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Austria: Newly discovered letters from Hitler’s father reveal dictator’s ‘genius complex’

Letters found stashed in an Austrian attic sent by the father of Adolf Hitler have shed light on the tyrant's upbringing.

Austria: Newly discovered letters from Hitler's father reveal dictator's 'genius complex'
Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

When he was first contacted by a woman claiming to have discovered letters written by Adolf Hitler’s father, Roman Sandgruber was understandably wary.

“Given all the forgeries and self-proclaimed ‘eyewitnesses’ who’ve come forward in the past, you think: ‘There can’t be much to it’,” the Austrian historian says.

“But then when I went down there and actually had a look at them, I realised straight away: ‘This is a sensation’.”

The original seals, the vintage postmarks, the authentic signature — left him with little doubt the letters were genuine.

Before the accidental discovery, sources about Hitler’s father Alois had been so scarce that, to Sandgruber’s knowledge, no biography of him has ever been published.

Along with other new sources, these 31 letters have helped Sandgruber write the first such volume — “Hitler’s Father: How The Son Became A Dictator” — and bring new insights into the milieu the Nazi tyrant grew up in.

The letters were written by Alois Hitler to a road maintenance official called Josef Radlegger, concerning the latter’s sale of a farmhouse in the village of Hafeld to Alois in 1895, when Adolf was six years old.

“They aren’t just letters about business, there’s a very familiar atmosphere between the two correspondents and there’s a lot of family gossip,” Sandgruber tells AFP in the University of Linz’s history library, while carefully removing the letters from the bundle they were kept in for decades.

Though Alois was known to be a “very tyrannical head of the family”, Sandgruber says the letters also offer an occasional glimpse at congeniality in his home life.

To Alois, his wife Klara was more than the “silent housewife” later described by Adolf in Mein Kampf.

One of the few people Alois had anything positive to say about, Sandgruber believes her to have been “a thoroughly emancipated woman, as we would put it today”.

“One can assume that she certainly had a say in the household,” Sandgruber notes, and particularly when it came to money matters.

“My wife… has the necessary enthusiasm and understanding for finances,” Alois writes in one of the letters.

Moreover, the letters are testament to Alois’s rise through Austrian society and his dream of becoming a country gentleman with his own farm. 

‘Genius’ complex 

The new treasure trove of documents may never have seen the light of day had pensioner Anneliese Smigielski not decided to clear-out and insulate her attic a few years ago.

She had always known that her great-great-grandfather Radlegger had sold property to Alois Hitler, and wasn’t particularly surprised to find the letters among more than 500 others, all meticulously kept in boxes.

But after a few attempts to follow Alois’s irritable messages — “he seemed to get annoyed about everything” — Smigielski found the sloping Kurrent script too hard to decode and thought it needed the attention of an expert.

Smigielski knew of Sandgruber’s previous work on the history of Upper Austria and got in touch with him in 2017, thinking he would be able to make some use of them.

While Alois is known to have made anti-Semitic statements when he himself dabbled in politics later in life, Sandgruber is wary of making too many direct connections between the father’s politics and those of his son.

He says the important influence on Adolf was the racist and anti-Semitic currents of thought which were present more generally in the Austria of his childhood.

However, Sandgruber says the one trait which undoubtedly united the two of them was “the very strong influence of being self-taught”.

“The result of that is as with the father, the son despised all those who had been through a regular school career — academics, notaries, judges, and later even military officers,” he says.

“He thinks that he alone is the genius,” Sandgruber adds.

He has been taken aback by the international attention his book from an Austrian publisher has received, garnering press coverage as far afield as Peru and China.

Smigielski herself also confesses to being a little overwhelmed by the press attention which has followed her attic discovery, saying it feels like “being a hare in the middle of the hunt”.

“But it will die down,” she says hopefully.

Perhaps not anytime soon though, such is the interest in the book that it entered its second print run just one week after publication on February 22.

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NAZIS

Neglected Austrian creator of ‘Bambi’ celebrated in Vienna show

While the 1942 Disney film "Bambi" is world famous as a classic of animated cinema, the man behind the story -- an eminent writer in pre-war Vienna who had to flee the Nazis -- is little known.

Neglected Austrian creator of 'Bambi' celebrated in Vienna show
Various translations of the iconic tale "Bambi: A Life In The Woods" by Felix Salten are seen on display at the City Hall Library in Vienna on March 23, 2021. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Felix Salten was a product of the cultural blossoming in the capital of the then Austro-Hungarian empire around the turn of the 20th Century.

As a Vienna exhibition which shines a spotlight on the neglected creator shows, he was a prolific writer who moved in the same circles as the likes of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

Salten wrote the iconic and poignant tale of the fawn bereaved of his mother by hunters in 1922 under the title “Bambi: A Life In The Woods”.

READ MORE: How Austria’s newest citizens reclaimed a birthright stolen by the Nazis

On its publication the following year, it did not enjoy immediate success among the reading public.

However, in the 1930s, Salten — himself a hunter — sold the film rights for the text for $1,000 to an American producer, who in turn sold them to Disney.

As for the book itself, “Felix Salten changed publishers and from then on it became much more successful,” said Ursula Storch, curator of the exhibition at the Wien Museum dedicated to the city’s history.

“Of course it was made even more famous by the film adaptation in 1942,” Storch told AFP.

But by then, “Bambi”, along with the rest of Salten’s work, had been banned because he was Jewish, first in Germany and then in Austria after Hitler’s annexation of the country in 1938. 

Literary ‘chameleon’

The film’s success, however, was enough to give rise to numerous retellings of the story. Storch says that while Salten himself never offered a commentary on the meaning of the book, it is a powerful evocation of the dark side of human nature and the relationship between humans and the environment.

“It’s a book which is deeply anchored in its time and is much more than a simple children’s story about the loss of one’s mother,” said philosopher Maxime Rovere, author of the preface to a new French edition.

Given “the impression of fear, the way the animals must constantly escape,” Rovere says it is “impossible not to make the link with (Salten’s) personal experience”, living as he did through an era of rising anti-Semitism.

But as the exhibition makes clear, there is much more to the work of Salten than “Bambi”. Born in 1869 in Budapest, he and his family moved to the imperial capital the following year.

At around the age of 20, he began a career as a journalist, which remained his staple source of income for around 50 years, according to Marcel Atze, head of the manuscripts department at Vienna City Library.

However, Salten’s oeuvre of some 50 books spans opera librettos, poetry, art criticism, film scripts and even a pornographic novel under the title of “Josefine Mutzenbacher”.

He won a reputation as a versatile literary “chameleon”.

Storch says that his social life was no less notable, with Freud and composer Richard Strauss among his acquaintances.

But the Anschluss shattered that world, with Salten later writing of his “contempt for the Viennese and for Austrians in general” after many of them joyfully welcomed Hitler’s takeover of their country.

His diaries record an ever-growing anxiety.

“His writings are very moving,” Atze, who spent several weeks poring over the journals with colleagues, said. “When you read them you can absolutely imagine what was happening,” he added. 

‘Feeling of redemption’

Atze says that only a few such documents survive from this tumultuous period, making Salten “an unbelievably valuable witness”.

In March 1939, Salten fled to Switzerland, taking with him a library comprising thousands of volumes.

Two years later, the Nazis stripped him of his nationality.

Atze notes that this news is written in red in Salten’s diary instead of the usual blue or black and that the attendant possibility of being deported from Switzerland as a stateless individual must have left him “trembling” until his death in 1945.

His Swiss granddaughter Lea Wyler never knew him personally but says that accounts handed down through the family tell of a “broken man” marked by successive tragedies.

“He had lost his only son in a car accident, he lost his home, Vienna, friends,” she told AFP by phone.

She laments the fact that out of work left by her “loving, humorous, cheeky” grandfather, only “Bambi” is remembered — and that the Disney adaptation has eclipsed the original.

“The crazy thing is that everybody thinks that Disney wrote it. He did not even get that credit, that is really annoying,” she said.

Nevertheless, Wyler adds the fact that Vienna is now celebrating Salten has brought “a feeling of redemption”.

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