The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The roots of the zombie claim that Hitler had ‘Jewish blood’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 27. (Yuri Kochetkov/AP)
5 min

“So what if [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky is Jewish? The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine. I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood. It means absolutely nothing. The wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews. Every family has its black sheep, as we say.”

— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in an interview with the Italian television news program “Zona Bianca,” May 1

Lavrov sparked outrage in Israel when he repeated a long-disputed claim about Adolf Hitler’s heritage. This is a good example of how a murky bit of family history has allowed an often-debunked tale to reemerge from time to time.

There’s little evidence to support this claim.

The Facts

The source of this story stems from a documented fact: Hitler’s father was born out of wedlock and Hitler’s grandfather has never been revealed. That left open the possibility that Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish — and Hitler himself was one-quarter Jewish. (In the Jewish tradition at the time, however, Jewishness descended from the mother’s line.)

During Hitler’s rise to power, the missing information about his grandfather led to speculation about a possible Jewish ancestry. Then, in 1953, the memoir of Hitler’s personal lawyer, Hans Frank, was published, seven years after he had been executed during the Nuremberg trials for crimes committed when he headed the government of Nazi-occupied Poland.

In the book, “In the Face of the Gallows,” Frank claimed he had dug into Hitler’s ancestry after Hitler’s half-nephew threatened to blackmail the Fuehrer into revealing his Jewish past. Frank claimed that he discovered that Hitler’s paternal grandmother, Maria Anna Schicklgruber, gave birth in 1837 to Hitler’s father, Alois, while working as a cook for a Jewish family in Graz, a city in Austria. Schicklgruber was 42 at the time.

No father was originally listed for Alois in baptism documents, which recorded the birth as “illegitimate.” But Frank claimed that letters exchanged between Hitler’s grandmother and the family — known as Frankenberger — showed a family member, possibly a 19-year-old son, impregnated Hitler’s grandmother and the family paid for child support.

(Hitler supposedly told Frank that his grandmother actually had conned the Jewish family into paying child support by falsely claiming the teenager was the father. Hitler cited his grandmother as a source of the story — but she had died 40 years before he was born.)

Most historians say that Frank’s account is riddled with errors and cannot be trusted.

“There was no Jewish family called Frankenberger in Graz in the 1830s,” wrote Ian Kershaw in his 1998 biography of Hitler titled “Hubris.” “A family named Frankenreiter did live there, but was not Jewish. There is no evidence that Maria Anna was ever in Graz, let alone employed by the butcher Leopold Frankenreiter.”

Moreover, no correspondence detailing an affair and child support payments as described by Frank have ever been discovered. The family was in fact too poor to have paid any child support. To top it off, the son of Frankenreiter — the alleged grandfather — would only have been 10 when Alois was born.

As for the nephew, William Patrick Hitler, who allegedly tried to blackmail Hitler, he never made such claims publicly, even after he moved to the United States.

Historians have also cited an official prohibition on Jews residing in that part of Austria until the 1860s. But in 2019, Leonard Sax, a psychologist, called into question the sourcing for the claim that no Jews lived in Graz at the time and found evidence there was a small Jewish community in the city. His study, arguing that more credence should be given to Frank’s account, was published in the Journal of European Studies.

When Alois was 5, his mother married a man named Johann Georg Hiedler — which is who Hitler officially claimed as his grandfather. She died when Alois was 9, and Alois, still using the surname of his mother, Schicklgruber, was sent to live at the farm of Johann Georg’s younger brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler.

Many historians have speculated that either Johann Georg or Johann Nepomuk was actually Alois’s birth father, but the connections were covered up to avoid scandal. (Johann Nepomuk was already married when Alois was born.) No evidence has ever emerged to prove it one way or the other. Johann Nepomuk left Alois an inheritance. But, in a possibly incestuous twist, Johann Nepomuk was also the maternal grandfather of Adolf Hitler’s mother, Klara.

When Alois was 39, almost two decades after Johan Georg’s death, Alois convinced a parish priest to alter the baptismal records and write in Johann Georg Hiedler as his father.

For reasons unknown, the last name was rendered in official records as Hitler.

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