Reinhold Hanisch – Hitler’s Homeless Friend Turned Fraudster

Reinhold Hanisch in 1936. [Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Reinhold Hanisch in 1936. [Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

As one of the few credible sources on Adolf Hitler’s homeless years in Vienna, Reinhold Hanisch had as many stories to tell as forged pictures to sell. Read our biography of the Austrian migrant worker turned business partner of Hitler to discover how they connected and how their relationship came to a bitter end.

Reinhold Hanisch Facts

  • Full Name: Reinhold Hanisch
  • Date of Birth: January 27, 1884
  • Died: February 2, 1937
  • Nationality: Austrian
  • Known for: Association with Adolf Hitler

Reinhold Hanisch’s Early Years

As one of the few people to have given us a glimpse into Adolf Hitler’s Vienna years, albeit through a rather controversial memoir, it’s somewhat surprising that so little information exists about Reinhold Hanisch’s childhood and adolescent years.

Official documents confirm that Hanisch was born in Grünwald an der Neiße, northern Bohemia, on January 27, 1884.

His family tree and personal records indicate he came from a low nobility family. However, Hanisch would not get an opportunity to live as comfortably as so many of his relatives. His parents became poor and fell into a decadent state.

Upon finishing elementary school, Hanisch offered his services as a casual labourer and house servant.

Not content with his earnings, he had his first brush with the law in 1907, when he was imprisoned in Berlin for three months after being charged with theft. Failing to learn his lesson, he returned to prison for six months in 1908.

Reinhold Hanisch Meets Adolf Hitler

In 1909, Hanisch tramped his way from Berlin to Vienna and lived under the assumed name of “Fritz Walter” whilst working as a servant.

He stayed at a homeless shelter behind Meidling Station, where he met another vagrant by the name of Adolf Hitler on December 21, 1909.

Hitler had left his hometown of Linz in 1907 to live and study fine art in Vienna alongside his childhood friend, August Kubizek, with whom he shared a room. 

He financed the move with the last instalment of an inheritance from his father and some money from his mother, Klara, who died of breast cancer just a few months after he made the move.

With his ambition to become a professional artist in tatters following two failed applications to the Academy of Fine Arts in consecutive years (1907 and 1908), no parents for support and too much pride to confide in his only friend at the time (Kubizek), Hitler’s life quickly spiralled out of control.

Having abruptly left the room he shared with Kubizek – without leaving a note or forwarding address – Hitler bounced between park benches and homeless shelters, all while trying to sell his art.

Hanisch later recalled the first time he met Hitler: “On the very first day there sat next to the bed that had been allotted to me a man who had nothing on except an old torn pair of trousers – Hitler. His clothes were being cleaned of lice, since for days he had been wandering about without a roof and in a terribly neglected condition.”

They would later bond over sonic bread and tales of Berlin.

Life at the Homeless Shelter

The Meldemannstraße men’s dormitory where Hanisch and Hitler lived in 1910 was a night shelter offering only short-term accommodation.

Occupants could take a bath or shower, their clothes were disinfected, they ate bread and soup, and each person had a bed to sleep in.

As it was only a night shelter, occupants had to get out and about during the day. Each morning Hitler would join others from the shelter at a nearby convent in Gumpendorfersrrafse, where nuns generously served soup for those in need. He also visited public warming rooms or tried to earn money. 

Keen to help his friend earn money, Hanisch invited Hitler to shovel snow. With no overcoat, Hitler was in no way prepared for the cold temperatures and quickly laid down his shovel.

Hitler then offered his services as a bag carrier for passengers at the Westbahnof. This would be another short-lived role. Few passengers were willing to avail of his services, undoubtedly due to his destitute appearance.

A Short-Lived Business Venture

After several failed money-making ventures, Hanisch asked Hitler if he had any skills he could use to make money. Hitler told Hanisch he was an artist and suggested forging some old masters as a way to generate funds.

Hanisch later said he rebuffed this suggestion, insisting that he encouraged Hitler to earn an honest living by painting watercolor postcards and pictures of Vienna that he would sell on his behalf in taverns and local fairs, with all profits to be shared equally.

Ever the opportunist, Hanisch became rather excited about the potential of their new partnership. However, he also acknowledged the fact that cheap prices and high turnover would be key to a successful venture.

Desperate for money, Hitler agreed to produce little copies of scenic locations such as the Burgtheater and the Roman ruins in Schönbrunn Park. He used the little money he had to purchase a few cards, inks and paints.

A lot of hard work for a few cents didn’t exactly appeal to Hitler. Excuses quickly began to flow. From the fact that a permit was required from the police to constant complaints of tiredness and even refusing to work at all for days on end, Hanisch quickly concluded that Hitler was downright lazy.

Hitler may not have been producing as many copies as Hanisch would have liked, but sales were steady. Hanisch supplied Jewish frame dealer Jakob Altenberg and several other dealers in the local area.

Selling copies always had an impact on Hitler’s productivity, though. Whenever Hanisch would give Hitler his share of the profits, he would spend the next few days in cafés feasting on cream cakes and reading newspapers.

It became quite apparent that this would be a short-lived partnership.

Hanisch Becomes Hitler’s Competitor

In the summer of 1910, Hitler fell out with Hanisch, accusing him of selling a picture of the Vienna Parliament for ten crowns and keeping all of the money for himself.

Convinced the drawing was worth far more than Hanisch had reportedly sold it for and that he had been cheated out of more money, Hitler brought a lawsuit against his former business partner. 

This resulted in Hanisch becoming Hitler’s competitor – he began painting and selling his creations to connections he had made through selling Hitler’s art.

Records published by the Vienna police court reveal exactly what Hitler wrote in his statement: “Since he was destitute, I gave him the pictures I painted to sell. He regularly received fifty per cent of the proceeds from me. For about two weeks Hanisch has not returned to the Home for Men, and stole from me the picture of parliament, valued at fifty kronen, and a water-colour, valued at nine kronen.”

Furthermore, Siegfried Löffner, who occupied the same men’s dormitory as the pair and was now acting as Hitler’s seller, made a statement to the police. He testified that Hanisch and Hitler were friendly and always sat together in the hostel. 

These statements resulted in the Vienna police learning that Hanisch had been registered under the false name of Fritz Walter. On August 11, 1910, a Viennese court sentenced Hanisch to seven days behind bars.

The tit-for-tat continued into 1912. Hitler was reported to the Vienna police over his unauthorized use of the title “academic painter” and warned not to use the title. Although the police report was anonymous, it’s widely believed that the report was made by Karl Leidenroth, a fellow painter who also lived in the hostel and was friendly with Hanisch.

From Soldier to Fraudster

On August 5, 1912, Hanisch returned to Grünwald an der Neiße. Little is known about what he got up to upon his return to his hometown until 1914, when he joined the Austro-Hungarian Army as a soldier on the outbreak of the First World War. Official documents confirm he served until 1917.

Hanisch returned to Vienna on July 4, 1918, alongside his fiancée Franziska Bisurek. They tied the knot a few weeks later on July 22, 1918, and settled in Rauschergasse 19, XX District.

The couple lived in a house belonging to the parents of Franz Feiler, a railroad conductor and picture collector, whom Hanisch had supplied with numerous pictures and paintings over the years.

Married life could not keep Hanisch on the straight and narrow. On July 20, 1923, he was sentenced by the district court in Vienna to three months’ imprisonment. The charge? You guessed it – theft, once again.

Documents show Hanisch was divorced on April 17, 1928.

Hanisch resumed painting in 1930. He would paint flowers in the style of painter Olga Wisinger-Florian and claim they were produced by Hitler during their years in Vienna. He even had Karl Leidenroth falsely authentic the forgeries. 

On May 7, 1932, Hanisch was convicted of fraud and sentenced to three days in jail.

Reinhold Hanisch Hits the Headlines

Hanisch hit the headlines when Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933. Konrad Heiden, an anti-Nazi Bavarian journalist, was writing the first comprehensive biography of Hitler and sought assistance from Hanisch to cover Hitler’s homeless years in Vienna.

Viewing it as an easy payday, Hanisch jumped at the opportunity. This only heightened attention around Hanisch, with national and international newspapers paying him well for interviews about Hitler.

In 1933, Franz Feiler, whose parents owned the house rented to Hanisch upon his return to Vienna in 1918, became a Viennese emissary of Hitler. He was tasked with purchasing genuine and fake Hitler pictures in Vienna. 

They were then taken to Germany, where fakes were destroyed and genuine pictures were transferred to the Nazi Party’s archives in Munich.

More Charges Followed by a Controversial Death

During Easter 1933 in Berchtesgaden, Feiler presented Hitler with a few of the forged pictures that Hanisch had been trying to sell. Hitler instantly recognised these pictures as forgeries and demanded Feiler report Hanisch for fraud. He duly obliged, submitting a complaint on July 6, 1933. Despite spending several months behind bars, Hanisch continued to forge pictures.

The spotlight shone on Hanisch once again on November 16, 1936, when he was arrested following police searching his accommodation and finding manuscripts about Hitler – and yet more forged pictures.

Hanisch appeared at the Vienna regional court for sentencing on December 2, 1936, where he was convicted of fraud for the last time.

After two months of incarceration, Hanisch hit the headlines once again, as newspapers reported his passing on February 2, 1937. The Viennese authorities officially reported that Hanisch died as a result of a heart attack. 

However, Hitler biographer Joachim Fest caused a stir by claiming Hitler had Hanisch murdered.

Hanisch’s Memoir and Claims About Hitler

Hanisch’s memoir of Hitler was published posthumously in American magazine The New Republic in 1939. Titled Reinhold Hanisch: I Was Hitler’s Buddy, the short memoir paints a less than favourable picture of his so-called buddy.

He rebuked Hitler’s claim in Mein Kampf that he earned his living in Vienna through manual labor, stating: “I’ve never seen him do hard work, yet I heard that he had labored as a construction worker. Contractors employ only strong and powerful people.”

Hanisch also claimed Hitler was also involved in money-making schemes with Joseph Greiner, another resident of the Meldemannstraße dormitory.

According to Hanisch, Hitler and Greiner once tried to collect excess paste and sell it as homemade antifreeze during the summer months. They figured unsuspecting customers would not attempt to use the ‘antifreeze’ until Winter.

Interestingly, historians have verified Hanisch’s claims that Hitler struck up friendships with several Jews while living in the hostel. Among his friends were Josef Neumann, a copper cleaner, and Simon Robinson, a one-eyed locksmith’s assistant.

References

  1. Lehrer, Steven (2006). The Reich Chancellery and Führerbunker Complex: An Illustrated History of the Seat of the Nazi Regime. McFarland. p. 214. ISBN 0-7864-2393-5.
  2. Brigitte Hamann: Hitlers Wien, p. 242.
  3. “The Mind of Adolf Hitler”, Walter C. Langer, New York 1972 p. 77
  4. Hitler, Joachim C. Fest (Harcourt, 1974), p. 13.

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