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All in the Family

The Memoirs of Bridget Hitler

edited by Michael Unger
Duckworth, 192 pp., $8.95

Did Adolf Hitler, at the age of twenty-two, spend six months in Liverpool, England? According to Mr. Robert Payne, who in 1973 published a book, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, he did. The fact, said Mr. Payne, was attested by a “completely convincing” witness, no less than Hitler’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Bridget Hitler with whom he had lodged at 102 Upper Stanhope Street, Liverpool, and who had recorded the visit, in detail, in her memoirs. This assertion cannot be disproved (since Hitler’s exact address at that time is not documented), and those who wish to believe it are free to embroider it with their speculations. A novel, Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge, has now been published about Hitler in Liverpool and I hear that a television play is in preparation. It is therefore convenient that the essential document itself, the text of Bridget Hitler’s memoirs, written in the first person, has now been published, enabling us to examine the story at its source. In this article I propose to examine it; but before coming down to the text it will be useful to state what is already known about Bridget Hitler and her connection with the Hitler family.

Bridget Hitler, née Dowling, was an Irishwoman, the daughter of a Dublin carpenter. In June 1910, being then seventeen years old, she eloped with a German waiter at the Shelbourne Hotel, one Alois Hitler, married him in London, and set up with him in Liverpool. Alois was the elder half-brother of Adolf Hitler, who at that time was living alone in Vienna. The marriage did not last long. In May 1914 Alois left his wife, returned to Germany, and, though not divorced, married again. In 1924 he was sentenced at Hamburg for bigamy. His first wife stayed in England and in the 1930s was keeping a boardinghouse in Highgate. She did not marry again and retained the name of Mrs. Hitler. She is now, I understand, dead, but I have not been able to establish the date or place of her death.

If Alois Hitler’s connection with his first wife was short, his connection with his famous half-brother was very tenuous. In his boyhood, he had detested young Adolf as the spoiled child for whose benefit he himself, the stepson and the stepbrother, had taken all the knocks. Ultimately he had left the parental home in disgust and gone abroad. He did not prosper in those early years; twice he was sentenced for theft; and Adolf could afford to look down on him as a ne’er-do-well. However, when Adolf rose to prominence and then power in Germany, Alois decided to exploit the connection. He set up a café in Berlin, Wittenbergplatz, called “Alois.” The Führer was not pleased. He totally ignored his brother. When pressed, he would declare that Alois was no relation of his—which could be true, for Alois had been illegitimate and merely accepted by Adolf’s father. After 1945 Alois thought it prudent to agree. He dropped the name Hitler, which, he said, had never been any help to him and was now “a positive disadvantage.” He died in 1956.

To have been married for four years to the disowned brother of a future dictator does not, of itself, bring one very close to the center of power. However, it gives one a certain nuisance value. Moreover, Bridget had a son, William Patrick Hitler, who could claim to be the Führer’s nephew, the heir to his name. When young Patrick grew up, his mother thought that they too might exploit the connection. So she wrote to the Führer and was rewarded with two signed photographs—or at least two such photographs were said to be exhibited in the house in Highgate. Patrick himself visited Germany briefly in 1929-1930, and made himself known to the Führer. Later, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Patrick, being now twenty-three and unemployed, declared himself a fervent Nazi, offered to take German citizenship, and set off again to Berlin. He assumed that his uncle would do the right thing by him. After all, as he afterward wrote, the Chancellor “had only to wave his hand in order to fill the pockets of his nearest relations,” and Patrick’s pockets needed to be filled.

Alas, he was sadly mistaken. Adolf Hitler never had any feeling for his relations and positively refused to grant them favors. In Mein Kampf he did not even admit that he had any brothers or sisters. He allowed his half-sister, Angela Raubal, and then his full sister, Paula Hitler, to keep house for him, but he sacked Angela brusquely when she assumed too much, and he made Paula change her surname. He did not like there to be other Hitlers. So he was not pleased when Master Patrick turned up, claiming kinship. Patrick and his mother had already infuriated him by selling the story of their kinship to the press. Now when Patrick wrote to him demanding money, he was angrier still. He certainly had no intention of owning and enriching this inconvenient young man who had come to Germany solely to sponge. Rather, he wanted to bury him. At one time he told Patrick that he had no claims on him, being no relation. In other words he should disappear and shut up.

Patrick, it seems, did not take the hint. To prove his point he made inquiries in Austria and established the formal genealogy. This only made matters worse. The Führer did not want his genealogy raked up. He was a genius, outside genealogies. Nobody was to know who he was or whence he came. In order to silence these wretched British Hitlers, an arrangement was made. On condition that they kept their mouths firmly shut, Bridget was given a small allowance, paid through the German Embassy in London, and Patrick was given a job in a German motor firm, and then in a German bank. He was very dissatisfied, regarding so humble a position and such “starvation wages” as unworthy of his princely status. However, he took his wages and shut up.

At least he shut up for the time being: that is, until the Munich Agreement set the alarm bells ringing. After that, being still a British subject, he judged it prudent to return to England, and on the eve of the Second World War he reopened his mouth. He wrote an article for the French and American press entitled “Why I hate my Uncle Adolf.” By the time it was published, he had taken the precaution of putting himself well out of Uncle Adolf’s reach. He had gone, with his mother, to America to lecture on the same promising theme. His lectures were described at the time as “unauthenticated and detrimental tales of the Führer”—such as, that the Führer had been a milksop as a boy and had dandruff. That paid off the unnatural old skinflint. Bridget also, by this time, had become a fervent British patriot, and worked for a time in a British volunteer organization in America.

Thereafter, the Hitlers remained in America, keeping very quiet; but in 1943 Patrick was dug out and questioned by interrogators from OSS—and supplied them with some information for a particularly ludicrous psychological analysis of Hitler by Walter Langer which has since been published.* At that time he said that he was engaged in writing a book about his experiences in Germany. The book has not materialized—at least in that form. The OSS interrogators were not greatly impressed by him. They described him as “a young man of 32 who has not amounted to much.” Since then, we are told, Patrick Hitler changed his name, buried his past, and lived in blameless obscurity, which it would be indecent to disturb.

So much can be said with some safety from known and publicly verifiable sources. Another source, which is not publicly verifiable, lies in the files of the British Security Service, which, naturally enough, kept a watch on Mrs. Hitler in the 1930s. However, I do not think that we need lament the unavailability of this source, for I suspect that the essential truth can be established without it. So I shall merely add that the two British officers who were concerned with the case of Mrs. Hitler in those days happened to be friends of mine, and during the war we enjoyed many a merry laugh over that case. Mrs. Hitler, it seemed, was barely literate, quite harmless, and rather a joke: the girl from the bog who got mixed up with the Hitler family, and who could never get a decent job (as she explained to the German Embassy when demanding an increase in her allowance) because “how the divil are ye thinking that I can get a job with a name like that?”

After this preamble, let us now turn to The Memoirs of Bridget Hitler and to their spectacular revelation, Hitler’s visit to Liverpool in the winter of 1911-1912. When this revelation was first published by Mr. Payne, the established historians of Hitler, who had known nothing of such a visit, were incredulous. They pointed out that there was no evidence to support such a story; that the British immigration authorities have no record of such a visit; and that Hitler himself never spoke of it, even when it would have been natural and useful for him to have done so. They suggested that Bridget Hitler had subtly taken advantage of an undocumented period in the Führer’s life in order to insert an ingenious fiction of her own.

Although those who knew Bridget Hitler would be surprised by such ingenuity on her part, some such explanation seemed necessary. For if the story is not true, it is a deliberate (and very artful) fabrication. It cannot be a mere error. It is far too circumstantial. Bridget Hitler goes into great detail about her “unwanted and disagreeable guest.” She describes his arrival at Lime Street station, Liverpool, his behavior in her house, his clothes (which she mended), his personal habits (which she deplored), his character, his conversation, his interests. She narrates his jaunts to London, in the company of his brother Alois, and his privileged visit to the machine-room of the Tower Bridge in London. She wonders whether she might not, by being more tolerant, have caused him to settle down in England and so have changed the course of history; and she claims the credit for having persuaded him to abbreviate his previously overelaborate mustache—although she adds that (as always) he went too far even in this trivial matter. If this detailed story is true, a new episode is gained for history. On the other hand, if it is false, it is a deliberate falsification which destroys the credit of the whole “memoirs.”

For those who may doubt, Bridget Hitler is ready with an explanation. She remarks, correctly enough, that Adolf Hitler, at that time, was being sought by the Austrian authorities for evasion of military service, and she explains that he came to England to avoid arrest in Austria. The motive being discreditable, he afterward concealed the fact. She also points out (again quite correctly) that Hitler, in Mein Kampf, gave a wrong date. He there wrote that he came to Munich from Vienna in the spring of 1912. In fact he arrived in Munich in May 1913. This could be a mere slip; but equally it could be a deliberate falsification to conceal what he had been doing in 1912-1913. This last point, she admits, was not observed by her, for she is an unsophisticated woman: it was brought to her attention by a learned American interrogator. It certainly comes in very handily, for once again it fits the known facts. We know that when Hitler finally arrived in Munich, the Austrian authorities caught up with him and he was summoned to Salzburg to account for his evasion of military duties. Since we have no firm evidence of his activities in that winter—merely the presumption that he was still in Vienna, in lodgings in 27 Meldemannstrasse—this thesis cannot be disproved; and Mr. Michael Unger, the editor of this volume, invites us to agree with him that Bridget Hitler’s account is “circumstantial and convincing in itself” and that the question of the visit to Liverpool “must remain open.” After all, he remarks, immigration records are not complete, and arguments from silence cannot be conclusive.

  1. *

    The Mind of Adolf Hitler (Basic Books, 1972; NAL, 1973).

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