Klara Pölzl was born in Spital, Austria, in 1860. She was the eldest of only three surviving children out of eleven - the other two were Johanna and Theresia - from the marriage of Johann Nepomuk Hiedler. Her mother was brought up with Alois Schicklgruber.
In 1876, aged sixteen, Klara left the family farm and moved to Braunau am Inn to join the household of her second cousin, Alois Hitler. At the time he was married to Anna Glasl. According to Ian Kershaw, the author of Hitler 1889-1936 (1998): "It is unlikely to have been a love-match. The marriage to a woman fourteen years older than himself had almost certainly a material motive, since Anna was relatively well off, and in addition had connections within the civil service." Anna suffered from poor health and her age meant that she was unable to have children.
Alois began a sexual relationship with another maid in the house, Franziska Matzelberger. In 1877 Alois changed his surname from Schickelgruber to Hitler. It is claimed he did this to inherit money from Johann Nepomuk Hiedler (Hitler was an another way of spelling Hiedler - both mean "smallholding" in German. Franziska saw Klara as a potential rival and insisted that she left the household. In 1882 Franziska gave birth to a child named Alois. When Anna Hitler died in 1883, Alois married Franziska and two months after the wedding she gave birth to a second child, Angela. Franziska developed tuberculosis and Alois invited Klara to return to the home to look after his two young children. Franziska, aged twenty-three, died in August, 1884. Alois also began a sexual relationship with Klara and on 7th January, 1885, the couple married. As they were second cousins they had to apply for episcopal dispensation to permit the marriage.
The first of the children of Alois's third marriage, Gustav, was born in May 1885, to be followed in September the following year by a second child, Ida, and another son, Otto, who died only days after his birth. In December 1887 both Gustav and Ida contracted diphtheria and died within weeks of each other. On 20th April 1889, Klara gave birth to her fourth child, Adolf Hitler. Edmund was born in 1894 but lived only six years. The fifth and last child, Paula, was born in 1896.
In 1895, when Adolf Hitler was six years old, Alois retired from government service. For the next four years he moved restlessly from one district to another near Linz, buying and selling farms, raising bees, and spent most of his time drinking in local inns. According to his son: "When finally, at the age of fifty-six, he went into retirement, he could not bear to spend a single day of his leisure in idleness. Near the Upper Austrian market village of Lambach he bought a farm, which he worked himself, and thus, in the circuit of a long and industrious life, returned to the origins of his forefathers. It was at this time that the first ideals took shape in my breast. All my playing about in the open, the long walk to school, and particularly my association with extremely husky boys, which sometimes caused my mother bitter anguish, made me the very opposite of a stay-at-home. And though at that time I scarcely had any serious ideas as to the profession I should one day pursue, my sympathies were in any case not in the direction of my father's career."
Alois Hitler was an authoritarian, overbearing, domineering husband and a stern, distant, aggressive and violent father. Konrad Heiden commented:" Hitler's father was a short-tempered old man, grown prematurely inactive. He had fought a bitter struggle with life, had made the hardest sacrifices, and in the end things had not gone according to his will. He goes walking about Leonding, usually holding his gold-bordered velvet cap in his hands, looks after his bees, leans against the fence, chats rather laconically with his neighbours. He looks on as a friend erects a little saw-mill and sourly remarks: such are the times, the little fellows are coming up, the big ones going down. His lungs are affected, he coughs and occasionally spits blood."
Eduard Bloch, the family doctor, described "Klara Hitler was a simple, modest, kindly woman. She was tall, had brownish hair which she kept neatly plaited, and a long, oval face with beautifully expressive grey-blue eyes." Bloch added: "Outwardly, his love for his mother was his most striking feature. While he was not a mother's boy in the usual sense, I have never witnessed a closer attachment." Hitler later told Joseph Goebbels that his mother was "a source of goodness and love" whereas his father was "a tyrant in the home". Hitler's biographer, Ian Kershaw, has commented: "Hitler's mother lived in the shadow of her husband, this somewhat brutal, authoritarian, dominating, tyrannical father... and as a compensatory factor for that, she evidently smothered the young boy with affection, spoilt him terribly, pandered to his every whim."
Alois was extremely keen for his son to do well in life. Alois did have another son Alois Matzelsberger, but he had been a big disappointment to him and eventually ended up in prison for theft. Alois was a strict father and savagely beat his son if he did not do as he was told. Hitler later wrote: "After reading one day in Karl May (a popular writer of boys' books) that the brave man gives no sign of being in pain, I made up my mind not to let out any sound next time I was beaten. And when the moment came - I counted every blow." Afterwards he proudly told his mother: "Father hit me thirty-two times.... and I did not cry". Hitler later told Christa Schroeder about his relationship with his parents: "I never loved my father, but feared him. He was prone to rages and would resort to violence. My poor mother would then always be afraid for me."
Hitler also found it very distressing to see his mother suffering from "drunken beatings". His sister, Paula, said her mother was "a very soft and tender person, the compensatory element between the almost too harsh father and the very lively children who were perhaps somewhat difficult to train. If there were ever quarrels or differences of opinion between my parents it was always on account of the children. It was especially my brother Adolf who challenged my father to extreme harshness and who got his sound thrashings every day. How often on the other hand did my mother caress him and try to obtain with her kindness what her father could not succeed in obtaining with harshness!"
Louis L. Snyder has pointed out: "Hitler's mother was a quiet, hardworking woman with a solemn, pale face and large, staring eyes. She kept a clean household and labored diligently to please her husband. Hitler loved his indulgent mother, and she in turn considered him her favorite child, even if, as she said, he was moonstruck. Later, he spoke of himself as his mother's darling. She told him how different he was from other children. Despite her love, however, he developed into a discontented and resentful child. Psychologically, she unconsciously made him, and through him the world would pay for her own unhappiness with her husband. Adolf feared his strict father, a hard and difficult man who set the pattern for the youngster's own brutal view of life... This sour, hot-tempered man was master inside his home, where he made the children feel the lash of his cane, switch, and belt. Alois snarled at his son, humiliated him, and corrected him again and again. There was deep tension between two unbending wills. It is probable that Adolf Hitler's later fierce hatreds came in part from this hostility to his father. He learned early in life that right was always on the side of the stronger one."
Alois was incensed when Hitler told him that instead of joining the civil service he was going to become an artist. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf (1925): "Then barely eleven years old, I was forced into opposition for the first time in my life. Hard and determined as my father might be in putting through plans and purposes once conceived, his son was just as persistent and recalcitrant in rejecting an idea which appealed to him not at all, or in any case very little. I did not want to become a civil servant. Neither persuasion nor serious arguments made any impression on my resistance. I did not want to be a civil servant: no, and again no. All attempts on my father's part to inspire me with love or pleasure in this profession by stories from his own life accomplished the exact opposite. I yawned and grew sick to my stomach at the thought of sitting in an office, deprived of my liberty; ceasing to be master of my own time and being compelled to force the content of a whole life into blanks that had to be filled out." Klara, a kind and gentle woman, tended to spoil her son. Like her husband she was keen for her son to do well at school. Her attempts at persuasion achieved no more success than her husband's threats and he continued to obtain poor grades.
Alois Hitler died on 3rd January 1903. Hitler later wrote: "A stroke of apoplexy felled the old gentleman who was otherwise so hale, thus painlessly ending his earthly pilgrimage, plunging us all into the depths of grief. His most ardent desire had been to help his son forge his career, thus preserving him from his own bitter experience. In this, to all appearances, he had not succeeded. But, though unwittingly, he had sown the seed for a future which at that time neither he nor I would have comprehended."
Hitler's mother, who was then forty-two, moved to a modest apartment in Urfahr, a suburb of Linz, where she tried to keep herself and her two surviving children, Adolf and Paula, on the savings and pensions left her. According to William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1964), "the young widow was indulgent to her son, and he seems to have loved her dearly... there was friction and Adolf continued to neglect his studies."
Hitler later commented: My mother, to be sure, felt obliged to continue my education in accordance with my father's wish; in other words, to have me study for the civil servant's career. I, for my part, was more than ever determined absolutely not to undertake this career. In proportion as my schooling departed from my ideal in subject matter and curriculum, I became more indifferent at heart. Then suddenly an illness came to my help and in a few weeks decided my future and the eternal domestic quarrel." Hitler's last school report, dated 16th September, 1905, shows marks of "adequate" in German, chemistry, physics, geometry and geometrical drawing. In geography and history he was "satisfactory". However, his free-hand drawing was described as "excellent".
Klara Hitler urged her son to learn a trade. He refused and said that he planned to become an artist. Although his mother found it difficult to manage on her low income, Adolf declined to help out by getting a job. At the age of eighteen Adolf Hitler received an inheritance from his father's will. With the money he moved to Vienna where he planned to become an art student. Hitler had a high opinion of his artistic abilities and was shattered when the Vienna Academy of Art rejected his application. He also applied to the Vienna School of Architecture but was not admitted because he did not have a school leaving certificate.
Klara became seriously ill. According to Dr Eduard Bloch: "One day Frau Hitler came to visit me during my morning office hours. She complained of a pain in her chest. She spoke in a quiet, hushed voice; almost a whisper. The pain she said, had been great; enough to keep her awake nights on end. She had been busy with her household so had neglected to seek medical aid. Besides, she thought the pain would pass.away... An examination showed that Frau Hitler had an extensive tumor of the breast." She was operated on for breast cancer in February, 1907.
Klara Hitler was operated on for breast cancer in February, 1907. Hitler's friend, August Kubizek, went to visit her: "Frau Klara seemed more careworn than ever. Her face was deeply lined. Her eyes were lifeless, her voice sounded tired and resigned. I had the impression that, now that Adolf was no longer there, she had let herself go, and looked older and more ailing than ever. She certainly had concealed her condition from her son to make the parting easier for him. Or perhaps it was Adolf's impulsive nature that had kept up her vitality. Now, on her own, she seemed to me an old, sick woman."
Dr Eduard Bloch later recalled that Adolf Hitler was a dutiful son: "He slept in the tiny bedroom adjoining that of his mother so that he could be summoned at any time during the night. During the day he hovered about the large bed in which she lay." Bloch told Hitler that the operation was not a success and the cancer had spread to other parts of the body. He proposed the use of the disinfectant, iodoform. At the time it was believed that iodoform gauze packed onto the suppurating wound was the best treatment for cancer.
Bloch pointed out: "An illness such as that suffered by Frau Hitler, there is usually a great amount of pain. She bore her burden well; unflinching and uncomplaining. But it seemed to torture her son. An anguished grimace would come over him when he saw pain contract her face. There was little that could be done. An injection of morphine from time to time would give temporary relief; but nothing lasting. Yet Adolf seemed enormously grateful even for these short periods of release. I shall never forget Klara Hitler during those days. She was forty eight at the time; tall, slender and rather handsome, yet wasted by disease. She was soft-spoken, patient; more concerned about what would happen to her family than she was about her approaching death."
Rudolph Binion, the author of Hitler Among the Germans (1976) has argued that iodoform was "utterly ineffective, expensive, and the caustic solution caused unbearable agony for the patient it was administered to, usually in the form of idoform-soaked gauze applied directly to the skin above the tumor." Binion goes on to argue that Hitler used phrases in his speeches such as "Jewish cancer", the "Jewish poison", the "Jewish profiteer." Binion suggests that "Hitler's mother cannot have escaped fatal poisoning from a given treatment applied to her by a Jewish doctor in her last weeks of life and ... Hitler's experience of her agony was the unconscious source of his deadly hate for the Jews."
Ron Rosenbaum, the author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil (1998), rejects this theory. He points out that Hitler later sent Bloch a postcard saying that he had his "undying gratitude" for the the care he showed his mother. Bloch later recalled that Hitler "bore him no grudges" because he knew that he was right to prescribe the "burn out the abscesses... to the raw flesh." This view is confirmed by Austrian historian Brigitte Hamann in her book Hitler's Vienna: A Dictator's Apprenticeship (1999).
Klara Hitler died of cancer on 21st December, 1907. Hitler commented: "It was the conclusion of a long and painful illness which from the beginning left little hope of recovery. Yet it was a dreadful blow, particularly for me. I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved." Her death affected him far more deeply than the death of his father. He had fond memories of his mother, carried her photograph wherever he went and, it is claimed, had it in his hand when he died in 1945.
Brett Kahr argues in Sex & The Psyche (2007): "Her death really damaged Hitler tremendously, and I think the reason that he couldn't forge relationships with young girls his own age when he was a teenage boy, or then later, with grown-up women when he was a grown-up man, is because he still remained deeply, deeply psychologically faithful to Klara. I think he could never let Klara go."