Drifter on park bench

Sometimes a man feels as if the very fortunes of his life are hinged upon a fragile pendulum, which follows wholly foreordained yet enigmatic movements. It is a mystery, the more confusing since we cannot determine, at any given time, our own position on this cosmic scale without invariably changing the oscillation’s period or direction. In other words, we may find out where we presently are, but not whether we are moving upor down on the scales of fortune, for each of our actions or omissions has an impact on our future that we cannot truly calculate. When Adolf Hitler quit on his friend August Kubizek in the fall of 1908 and disappeared in the capital’s uncounted crowds, he challenged Fortuna by his personal defiance.

Robert Payne portrays the impact of being on one’s own in a big town:

When a man sinks into poverty and misery in a vast city, many strange things happen to him. If he is without family or friends and has no roots, he very quickly becomes the prey of delusions.

Mysterious voices speak to him, a stranger suddenly glancing at him in the street will fill him with panic, and he believes that a scrap of newspaper blown by the wind to his feet conveys a message from some higher powers.

In his loneliness and terror, he learns that he has entered a savage country of strange customs and inexplicable cruelties, a country in which he is a foreigner possessing no right or privileges, at the mercy of everyone and most of all at the mercy of officials, a hunted creature who feels no security even when he is alone at night in the darkness of his own room.

We know much more about these lonely, alienated people than we did fifty years ago, perhaps because modern society creates more of them. We know the complicated contrivances they invent to maintain a sense of human dignity, and we can trace step by step how the shreds of human dignity are torn from them or salvaged in unpredictable ways.

Such men are on the mercy of the seasons, for warm days give them a spurious courage and winter reduces them to shivering incoherence. They talk interminably to themselves, and cling desperately to their fantasies. The blue stain on the wall, the stone picked up long ago, the string tied round the middle finger, all these become fetishes without which life would become unendurable.

We know too that poverty has its own in-built compensations. In “Down and Out in Paris or London”, George Orwell describes the strange, dull euphoria that comes with extreme poverty.

“You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming future of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.

Within certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry. When you have a hundred francs in the world you are liable to the most craven panics.When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent, for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that.

You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, “I shall be starving in a day or two -shocking, isn’t it?” And then the mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne.

But there are many consolations to poverty, and even apathy becomes exhausting in time. For anineteen-year-old youth who dreamed of becoming a great artist, the consolation was more likely to be found in fantasies of his own towering eminence in the arts, to the discomfiture of all those who had hindered his progress.”

After having participated in the autumnal manoeuvres of his regiment, August Kubizek (Adolf´s only friend then) returned to Vienna in late November 1908. He had of course informed his friend of his arrival and thus was baffled when Adolf never showed up at the train station. Gustl concluded that only something of utmost importance, without doubt some sort of emergency, could have compelled his friend’s absence and rushed to the Stumpergasse.

Frau Zakreys, the landlady, had no idea where Adolf was. He had given her notice on November 18, paid up the rent until the end of the month and disappeared without leaving a forwarding address or a message. She had already taken in another lodger. Gustl found a new domicile, in an inn, and heard nothing more from his friend for many years to come. When he was in Linz over the Christmas holidays, he visited the Raubals, but Angela (Adolf´s half sister) almost brusquely informed him that they had no idea´where Adolf lived and blamed August for supporting Adolf’s artistic dreams.After this Kubizek had no more contact with the Hitler family until,twenty-five years later, his boyhood pal had become the new chancellor of Germany.

At this time, and still today, every change in address had to be brought to the attention of the police, essentially as a means to keep track of the men of military age. Adolf registered his new address with the police on November 19, 1908, as Room # 16,Felberstrasse 22, c/o Frau Helene Riedl, in the XVth District, right at the Westbahnhof, where he lived until August 21, 1909, as a “Student”.

It was obvious that the second Academic rejection had put Hitler in a funk, and it is quite possible that he simply did not have the nerve to tell Gustl of the repeated failure. One thing about the move, however, remains a mystery: the newroom was bigger and thus cost more than the habitat at Frau Zakreys. It has been speculated that the sudden flight from the Stumpergasse was pursued to hide something or someone from Gustl, perhaps a girl. But for a dearth of proof we can only hypothesize about Hitler’s reasons, as we must when we face the question whence the money came for the higher rent.

This is the period in Hitler’s life we know least about. Something decisive must have occurred in addition to the second Academy fiasco. We do know that he spent about eight months in the Felberstrasse room, including his twentieth birthday on April 20, 1909. Decades later, a few of his neighbours have come forward with dim memories of a polite young man who appeared somewhat distant, occupied with his own affairs. There was a café nearby he used to visit, the Café Kubata, and from there we have some vague indicators that, at least some time, he spent in female company. Maria Wohlrab, née Kubata, said that she saw him often in the company of a girl which was, perhaps, named “Wetti”or “Pepi”. Frau Christa Schroeder, from the 1920s on Hitler’s long-time secretary, insisted that her chef had mentioned to her, more than once, that he had a “beloved” at that time in Vienna named “Emilie”.The cashier at the Café Kubata later remembered that she liked the young man because “he was very reserved and quiet, and would read books and seemed very serious, unlike the rest of the young men.” (3)

The cost of the Felberstrasse apartment, whether he used it alone or not, may have put too much of a strain on Hitler’s finances, which were by now most probably limited to the twenty-five crowns orphan assistance he still received each month. He moved again, on August 21, 1909, this time as a “Writer”,to Sechshauserstrasse 56, 2nd Floor, Room 21, c/o Frau Antonie Oberlechner, in the XIVth District. It was very close to the Felberstrasse but probably cheaper, for the Sechshauserstrasse was a thoroughfare with lots of street noise and trolley traffic.

Things did not improve, it seems. Less than four weeks later, on September 16, 1909,he left Sechshauserstrasse without registering a forward address. He must have been close to the end of the rope: for about three months his tracks are lost within the multitudes of Vienna’s poor, in the anonymity of the homeless and indigent.

The days of his vagrancy forced him, alike the myriads that shared his fate, to seek shelter from the cold of the impending winter in parks, alleys, doorways and ditches. A favourite place was, as mentioned earlier, the Prater amusement park, which was mostly inactive in winter and provided lots of benches for which the competition was intense. He may well, as many others did, have tried to sleep in coffee houses, bars or flophouses, in the waiting rooms of the train stations or the warming rooms of the city’s charities. In Mein Kampf, he admitted that “even now I shudder when I think of these pitiful dens, the shelters and lodging houses, those sinister pictures of dirt and repugnant filth and worse still.” So arduous was his pecuniary distress that he had to sell his art materials and most of his clothing; a sale that was ill-suited to the falling temperatures. To add insult to injury, the winter of 1909/10 turned out the most frightful in decades and one day Hitler had to admit defeat to Vienna’s weather gods: one cold December evening, he showed up in the workers’ suburb of Meidling; more precisely in the long row of derelict wretches who waited for admission to the Asyl für Obdachlose, the “Asylum for the Homeless”.

Continue Part II

Continue Part III

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)