The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hitler’s mother was ‘the only person he genuinely loved.’ Cancer killed her decades before he became a monster.

Klara Hitler and her son Adolf Hitler. (AP photos)

On a chilly Saturday evening on April 20, 1889, inside an apartment above a brewery in a tiny Austrian town near the German border, a farmer’s daughter married to her second cousin gave birth to her fourth child. He was the first to survive infancy. They named him Adolf.

Klara Hitler, nee Pozl, was 29. She was a dutiful homemaker to her much older husband Alois — first, years earlier, as his maid, and then later, as his third wife. Tall, with a long face and a gentle smile, Klara was quiet and shy. Alois, a local civil servant, was a stern, bad-tempered, authoritative bully.

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At night, as young Adolf grew up, Klara would stand outside his bedroom door, listening as Alois beat him. Adolf’s younger sister Paula remembered those nights years later, speaking to U.S. Army officials investigating his monstrous acts.

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“He was a scrubby little rogue,” Paula said of her brother, “and all attempts of his father to thrash him for his rudeness…were in vain.” But their mother was always there after the beatings to caress him and bathe him in kindness. “My mother,” Paula said, “was a very soft and tender person, the compensatory element between the almost too harsh father.”

Alois died in 1903 of heart failure while drinking his morning pint. Klara became a single mother, tolerating, seemingly without question, her unruly and headstrong son.

Adolf did not excel at school or almost anything else.

In 1905, when he was 16, he faked an illness “to persuade his mother that he was not fit to continue school and gladly put his schooling behind him for good with no clear future career path mapped out,” the historian Ian Kershaw wrote in “Hitler: A Biography.” “Adolf lived a life of parasitic idleness – funded, provided for, looked after, and cosseted by a doting mother.”

Klara, her sister Johanna, and Paula all enabled Adolf’s slothful existence, looking “after all his needs, to wash, clean, and cook for him,” Kershaw wrote.

Adolf fantasized about becoming a musician and artist. Klara bought him a grand piano. He drew and painted. He wrote poetry. At night, he went to the theater, often with his mother. He bought her a ticket every year for her birthday.

“It was little wonder,” Kershaw wrote, “that Hitler came to refer to this period as ‘the happiest days which seemed to me almost like a beautiful dream.’”

Until Klara got sick.

With pain in her breast, she went to see the family doctor, Eduard Bloch, who was Jewish. In 1907, he diagnosed Klara with breast cancer, telling her and Adolf that the breast would need to be removed. The future Führer sobbed. Klara endured the painful surgery, then even more painful treatment at home, soaking her chest area in iodoform, a disinfectant then thought to heal wounds.

“My brother Adolf spoiled my mother during this time of her life with overflowing tenderness,” Paula told the Army. “He was indefatigable in his care for her, wanted to comply with any desire she could possible have and did all to demonstrate his great love for her.”

Bloch, the doctor, attested to this love years later in a memoir.

“Outwardly, his love for his mother was his most striking feature,” he wrote. “I have never witnessed a closer attachment.”

Austrian lawmakers seize house Hitler was born in. (Video: Reuters)

Klara slept in the kitchen, the warmest part of the apartment, so he slept there too. Klara’s sickness seemed to center her son. His cross, disobedient ways seemingly vanished. “He would scold Paula for doing poorly at school and one day made her swear solemnly to their mother that she would henceforth be a diligent pupil,” historian John Toland wrote in “Adolf Hitler: The Definitive Biography.”

But Adolf could not succeed in the first thing he truly wanted to succeed at — saving his mother. In late December 1907, in the early morning darkness pierced by the flickering lights of a Christmas tree, Klara died. What became of her son, she would never know.

Bloch came over at sunrise to sign the death certificate.

“He found Adolf, face wan, at his mother’s side,” Toland wrote. “On a sketchbook was a drawing of Klara, a last memory.”

Bloch tried to comfort Adolf.

“In all my career,” he later wrote, “I never saw anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler.”

Adolf was thankful for the care the doctor had provided.

“I shall be grateful to you forever,” he told the doctor, bowing.

The Bloch family received postcards from Adolf for several years after. An Israeli medical journal documented the relationship in a 2014 article.

“The Hitler family send you the best wishes for a Happy New Year, in everlasting thankfulness,” Adolf wrote.

In 1937, the Führer made inquires to the Nazi party in Austria “about Dr. Bloch —  whether he was alive and, if so, if he was still practicing medicine.” The Führer called him a “noble Jew,” allowing him and his family safe passage, a future that eventually led him to the Bronx, not a gas chamber. Some historians have questioned parts of Bloch’s story, mostly out of sheer disbelief.

There are many enduring mysteries about why Adolf Hilter became a monster who slaughtered millions. The questions have been asked again and again. Was it because of his father? Was it because a Jewish doctor couldn’t save his mother? Was there a Freudian thing that set this all off? Was he just totally insane?

In the end, there are just theories.

Except for Klara.

“He carried her picture with him down to the last days in the bunker,” Kershaw wrote. “Her portrait stood in his rooms in Munich, Berlin” and elsewhere. “His mother may well, in fact, have been the only person he genuinely loved in his entire life.”

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