Debriefing Hitler’s Sister

Paula Hitler's memories of her big brother as a young man.

Posted Apr 15, 2019

When “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, asked psychologist Walter Langer to prepare a profile of Adolf Hitler in 1943, Langer knew he would have to rely on limited, and sometimes questionable, information. He devoured open-source written materials, intelligence reports, films, interviews with people who had knowledge of, or first-hand contact with, the tyrant, and his own insights into German society and culture.

National Archives in Britain and the U.S. contain examples of the type of sources Langer and his associates would have considered as they sought to gain insight into Hitler’s mind. A British citizen who did business in Germany identified as Mr. Law, for instance, shared his impressions of the German leader in 1937. “I am told, on what I believe to be very good German authority,” he wrote, ”that really the most dangerous man of all is the Fuhrer himself.  He falls into fits of passion and will listen to no advice.”

After listing some examples of Hitler’s alarming acts—including rumors of the beheading of an American and the bombardment of the city of Almeria in Andalusia, Spain during the Spanish Civil War—Mr. Law continued: “If this is true, as I believe it to be, the picture is not a cheerful one. Noone [sic] wants war; certainly, but when you have a passionate lunatic at the top who still commands the devotion of the populace and who is evidently prepared to run great risks, then already the situation is dangerous.”

An interview with the anti-Nazi Count Albrecht Bernstorff was also recorded in 1937. He reported that Hitler “has lately been more frequently subject to fits, in the course of which he foams at the mouth and becomes very violent.” The Count claimed, for example, that Hitler was sedated after learning that his orders to rebuild part of Munich were not completed due to a shortage of steel and iron.

Reports like these clearly influenced Langer’s impression of Hitler. And, as described in my previous post, Langer’s final impression enabled the psychologist to accurately predict the tyrant’s behavior when the war turned against him.

Unfortunately, Langer never had the opportunity to question Hitler’s closest relative, his only full-blooded sibling, Paula Hitler. (She started using the name of Wolf or Wolff at her brother’s insistence when he became a public figure during his rise to power).

It was not until the war ended that American intelligence agents were able to question Paula, first in July 1945 and then in June 1946.

 Screen shot from Peter Morley's 1959 documentary “Tyranny, The Years of Adolf Hitler"
Paula Hitler
Source: Screen shot from Peter Morley's 1959 documentary “Tyranny, The Years of Adolf Hitler"

Langer, a Freudian analyst, would undoubtedly have welcomed access to Paula’s childhood memories of Adolf, who was seven older than Paula. Had Langer been able to debrief her, he would have learned that, according to Paula:

  • As a child, Adolf had many companions who played cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians and he was the leader. 
  • Even before his teens, Adolf often lectured his sister and mother in “a rhetorical way.”
  • Although Paula was treated as “the pet of the family,” her father was “of great harshness in the education of his children.” Their mother, by contrast, “was very soft and tender.” Adolf challenged his father and was thrashed “for his rudeness” and spanked “every night” for returning home late.
  • Both siblings tenderly cared for their mother as she was dying from breast cancer. Adolf “was indefatigable in his care for her, wanted to comply with any desire she could possibly have and did all to demonstrate his great love for her.” He appeared devastated when she died in 1907.
  • After he left home following their mother’s death, Adolf was absent from Paula’s life from the time she was twelve until she was 25. When he returned for a visit, he was “very charming at this time.”
  • Paula speculated that Hitler’s struggles as a failing artist may have “caused his anti-Jewish attitude. He was starving severely in Vienna and he believed that his failure in painting was only due to the fact that trade in works of art was in Jewish hands.”

The discovery of a Hitler family account book casts some doubt on the assumption the Adolf “starved” during his years in Vienna. In 1908, he received a loan of 900 Austrian crowns. This amount could have supported him for a year.

Research by historians Timothy Ryback and Florian Beierl in 2005 indicate how difficult it is to develop an accurate psychological profile based on limited source material. They claim that a journal written by Paula after she was interviewed by American intelligence officers reveals far more significant insights into the toxic environment of the Hitler household. After the death of their violent father, Adolf assumed the role of the family abuser, according to the typewritten journal that the historians claim has been verified by forensic testing. Fifteen-year-old Adolf bullied his eight-year-old sister. “Once again,” Paula wrote, “I feel my brother’s loose hand across my face.”

Paula presented herself to her interviewers as an innocent bystander during the Nazi era. She denied knowledge of the Holocaust during the war. But her private writings indicate she thought her brother to be a great historical figure. And an indication of her attitude toward Nazi crimes is revealed by her desire to marry Dr. Erwin Jekelius, head of the Am Steinhof Psychiatric Institution in Vienna. Jekelius was a mass murderer. He was responsible for murdering more than 4,000 “undesirable” mentally challenged and ill patients during the Nazi attempt to rid German society of those “unfit to live.” Her older brother would not even receive Jekelius when the doctor tried to ask for Paula’s hand in marriage. Instead, he had Jekelius sent immediately to the Russian front during the war. There, he was quickly captured. He died in Russian captivity years after the end of the war.

Paula never married. She died in 1960, age 64, in Bertesgarten, Germany. Despite the childhood abuse and long periods of abandonment by her big brother, despite the Holocaust made possible by her big brother, she died convinced Adolf was a great and good man.

References

The National Archives, Report by Mr Law, a British businessman who worked in Germany. (1937) FO371/20733

The National Archives, Report on a conversation with Count Bernstorff. (1937) FO371/20733

National Archives and Records Administration, Textual Archives Services Section, Interview with Hitler's sister on 5th June 1946. Text provided by the Oradour-sur-Glane 10th June 1944 website.

Memorandum, George Allen to the Officer in Charge [Interrogation of Frau Paula Wolf], July 12, 1945, 101st Abn. Div. CIC Det. Memorandum to the Officer in Charge July 1–25, 1945, Box 13, U.S. Army: Unit Records, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library. Online text provided by the Oradour- sur -Glane 10th June 1944 website. Document reproduced in Appendix B in Haycock, Dean A. Tyrannical Minds, Psychological Profiling, Narcissism and Dictatorship, (2019). New York, NY: Pegasus Books.

Diver, Krysia. "Journal reveals Hitler's dysfunctional family." August 4, 2005. The Guardian.

Morley, Peter (director), 1959. Tyranny, The Years of Adolf Hitler. Associated-Rediffusion.