Johann Shmidt was born the son of an abusive, drunken German villager named Hermann Shmidt and his saintly, long suffering wife Martha, who for years endured abuse and beatings from her husband. Martha died giving birth to Johann, their only child. Driven to madness by the death of the woman he both loved and hated, Hermann Shmidt tried to drown the newborn infant, accusing him of murdering Martha. The doctor who had just delivered the baby saved Johann from his father, and the next morning Hermann Shmidt committed suicide. The doctor took Johann to an orphanage, where the child led a lonely existence. Johann ran away from the orphanage when he was seven years old and lived in the streets as a beggar and a thief. As he grew older he worked at various menial jobs but spent most of his time in prison for crimes ranging from vagrancy to theft.
In his late teens during the rise of the Third Reich, Shmidt got his most prosperous job, a bellhop in a major hotel. There he served the rooms of Adolf Hitler himself. By chance, he was present when Hitler was furiously berating an officer and swore he could train Johann himself, a simple bellhop, to be a better National Socialist. Looking closely at him and sensing his dark inner nature, Hitler decided to take up the challenge and recruited Shmidt.
Dissatisfied with the standard drill instruction his subordinates used to train Shmidt, Hitler took over personally. Upon completion, Hitler gave Shmidt a unique uniform with a grotesque red skull mask, and he emerged as the Red Skull. His role was the embodiment of Nazi intimidation, while Hitler could remain the popular leader of Germany. The Red Skull was appointed head of Nazi terrorist activities with an additional large role in external espionage and sabotage. He was spectacularly successful, wreaking havoc throughout Europe in the early stages of World War II. The propaganda effect was so great that the United States government decided to counter it by creating their own equivalent using the recipient of the lost Operation Rebirth, Steve Rogers, Captain America.
The two counterparts soon clashed in what would be a series of engagements throughout the war, ending with a final battle that left the Skull buried under the rubble of a bombed building. Because he was immediately exposed to an experimental gas there, he remained in suspended animation for decades.
Johann was eventually rescued in modern times by the terrorist organization, HYDRA. The Skull quickly subverted a HYDRA cell to his own ambitions of world conquest and the death of Captain America.
The Skull and Captain America resumed their personal war against each other. The Skull was consistently frustrated by failure; not even when the Skull possessed the reality-altering Cosmic Cube could he claim victory. At one point, the Skull's health failing, he had Nazi geneticist Arnim Zola make him into an imitation of the Captain's civilian identity, Steve Rogers, using cloned tissue from Captain America's body. Under the alias of Mr. Smith, the Red Skull had Douglas Rockwell, the head of the U.S. president's Commission on Superhuman Activities, make unreasonable demands upon Captain America, while arranging for the Taskmaster to train a replacement for Captain America, appointed the violent and mentally unstable John Walker. When the CSA's requests forced Rogers to relinquish the Captain America identity, the CSA assigned John Walker to fill the role. As the new Captain America, Walker was manipulated by the Skull to act in a manner which publicly disgraced the image of the hero. The Skull then tried unsuccessfully to use Walker to kill Rogers (now "the Captain.") When Rogers defeated Walker, the Skull tried to blow the Dust of Death on Rogers. Walker hit the Skull him from behind with his shield, exposing Shmidt to the dust. He suffered the signature facial disfigurement attributed to the Dust, yet survived due to years of exposure to low doses. Rogers later reclaimed the Captain America title.
After this, the Skull was attacked by the mutant terrorist Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who wanted to punish him for his involvement in Hitler's regime. Magneto buried him alive with enough water for a few months. The Skull remained there until he was rescued by his henchman Crossbones.
Red Skull had control over multiple criminal organizations, including the Watchdogs, a group of right-wing militiamen, and the Scourge of the Underworld, an organization devoted to murdering super villains. He proposed an alliance with the Kingpin of Crime (Wilson Fisk), one of New York City's top organized crime bosses, to bring a new designer drug to New York but the Kingpin refused to form an alliance with a Nazi. Fisk defeated the Skull in hand to hand combat, sparing his life on the condition he never come near the Kingpin's territory again. However fellow Nazi Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, leader of the terrorist organization HYDRA, gratefully allowed the Skull the use of HYDRA's resources after the Skull's agents brought Strucker back from the dead.
Recently, Red Skull manipulated his way into the position of Secretary of State, under the alias of Dell Rusk. Rusk developed a biological weapon he tested at Mount Rushmore, releasing a deadly spreading contagion "red zone" but was bested by Captain America and the Avengers. Desiring the Skull's Cosmic Cube for himself, former Soviet general Aleksander Lukin hired Rogers' former WWII sidekick, Bucky (now known as the Winter Soldier) to assassinate the Skull. When the Skull was shot, he attempted to use the Cube to switch bodies with Lukin to survive, but the cube was weak. The transfer was only partially successful as the Skull only managed to transfer his mind into Lukin's body; now the minds of the two enemies were trapped together in the same body. The Skull/Lukin formed numerous alliances with other villains, including Doctor Faustus, Doctor Doom, Arnim Zola and the Serpent Squad. The Skull used hypnotist Dr. Faustus to help arrange Captain America's assassination. Under Faustus' influence, former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Cap's occasional girlfriend Sharon Carter was brainwashed into killing Captain America herself. Freed from his ever-present nemesis, the Red Skull/Lukin raised a private army while attempting to arrange for Senator Gordon Wright to become president of the USA. The Winter Soldier became the new Captain America and overcame their plans. Arnim Zola transferred the Red Skull's mind out of Lukin's body and into one of his own spare android forms as a temporary measure. Shortly afterward, Lukin was killed by Sharon Carter and Zola was seemingly destroyed. The Red Skull remains trapped in Zola's spare body.