Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Tragic Childhood Turned Him Into The Man He Is Today

by : Tom Percival on : 31 Jul 2018 11:29

Before he was Hollywood’s go-to action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger had already amassed a fortune that would make Scrooge McDuck blush.

More than that, he’d won the Mr Olympia title several times, launched a number of successful businesses, emigrated from Austria to America, and owned property across the United States.


In the years ahead, he’d be recognised as one of Tinsel Town’s most bankable stars and go on to govern the great state of California.

Now at 71 years old, he remains a beloved icon of the silver screen and a living embodiment of the American dream.

Like a lot of men, Arnold credits his father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, for giving him the motivation to succeed in life, although perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect.


Arnold claims that rather than words of encouragement or paternal affection inspiring his success, it was a resolve to prove his father wrong and rise above the violence he was subjected to at home which made him the man he is today.

Arnold SchwarzeneggerPA

A product of his time, Gustav was born in Austria-Hungary in 1907. Like many men of that time, he served in the military in the inter-war years eventually completing his national service and becoming a policeman.

During the Second World War, he was a member of the Nazi party, as well as the party’s paramilitary group the SA, and saw action while fighting for the German Army in a number of different countries.


Following Germany’s surrender, Gustav returned to Austria where he resumed police work and eventually married Aurelia ‘Reli’ Jadrny. The pair had two sons Meinhard and Arnold.

In an interview with Fortune in 2004, Arnold admitted that he suffered what could be described as ‘child abuse’ at the hands of Gustav.

Arnold said: 


My hair was pulled. I was hit with belts. So was the kid next door. It was just the way it was. Many of the children I’ve seen were broken by their parents, which was the German-Austrian mentality.

The abuse, which was intended to make Arnold more obedient and submissive had completely the opposite effect, steeling his resolve and forging him into a rebel.

Arnold Schwarzenegger20th Century Fox

He continued:


They didn’t want to create an individual. It was all about conforming. I was one who did not conform, and whose will could not be broken.

Therefore, I became a rebel. Every time I got hit, and every time someone said, ‘You can’t do this,’ I said, ‘This is not going to be for much longer because I’m going to move out of here. I want to be rich. I want to be somebody.’

Despite the abuse, Arnold doesn’t hate his father (although he didn’t attend his funeral) claiming in his autobiography, Total Recall, that he can appreciate the people and circumstances that traumatised him.

Arnold SchwarzeneggerMGM Home Entertainment

He hails his father’s strictness, his whole upbringing, and the fact that he ‘didn’t have anything that he wanted in Austria’, as the reason he’s so ambitious and how he achieved so much.

Arnold wrote: 

Every time he hit me. Every time he said weight training was garbage, that I should do something useful and go out and chop wood.

Every time he disapproved of me or embarrassed me, it put fuel on the fire in my belly, it drove me and motivated me.

Essentially Arnold believes the abuse galvanised him and set him on his own path, a path that turned out to be bodybuilding.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Getty

Through his dedication to bodybuilding helped Arnie achieve some degree of fame and fortune, allowing him to launch his acting career and he eventually parlayed his fame into a career in politics.

Is Arnold right though in his belief that his upbringing made him the man he is? Well yes and no.

It’s important to state that abuse is never a positive thing and the trauma can affect people physically and psychologically for a very long time after it has occurred.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Lionsgate

That said some studies have found, as troubling as it is to admit that early abuse can make people stronger.

According to Michael Ungar Ph.D. writing in Psychology Today, it’s known as resilience and some children who grow up in challenging or unsupportive home environments are lucky enough to develop it.

The belief is that the constant stress of an unpredictable home life gives some people a degree of plasticity, which enables them to adapt quickly to new challenges and stresses.

This plasticity hardwires the brain to cope with bad situations allowing them to succeed where others would fail, because of an innate ability to compensate and biologically adapt to stress.

Resilience or the ability to overcome adversity has been described as the virtue all successful people have, as resilient people are able to recover better from failure than others.

That means that even when they’re knocked down they tend to bounce back quickly, allowing them to succeed in their goals quicker than less resilient people who spend time wallowing.


As Arnie told The Boston Globe:

Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.

When you make an impasse passable, that is strength. But you must have ego, the kind of ego which makes you think of yourself in terms of superlatives.

You must want to be the greatest. We are all starved for compliments. So we do things that get positive feedback.

Schwarzenegger20th Century Fox

I don’t want anyone reading this to presume however to believe that ‘resilience’ is some kind of superpower all abused people possess.

The unfortunate and very real truth, as Doctor Ungar admits is that resilience can demonstrate it in less beneficial ways than sheer tenacity. He claims that some develop a resilience by shutting off emotionally or they develop other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

So while Arnold may not be wrong when he says his desire to overcome the abuse he suffered is one of his primary drives, he’s one of the lucky ones.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues in this story, if you’re worried about yourself or somebody else, contact Victim Support or call 08 08 16 89 111.

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Tom Percival

More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism. Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV. He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.

Topics: Featured


Fortune and 1 other
  1. Fortune

    Fortune Interview

  2. Psychology Today

    Horrible but True: Early Abuse Can Create Strength