It’s hard to believe that the painter of these peaceful scenes would go on to plunge the world into darkness and horror and mastermind the deaths of six million innocent Jewish men, women, and children – as well as anyone else deemed inferior, useless, or a threat to Hitler’s dreams of genetic Aryan purity. But don’t take our word for it; have a look for yourself at the pre-WWII paintings of Adolf Hitler.
Vienna Period (1907–1912)
Hitler’s obsession with art started at a young age and heightened the tension between him and his father Alois, who wanted young Adolf to pursue what must have seemed like a more practical career at the customs office. A few years after Alois’s sudden death in 1903, Adolf Hitler moved to Vienna to begin his life as an impoverished artist. Forced to sleep rough, and sometimes in a homeless shelter, Hitler earned a living selling copied postcard scenes to tourists.
“Musician by Old Town Well” (c. 1910–1912)
The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna rejected Hitler twice, once in 1907 and then again in 1908. Both times, his work was deemed not good enough. An instructor at the school suggested that perhaps architecture was more in line with Hitler’s talents. But since that would have meant going back to school, which Hitler hated, he (sadly for the rest of the world) declined the suggestion.
As you can see in these paintings, abandoned buildings and desolate architecture feature heavily in Hitler’s work, which is kind of ironic when you consider how many buildings would be destroyed at his command.
While he was in Vienna, Hitler also started to develop his anti-Semitic zeal. As well as taking in the art, music and architecture of the city, he was influenced by the speeches of anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger and racialist Guido von List, who promoted Aryan purity. This hatred formed despite the fact that a lot of Hitler’s early art buyers were Jewish – as, according to some sources, were many of his friends.
“Large Colored Pansies”
Vienna played a large part in shaping Hitler’s personality – both his artistic side and (although historians still disagree over the origins of his anti-Semitism) the core beliefs that would later form the basis of his dark political agenda.
“Town Scene with Unusual Store Sign Post”
Here’s another painting from Hitler’s Vienna Period, and, typically, the main feature of the painting is architecture. However, this piece is unusual because of the strange, wrought iron-looking sign in the foreground and because Hitler signed it twice.
It seems strange to look at such peaceful scenes when you remember that they were painted by the man under whose orders 95 synagogues were burnt down in Vienna alone during the violent 1938 Kristallnacht (or Crystal Night) attacks.
“Castle Battlements” (1910)
This 1910 painting depicts an unknown castle surrounded by battlements, and unlike a lot of Hitler’s other work, it’s a very detailed piece. In fact, it must have taken quite some time to paint in such minutia. The atmosphere, however, is dark and gloomy – more Dracula than fairytale.
“Vienna Opera House Corner Scene” (1911)
Here’s one of Hitler’s favorite Vienna subjects, the Vienna Opera House. Hitler actually painted several versions of the building; this particular view is from a street corner. While he was in the Austrian capital, Hitler even tried to write the libretto of Wagner’s unfinished “Wieland der Schmidt”, but he gave up when it proved too difficult.
This artistic side of Hitler offers an unsettling contrast when you consider what was to come. (Showing just how quickly minds can change, in the wake of the Kristallnacht attacks, Austrian Jews were humiliated, tormented, and forced to scrub the streets by their fellow countrymen – people who were once their friends and neighbors.) Many have pored over the soon-to-be Nazi leader’s paintings to look for some hint of the tyrant he would become – but there seems little sign. Yet artistry, it’s clear, is no barrier to a will towards terror.
“Die Peterskirche in Wien” (c. 1910–1912)
This rendering of St. Peter’s Church cathedral in Vienna was drawn in pen and ink and finished off in watercolor. It’s not particularly distinctive – the kind of work you might find on a motel room wall or, perhaps, painted for tourists looking for a cheap souvenir. This particular painting was confiscated from Hitler’s Obersalzberg mountain fortress in 1945. Interestingly, on April 30, 1952 (exactly seven years after Hitler’s death), the Bavarian government blew up the remains of the Berghof (Hitler’s Obersalzberg home).
“Schloss u. Kirche Perchtoldsdorf” (c. 1910–1912)
Painted sometime between 1910 and 1912, this work features the castle and church at St. Perchtoldsdorf. Commenting on the painting, Peter Jahn, an art historian who once worked for Hitler, said, “This aquarelle is very well accomplished, of fine quality and shows already the progress in Hitler’s way of painting.” Aesthetically, it does seem better than some of Hitler’s earlier paintings. Note the roiling sky, a favorite in the future Führer’s paintings.
Munich Period (1913–1914)
“Country Church” (1914)
In May 1913, Adolf Hitler received the final part of his deceased father’s estate and left Vienna for Munich, where he continued to paint. Historians say he wanted to avoid conscription. Hitler claimed that his move was not prompted by fear but instead came down to his unwillingness to serve the Habsburg Empire – because he didn’t approve of its mixed race army. In any case, Hitler was eventually sent to Salzburg for a medical exam to determine whether he was fit to serve. He failed the test and returned to Munich.
“München Hoftheater” (1914)
Hitler spent less time painting in Munich, compared to Vienna, and collectors and historians consider his work from this period to be rare. However, as you can see from this piece featuring the Munich Opera House, he maintained his interest in architecture. This painting shows the opera house just after a rainstorm, with the building reflected in the wet pavement in front.
“White Orchids” (circa. 1913)
Hitler didn’t only paint churches and opera houses, but this picture of orchids is quite unique. Although he did occasionally paint flowers, they were more likely to have been carnations. These delicate white and pink blooms aren’t at all what you’d expect from a latent murderous despot. Based on the style of the piece and the signature, experts date this artwork to 1913. During his Munich Period, Hitler continued to sell his paintings, and considering the subject, this may have been a commission.
“München Siegestor” (1913)
This painting of the Munich Victory Gate is actually pretty accurate when compared to the real thing. As one commentator put it, “His intense fascination with architecture was reflected in his numerous drawings of houses, churches, public buildings and city scenes.”
Obviously, this appreciation for fine architecture didn’t include synagogues. The mass hysteria that exploded on November 9, 1938 during Kristallnacht led to the destruction of over 1,000 Jewish places of worship, as well as 7,000 Jewish businesses, across Nazi Germany and Austria.
“Die neue Hermannsmühle” (1913)
Hitler also seemed quite fond of rural scenes, as shown in this millhouse painting, titled “Die neue Hermannsmühle”, or “New Hermann Millhouse”. This painting is particularly rare because it comes with original Third Reich paperwork on a Nazi Party letterhead. (You’ve got to wonder what some people do with this sort of memorabilia once they’ve collected it.)
WWI Period (1914–1918)
“Smoking Tank” (1916)
Hitler’s life as an artist changed in 1914 when he joined the Bavarian Army to serve in WWI. He did take his paints with him, however, and continued to create his artworks whenever time allowed. He even became a cartoonist for an army newspaper. This was a difficult period for Hitler – although forgive us if this hardly inspires our sympathy.
While he was awarded for bravery, Hitler was also wounded in the leg by a shell and blinded by mustard gas. Yet perhaps the biggest blow was the German defeat in 1918 and subsequent Treaty of Versailles, which Hitler, like many Germans at the time, felt was an unbearable humiliation.
“War Torn Town” (1918)
Hitler’s paintings from WWI are markedly different from his earlier work. For one, they were often more abstract and cruder than his previous detailed renderings. The subject, unsurprisingly, was often the battlefield itself, or else war-torn towns and buildings. In this picture, we see a German soldier in a trench coat walking down a road in a French town.
”Battlefield Wall” (1918)
This piece shows a uniformed German soldier looking over a wall into a nearby battlefield. In the painting, Hitler’s earlier elaborate architectural detail is clearly missing, whereas, in contrast, more attention has been given to the figure of the soldier.
“Destroyed Town of Ypres” (1916)
This sketchy and basic piece shows the town of Ypres in ruins. Trees have lost their foliage, while buildings have been stripped of their roofs and parts of their walls.
“Tank Battleground” (1916)
Here, tanks lie in ruin on an abandoned battlefield, under a smoky sky. The image is grim, almost apocalyptic. The trees are bare and barbed wire crisscrosses the ground. Still, dead or injured human figures are noticeably absent from the painting. Could Hitler have been squeamish about painting the dead? Or perhaps there’s some truth to the idea that he struggled with drawing people.
Late Period (1924–1939)
“München Strassenbahn” (1925)
Describing his time spent recovering from the injury he sustained during WWI, Hitler said, “When I was confined to bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great. I knew immediately that it would be realized.” And this was the path on which he embarked after WWI. Returning to Munich, he joined the German Workers Party, later renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party – the Nazis.
Moreover, it wasn’t long before Hitler was the head of the Nazi Party, which he led in an unsuccessful 1923 coup known as the “Beer Hall Putsch”. As a result, he was arrested and sent to Landsberg Prison, where he dictated most of the first volume of Mein Kampf.
“Informal Dining Room Long View”
After he was released from prison, Hitler continued his rise to power as well as his painting. This piece sees a return to his favorite theme – architecture –although this time it’s an interior rather than exterior view. Hitler was known to design his own furniture and would render sketches and paintings for his staff to copy.
“München Strassenbahn” (1925)
But Hitler had not lost his appreciation for building exteriors, either, as this second picture of the München Strassenbahn, or Munich tramway (shown in color above), illustrates. Dated around 1925, the painting includes the Alter Rathaus (Old Town Hall), Nueue Rathaus (New Town Hall), Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church), and the Helig Geistkirche (Holy Ghost church). This piece is rare because it’s accompanied by German Historical Archives paperwork, which identifies the buildings.
“Am Basler Tor” (1933)
For most of his paintings, Hitler used watercolors, but this is an unusual example of one of his oil paintings. It’s of the Basler Gate and some of the surrounding landscape.
Schloss Lamberg Steyer – Vienna Period (c.1910–1912)
Is it possible for beauty, or at least an appreciation of beauty, to come from one so evil? This question has troubled many commentators on Hitler’s art. For even if these paintings are not exactly masterpieces (although Hitler, perhaps unsurprisingly, considered himself an artistic genius), they do show an appreciation of aesthetics that you might not expect from someone so brutally-minded. But perhaps there’s no connection. Perhaps, as art critic Peter Schjeldahl says, “We must remain vigilant against malevolence, and we should regard beauty as the fundamentally amoral phenomenon that it is.”
Interestingly, an online Slovakian auction showed that the world is still interested in the artistic output of Adolf Hitler. The dead dictator’s painting “Maritime Nocturno” sold for over $41,708 in January 2012. The buyer was anonymous. We wonder if he or she displays it with their family photos above the mantelpiece – or if it’s part of some secret gallery.
We thank Major Charles E. Snyder, Jr. for sharing his photographs of Hitler’s artwork with us. More photographs and information about the paintings can be found in his book Treasure Trove: The Looting of the Third Reich.