Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Childhood Rivals?

During the first years of Hitler’s life, his father moved numerous times around the city of Linz, Austria. At the age of eleven he attended the Realschule of Linz, a school where he later claimed to do poorly to show his father that he had no interest in following his footsteps as a civil servant. Though he had good grades at his previous grammar school, he made poor marks at the Linz school and was forced to transfer to the state high school at Steyr, outside of Linz, where he left before graduating.


By a strange coincidence, Hitler shared the Linz school with another twentieth century celebrity: the eccentric philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered one of the most creative philosophers of the twentieth century.[i] Though they were the same age, Hitler was two years behind Wittgenstein in the school. According to Wittgenstein biographer Ray Monk, neither had anything to do with each other. However, Kimberley Cornish proposed an interesting theory in 1998 that Hitler began his hatred for Jews due to his school relationship with the brilliant Wittgenstein, who came from an affluent Jewish family though they had converted to Catholicism. Try as many have, any real link between Hitler and Wittgenstein is missing though there is no doubt they were in the same school. A photograph clearly showing a young Hitler exists with a boy resembling Wittgenstein but whether it is Wittgenstein remains a question.[ii]

Like Hitler, Wittgenstein served in the trenches of World War I. It was literally in the trenches of warfare when Wittgenstein began writing one of his greatest philosophical pieces, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that was eventually published in 1921 with an introduction by his famed philosophical mentor, Bertrand Russell. Wittgenstein would later teach philosophy at Cambridge University and have as one of his pupils Alan Turing,[iii] the brilliant mathematician who worked successfully at Bletchley Park[iv] as a principal character in breaking the Nazi’s secret code machine, Enigma.[v]

Wittgenstein, born in 1889 like Hitler and another controversial philosopher Heidigger,[vi] was one of the most enigmatic and fascinating philosophers of the twentieth century; a man who gave away his inheritance worth a fortune, a World War I hero, rural Austrian grammar school teacher, university lecturer, architect, and hopeful designer of the jet engine (a study eventually abandoned for another scientist).[vii] The only one thing agreed about Wittgenstein of those who write about him and knew him is that he was as controversial and strange as he was diverse in his intellectual talents. Hitler was never fond of real intellects and often touted his failure at traditional schooling as a badge of honor. Did the personalities of these two strangely gifted boys clash in the school rooms of Linz, Austria decades before they would become internationally infamous? It is an intriguing thought that Hitler may have been intimidated if not incensed by Wittgenstein’s genius, but not something we can completely believe without further proof.

Karl May

One of Hitler’s favorite authors was Karl May (1848-1912), a German novelist who wrote young adult novels set in the American West or the Orient and served two prison terms for fraud in 1865 and 1874. Though May had never visited the American West, he created a character called Old Shatterhand who had a passion for killing Indians, especially Ogallala. Though he misplaced and misspelled the names of Native Americans of the old American West, and had poor knowledge of the real history of their encounters with American soldiers, May cast Old Shatterhand as an avenging, admirable hero who exacted a deserving butchery upon what he regarded as an inferior race. Old Shatterhand’s world teemed with bloodshed, violence, and cruelty toward Native Americans.

Hitler read and reread many of the seventy volumes of May novels during his early years. Oddly, Hitler told many of his acquaintances throughout his life that May’s work gave him his first notions of geography and had opened his eyes to the world.[viii] “Karl May Clubs” were set up in Germany in the 1950s and were often covers for anti-communist clubs. Hitler created his own reality when it came to America as well. Hitler chose to view the film version of John Steinbeck’s brilliant The Grapes of Wrath as a realistic depiction of America as an impoverished and decaying nation.

Though it is unlikely Hitler knew of the English storywriter M. P. Shiel, but if he had he could have read Shiel’s prophetic 1896 story of a group of “super men” roaming Europe murdering people with physical and mental flaws. The story, entitled “The S.S.,” seemed to eerily predict the future Nazi nightmare.

Willem Richard Wagner

When Hitler left his last school in Steyr without a degree, he considered himself a loner with only his mother and a single friend, August Kubicek, as companions. Kubicek relates two incidents concerning Hitler’s character: upon finding that his lottery ticket was not a winner he flew into a rage denouncing “human credulity, the state lottery organization, and finally condemned the cheating government itself.”[ix] Kubicek also described Hitler’s reaction to a performance of Richard Wagner’s Rienzi, which they both attended. Hitler had a fascination with Wagnerian opera all his life. After the performance Hitler began a long, impassioned oratory “sketching for me his future and that of his people.”

When they met three decades later, Hitler remarked, “It began there.”[x] To Hitler, Wagner’s music immortalized the spirit of Teutonic gods and the ideal human: the “Nordic race.” Kubicek wrote that Hitler told him, “. . . I am especially happy to say that I can attribute my later rise to these modest provincial performances.” Wagner was openly anti-Jew and clearly presented his position within writing.


Cohen, Martin. Philosophical Tales, Blackwell Publ., Malden, MA., 2008.

Cornish, Kimberley. The Jew of Linz: Wittgenstein, Hitler and their secret battle of the mind, Century, London, 1998.

Fest, Joachim. Hitler. Vintage, New York, 1975.

Klein, Mina and Arthur. Hitler’s Hangups, Dutton Press, 1976.

Kubicek, August. The Young Hitler I Knew, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1955.

[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was a primary influence on two philosophical movements: logical positivism and linguistic analysis.

[ii] Cornish, Kimberley. The Jew of Linz: Wittgenstein, Hitler and their secret battle of the mind, Century, London, 1998. For commentary of this book see The Economist (US, March 14, 1998 v. 346, n. 8059, p. 18 and French, Sean, New Statesman, March 13, 1998, v. 127, n. 4376, p. 18.)

[iii] Turing was a key figure in creating Colossus, the first programmed electronic digital computer used to decode the Nazi Enigma machine. Depressed over police intimidation over his homosexuality, Turing coated an apple with prussic acid and ate it, dying shortly after at the age of 42.

[iv] A mansion 50 miles north of London in Buckinghamshire was purchased by British Secret Intelligence Service to house its Government Code and Cipher School in 1938. An original staff of 200 ballooned to 7,000 by 1944.

[v] The Enigma machine, a Nazi ciphering device used by the Germans during WWII, carried most of the German armed services classified communications. With the basic appearance of a typewriter, the machine used a series of moving rotors that were set to the same rotor position before transmission. When a key was punched a corresponding letter would appear on a lighted, battery-powered panel. A receiving operator would key the ciphered letter into his machine and have it converted into the original letter. The breaking of the code was called the Ultra Secret.

[vi]Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party for twelve years.

[vii]Cohen, Martin. Philosophical Tales, Blackwell Publ., Malden, MA., 2008, p. 220.

[viii] Klein, Mina and Arthur. Hitler’s Hangups, Dutton Press, 1976, pp. 8-9.

[ix] Fest, Joachim. Hitler. Vintage, New York, 1975, p. 22.

[x] Kubicek, August. The Young Hitler I Knew, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1955.

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