A Popular Urban Legend Says Hitler Rose To Power Only Because He Cheated Death

A time travel trope warns of how stepping on a butterfly in the past might unwittingly change the future. Another asks, if you could go back in time and kill Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler as a child and avert World War II to save millions of lives, could you do it? Hitler's rise to power in Nazi Germany is complicated, as The National World War II Museum writes. There are, after all, countless instances in history that if choice or circumstance had turned one way or another, other outcomes may have been realized.

For this reason, it's difficult to point toward one thing and say, if it had occurred differently, or if it had never taken place at all, the world might have been spared Hitler's terror. According to the Daily Mail, there is one story, though, that says Hitler — among the most demented world leaders in history — did almost die at the age of four in his hometown of Passau, Germany. At that time, Hitler fell into the icy waters of the Inn River, only to be saved by the kindness of another.

Apparently, Hitler never spoke of or confirmed this in his lifetime, though Anna Elisabeth Rosmus records it in her book, "Out of Passau — Leaving a City Hitler Called Home," based on accounts from Passau residents old enough to remember. Hitler's near drowning and subsequent rescue is also told in the Bavarian Radio news program: "If Hitler had drowned. The legend of a fatal lifesaving." 

In Passau, it's an urban legend

Though Adolf Hitler never mentioned falling into the Inn River, he did speak of playing "cowboys and Indians" along the banks of the river as a boy, The Scotsman writes. Passau is near the Austrian border and Hitler, born in 1889, and his family lived there from 1892 through 1894. This explains Der Fuehrer's German accent, rather than the accent of his native Austria, where Hitler was born. 

As author Anna Elisabeth Rosmus recounts in her book "Out of Passau," in 1894, Hitler (pictured as an infant, above) was playing along the banks of the Inn River when he slipped. "The current was very strong and the water ice cold, flowing as it did straight from the mountains," Rosmus writes. "Luckily for young Adolf, the son of the owner of the house where he lived was able to pull him out in time and so saved his life," her book continues. 

Rosmus did confirm the story of Hitler's near-death experience with long-time residents of Passau. Via Daily Mail, Rosmus said, in Passau, "Everyone knew the story." Locals also reportedly spoke of how Hitler never learned to swim and that as a small child, he needed glasses, Rosmus added. 

A Passau Priest named Max Tremmel said the priest who came before him, Johann Kuehberger, who was around the same age as Hitler when it happened, plucked the terrified future tyrant from the cold water. Kuehberger apparently confirmed the rescue to Tremmel before Kuehberger's own death in 1980. 

A contemporaneous news article seems to mention it

Also verifying the near-drowning of a young Adolf Hitler, a small article from the "Donauzeitung," a Danube newspaper from 1894 was found in which a "young fellow" who fell through the ice of the Inn River is mentioned, only to be saved by a "determined comrade," (via The Daily Mail). According to that account, Hitler fell through the ice, in other tellings, he slipped. The article never mentions Hitler by name, but in total, the abundance of evidence suggests that he did in fact nearly drown around the age of four. 

Little is known about what Roman Catholic Priest, Johann Kuehberger, who is said to have saved Hitler from an early watery end, felt about Nazi rule.  As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explains, some German Catholics and Protestants supported Nazi policies but even Church leaders who disagreed mostly turned a blind eye so as not to incur the wrath of the Nazi regime, per the Antidefemation League (ADL).

As Atlanta Georgia's Reverend Monsignor Richard Lopez wrote on Facebook, Kuehberger, "grew up and took on the role of saving souls as a Roman Catholic priest. However, according to close friends, he was haunted his whole life by his act of courage, as the child he saved was named Adolf Hitler." Hitler also survived a number of attempts on his life both before and after he came to power. The first reportedly took place in 1938 when Swiss Catholic student Maurice Bavaud tried and failed to shoot Hitler at a Munich parade. Bavaud was later executed (via NBC News).