Family testimony reveals new insights into how Hitler became radicalised

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Family testimony reveals new insights into how Hitler became radicalised

The testimony of a family that took in Hitler as he sought lodgings on his arrival in Munich on the eve of the First World War has shed new light on his radicalisation.

New evidence from the Popp family - given to historian Professor Thomas Weber - will be used for the first time in an innovative online short course at the University of Aberdeen that examines Hitler, his politicisation and radicalisation, and what his time in power can teach us about the nature of politics today.

Professor Weber, author of award-winning books on Hitler’s politization and radicalization, has interviewed Michelle McKane, great granddaughter of Josef and Anna Popp, who let Hitler a room above their Munich tailor shop from his arrival in the city in 1913 until he enlisted for service in the First World War.

The wartime letters and postcards Hitler sent to the Popps from the front account for most of his surviving reflections about the world that were not meant for public consumption. These have been used in many biographies about Hitler but the only post-1945 interview given by the family dates to the 1990s, when a German curator spoke to Michelle’s great-aunt Elisabeth Grünbauer, who knew Hitler both as a child and as an adult in 1930s and 1940s Munich.

Michelle McKane decided to speak to Professor Weber at her home in the USA as she feels a civic duty to ensure the family testimony survives.

She told how Hitler would engage her great grandfather in conversations on his shop floor, frequently sharing political observations in the process.

Professor Weber said: “Family testimony about these observations allows us to revisit the origins of Hitler’s radicalisation and his turn towards antisemitism.

“In the aftermath of the First World War, Hitler turned to radical political ideas that eventually would inspire dictatorship, total war, and genocide. Yet we still do not comprehend why, in the wake of war and revolution, Hitler turned towards the specific radical ideas that he did in an attempt to identify the primary reasons for what he considered Germany’s existential weakness.

“The 1990s interview of Michelle’s great-aunt, which came to light in 2020, gave us a clue as to why Hitler was drawn to conspiratorial, proto-genocidal antisemitic ideas over competing ones at the moment of his full-blown radicalization.

 “According to Michelle’s great-aunt, Hitler had already turned towards antisemitism in Vienna, just before moving to Munich. This was reportedly still a somewhat milder version of antisemitism, but, if true, would potentially help explain why, in 1919, Hitler would be so receptive towards antisemitic explanations when trying to understand the ills from which the world, according to him, had to be cured. This would indicate that we should understand Hitler’s turn in 1919 towards proto-eliminationist antisemitism as a mutation of an earlier antisemitic radicalization. But very little is known about that earlier radicalization.”

Michelle McKane told Professor Weber of the stories passed down her grandfather’s side of the family. Elisabeth’s brother Peppi (Josef jr.) moved to The Hague in the Netherlands in 1920s, marrying a Dutch woman. After the Second World War both his daughters fell in love with GIs and they all moved to the United States, where Michelle was born.

Professor Weber said that part of the significance of the testimony passed down on Peppi Popp’s side of the family is that it corroborates the account of his sister, as it aligns strongly to the evidence about Hitler’s original antisemitism given by her in her 1990s interview. More importantly, it reveals crucial new clues as to how Hiter’s likely earlier radicalization unfolded.

The account passed down on Peppi Popp’s side of the family indicates that Hitler created a narrative for himself and people close to him that put his personal interactions with Jews in unfairness and injustice frames. Hitler appears to have blamed his own shortcomings as an artist on Jews.

Professor Weber added: “There is absolutely no evidence that would support the idea that anyone other than Hitler himself was responsible for his failings. However, we do know from the literature on radicalization that the first step on the radicalization journey of individuals frequently is taken, when people put their own perceived shortcomings into unfairness and injustice frames and when they conceptualize and present social interactions with others as significant trigger points of their radicalization.

“Hitler appears to have done so, not because Jews objectively speaking treated him unfairly, but because Hitler engaged in a baseless blame game. He latched onto stereotypes and narratives about Jews that had been around for hundreds of years to make sense of his own failure and projected them onto the Jews whom he personally had encountered.

“According to Michelle McKane, Hitler would tell her great grandfather that Jews ‘were cheap’ and that he would complain that even though ‘he was an amazing artist’ he wasn’t selling his paintings and that when Jews ‘would come up to him to try to buy [his paintings], they were wanting to pay less of a price than he wanted them to pay’. McKane reported that Hitler told Josef Popp: ‘They're just trying to take advantage of me. You know, all the Jewish population wants to take advantage of, you know, other people. It's all for them and not for me’.

“According to McKane, her great grandfather frequently tried to change the subject when Hitler went on about the Jews but that Hitler would be persistent about talking about, his lack of caring for them’, insisting that ‘he did not like them in any respect’ and reiterating that he felt that ‘especially when he was selling his paintings and he saw them on the street corner, he would find that the Jewish population would not pay a fair price for his paintings’.

Weber said: “Understanding Hitler’s early antisemitism improves our comprehension how people become receptive, if the conditions are right, to rapid and catastrophic radicalization at some point down the road.”

In one of the sessions of the short course, Hitler, which is open to prospective students around the world, Michelle McKane and Thomas Weber will discuss with students how her family’s testimony can be used as historical evidence.

Professor Weber added: “We are all acutely aware of the challenges and limitations of family testimony passed down through the generations. But the problem is that next to no evidence from the time of Hitler’s radicalization has survived and most of the evidence that  has previously been used by historians to explain Hitler’s radicalization has tended to originate in Nazi propaganda, including a Nazi propaganda interview with Elisabeth and Peppi’s mother Anna. I look forward to discussing with my students what historians can and should do in a situation of this kind.

“The stories and documents passed on to Michelle, together with previous documentation pertaining to her family are not only fascinating pieces of historical evidence but also an important tool for teaching.”

Michelle McKane also shared with Weber for the first time photographs of Josef and Anna Popp and their children from the time of their interactions with Hitler. They will be used in the course and they are released with this press release for the first time.

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