At the elementary school
Hitler was always one of the best pupils. He was quick to learn and made
progress even without working
very hard. His first teacher, Karl Mittermaier, gave him a report, "Full marks in every subject." Mittermaier lived till 1938, when he was naturally asked to tell what he remembered of his former pupil. Although he still remembered the pale and sickly boy, he had little to say about him. The little Adolf had been very docile, his school things always in perfect order. For the rest there was nothing outstanding about him, either good or bad. Incidentally, when Adolf Hitler was Chancellor in 1939 he visited that school again and seated himself at the same desk at which he had learned to read and write. As usual, he made good use of his visit and changed everything possible. He personally bought the old school building and ordered the construction of a fine new school. The teacher who had succeeded old Mittermaier was invited to Obersalzburg, together with her pupils.
But things altered when Adolf Hitler in September 1900 entered the technical school at Linz. He himself writes about those years:
Only one thing was certain, my obvious failure at school. I learned what I liked – in particular, all that which I considered would be useful to me as a painter later. What I thought was unimportant in this respect or what did not attract me, I neglected completely. My marks in this period show extremes, varying according to the subject and my regard for it: there is "Praiseworthy" and "Excellent" but also "Fair" and "Unsatisfactory". By far my best efforts were in geography and even more in history, my favourite subjects, in which I was far ahead of the rest of the class.
One is apt to get a wrong picture of Adolf's schooldays from his own words. Although Adolf spoke to me of his schooldays with reluctance and always with a curious indignation, nevertheless our friendship was, so to speak, overshadowed by them. In this way I got quite a different impression from the one he conveys in his writings of fifteen years later.
In the first place the eleven-year-old boy found it difficult to adapt himself to the new surroundings. Every day he had to make the long journey from Leonding into the town to school. He often told me that, nevertheless, this daily walk was one of the nicest things he could remember of those years. At least this hour's journey to school assured him a bit of freedom, which he appreciated all the more as until then he had always lived in the country. Everything in town seemed strange and unfriendly to him. His classmates, mostly from rich homes, did not accept as an equal the queer youngster who came daily to town "from the peasants." His teachers' interest in him was confined to their classes. All this had been so different at the elementary school, where the easygoing teacher knew all his pupils intimately and used to take his regular drink with their fathers in the evening. At the elementary school the boy had been accustomed to passing up each year without any special effort. At his new school, to start with, he also tried improvisation at which he was a master. He had to do it all the more as he found little pleasure in learning by heart, so much valued by his teachers. But here the trick did not work. So he started to sulk and let things drift. Nobody took much notice of him in class; he had no friends and did not want any. Sometimes some of his spoiled classmates would make him feel that they did not accept as one of them this village boy – a sufficient reason for him to withdraw even more. It is significant that not one of his many schoolmates could claim any close relationship or friendship with him.
Thus, after his first year at the technical school, Hitler brought home to his father a report bearing twice "Unsatisfactory" and the verdict that the pupil would not pass up into the next class. Adolf never told me how his father reacted to this, but it can be imagined.
Now he had to start all over again. His form master was now Professor Eduard Huemer, who besides German, also taught French, the only foreign language taught in the lower forms of the technical school and also, to my knowledge, the only foreign language which Adolf Hitler ever studied, or rather was made to study. But in the meantime he had "acclimatised" himself. His second year in the first form was more successful and he was promoted to the second form. But from there, again, he passed only by the skin of his teeth. Again his father had to acknowledge a report which showed "Unsatisfactory" in mathematics. Obviously this judgment was not due to ill-will on the part of the teachers. Hitler hated mathematics because it was too dry and required hard, systematic work. We often talked about it. Later in Vienna Hitler realised that he would need mathematics if he wanted to become an architect. But this made no difference to his violent aversion.
He finished the third form again with two "Unsatisfactory" reports, again in mathematics and in addition in German, although Professor Huemer was one of the teachers whom, he later admitted, he respected. This was the year of his father's death. Professor Huemer explained to his mother that promotion to the fourth form was only possible if he went to another school. It is, therefore, not correct to say that Adolf Hitler was thrown out of the Linz technical school. He was only moved "to the country."
If up till now it was by his father's order that he stayed at school, so now it was mother's love which urged him to continue his studies. He did not like his transfer to Steyr. After reading Dante's Divine Comedy he talked to me of the school as "Purgatory."
In Steyr Hitler lodged with a court official by the name of Edler von Cichini at No. 19 Grünmarkt, but whenever he had a moment's spare time he would come to Linz. As could be foreseen, the result was bad and remained so when he repeated his examination between September 1 and 15, 1905. As well as the usual "Unsatisfactory" for mathematics, there appeared another "Unsatisfactory" for practical geometry.
When Professor Huemer, who had been Hitler's form master for three years, gave evidence as to his pupil's character at the Treason Trial after the unsuccessful Putsch of November 1923 he said: "Hitler was certainly gifted, although only for particular subjects, but he lacked self-control and, to say the least, he was considered argumentative, autocratic, self-opinionated and bad-tempered, and unable to submit to school discipline. Nor was he industrious; otherwise he would have achieved much better results, gifted as he was."
Having passed this rather negative judgment Professor Huemer, in a more sentimental mood, added: "Yet, as experience shows, what happens at school has not much bearing on life, and while model pupils sink from view without leaving a trace, the difficult boys develop only when they have the elbow room they need. My former pupil Hitler seems to belong to this latter species and I hope from the bottom of my heart that he will recover from his recent hardships and upsets and live to see the fulfillment of those ideals which he harbours in his bosom, which do credit to him, as they do to any German."
These words, written in 1924, are certainly not influenced by wisdom after the event. They show remarkable solidarity between teacher and former pupil. In an indirect way, Professor Huemer proclaims that the ideals for which Adolf Hitler was then standing his trial were indeed the ideals of his school. And this, in spite of the fact that in the subject which Dr. Huemer taught, German, Hitler by no means excelled; which is borne out by the many spelling mistakes in the letters and cards which he sent to me.
Among the teachers who, although their subject did not appeal to him, were favourably looked upon by Hitler for their personality was the science master, Professor Theodor Gissinger, who replaced Professor Engstler. Gissinger was very fond of the open air, a hardy walker and mountaineer and enthusiastic about gymnastics. He was the most rabid of all the Nationalist teachers. The political differences of that period were also evident within the teaching body, indeed even more so than in the general public. This atmosphere charged with political tension was more important for the intellectual development of the young Hitler than anything he was taught. As is generally the case, not the subjects taught, but the atmosphere of a school determines its value.
Incidentally, Professor Gissinger too has in later years given his judgment on his former pupil, Hitler. This remarkable document reads: "As far as I was concerned, Hitler left neither a favourable nor an unfavourable impression in Linz. He was by no means a leader of the class. He was lender and erect, his face pallid and very thin, almost like that of a consumptive, his gaze unusually open, his eyes brilliant."
The history teacher, Dr. Leopold Pötsch, was the third and last of those teachers who found favour in Hitler's eyes. He is the only one of almost a dozen teachers of whom Hitler, already at that time, approved. However reluctant Hitler was to talk to me of his former teachers, he made an exception of Pötsch.
The words which Hitler dedicated to his former history teacher are well known:
It was perhaps decisive for my whole life that chance gave me a history teacher who understood, as few others did, the paramount importance of this principle in teaching and examining (viz., to retain the essential and to forget the inessential). My teacher, Herr Doktor Leopold Pötsch of the Technical School in Linz, fulfilled this condition in truly ideal manner. An old gentleman, kind but at the same time firm, he was able not only to hold our attention by his brilliant eloquence but to fire us with enthusiasm. I am still touched when I think of the grey-haired man, the fire of whose words sometimes made us forget the present and, as though by magic, transported us into the past, and out of the mists of time transformed the dry historical facts into vivid reality. There we sat, wildly enthusiastic, sometimes moved to tears.
Undoubtedly this subsequent judgment is exaggerated. This is borne out by the fact that Hitler's last school report in Linz shows only a "Fair" for history, although perhaps the change of school had something to do with it. Nevertheless this teacher's influence on the very sensitive boy should not be underestimated. If it is true to say that the greatest value of the study of history is the enthusiasm which it arouses, then Dr. Pötsch has achieved his end.
Pötsch was a native of the southern border region and before he came to Linz had taught in Marburg and other places near the German language border. He therefore had a vivid experience of the struggle among the nationalities. I believe that the absolute love for everything that was German which Pötsch combined with his aversion to the Hapsburg Monarchy was the decisive revelation for the young Hitler. This fervent devotion to the German people gave him a firm foundation for the rest of his life.
Adolf Hitler remained grateful to his old history teacher throughout his life, indeed his attachment to school and teacher grew with the passing of the years. In 1938 Hitler came to Klagenfurt and met Pötsch again. He spent more than an hour in a room alone with the frail old man, When he left the room he said to those accompanying him, "You cannot imagine how much I owe to that old man."
But these subsequent opinions of Hitler's about his teachers should not falsify the real picture of his schooldays anymore than the subsequent opinions of the teachers about their former pupil – not to speak of the very contradictory opinions of his numerous classmates. The truth is – and I am witness to it – that Adolf left school with a fundamental hatred for it. I would take care not to bring the conversation round to the subject; but he sometimes would be seized by the necessity to hold forth against it violently. He never tried to keep in touch with any of the teachers, not even with Pötsch. On the contrary, he avoided them and pretended not to recognise them when he met them in the street.
His quarrel with school was going on at the same time as another conflict, which was much more important to him: his settling of accounts with his mother. This expression should not be misunderstood. Adolf tried to spare his mother as much as he could. But this became impossible when he finally failed at school and so gave up the career which his father had envisaged for him. Adolf was much more preoccupied with this psychological conflict than with the eternal guerrilla war with the teachers. What did he care about bad reports? But to his mother they meant that Adolf would not reach his goal.
I myself witnessed how Adolf tried to spare his mother during the last school year, and yet he could not spare her because it was impossible to convince her that his future lay elsewhere. Where, he did not yet know himself; and not for many years after his mother's death. So she took this, her greatest worry, the future of her son, with her into the grave.
In those gloomy days of autumn, 1905, Adolf was on the razor's edge. Superficially, the decision the sixteen-year-old had to take was whether to repeat the fourth form in the technical school at Steyr, or leave school forever. But its meaning for him was graver: should he, for his mother's sake, continue on a path which he knew was mistaken and hopeless for him; or should he ignore the grief that he would cause his mother and choose the other way, of which he could only say that it was the path towards art, a word which, one can understand, didn't offer much comfort to his mother?
But in view of his nature this was not for Adolf really a decision in the true sense of the word; for in reality there was no dilemma at all. He simply could not do otherwise and, leaving school, he embarked on the second path without looking back. But he knew how upset his mother was by this decision and this, I know, caused him immeasurable grief.
In those months Adolf passed through a grave crisis, the gravest during the years of our friendship. It manifested itself by his falling seriously ill. He describes it in his book as lung trouble. His sister Paula mentions a hemorrhage. Others again assert that it was some gastric trouble brought on by autosuggestion. I visited him almost every day during his illness, because I had to give him regular reports about Stefanie, who even at that time he worshiped. As far as I can remember, his illness was actually some lung trouble. I know that for a long time afterwards he was plagued by coughs and nasty catarrhs, especially on damp, foggy days.
Also, in his mother's eyes, he was released by this illness from continuing school. Thus, it just suited his decision. To what extent this illness was autosuggestion, to what extent it was the natural consequence of his inner crisis, to what extent it was purely constitutional, I cannot say.
When Adolf rose from his sickbed, he had made up his mind. He had definitely finished with school and without the slightest doubt or inhibition he steered his way towards the career of an artist.
The two years of his life that followed were without any visible aim. "In the hollowness of the life of leisure" is the title he gave to this phase when, in compiling Mein Kampf, he discovered with some uneasiness this gap in his career. Superficially this title is correct. He did not go to school, he did not bother about any practical training, he lived with his mother and let her keep him.
In reality, this chapter of his life was filled with unceasing activity. He sketched, he painted, he wrote poems and he read. I cannot remember that Adolf was ever idle or felt bored even for a single hour. If by chance he got fed up with something, as for instance a play that we saw, his boredom made him condemn the play so vehemently that, in this way, he roused himself to highest activity. To be sure, he was as yet not very systematic. There was no apparent purpose, no clear goal. He only accumulated with unbounded energy impressions, experience and material. What would ever become of it all remained an open question. He did nothing but search, he searched everywhere and always.
Meanwhile Adolf found a way of proving to his mother how useless any further schooling would have been for him. He proved it – how typical of his way of tackling problems – by convincing his mother of the futility of the whole school system. "One can learn much better by oneself," he told her. He subscribed to the library of the Adult Education. He joined the Museum Society and borrowed books from its library. He also used some lending libraries. From that moment I remember Adolf as always surrounded by books, especially by the volumes of his favourite work, with which he never parted, the German Mythology. How often did he persuade me, when I came from my work, to take with me and study this or that book which he had just read so that he could discuss it with me. Now suddenly he had all the qualities which he had lacked at school; application, interest and pleasure in learning. He had, as he said, beaten the school at its own game.