Monday, April 20, 2009

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler was born on this day in 1889. Reading about his strange life one looks for signposts. What events turned him this way or that way? What were the key events?

He was born in Austria but moved to Germany at age 6. His mother smothered him with affection and his father beat him. As a boy he dreamed of entering the priesthood. (A swastika was the most prominent feature in the coat of arms on the monastery across the street.)

At age 12 he attended a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin. At 17 he failed to get into art school. At 20 he was living as a bum on the streets of Vienna. At 24 he ran away to Germany to avoid military service. (He was arrested and returned but found to weak to serve.)

He was 30 when he grew his famous moustache, became an author at 36, a vegetarian at 42, Chancellor of Germany at 43.

He saw Paris for the first and only time on June 23, 1940. He was 51. He spent three hours there, having his picture taken near the Eiffel Tower, being disappointed by the Louvre and meditating at Napoleon's tomb. He died at age 56, in a bunker 24 feet beneath a burning city, having murdered millions and pulled all of Europe down around his ears. These are the moments I include in A Book of Ages.

Why note these events and not others? Are they significant? They are fairly ordinary, actually. (Apart from being a monster, Hitler was unremarkable.) But they are suggestive, just as many of our own remembered moments jump out at us for reasons we don't understand. Lives can be written out in full detail or remembered in odd moments and vignettes, which is how we remember our own. One anecdote suggesting another, like stories told at a party or a funeral.

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