No matter how far we are from it, most of us like to be reminded of our formative years once in a while. Whether it’s comparing the children’s television of today with that which we used to adore under the guise of entertaining young family members, adding musical memoirs of those times to our Spotify playlists or choosing what to cook on the basis of what we ate with our grandmother, our childhoods reach down indelibly into all of our lives.
This is obvious. It isn’t particularly insightful analysis to draw the link between nostalgic comfort and my desire to listen to the theme tune to “Thomas the Tank Engine”. But when it comes to the study of history, I believe the effects of childhood and the influences thereof are myopically overlooked.
Take Adolf Hitler. His father, an illegitimate child with confused paternity, was an alcoholic who regularly beat up Adolf’s mother; Adolf, standing up for said mater, was once pushed through a window (albeit ground floor) by his drunk father. Alois exerted a forceful influence on his son, and tried to dictate his life, so undermining Adolf’s faith in a peaceful home and a successful career path that it set the foundations for the disturbed mind which would wreak such havoc upon the world.
Coupled with nationalist grief at the annexation of his local area (Branau-am-Inn) by Austria rather than Germany ingrained from childhood, the influence of famously proto-fascist politicians (e.g. the mayor) and businessmen in his late teenage and young adult years in Vienna, his impoverished situation sweeping drives for a pittance in the rich (and actually predominantly Jewish – who, due to racial career restrictions, often ended up in the lucrative financial sector) sector of the city and of course the defeat of the German empire (to whom Hitler always wished to demonstrate allegiance) in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles, the disruptive and strained home atmosphere had a deep effect on Hitler the man.
In fact, his extremist tendencies can be demonstrated from a relatively young age (teenage years) from the remembrances of friends and acquaintances. I would argue that Hitler became the evil persona by the time he was 20 – contingency, in the form of the First World War, created the opportunity for that to be released into popular politics, and, except for certain geopolitical tendencies as shaped by Munich professor Karl Haushofer, most of his ideas on politics were already complete prior to the outbreak of war.
In the English history curriculum, this crucial childhood is not explored enough for understanding of the man. If we are to prevent such a phenomenon of psychology occurring again, as advocates of the study of history love to claim its purpose is to do, surely we need to identify the causes therefor and rectify them in our society?
Hitler was not special. There are many alcoholics in the world. There are many nationalist politicians. There are many stubborn little boys. And, although circumstance in the geopolitical division of the border between southern Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire heightened Hitler’s development into the man he became, there are other instances in the modern world. North and South Korea. Sudan and South Sudan. Israel and the Gaza Strip. Just look at Chechnya; disagreements, to put it lightly, in the 1990s about whether or not it was part of Russia or an independent state following the dissolution of the Soviet Union have elicited devastating acts of terrorism and violence – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and countless other investigators, bombings in Moscow and attacks in Grozny and the devastating Boston Marathon bombings.
If the circumstances exist, so too, somewhere, must such a person. They occasionally pop up, such manifestations of evil; Stalin; Bin Laden; the queer convention that was the Nazi party. In Britain, the Conservatives are most eager to help to diminish the frequency of broken families by encouraging the maintenance of marriage and so on; the break-ups thereof and familial discontent can brew future disaster.
Childhood is important. Childhood is very important. Memories, relationships and some skills are formed during that time. But we would be foolish to regard it as pure nostalgia and to disregard it in adult life. Whilst Hitlers are – thankfully – extremely rare in positions of such potency, societal issues caused by dysfunctional (if I may venture to use that word) or disrupted childhoods, such as substance addiction, suicides and mental health issues, affect many millions of people. Whether caused by familial, geopolitical or associative (i.e. persons not pertaining to one’s family) issues, the formative years are crucial in developing such.
Please excuse me whilst I YouTube Fireman Sam and eat a jam roly-poly.