The Human and the Monstrous
A novelist and his reviewer debate the literary representation of Hitler.
October 1, 1999
Oct 1, 1999
10 Min read time
A novelist and his reviewer debate the literary representation of Hitler.
Harper Collins, $25
One of the proposed plans for Germany’s national Holocaust Memorial includes a wall of a million books–one for every six dead Jews. I assume that this wall would, in recognition of the culture the ancestors of its builders destroyed, include scholarship and literature from The Talmud to Sholom Aleichem, but that most of its scores of thousands of linear feet of shelf space would be devoted to the Holocaust itself. Indeed, practically no other subject has engendered such a sheer volume of print. Maybe this single event has proved so compelling because it invariably provides more questions than answers. Yet if "who," "when" and "where" are relatively easy to answer, and "what" and "how" have led to exhaustive analyses of the machinery of extermination, by far the most enduring questions begin with "why."
Hitler’s Niece, a novel by Ron Hansen, suggests an answer. Hansen is the author of several other books including Desperadoes, a lucidly deadpan replay of the Wild West, Mariette in Ecstasy, a lyrical portrait of an American saint, and Atticus, a National Book Award nominee. He is an excellent writer, capable of drawing attention to his style when he wishes and letting his narrative speak for itself when need be. He is in command of words and scenes. He has a moral intelligence and a literary curiosity. He cares about letters and he cares about life. Nonetheless, Hitler’s Niece is a staggeringly misconceived and genuinely atrocious book.
Beginning in 1908, the novel tracks Adolph Hitler from his days as a failed painter of romantic landscapes to the moment prior to his ascendance to the German chancellorship. During this period the person who arguably knew the future Fuhrer better than anyone else was his niece Angelika or "Geli" Raubal. Using the real Geli’s story as a point of departure, Hansen states what has long been assumed, that Hitler had a romantic relationship with the girl and that Hitler killed her in Munich in 1931. Informed speculation suggests that Hitler’s power was already great enough to hush up the crime and have Geli declared a suicide. This guess, given subsequent history, seems plausible. Unfortunately, all the other guesses Hansen makes about the character of the murderer and his motivation do not.
To give credit, Hansen draws the confused and sarcastic Geli vividly, as he does the social environment of Weimar Germany. The novel’s background cast of opportunists and true believers pre- and post-putsch is fascinating, but whatever else Hansen accomplishes, what appalls–and compels–from the start is Hitler. Although the novel is titled Hitler’s Niece, it really ought to be called Hitler and His Niece, because Hitler himself is the focal point of every scene. Yet Hansen’s is not a historical novel in the traditional sense, where events serve as a backdrop to imagination and someone like Tolstoy’s fictional Pierre Bezukhov catches a glimpse of the actual General Kutuzov as the actual Napoleon invades Moscow. Nor is it like Don DeLillo’s modern version of the same genre, Libra, in which it’s clearly a Lee Harvey Oswald of the author’s mind that’s created. Instead, Hitler’s Niece aims toward psychological verisimilitude, and that’s the problem. How does one achieve a balance between the human and the monstrous?
Obviously, the latter depiction is more tolerable, but Hansen overdraws Hitler’s villainy to the point where he might as well grow his mustache and twirl it. We meet him on page one when Angela, Geli’s mother, greets her half brother at the door and finds that to hug him is "like holding wood." Even then, he’s a man with a "whining, sniveling voice" who nonetheless has visions of grandeur. Pursuing these visions, he gives galvanizing speeches, after which his "odor was hideous, like a hellish whiff of skunk and offal." Likewise, members of the National Socialist cohort are portrayed as physically repulsive buffoons from the cadaverous, short-limbed Goebbels to the corpulent loose cannon Goring to the "joyless, healthless, chinless" Himmler. Instead of evoking the banality of evil, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s noxious bad breath almost suggests that the banal is evil.
On the other hand, the humanizing process at work in Hitler’s Niece is even more unsettling as we jump forward to Geli’s perception of her uncle as "affectionate, softhearted and helpless." Of course, Hansen intends this to be ironic and Geli finds out how wrong she is long before her lover presses a gun to her chest. But there you have it: Hitler as an awkward forty-plus year-old adolescent. Attached to his "diffidence," Geli accepts her increasingly well-to-do uncle’s offers of financial assistance and eventually moves in with him. Unfortunately, all is not well in their cozy nine-room inglenook. The man who mesmerizes stadiums shouts, "We have no peace!" like Ralph Kramden in "The Honeymooners." Monsters have feelings, too, but when Geli comforts the poor boy who’s sobbing about his family, "They don’t love me! I need love!," it’s too much.
Later we’ll witness Hitler’s idea of love, but in the meanwhile we read in a state of queasy disbelief as the "man of destiny" gropes his niece who counts the number of times he’s reached second base. This is simultaneously prurient and grossly trivializing, as if history might have been different if only Hitler wasn’t sexually frustrated.
When sex finally occurs, it’s sadomasochistic, with Hitler enacting both the S and the M sides. He orders Geli to strip, and then grovels wormishly on the floor between her legs. Ultimately, we end up with Nazi porn, not much subtler than the notorious epitome of Hollywood vulgarity, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Even the writing becomes cliched and silly here. Geli’s "flying skirt [is] as tight as paint against her legs" and Adolf woos her by saying, "Aren’t you the randy harlot?"
Worst of all, what are the implications of this tawdry mess? Though Hansen surely condemns evil, his quest for the "real" Hitler unavoidably diminishes evil. Relegating the most virulent, violent pathology to a pathetic deviancy is too trite, and infinitely too meager. For all I know–and Hansen has done more research than this reviewer–these internal dynamics might have been part of Hitler’s psyche, but in emphasizing them the author implies that they are meaningful. Psychology is the bane of the contemporary novel, because it cares more about motives than actions or results. "Understanding" the incomprehensible is the first step to accepting the unacceptable. Hitler was, above all, what he did. Why he did it is irrelevant.
Hitler’s Niece is a daring conceit, and I daren’t say that no author could–or should–write such a book, yet perhaps some questions ought not to be asked, even by a writer as skilled as Hansen. The only question I’d offer in response is: "Why did Hansen write it?"
Ron Hansen replies
Mr. Bukiet begins his review by pointing out that a vast number of books have been written about the Holocaust, and that "the most enduring questions about the subject begin with ‘why.’ " And yet later he writes, "Hitler was, above all, what he did. Why he did it is irrelevant."
Consigning thousands of books to the status of irrelevancy is just the first of this intemperate review’s decrees. Writers interested in the science of the mind are also done in. Mr. Bukiet writes, "Psychology is the bane of the contemporary novel, because it cares more about mottives than actions or results." The first part of this sentence simply isn’t true: psychologists, after all, try to affect actions and result. As for the second, I have difficulty in thinking of any authors of merit who are not at least implicitly concerned with the psychology of their characters. Without motivation and causality even Zane Grey would be without a plot.
Mr. Bukiet condemns me for "relegating the most virulent, violent pathology to a pathetic deviancy." I do not. Rather I point out those aspects of Hitler’s personality–jealousy, treachery, possessiveness, sexual perversity–that would have been immediately obvious and oppressive to his niece. I need to remind the reader that the majority of my novel concerns the years 1927 to 1931. We primarily know Adolf Hitler for the evils that had not yet happened. Geli could not have imagined her uncle, who held no public office and could not even vote, would ever become chancellor of Germany, let alone could she have foreseen the Röhm purge, Kristallnacht, world-wide war, or that six million Jews would be exterminated in the Holocaust. The pathological virulence and violence that Mr. Bukiet wants explained–or does not want; he’s not sure–would have been only hinted at in her uncle’s odious demands on his niece, and that is what I have sought to depict.
In his review of perhaps a thousand words, he quotes a mere 53 of mine. Single words and sentence particles are put in "scare quotes," as if he and not I were aware of their meaning. A shout reminds him, preposterously, only of Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. Readers are told that one phrase is a cliché, that another is silly, and that they occur in the same scene. In fact, 27 pages separate them. The context of the "silly" sentence that Mr. Bukiet quotes is this: it is 1930 and Geli has been living, unharmed, in her own room in Hitler’s flat for a year. In that time he has been squiring his niece around town, lavishing gifts on her, mooning over the 22-year-old in a lovelorn way. This is factual. Inveigling Geli into his room one night, he commands that she sit on his bed and look down as he undresses. She feels powerless to stop him:
She asked in a flat voice, ‘Are we going to make love?’
She watched his shadow shift shapes on the floor as he crossed to her. She shivered with cold. She felt the feather bed sag with his weight as he sat just beside her. ‘Aren’t you the randy harlot,’ he said with a smile. ‘To try to rush me like that.’
Even Hitler is aware he’s mimicking the voice of a rake in a corny melodrama. The scene continues, and it is intentionally shocking and unsavory, just as it must have been to Geli. She was molested repeatedly by her uncle and was trying to escape it when she was killed. To not say that would have been obscene. That the editor of the forthcoming Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex–sex of all kinds–calls my reporting of that prurient and likens it to Nazi porn is a complete misrepresentation of the tone and intent of my writing. And I report it not as an "implausible guess," as he suggests, but based on a confession that Geli made to Gregor Strasser, who later testified about it to the OSS. The actress Renate Müller also had a weird and unpleasant sado-masochistic experience with Hitler, and shortly after she confided details of it to a film director she "mysteriously" fell from a high window.
But, of course, the primary cause of Mr. Bukiet’s dyspepsia is that one of my characters is Adolf Hitler. I have dared to say that a tyrant, a monster, and evil incarnate was first of all a very ordinary man. In fact, the only thing extraordinary about him was the immensity of his hate.
Isn’t it healthier (and more useful) to admit that the fiend who fathered the Holocaust could also tell a joke, buy a gift, and fall in love–as is, in fact, true? Otherwise we make Hitler seem entirely exceptional, and the history of even our century shows that he is not. In an ominous and censorious tone, Mr. Bukiet asks why I wrote Hitler’s Niece. The answer is straightforward: education about the past is our greatest defense against the insanities we are bound to meet in the future.
I’m sorry if I inadvertently implied that the two quotations Mr. Hansen notes occurred in proximity. The word "here" referred to the book, not the scene. Both, however, are examples of the prevailing tone in Hitler’s Niece, a novel he claims he wrote for purposes of "education." But if discretion is also a function of education, we may learn the wisdom of a phrase that’s recently entered the contemporary vernacular: "Don’t Go There."
I remain no less admiring of Mr. Hansen’s earlier work, including his own splendid anthology, You’ve Got to Read This, and no less, yes, dyspeptic in my criticism of his latest.
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October 01, 1999
10 Min read time