Adolf Hitler

Hitler caught between British and Russian military might, 1942-1944 (INF 2/31)
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Lesson at a glance

Was Hitler a 'passionate lunatic'?

Hitler is perhaps one of the most notorious characters of the 20th century. We know what atrocities were committed during the 12 years that Hitler led Nazi Germany and therefore we have very firm opinions about him. Using hindsight (looking back with the knowledge of what has happened) we often ask why he was not stopped earlier. However, at the time, people could not predict what he would go on to do. Or could they?

By looking at sources from the time, we can see how people viewed him. Was he regarded as a ‘passionate lunatic’ who would wreak havoc all over Europe? Or a slightly odd eccentric who was rebuilding Germany?

The sources below are from 1937. By this time Hitler had begun to reverse the Treaty of Versailles by rebuilding his army and moving troops into the Rhineland. He had also tried to unite Germany and Austria. Throughout this time he made passionate speeches about expanding German territory. These words and deeds worried some foreign observers.


1. Look at source 1. Report by Mr. Law, a British businessman, who worked in Germany.

  • What impression of Hitler do you get from this source?
  • Why, in Mr. Law’s opinion, is Hitler dangerous?
  • Read paragraph 3 carefully. Is Mr. Law in favour of granting further concessions to Hitler?

2. Read source 2. This is a report on a conversation with Count Bernstorff, a German anti-Nazi campaigner.

  • Which words suggest that Bernstorff disliked the Nazi regime?
  • From what is said in this source, what type of leader is Hitler?
  • Does this account of Hitler back up the view of Hitler in Source 1?
  • Can you trust Bernstorff’s account?

3. Look at source 3. This is a drawing of Adolf Hitler by Richard Ziegler in about 1944.

  • What impression of Hitler does the picture give you?
  • How has the artist created this impression?
  • The government paid the artist to produce this picture. What instructions do you think the artist was given by the government?
  • Can the picture be considered as reliable evidence of what Hitler was like?
  • Given the date of the picture, how accurate do you think it is at displaying how Hitler would have been acting? Why do you think this?

4. Read source 4. This is a a short description of Hitler prepared by the British Embassy in Berlin.

  • Does this account of Hitler confirm that he is a passionate lunatic?
  • How would you describe Hitler based upon this report?

5. Of the three accounts you have now read, is any one more reliable than the others? Explain your answer

6. You have been asked by the British government to prepare a report on Hitler’s state of mind.

You have been provided with the sources above. Your report should:

  • Explain whether or not you think your evidence is reliable
  • Say whether Hitler is sane or not and provide evidence from the sources to support your answer


By the late 1930s, Europe was again on the brink of war. Shortly after Hitler came to power in January 1933 he began to attack the Treaty of Versailles. First Hitler disregarded the ban on rearmament. Then he moved troops into the Rhineland (1936); united with Austria (1938) and set his sights on expanding German territory.

Some people regarded Hitler as a strong leader merely getting back German territory. They thought he would stop once he had achieved a reversal of the Treaty of Versailles. Others feared that this was only the beginning of a much larger German policy of expansion and aggression. They were to be proved right by Hitler’s takeover of the whole of Czechoslovakia in 1939, which contained no German speakers – nor had it been ever been part of Germany. The next to go would be Poland, bringing about the beginning of the Second World War.

How the British government dealt with Hitler in the run up to the outbreak of the Second World War has come under close scrutiny. The most common question asked is whether or not the British government should have done more to stop him earlier. But to have stopped Hitler might have meant declaring war – a massive decision when most countries wanted to avoid war at all cost. Britain kept a close watch on developments in Germany. In particular the government was very interested in Hitler’s personality. They wanted to find out what he was like, what he wanted to achieve for Germany, what kind of leader he was and, strangely enough, if he were sane.

Teachers' notes

This exercise is good for getting pupils to look at conflicting evidence and assessing their reliability. The two accounts from German portray Hitler as a ‘lunatic’ whereas the biography makes him sound quite astute. The cartoon, on the other hand clearly exaggerates Hitler’s characterisitics. However, it does bear some resemblance to the film footage of him at Nazi Party rallies!

This exercise can be used as an introduction to looking at the issue of appeasement and the decisions that were made in the run up to the outbreak of the war. It may help pupils who find it difficult to understand why Britain did not stop Hitler earlier.


Illustration : INF 2/31 Hitler caught between British and Russian military might

Source 1 : FO371/20733 Report by Mr Law, a British businessman who worked in Germany (1937)

Source 2 – FO371/20733 Report on a conversation with Count Bernstorff (1937)

Source 3 – INF 3/1298 Hitler in distress artist’s signature: Richard Ziegler 1944/1945

Source 4 – FO 408/67 A short description of Hitler prepared by the British Embassy in Berlin (January 1937)

External links

Adolf Hitler
The rise from unknown to Nazi dictator.
Adolf Hitler
A short biography of Hitler from the BBC.

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Lesson at a glance

Related resources

Chamberlain and Hitler 1938

What was Chamberlain trying to do?

German occupation of the Rhineland

What should Britain do about it?