In that hour it began ?
The testimony of Adolf Hitler's childhood friend August Kubizek
Author : Jos Hermans
One by one, the myths that unreliable witnesses have created about Adolf Hitler's relationship to Wagner, falter. Those are tough myths that, once established, take on a life of their own. After Hermann Rauschning, today it is Hitler's childhood friend, August Kubizek's turn to take a seat on the witness stand.
Kubizek was friends with Hitler for 3 years. The most quoted story from his memoir Adolf Hitler, mein Jugendfreund is a political parable: after a performance of Rienzi at the Linz opera, Hitler is said to have climbed the hills of the Freinberg having awakened ideologically. Inspired by the hero of the opera -a simple man driven by a mission to restore Rome's greatness- Hitler allegedly put himself in a state of complete ecstasy and declared that he too felt called to lead his people to greatness. Kubizek is said to have recounted the episode to Hitler at his meeting in Bayreuth in 1939 only to find that the latter remembered it vividly. "In that hour it all began" the Führer is reputed to have said in the presence of his hostess Winifred Wagner. In so doing, Kubizek associated Wagner with the launch of Hitler's political career, a thought which seems to be supported by the fact that Hitler always had the Nürenberg party days opened with themes from the Rienzi overture.
Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw calls the passage an "absurdly melodramatic statement," and Kubizek's testimony in general he burns down as a "highly romanticized account." Kershaw expresses astonishment that the Freinberg "vision" was nevertheless taken seriously by later authors, including colleague Joachim Fest and Wagner researcher Hans Rudolf Vaget.
In the 2012 edition of "The Wagner Journal," Jonas Karlsson now proves that the Rienzi episode rests entirely on fantasy. In other words, the professional skeptic Kershaw was absolutely right. But first, it is useful to briefly outline the context and genesis of Kubizeks' testimony.
Between 1905 and 1908, Kubizek befriended Hitler in Linz and Vienna. The two men will not meet again until 1938, when, as a result of the Anschluss, Hitler returns to Linz and invites Kubizek, at that time a city clerk in Eferding, for a chat. A short time later, Kubizek is approached by party officials with a request to write about his memories of shared youth. For years, Kubizek is unable to commit anything to paper. By Martin Bormann and other party bosses, he is regularly urged to put himself to work. In July 1943, even Hitler finds it necessary to entice him to produce a text via one-time advance and a monthly grant. The mayor of Eferding also exerts pressure and provides him with a secretary. Here, the story goes down a slippery road, isn't it? Kubizek finally gets to work and produces two booklets entitled, Erinnerungen an die mit dem Führer gemeinsam verlebten Jünglingsjahre 1904-1908 in Linz und Wien. He finishes them shortly before the end of the war, never handing them over to the party, however, but hiding them in the wall of his house to prevent them from being confiscated by American forces.
In 1948, Kubizek, now imprisoned for his friendship with Hitler, is contacted by Franz Jetzinger, a Catholic priest and librarian at the Linz provincial archives, who has begun a biography of Hitler's youth and is looking for anyone who knew Hitler. Kubizek still idolizes Hitler and responds very enthusiastically to this collaboration. He lends his Erinnerungen to Jetzinger with the request that to turn his text into a biography that would overturn the caricatures of Hitler that sprung from the pen of countless hostile authors. For nearly a year, the two men meet and correspond. Kubizek writes long replies that express an undiminished admiration for Hitler. Needless to say, this clashes with Jetzinger's skepticism and scientific approach. Eventually the collaboration breaks down.
Then, in 1953, Adolf Hitler, Mein Jugendfreund is published, which is immediately proclaimed to be a unique account of Hitler's youth. The work is immediately translated into English and, for lack of information about Hitler's earliest years, it is plundered like a gold mine by biographers. Jetzinger responds in 1956 with his own book Hitlers Jugend, in which he denounces Kubizek's testimony as consisting of "at least 90% lies and fairy tales concocted to glorify Hitler." Frederic Spotts even believes that the book could not have been written by Kubizek. As his letters to Jetzinger and to Nazi authorities show, he found writing a real nightmare. His writing talent was minimal. Moreover, what he eventually published often contradicted his own Erinnerungen. No doubt he had written those down to make himself loved by the Führer and the Nazi party; the book itself, in turn, was an attempt to rehabilitate the dictator in the eyes of the postwar public. In the first text, Hitler was already a virulent anti-Semite in 1907; the Hitler of the book was hardly an anti-Semite. The Hitler of the Erinnerungen was taciturn, a man to whom only two quotations could be elicited; the Hitler of the book did not stop talking, sprinkling countless comments all around himself in pompous language.
Nevertheless, Brigitte Hamann finds Kubizek's testimony generally credible. She attributes Jetzinger's criticism to his jealousy over the fact that Kubizek's book had great success. Hamann claims that Kubizek handed over his drafts to Stocker Verlag, his publisher, only to be rewritten by a final editor. According to Spotts' research, the publisher himself denies this : the editor would have been offered a complete manuscript to which nothing was rewritten. Spotts calls Kubizek's book a mishmash of things that may be true, of things that are demonstrably untrue, and of things that sprung from the imagination of a ghost-writer. The quotes from Hitler Spotts considers to be fabricated.
But while Spotts destroys Kubizek's testimony, he expresses remarkable reservations about the Rienzi story. Oddly enough, this story seems to be based on fact, Spotts says. The opera was indeed performed in Linz in January 1905 and, moreover, it is one of the rare testimonies where the Erinnerungen are consistent with the later book. When a skeptical Jetzinger asked questions about it, a spiteful Kubizek is said to have replied : "the incident after Rienzi really happened ". Moreover, it is substantiated by Hitler's own statement to Speer in 1938, a full year before Kubizek mentioned the incident in Bayreuth. Asked why the party days always opened with Rienzi's overture, Hitler said it had great personal significance. "When I listened to it as a young man in Linz, I got the vision that I too had to bring about the unification of the German empire and bring it back to its greatness." After the annexation of Austria, Hitler made similar statements in public without the specific reference to Rienzi when he assured a Viennese audience, "I believe it was God's will to send a young man from here out into the Reich, and then let him grow up to be the leader of the nation and lead his homeland back to the Reich." In a sense, then, the Rienzi incident would be the first scene of his political career. There is no reason to doubt Speer's testimony.
However, Jonas Karlsson now shows that it can be stated with certainty that Hitler and Kubizek first met around October 30, 1905 while only 5 performances of Rienzi ran in Linz in January and February of the same year. In other words, Hitler and Kubizek could never have attended a performance of Rienzi together in Linz (nor, for that matter, in Vienna).
So if Speer is telling the truth it can only mean that Hitler saw the opera on his own, as a fifteen-year-old while still at school in Steyr ( which is fairly unlikely), or that he was simply lying to Speer. Perhaps Hitler was not shy about adjusting his past to better fit the heroic image he wanted to portray of himself.
Kershaw comes to a similar conclusion when he describes Kubizek's visit to Bayreuth : "Probably Hitler believed in his own myth, and Kubizek certainly believed in it. He had always been easily influenced, and convinced supporter as he was of the Führer cult, he said goodbye with tears in his eyes. Shortly thereafter, he heard how the crowd cheered Hitler on his departure." Just try to imagine what impression that must have made on the insignificant Kubizek.