal a far different relationship with his wife Klara than had been previously known or speculated about.
Though accounts of Alois’s later life describe him as a brutish drunk and abuser – and Klara as quiet and submissive – Sandgruber says the letters show that “the role that Klara Hitler played in the family is a little different than previously assumed.”
“My wife likes to be active and has the necessary joy and understanding for an economy,” Alois wrote in one letter, according to Sandgruber’s translation.
“A substantial part of the purchase price came from her inheritance,” the historian said of the farmhouse. “She was a co-owner and she appears in the letters as an independently acting housekeeper. She goes to the bank and the post office, she directs the house staff, she helps slaughter the pigs and so on.”
But it’s the relationship between father and son, particularly the similarities in how they think about the world, that really comes through in the letters, Sandgruber said. Both Hitler men, he said, shared supremely high opinions of themselves – that they were better and smarter than everyone else around them.
“With the knowledge he had acquired through reading and courses, Alois Hitler felt superior not only to the farmhands and maid-servants and the neighboring farmers, but also to many academics with university degrees,” Sandgruber said.
In the letters, he complains about carpenters unable to build beehives to his design and standards. He complains about notaries and judges and academics. He is satisfied only with knowledge that comes from his own personal experiences. He finds bourgeois society especially contemptuous.
Yet none of this chest-thumping really brings Alois any success.
A couple of years after taking over the farm, everything fell apart and the family was forced to move. Meanwhile, as Alois took to regularly beating Adolf, the son still modeled his father’s way of thinking and being, all the while soaking up the general anti-Semitism building in the region.
“Adolf Hitler had dropped out of school voluntarily,” Sandgruber said. “Like his father, he felt superior through the knowledge he had acquired in self-study. He saw himself as a military, technical and artistic genius. As an artist, he saw himself as a universal genius: not only as a painter, but also as an architect, writer, composer and actor.”
In examining the letters, which will be exhibited in an Austrian museum next month, Sandgruber noticed something even more eerie.
Their signatures were nearly impossible to distinguish from each other.