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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Hitler's Heritage

Adolf Hitler heritage

Adolf Hitler remains one of the most recognizable figures in the world today. His picture pops up in the newspapers with regularity, and there remains endless fascination with all aspects of his life. This is particularly the case with facts about him that are not conclusively nailed down with absolute certainty and documentary proof. These include: whether he escaped from Berlin before it fell in 1945; whether he intentionally allowed the British to escape at Dunkirk in 1940; whether he was gay; and so forth.

Klara Hitler
Adolf Hitler's mother Klara.

There are no definitive answers to any of those questions, and every time a professor of history is looking for tenure somewhere, he pops out a book or study 'proving' some sort of answer to one of those questions. One of the biggest areas of discussion concerns Hitler's biological heritage.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Erhard Milch, here giving a speech in Norway, oversaw the rebuilding of the Luftwaffe in the 1930s. He escaped trouble due to his supposed Jewish ancestry by claiming that he wasn't Jewish even though his father allegedly was. His argument? That he was the product of an affair that his mother had with a non-Jew. This is how far one had to go in Nazi Germany to avoid being labelled Jewish. It is sort of the reverse of what may have happened with Adolf Hitler. (Lange, Federal Archive)

It is understandable that Hitler's own race should be a matter of controversy, because his was the most race-conscious government of modern times. Many top Nazis had their own racial bona fides called into question (usually by their adversaries within the Nazi power structure). One example was Luftwaffe boss Erhard Milch (who had to go to extreme contortions to keep his job when some suggested that he came from a line of Jewish descent). Such problems for key Nazis were usually papered over somehow - but you couldn't be too careful.

Here, we will simply present some of the main theories of Hitler's heritage. To be clear, no matter what you may hear or read or see on the television or computer, there is to this day no conclusive proof that Adolf Hitler was anything but what he claimed to be: an Austrian of middle European descent.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Adolf Hitler looking at a scale model of the plans to rebuild his hometown of Linz, Austria. The model was prepared by his personal architect Hermann Giesler and took five years to complete. 15 February 1945.

First things first: Adolf Hitler was Austrian, from the town of Linz not far from the German border. His last name wasn't even definitive not long before he was born, and had multiple alternate spellings such as Hytler and Hittler. In 1877, some years before Adolf came along in 1889, Hitler's father Alois definitively established for all time that the family name was 'Hitler,' and Adolf never used any other spelling.

Second: when you get into racial origin, the chain can be broken at any point without any evidence whatsoever. This was especially true back in the day when paternity mattered more than it does now due to issues of support and inheritance. Nobody came forward in those days and just casually mentioned that the handyman was the true father of so-and-so rather than the legal father. Certainly nobody was going to do it to Hitler after he came to power, since it might cause the Fuhrer problems that he might wish to eliminate. Even some kings of the major powers such as France and England, whose own conception was (supposedly) literally watched by court personnel, are now claimed to be de facto if not de jure illegitimate. So, whether some poor family living in a shack had a legitimate line of descent is simply asking too much of modern scholarship.

Adolf Hitler heritage
The bodies of several top Nazis are in unknown locations. Heinrich Himmler committed suicide while being questioned and was buried in an unknown location. While there are various stories and legends about the location of Hitler's corpse, there is no certainty as to its present location, and it likely no longer exists at all.

Third: while there are unproven claims that Josef Stalin's troops brought him pieces of Hitler's charred body in 1945, none of it is known to survive (so to speak). Even skull fragments held in the Kremlin that are claimed to be part of Adolf are in dispute - some claim that the fragments actually are those of a woman. The story goes that whatever remains the Soviets found of Adolf (except the Kremlin pieces) were disposed of (apparently by cremation) in East Germany in the early 1970s. That, incidentally, seems a tad unlikely, but people do funny things with controversial human remains to this day (witness throwing Osama bin Laden's corpse in the ocean, for instance).

With this sort of problem, there always is a convenient reason why the definitive proof isn't handy now. No matter how much some vociferously claim that the proof was available at some previous point in time (which is used to support some argument or another which the now-lost evidence would  supposedly support if it hadn't been lost), it is all just hot air. The point is, there is no DNA of Hitler that is indisputable and known to survive. None. So, unless such is found, and considering possible breaks at every chain link in his paternity, there can be no definitive answer to Hitler's own racial background.

The best we can do is look at the available evidence - and there is some.

Hitler's Father Alois

Adolf Hitler's paternal grandmother is certain, but not his paternal grandfather.

The first main area of dispute concerns Adolf's legal father, Alois. He was descended (officially) from Stefan Hiedler in the 1700s. The family came from Spital (part of Weitra) in Austria. The whole genealogy thing gets very complicated, and it isn't really important anyway, because everyone knows that legally Adolf was of stolid Austrian parentage. The dispute comes from whether he in fact had pure Aryan blood in his own veins. To determine that, you only need to figure out the descent of his actual biological parents. However, while that sound easy, and in fact is for most people, it is virtually impossible with Adolf Hitler.

Alois' father own parentage naturally (because these situations always have murkiness) is disputed. Hitler's dad was born Alois Schicklgruber, and had a name change when he was adopted (you knew that was coming, too, this just refuses to be easy). The biological father of Alois of course  is in dispute - there you go - because Johann Nepomuk Hiedler took Alois in and raised him when Alois was 10 years of age. Nepomuk may have been the biological father, but most consider it fairly certain that the biological father was instead Johann Georg Hiedler, who was a bit of a bum, wandering about as a kind of itinerant laborer. The biological mother of Alois was Maria Anna Schicklgruber, Hiedler's wife and thus Adolf's grandmother. She was the family maid who moved up in the world because of her affair, but also a solid Austrian whose own Aryan ancestry is not in dispute (but who knows) despite her name.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Adolph Hitler visiting his parents' grave in Leonding, Austria, 1938

The true murkiness arises from just whom maid Maria - the mother of Hitler's father, Hitler's paternal grandmother - was dallying with. Sure, she was married to Hiedler, and that should end matters right there and make it all 100% Austrian. However, naturally (here we go again) Hiedler's name suspiciously was not put on the birth certificate at the time (until retroactively in the 1930s when it suddenly mattered to Adolf). Now, why would that be? It's easy to make some guesses.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Hitler's sister Paula died 1 June 1960 in Berchtesgaden

Maria may have been consorting with her own (future) husband Hiedler (imagine that). However, as noted, her husband Hiedler wasn't always around, being a bit of a bum. He was off working a lot. And, incidentally, let's emphasize here that Maria and Hiedler the bum did not get married until five years after Alois was born, a fact which is often overlooked in these debates. So, what was a girl to do?

The actual father of Hitler's father may have been Maria's (future) brother-in-law, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler. He did raise the boy, after all, and willed Alois his money. And since it was before Maria married Nepomuk's brother, it isn't quite so scandalous as it might seem (though being an unwed mother in the 1800s in central Europe was no picnic). Maria was a free, single woman, it could have been anybody. So this is an uncertain link in the paternity chain due to who Hitler's paternal grandmother was consorting with.

Overall, though, the grandfather issue shouldn't disturb the idea that Alois was Aryan, since the two leading candidates were brothers.

Hitler's Father

There is another wrinkle that is a bit more interesting. Hitler's mother, Klara, may have been cheating on Alois (who from all accounts sounds like a bit of a bore). This would take the preceding discussion completely out of the picture from a biological perspective (though from a practical perspective, Adolf would have been raised as an Aryan due to Alois' heritage). It is tempting to assume that females were pure and virtuous and so forth, but assuming things will get you into trouble. So, doubt exists - Alois' parentage based on the legal chain is wide open, and so is Adolf's.

And there is reason to believe that Klara in fact was not virtuous.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Hans Frank, Hitler's lawyer who studied this issue. He was hanged at Nuremburg.

Which brings us to the argument that the actual father of Adolf Hitler may have been (here is where everyone who debates this perks up their ears) a Jew, one Leopold Frankenberger. In other words, Klara cheated on Alois with a Jew and produced Adolf.

This theory only came along much later, when it had become fashionable to say controversial things about Adolf (in the open). Hitler's lawyer, Hans Frank, testified to the Frankenberger theory at Nuremberg while fighting for his life. There is no other proof whatsoever, just Frank's testimony. Frank had been the one who issued the report before the war stating with absolute certainty that Adolf was 100% Aryan. After the war, he changed that tune 180 degrees and said that Hitler's father in fact was Jewish and that he had participated in a cover-up.

So, were you lying then, Hans, or are you lying now?

Even if Frank, giving him all the benefit of the doubt, had been told this Frankenberger theory with absolute sincerity by someone 'who should know (Adolf himself?), whoever told it to him would not have had any proof either. That may have been the genesis of his task: to see what could be found out. That request could only have come from Adolf Hitler.

You know how those whisper campaigns go: in the Third Reich, being said to have Jewish heritage was the ultimate slur. There would have been plenty of people ready, willing and able to malign Adolf (behind his back, of course) out of sheer malice, crafting bogus theories out of thin air. Nobody at all did it openly, but once someone started something, it never would have ended. Hitler wanted to batten down that hatch securely so nobody could go poking around and start saying that Hitler himself was Jewish based on this or that loose end. Thus, he tasked Hans Frank to take care of it on the down-low.

On the plus side for the Frankenberger case, Frank would have had Hitler's assistance in uncovering the facts and all the tools of the Nazi empire expressly designed to make people cooperative (Frank was hanged for being a bad guy). So, the Frank claim cannot be disregarded - but it requires corroboration, and there is none.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Adolf Hitler's half-brother, Alois Jr., died on 20 May 1956 in Hamburg.

All of this was known in the 1940s. It was common during World War II to call Adolf Hitler 'Schicklgruber' as a form of disparagement; but then, it also was common to call him a housepainter, which he manifestly was not (he painted bad watercolors). There is no definitive answer as to Alois' biological heritage (or whether Klara was cheating on Alois). Thus, there is none to Adolf's, either.

In conclusion, the paternity chain is too cloudy to say much of anything with any certainty as to whether Adolf Hitler had any Jewish blood. One can make a presumption that Hitler quite possibly had some Jewish blood, but how much and from whom we will never know.

But there is another method now available to us.

DNA Tests

People don't like murkiness about even trivial historical issues if a definitive answer might just be possible. There are people obsessed with how people died when it doesn't really matter now. One theory making the rounds, for instance, is that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died due to a Vitamin D deficiency stemming from the poor winter sun in central Europe. Yes, you can add that to the 117 (literally) other theories on why he died.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Wolfgang apparently needed to get more sun

With the development of DNA analysis, it became possible to ascertain a person's origins with absolute certainty (at least as far as modern science is concerned, scientists in 300 years' time may have a different view of the infallibility of DNA research). So, since Adolf Hitler died relatively recently as these things go (certainly a lot more recently than Mozart), it seemed a natural fit: do DNA research on Adolf, and take this issue off the 'unknown' list once and for all.

Well, as you no doubt realize, there was one small problem with this solution: for DNA analysis, you actually need some tissue or bone from the person being analyzed. Unfortunately for Hitler scholars, there is none of Adolf Hitler - at least, none that is available for research, and even what is believed to be fragments from Hitler's corpse may not be such at all anyway. That seems to lead to a dead end - but it isn't.

Since there is no corpse to exhume and test, the researchers did what they considered to be the next best thing: they tracked down Adolf's nearest known living relatives. However, it turned out that Adolf's surviving relatives were not too keen on participating in a study about one of their forebearers they probably think about sourly every day. Perhaps they simply objected to being used for a publicity stunt. So, the intrepid researchers became involved in the farcical process of tailing Hitler's relatives and grabbing evidence out of garbage cans and the like. The people behind the pursuit were journalists, not scientists, and that should tell you everything you need to know right there about their intent.

Putting all that aside, the much-publicized results of the DNA study of saliva swabs (from the cooperating relatives) and used serviettes and the like tossed in trash cans (from the non-cooperating ones) did come to some scientific conclusions. Journalist Jean-Paul Mulders and historian Marc Vermeeren tracked down 39 of the Fuhrer's distant relatives, including (apparently) one of Hitler's cousins (who wishes to remain anonymous, go figure). They performed analysis of all that DNA and got a surprising result.

The scientific conclusion: Hitler was 1/4 Jewish (which jibes with the Hans Frank testimony) and his parentage came from North Africa or the Middle East, perhaps via Spain.

Adolf Hitler heritage
A Nazi explanation of where and from whom the Jews originated, which also coincides nicely with what the DNA analysis of Hitler's relatives says.

The researchers based this conclusion on the identification of a chromosome called Haplopgroup E1b1b (Y-DNA). This chromosome is rare in central Europe and associated with distinct peoples. The historian part of the team, Vermeeren, had this to say about that chromosome:
'It is most commonly found in the Berbers of Morocco, in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia as well as among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.' 
The conclusion is that Adolf Hitler was 1/4 Sephardic or Ashkenazi Jew, either via his natural father's or grandfather's heritage.

What is interesting and completely overlooked by people sensationalizing these 'conclusions' is that some of Hitler's strongest supporters came from the Middle East, e.g., the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and many Iraqis. The Nazis, of course, occupied Algeria, Libya and Tunisia to one extent or another and did not have too many problems from the locals. One can say that the Nazis and the Muslims were allies.

Adolf Hitler heritage
Map of the migration of Sephardic Jews during the Inquisition. Some did indeed wind up in Austria

Aside from all the other problems from this research, the DNA examined only 'suggests' that the Hitler family descended from the peoples of North Africa or the Middle East. It is not difficult to create sensation out of the story that Adolf Hitler was Jewish and persecuted his own kind:
'Haplogroup E1b1b1, which accounts for approximately 18 to 20 per cent of Ashkenazi and 8.6 per cent to 30 per cent of Sephardic Y-chromosomes, appears to be one of the major founding lineages of the Jewish population.'
The people behind the study, as evidenced by some of their other statements, were looking for a sensational story, not for hard science. Even granting their study the benefit of all procedural and scientific doubt, just because a haplotype is 'commonly found' in the people of a particular region does not mean that anyone else who has it automatically is one of them. The scientific support for drawing any broad conclusions from the presence of this DNA in the Hitler family is quite thin. It requires, as is always the case in this field, a number of assumptions and positive answers to a series of questions (did Hitler have the same DNA as his legal relatives, was the DNA handled properly, are there no other other possible sources for this DNA). The answers to all of those questions are far from certain.

Adolf Hitler heritage
The last photo of Adolf Hitler, outside his bunker

The biggest question of all, of course, is: so what? Hitler may not have known that he was part Jewish. He had no reason to know this, he never at any point stated that he considered himself to be of Jewish descent, and it is indisputable that his rabid opinions on the subject of Jews were formed decades before anyone seriously raised the issue of his own heritage.

There is, though, the nagging issue of the Hans Frank testimony. There further is the likelihood that his odd testimony that Hitler was partly Jewish came from the best source available: his boss. One can imagine the Fuhrer going to Frank, telling him the truth on pain of death, and instructing him to clean things up as best he could in the official record. Thus, the odd and seemingly unnecessary change in the ancient Alois birth certificate.

So, perhaps Hitler did know his own Jewish ancestry (perhaps his mother told him the truth). How that might have influenced his later actions is an open question.


It is unclear what the point is of proving that Adolf Hitler was of this or that heritage. There certainly aren't a lot of ethnicities clamoring to own Hitler as their own. The geneological evidence does not show any heritage other than German/Austrian. Unfortunately, though, the issue of actual parentage in the Hitler legal parentage chain is in doubt, so no firm conclusions can be drawn there. There is some weak evidence that Hitler's mother Klara cheated on her husband with a Jew and produced a partly Jewish child named Adolf Hitler.

The DNA evidence throws everything further into doubt, but does at least create an implication that jibes with a possible implication based on the historical record. It indicates that Hitler may have had some (1/4) Jewish or Arab blood. If so, the amount would have been enough to send Adolf Hitler to his own concentration camps. It also, incidentally, is speculated by some that Eva Braun was Jewish (you knew that was coming, right?).

At most, the DNA analysis suggests that there was a sort of Cosmic Joke underlying the most tragic period of recent history, but it is a joke without a punchline. This is one of those areas where an answer serves nobody's interests and is simply intended to cause a sensation. There can be no definitive answer unless verifiable bones of Adolf Hitler are discovered.

But the possibility exists, from both the historical record and the only scientific evidence available, that Adolf Hitler was 1/4 Jewish.

Adolf Hitler heritage


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