In reading the Charles Manson story, Helter Skelter, I was struck by a brief passage about Manson’s admiration for Hitler. Manson believed he had things in common with Hitler, and there were similarities in their lives, however trivial: both were vegetarians; both had an incredible ability to influence others; and both were frustrated, rejected artists.
Hitler—a frustrated, rejected artist? What was this all about? I had long heard that Hitler was a housepainter, though William Shirer claims “there is no evidence that he ever followed such a trade.” And I knew that, in 1907, when he was 18 years old. Hitler had been rejected for admission by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and that he had been rejected again in 1908. The burning question for me was “Win was he rejected?” According to Hitler in Mein Kampf, his rejection came as a blow, a shocking mistake, because he was so certain the academy would accept him. He claims that he was dissatisfied with himself for the first time in his life.
But where was information about Hitler’s art—locations, catalogues, reproductions? Local universities had nothing to offer, but I found exactly what I needed buried in a big-city public library: a treasure-trove of 260 pages of Hitler’s art, some in black-and-white reproductions, some in color. This book, cataloguing hundreds of sketches, drawings, and paintings by Hitler, was a stunning revelation to me. Most interesting were several examples of paintings that Hitler had submitted to the academy in 1907, as well as several drawings, two of which received a grade of “good.” Much of Hitler’s art, as this book makes clear, is today in private collections not open to the public.
This discovery fired my interest further. It was apparent to me, as an artist, that Hitler had talent. His artistic skill, in my opinion, was sufficient for entrance to the Vienna Academy, and other art authorities have concluded that he should not have been rejected. The work he produced between 1908 and 1914 was more revealing still; that work showed a marked improvement in his art. During his Vienna years, a number of dealers even sold his work.
Growing frustration tinged with anger and disappointment with the course of his life in Vienna apparently caused Hitler to seek an escape from his trials. His interest shifted from art to reading, which he took up avidly, focusing on polities, Austrian history, and the plight of the dispossessed. He began to hate Vienna and to attribute his own artistic problems and all the social and economic problems in Austria to the influence of the Jews, as he admitted in Mein Kampf. Before the Vienna years, there is little evidence that Hitler particularly hated Jews. Anti-Semitism was not an issue in the environments where he grew up. His mother’s doctor was a Jew, and Hitler is not on record as hating the Jewish art dealers in Vienna who sold his work. But his hatred of Jews was clearly established by the end of his years in Vienna. He blamed them for his failures, and particularly for his failed art career, but were the academy’s administrators and faculty really Jewish I thought this worthy of investigation.
I tried to learn more about Hitler’s rejection by the academy. What was the Jewish connection there, if am? I wrote to the director of Vienna’s Kunst-historisches Museum and asked outright if the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, in 1907, had Jewish teachers and a Jewish administration. Surprisingly, the academy still existed, and the director stated that “obviously” there had been teachers of the Mosaic faith. He suggested that I write to the academy for more detailed information. I wrote, but I received no answer. This only heightened my interest.
Most biographers claim that Hitler was a lazy, poor student who showed little ambition or sense of purpose. Actually, he did well in lower school—and well in upper school in what interested him. The tools he had to become a successful artist—talent, perseverance, determination, and energy—were all for the good, but these same tools became evil in the Vienna years.
Art was on Hitler’s mind his entire life. He drew and sketched incessantly. He supervised the design of all the new structures he built and planned to build. Albert Speer headed Hitler’s team of architects, and he attests to Hitler’s skill in the conception and design of the New Germain’s architecture. Many of these sketches and drawings still exist. Art was on Hitler’s mind when he strove, after becoming chancellor in 1933, to rid Germany and Austria of the modernist painters and their art, all of which was eventually removed from museums. The artists lost their teaching jobs. Some fled Europe, some went to jail. The great Ludwig Kirchner committed suicide, Hitler built the House of German Art in Munich, based on his idea of what art should be. His lifelong project was to eliminate Vienna as the prime art center in Austria, and to this end he decided to make Linz his home, the greatest art center in the world. Art remained on Hitler’s mind all through the war. In his Table Talk, a record of mealtime conversations from 1941 to 1944, a good number of his discussions were about artists, all forms of art, and plans for the cultural New Germany Werner Maser, his biographer, tells how in March 1945, four weeks before he died, he was engrossed in a wooden model of Linz that incorporated his ideas.
Hitler frequently deplored his life, expressing his dearest wish to wander through Italy as an unknown painter. He often quoted Nero’s dying words, “What an artist dies in me.” While speaking to Carl Burckhardt about destroying Poland, he paused and stated how glad he would be if he could stay there and work as an artist. Werner Maser devoted part of one sentence in his biography of Hitler to musing about this very subject: about what the world might have been spared if Hitler had been accepted by the academy. An examiner rejected his portfolio because of a lack of head drawings. The examiner did not see the portfolio that contained head drawings good enough for entry into any art academy. In a ragged copy of a little book, Wulf Scharzwiiller’s The Unknown Hitler, which I stumbled upon in a secondhand bookstore, I found the name of the Vienna Academy’s director: Professor Siegmund l’Allemand, who was indeed Jewish. Perhaps this was why the academy never answered mv query.
I lived in the age of Hitler, and I was even in close proximity to him—within five miles of him in the skies over Berlin on February 5, 1945, in a USAAF B17. My guess is that Hitler was even more prone to dream that particular day about wandering through Italy as a painter.