… THERE LIVED A WELL RESPECTED FAMILY
The business of the Civil Service is the orderly management of decline.
In the Year of the Lord 1889, the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph celebrated his fifty-ninth birthday and forty-first anniversary of his reign over the vast Empire of Austria and Hungary; when he died, in 1916, he had ruled the state for sixty-eight years. The realm was huge – covering over 180,000 square miles or about 450,000 square kilometres. The emperor’s domains stretched, in the east-west axis, from Czernowitz on the Prut River in today’s Ukraine to Vorarlberg near the Swiss border, and, in the north-south axis, from the lower Elbe River near Aussig to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in southern Croatia, two-thirds down the eastern Adriatic coast.
Ethnically and thus politically, however, these territories were hopelessly divided. The racial diversity of the Imperial population included Germans in Austria, Hungary and the Sudetenland; Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia; Slovaks to their east; Poles in western Galicia and Ruthenians, Catholic Ukrainians, in the eastern part of it; Magyars in Hungary and Transylvania interspersed with some more Germans and Romanians; Slovenes, Friulians and Italians south of the Julian Alps; and finally Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, Montenegrinos and Serbs in and around the Balkan mountains.
All these groups fought incessant but mostly inconclusive battles over appointments, representation and influence in the empire and its court, while a laborious civil administration struggled with the actual governance of the multitudes. The exceptionally long reign of Francis Joseph had much aided the ossification of the Imperial structures, which, given the Habsburgs’ reverence for tradition, were conservative, to say the least; pre-modern, and reactionary.
When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security. Everything in our almost thousand-years-old Austrian monarchy seemed based on permanence, and the state itself was the chief guarantor of this stability. The rights which it granted to its citizens were duly confirmed by parliament, the freely elected representatives of the people, and every duty was exactly prescribed.
Our currency, the Austrian crown, circulated in bright gold pieces, as assurance of its immutability. Everyone knew how much he possessed or what he was entitled to, what was permitted and what was forbidden. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight. He who had a fortune could accurately compute his annual interest. An official or an officer, for example, could confidently look up in the calendar the year he would be advanced in rank, or when he would be pensioned.
family had its fixed budget, and knew how much could be spent for rent and
food, for holidays and entertainment; and what is more, invariably a small sum
was carefully laid aside for sickness and the doctor’s bills, for the
Whoever owned a house looked upon it as a secure domicile for his children and grandchildren; estates and businesses were handed down from generation to generation. When the babe was still in its cradle, its first mite was put in its little bank, or deposited in the savings’ bank, as a “reserve” for the future. In this vast empire everything stood firmly and immovable in its appointed place, and at its head was the aged emperor; and were he to die, one knew (or believed), another would come to take his place, and nothing would change in the well-regulated order. No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence seemed impossible in an age of reason.
This feeling of security was the most eagerly sought-after possession of millions, the common ideal of life. Only the possession of this security made life seem worthwhile, and constant widening circles desired their share of this costly treasure.
At first, it was only the prosperous who enjoyed this advantage, but gradually the great masses forced their way toward it. The century of security became the golden age of insurance. One’s house was insured against fire or theft, one’s field against hail and storm, one’s person against accident or sickness. Annuities were purchased for one’s old age, and a policy was laid in a girl’s cradle for her future dowry. Finally, even the workers organized, and won standard wages and workman’s compensation. Servants saved for old-age insurance and paid in advance into a burial fund for their own interment. Only the man who could look into the future without worry could thoroughly enjoy the present. (1)
This peaceful state of bliss, however, did not necessarily embrace the whole empire; a new age has brought forth anarchists and socialists. Neither was the status of the rural poor much to write home about. Yet law and order were generally held in high regard for the safety and continuity of society they implied. Into this world of order, a son, whom she named Alois, was born, on the morning of June 7, 1837, out of wedlock, to the peasant maid Maria Anna Schicklgruber in the hamlet of Strones in the Austrian Waldviertel.
The Waldviertel, which literally translates as the “Wooden Quarter” or “Forest Quarter”, was one of the Austrian monarchy’s backwaters, a hilly “country of peasant villages and small farms, and though only some fifty miles from Vienna it has a somewhat remote and impoverished air, as if the main currents of Austrian life had passed it by.” (2) It is located slightly north-east of Linz, respectively north-west of Vienna, between the Danube River and the Czech border in the direction of Brno. It is a borderland and has seen its shares of marauding armies over the centuries. German tribes on the way to the treasures and temptations of the Roman Empire had crossed through the land which the Romans called “Noricum”, followed by the Huns, various tribes of Goths, the Hungarians and finally the Turks. It had seen armies in the Thirty-Years-War and the Napoleonic Wars; only after the Congress of Vienna a century of peace graced its gently rolling hills.
The name “Hitler”, variably spelled “Hidler”, “Hiedler”, “Hüttler”, “Hietler”, “Hytler” or “Hittler” was one of the more common names in the district. It is documented as early as 1435, when the Abbot of the Herzogenburg Monastery drew up a deed granting to Hannsen Hydler and his wife property near Raabs, on the Thaya River. (3) The etymology of the name indicates a possible derivation from the German word “Heide” [in English “heather”, relating to a meadow], of which the Waldviertel was full. All of Alois’ life occurred within a radius of one hundred miles of Linz, then as now the capital of the province of Oberösterreich, Upper Austria.
Little is known about Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandmother Maria Schicklgruber. The tiny village of Strones where she lived was far too small to be a parish of its own, and thus baby Alois had to be registered in the slightly bigger village of Döllersheim, a couple of miles to the north-west. It was generally known that the baby was born out of wedlock and therefore was, strictly speaking, “illegitimate”. Many theories have been spun and explanations offered in which this circumstance supposedly played the one or other role in Alois Hitler’s life or in that of his son Adolf, and they are all bunkum. The reality of the Waldviertel dictated that “legitimacy” was a concept the peasants simply could not afford to pay heed to, and which occasioned no advantages in their daily lives. “Illegitimacy” might have been a significant problem for the heir of a throne or the prospective owner of land, a shop or business, but not to farmhands and share croppers. It was a common occurrence, and there is not the slightest indication that Alois ever suffered from an imagined stigma attached to it. There were no empires to bestow on Alois, and his son took them regardless of a court’s permission.
Another disparaging theory was circulated in the early 1930s regarding Adolf Hitler’s parental grandfather. Alois, the rumours held, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish merchant from Graz named Frankenberger or Frankenreither, who had seduced Maria, who was working as a maid in his household – in a variation of the theme, the merchant’s son was the debaucher, and his father paid for the girl’s discretion.
Such a story, if true, would naturally be a feast for Hitler’s political enemies. After a few Austrian newspapers had come up with it during the German general election campaign of 1930, the allegations resurfaced when Hitler ran for German president against Hindenburg in 1932. At length, Hitler dispatched his legal counsellor Hans Frank to investigate. The lawyer was told that the nineteen-year-old son of a Mr. Frankenberger from Graz was the culprit, whose father had allegedly paid alimonies to Fräulein Schicklgruber for fourteen years; a variance of the story had Mr. Frankenberger and his lecherous son in Linz, not Graz. There was, however, not a shred of evidence available in either town, no trace of payments, and hence the story slowly died. Research in the Austrian and Jewish records of Graz and Linz undertaken after 1945 established conclusively that no Jewish families had been allowed to settle in either town before the 1860s, twenty years after Alois’ birth. Neither were there any Frankenbergers or Frankenreiters at all, and thus the bottom fell out of the story for good.
The first five years of Alois Schicklgruber’s life were spent in Strones with his mother, who married, in 1842, a seldom employed millworker named Johann Georg Hiedler from the nearby hamlet of Spital near Weitra. [FN1] The marriage seems not to have changed much: the couple lived in abject poverty, and after Maria died five years later of tuberculosis and Johann Georg re-entered the vagrant lifestyle, the child passed into the wardship of Johann Georg Hiedler’s brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler of Spital, House # 36. This wardship gave rise to a fair amount of village gossip: rumour control asserted that Johann Nepomuk was, in fact, the biological father of the boy.
[FN1] The name “Spital” is a common name for Austrian villages and towns, and the village of Spital in Lower Austria, which plays a role here, must not be confused with the town of Spital in Carinthia, whither, for example, historian Marlis Steinert puts Johann Nepomuk Hüttler.
Nobody knows who Alois’ father truly was, and it is possible that Maria did not know herself. In this time and place, sexual relations among farmhands were essentially unregulated, babies born out of wedlock numerous and considered welcome additions to the work force if they survived early childhood.
More interesting than idle speculation about the identity of Adolf Hitler’s grandfather is the question of why Alois’ original birth certificate underwent rewriting, tampering and forgery in the summer of 1876, when he was already thirty- nine years old. What had happened in the meantime that could explain such an act?
In 1850, at the age of thirteen, Alois ran away from home, a fact that allows an inference or two about the circumstances or happiness of his childhood. He fled to Vienna, where he quickly found employment as apprentice to a cobbler. He finished, as far as we know, the four years standard apprenticeship and became a shoemaker, but soon quit this profession and enlisted in the Austrian civil service. He passed the entrance examination, which seems quite an achievement since he had enjoyed little schooling at home, and was accepted to serve in the Customs division of the Austrian financial administration. In “Mein Kampf“, son Adolf described his father’s arrival in the Austrian capital as follows:
“As the son of a poor cottager, he [Alois] could not even in those early days bear to stay at home. Before he was thirteen, the youngster laced his tiny knapsack and fled from his homeland, the Waldviertel. Despite all the attempts of “experienced” villagers to dissuade him, he made his own way to Vienna in order to learn a trade.
This was in the fifties of the last century. It was a bitter decision to take the road and plunge into the unknown with only three Gulden for travel money. But by the time the thirteen-year-old had grown to seventeen, he had passed his apprentice’s examination [as a cobbler], but was not yet content with his lot – quite to the contrary. The long period of hardship, the endless poverty and misery he had suffered, strengthened his determination to give up the trade in order to become something “better”.
Once the village priest had seemed to the poor boy the embodiment of all humanly attainable heights, so now, in the great city, which had so powerfully widened his perspective, it was the rank of civil servant. With all the tenacity of a young man, who had grown “old” in suffering and sorrow while still half a child, the seventeen-year-old clung to his new decision – and he became a civil servant.” (4)
These words must be read with the knowledge that Adolf Hitler was on the record to regard his father with feelings closer to hate than love, but here he attempts to draw a picture of success, which was to contrast sharply to the opinions he shared in private, or at his headquarters’ dinner tables in the Second World War. More than from the laundered account of his father in “Mein Kampf” we can infer, regarding the happiness of the family Adolf grew up in, from the fact that Alois’ first son Alois Jr., Adolf’s half-brother, left this home at the same age of thirteen as his father had, never to return.
Meanwhile, the stations of Alois Schicklgruber’s rise to a somewhat respectable position in the Customs department – the highest to which he could aspire, given his limited education – followed the predictable patterns of civil service careers; that is, moving through the ranks and around the country. Originally attached as a most junior servant to the Austrian Ministry of Finance in 1855, he was relatively quickly promoted. In the year 1861 we find him as a supervisor in Saalfelden, Tyrolia, and in 1864 as an assistant in the bigger Customs office in Linz. In 1870, he was moved again, to Mariahilf, a change that was sweetened by a promotion to assistant collector. A year later he arrived in the small border town of Braunau at the Inn River, with the rank of Senior Assistant; he grew to like the little town and stayed for almost two decades. In 1875, he was promoted to Assistant Customs Inspector. His career was not spectacular per se, but it was a decent calling for a man of his origins and, apparently, that was what his family thought when they concocted a scheme to bestow upon him a dollop of enhanced respectability.
On June 6, 1876, Alois and three of his friends – Josef Romeder, who was one of Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s sons- in-law, Johann Breiteneder and Engelbert Paukh – paid a visit to the public notary Josef Penkner in the small town of Weitra, not far from Alois’ birthplace Strones. The notary was paid to prepare for Alois a “LEGALISIRUNGS-PROTOCOLL“, a protocol of legitimization for his birth. The three friends attested that Johann Georg Hiedler, he of the vagrant lifestyle (whom they had known well, they said), had attested to them at various times that he was, in fact, the biological father of Alois Schicklgruber, whom he planned to legitimize one day. The document was drawn up, the witnesses signed, but for a reason that remains unexplained, the paper featured Alois’ new family name in the form “Hitler”, not as “Hiedler” or “Hüttler”. Beweaponed with this document, the posse made its way to the little town of Döllersheim on the next morning, where they paid a visit to the local priest, Father Josef Zahnschirm, upon whom they played a “cunning peasant trick”. (5)
On the power of the notarized document, and perhaps a contribution to the church funds, Father Zahnschirm agreed to make a few changes to Alois Schicklgruber’s baptismal record. The original birth certificate featured blanks in the space for the name of the father and the field for remarks. The blanks were now filled by entering “Georg Hitler. Cat.rel., Living in Spital” as the father, and under “Remarks” that …
“The undersigned witnesses hereby confirm that Georg Hitler, who was well-known to them, acknowledged paternity of the child Alois, son of Anna Schicklgruber, and they requested that his name be entered in the baptismal register. +++ Josef Romeder, Witness, +++ Johann Breiteneder, Witness, +++ Engelbert Paukh, Witness.” (6)
Speculations about this mission abound. Some private family business may have played a role; rumours tied Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, who had been so conspicuously absent in Weitra and Döllersheim, into the drama; “There was village gossip that Alois was his natural son.” (7)
The net result of the clandestine affair was that Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler. Father Zahnschirm had clearly been lied to when he was told that Johann Georg Hiedler was still alive [“Living in Spital“], but the churchman may have had his own thoughts about the procedure from the beginning, as had, apparently, the witnesses: the priest “forgot” to date and sign for the changes, and the witnesses had turned illiterate, signing with crosses, which could be explained as errors, should the need arise. The climax of the play came when the improved birth certificate was registered at the nearest Austrian chancery in Mistelbach. [FN2]
[FN2] Marlis Steinert followed up on the Austrian government’s subsequent authentication of the fraud: “A correspondence between the priest, the communal administration and the Financial Office in Braunau confirmed the legal validation of the document per matrimonium subsequens [due to Georg’s marriage to Maria Anna five years after Alois’ birth], citing a decree of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna from September 12, 1868, in which such legitimations should be granted as far as possible.” (9)
The formerly illegitimate Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, civil servant and owner of a gold-buttoned uniform; when he, half a year after Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s death, bought a farm for the proud sum of five thousand florins in cash; the village gossip nodding – conclusions confirmed.
Alois had gone through a number of romantic entanglements in his life, and had sampled experience in holy matrimony as well. He had married for the first time on October 1873 at thirty-six years of age, although it seems that at this time he had already fathered a child in a different relation. (8) At any rate, the marriage seems to have been built on reasons superior to love alone: the bride, Anna Glassl-Hoerer, was the daughter of a high-ranking financial officer, an inspector in the Treasury’s Bureau of Tobacco, fourteen years older than her husband and of ill health. Nobody would have been surprised had status and finances played a role in the match.
Due to the frequent changes of assignment, Alois had made it a habit to lodge in Gasthäusern, inns, for the greater part of his life, and these lodgings brought him into daily contact with waitresses, chambermaids, laundresses and tobacco girls, whether he liked it or not. Apparently he did not mind, and he did possess the most important condition to warrant female attention, a steady job and hence a steady income. By the time Anna filed for separation in 1880, perhaps tired of his infidelities, he had quite openly conducted an affair with the waitress of the Gasthaus Streif, a girl named Franziska (Fanny) Matzelsberger, for some time.
Yet the relation to Fanny did not preclude Alois, as it seems, from experiencing an urgent need for another maidservant, and he soon installed another young girl of sixteen years in his mansard under the roof of the inn; a slender, attractive girl named Klara Pölzl. The idea met with the furious opposition from Franziska, who had zero doubt about the nature of the services Klara would be asked to perform for Alois, and she succeeded in having the competition thrown out quickly. In due time Franziska bore a son to Alois Hitler, who was named Alois Junior, on January 13, 1882. When Anna, who had in the meantime obtained a legal decree of separation, died in the following year of consumption, Alois was free to marry Franziska. She soon bore Alois another child, a girl named Angela.
At this time Alois officially decided to accept the paternity of the children and had Alois Jr. and Angela legitimized. It was an outward sign of his striving for recognition and respectability, which were what counted in this deeply authoritative society. He had a gratifying career and money to spend; he earned more than, for instance, the local school principal. He was in his “best years” and loved to have his photo taken, in uniform. A question remains as far as the sympathies of his colleagues at work are concerned; one source describes him as “rigid and pedantic“, yet these would be qualities his employer might favour and may explain his success. In a letter to a cousin who had inquired about a job for his son, Alois drew the following portrait of himself and his profession:
“Don’t let him think that the ‘Finanzwach’ [Fiscal Service] is a kind of game, because he will quickly be disillusioned. First, he has to show absolute obedience to his superiors at all levels. Second, there is a good deal to learn in this occupation, all the more so if he had little previous education. Topers, debtors, card players, and others who lead immoral lives cannot enlist. Finally, one has to go out on duty in all weathers, day or night.” (10)
Characteristically, Alois’ enumeration of “immoral” lifestyles did not include dubious and perhaps illicit contacts to waitresses and chambermaids, nor illegitimate babies. But a shadow soon appeared on his private horizon; a short time after giving birth to Angela, Franziska developed tuberculosis, as Anna had, and was forced to leave Braunau to seek a cure in mountain air. Alois was suddenly left alone with two small children on the top floor of the inn, and since his career as Customs official had not prepared him for the care of toddlers, he reimported Klara as soon as Franziska had left town. Klara Pölzl was actually Johann Nepomuk Hüttler’s granddaughter, and therefore Alois’ niece, in the context of which the closeness of family relations in the Waldviertel may be observed again. One photo of Klara has survived. She was tall and slender, almost as tall as her husband, had very regular and attractive features framed by brown hair; not a beauty but what is called in France a “belle laide”, an interesting girl. The outstanding aspect of her face was certainly her voluminous turquoise eyes. By all accounts she was neat, simple, and loving. Her education was close to nil, but, then again, the sources agree that she behaved correctly in public and had no problems with the role of being the common-law wife of a Customs official. In private, she was known as a most efficient housekeeper, cook, organizer, and nurse to the children.
The community in Braunau accepted her without qualms, which is somewhat surprising: it was one of these little towns in which the neighbours take an interest in everything that is not their business. In the summer of 1884, Franziska died of consumption, as Anna had earlier, and Klara was already pregnant. Alois wanted to marry her, but now the manipulation of the birth certificate backfired: since the former Alois Schicklgruber was now Alois Hitler, he was officially Klara’s uncle and no marriage was possible under the laws of the Austrian Catholic church unless a dispensation was granted. With the aid of the local priest, Alois composed a letter to the Bishop of Linz, which has survived:
“Most Revered Episcopate!
Those who with most humble devotion have appended their signatures below have decided upon marriage. But according to the enclosed family tree, they are prevented by the canonical impediment of collateral affinity in the third degree, touching second. They therefore make the humble request that the Most Revered Episcopate will graciously secure for them a dispensation on the following grounds:
The bridegroom has been a widower since August 10th of this year, as can be observed from the enclosed death certificate, and he is the father of two minors, a boy of two and a half years (Alois) and a girl of one year and two months (Angela), and they both need the services of a nurse, all the more because he is a Customs official away from home all day and often at night and therefore in no position to supervise the education and upbringing of his children. The bride has been caring for these children ever since their mother’s death, and they are very fond of her.
Thus, it may be justifiably assumed that they will be well brought up and the marriage will be a happy one. Moreover, the bride is without means, and it is unlikely that she will ever have another opportunity to make a good marriage. For these reasons the undersigned repeat their humble petition for a gracious procurement of dispensation from the impediment of affinity.
Braunau am Inn, 27. October 1884
Alois Hitler, Bridegroom – Klara Pölzl, Bride” (11)
Enclosed was a version of the family tree, which presented Alois Hitler as the son of Johann Georg Hiedler, the vagrant, whose brother Johann Nepomuk Hüttler was the grandfather of Klara Pölzl, the bride. We will have the opportunity to encounter a letter or two written by the young Adolf, Alois’ son, in a later post, and they will sound oddly similar in diction and style to the epistle above. Alois’ petition for a dispensation reeks of the same sort of not very sublime deception that he had employed in the “improvement” of his original birth certificate; what John Toland had called the “cunning peasant trick“. The son was to employ similar tactics in his own time.
The addressee, the Bishop of Linz, hesitated, and decided, following proper bureaucratic procedure, to call upon a higher authority. A short summary of the case, including the original letter, family tree and a “testimonium paupertatis“, an instrument of declaring poverty which waived the payment of the usual fees, was forwarded to the Sacra Rota, the department of the Holy See that deals with matrimonial issues. The Vatican apparently cared as much or little about a wee bit of incest in Braunau as the peasants of the Waldviertel cared about legitimacy, and the release was granted three weeks later.
Alois Hitler and Klara Pölzl were married on January 7, 1885. The ceremony took place in the morning, in a hurry, it seems: Klara complained that before noon, “my husband was already on duty again.” (12) Later in the evening, a small banquet in the company of Alois’ Customs colleagues followed at the Gasthaus Pommer.
The marriage hardly changed anything in their lives. The pair had known each other for years, and Klara was accustomed to her duties in the household. She was a simple but quiet, modest and polite woman that never put up demands on her husband, the children, or the community. She was deeply religious and attended services regularly. The family lived without any trace of scandal, even Alois’ private investigations into the lives of the local waitresses and chambermaids seemed to abate. Money was not plenty but sufficient to afford the family a proper living standard, and they played their parts in the community without fail.
If we gaze at Klara’s photograph, taken when she was about twenty-six, we look into the face of a simple but pleasant country girl. The most impressive feature of her face are indeed her luminous, expressive eyes. Robert Payne observed:
In the photograph she looks vulnerable, but not too vulnerable. She was a spirited woman, who could, if necessary, stand up to her husband. She was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her face suggests an uncommon gentleness and tenderness, an essential goodness. She was one of these women who live for their husbands, their children, and their faith. (13)
She was to bear six children to Alois, four sons and two daughters, of which one each survived childhood. The elder children Alois Jr. and Angela were joined by Adolf in April 1889 and Paula in January 1896. Four children died young: Gustav at the age of two; Ida at the same age; Otto died in the cradle, and Edmund in his sixth year. [FN3]
[FN3] It seems that the fate of the Hitler family was no exception. A boyhood friend of Adolf, August Kubizek, described the early trials of his freshly-married parents as follows: “At first the young couple lived in the house of my mother’s parents. My father’s wages were low, the work was hard, and my mother had to give up her job when she was expecting me. Thus, I was born in rather miserable circumstances. One year later my sister Maria was born, but died at a tender age. The following year, Therese appeared; she died at the age of four. My third sister, Karoline, fell desperately ill, lingered on for some years, and died when she was eight. My mother’s grief was boundless. Throughout her life she suffered from the fear of losing me, too; for I was the only one left to her of her four children.” (14)
At this point in time and place, such a mortality rate was considered almost normal. Children were born and died by the thousands, of measles, diphtheria, pneumonia and other common childhood diseases; deadly in a time which knew not yet sulphonamides or penicillin. The family was in the care of Dr. Eduard Bloch, a general practitioner, but the science of microbiology was not yet invented and the invisible agents of death prospered unhindered.
In general, however, it was a respectable and orderly family which welcomed, at six o’clock in the evening of April 20, 1889, its newest member, Adolfus.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)