Hitler's Niece

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    A Family Affair Every victim eventually becomes a bully, and every hero eventually becomes a bore. The most flamboyant illustration of these axioms in this century would be the zeitgeist himself, Adolf Hitler. No political figure in history has gotten more posthumous media exposure, and no political personality has been more thoroughly examined. Mussolini was far more colorful, Stalin killed at least twice as many people and the sadistic brutality of Hirohito's forces easily eclipsed anything the Nazis had to offer, and yet it is Hitler we see on the bookshelves, it is Hitler strutting and posing on cable tv, night after night after night. It often seems that we will never be rid of him. Stalin was a bank robber turned bureaucrat who weaseled and bullied his way through the chaotic labyrinth of early Bolshevism and ruled through sheer terror. Hirohito was a drab little pansy who inherited his position and looked forever overwhelmed and confused by the events swirling around him. There's a certain loony swashbuckling charm about Mussolini and the Italian fascists, almost too whimsical to be taken seriously.

    It seems likely that Hitler didn't have a whimsical bone in his body. His self-professed "artistic talent" manifested itself in bland, mediocre draftsmanship, pedestrian architectural renderings utterly lacking in inspiration or soul. What he had was a will of iron and enormous charisma. He pulled himself up out of the homeless shelters and the streets, out of the most desperate poverty, grabbed the world by its ears and shook it until it bled. Trustfund circuit Hindu mystic Savitri Devi identified him as Kalki, the final avatar of Vishnu, come to cleanse the world and prepare it for the Dance of Shiva, the Hindu eschaton. He transformed himself from a wretched, starving, louse-ridden tramp into a wrathful, vengeful god, not very different from that Old Testament deity he so despised.

    His monastic devotion to his cause was legendary. Despite his constant public emphasis on family values and the necessity of Aryan procreation, he had no children and kept his 13-year affair with gymnast Eva Braun discreetly hidden from public view, marrying her only in the final days of his life, perhaps as a replacement for the nation that he felt had failed him so miserably. But he referred to her merely as his "girl at my disposal in Munchen." The great love of his life was his niece, Geli Raubal. Just four weeks before his death, he confided to his secretary that "Eva is very nice, but only Geli could have inspired in me genuine passion... The only woman I would ever have tied myself to for life was my niece." She died under mysterious circumstances of a single gunshot wound on Sept. 18, 1931, just over three months after her 23rd birthday. The death was ruled a suicide. It was Hitler's gun.

    Ron Hansen has written a sweeping, soaring novel based on his own extensive research into Hitler's affair with Geli, Hitler's Niece. The book spans the time between her birth in Linz, Austria, on June 4, 1908, "when Hitler was nineteen and floundering in Wien, a failure at many things, and famished for food and attention," to the days immediately after her death, when the mechanism of the state was already beginning to dance to his tune. This is Hansen's fifth novel, and the remarkable clarity and beauty of his voice here is such that I now fervently desire the other four.

    The last book I read in one sitting was Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, because it scared the hell out of me. I got up twice during the reading of that book to make sure the door was locked, and moved away from the fire escape window as I read it. I read Hitler's Niece in one sitting, sipping blackberry tea, eating figs and cheese, and listening to Strauss and Wagner. It was over before I thought to stop. His evocation of time and setting is remarkably detailed and beautifully rendered; the sights and smells of the delicate, doomed music box cities of Germany and Austria spill out of the pages like May wine. His attention to historical detail and his meticulous and compassionate character development combine to weave a spell that enthralls the reader as effectively as Hitler's oratory captured the heart of a nation. Reading this book, I was transported, I was there.

    His treatment of Hitler is particularly effective. It would be easy to fall into the trap of painting a monster, but Hansen offers us the human being, complex and full, generous and vain, forever mourning the untimely death of his beloved mother, consumed with rage and longing. Narcissistic, grandiose, histrionic and occasionally infantile, Hansen's Hitler can touch the heart of anyone in a crowd and make them feel that he is speaking solely to them, but he cannot listen in any real way, he can't make contact. He can manipulate, but he can't touch.

    Geli is flippant and whimsical, the eternal girl, full of scorn for the sycophants toadying up to her uncle as he rises, reveling in her power over him even as she finds herself falling in love with him. She is life itself, capricious and joyful. He keeps her and her mother much as she keeps the two canaries he gives her, locked in a cage of gold. She dallies with the chauffeur, Emil Maurice. She skewers his friends and associates with her casual ripostes at the dining tables and in the beer halls. She disdains Nazism and finds her uncle's fixation on the Jews baffling and distasteful. She is the only person in his circle who does not fear him. That lack of fear and her blunt candor with him prove to be her undoing.

    He waits, he bides his time. His prissiness and shame over all things sexual finds form in a weird, rigid morality. He waits until she is of full age to express his dark paraphiliac desire for her in no uncertain terms. She is, naturally, appalled at the sheer perversity of his favored form of sexual expression. She is further alienated by the discovery of his pet, Eva Braun, an empty-headed young gymnast. It has all happened so gradually, this subtle shifting of background to foreground, her uncle's remarkable rise to power, that she is completely unaware of the consequences when she betrays his confidence. Blindly, she goes to her death, unaware of the enormity of the force of her uncle's wrath.

    Hansen captures perfectly the sense of an inexorable and unprecedented historical tide sweeping in while maintaining the intimate and deeply personal complex familial interplay among Hitler, his sister Angela, his despised brother Alois and his beloved Geli. Geli's tragedy is Germany's tragedy, the world's tragedy, and most deeply Hitler's tragedy. Truly Wagnerian in its scope, Hitler's Niece suggests another of history's thorny "What If?" situations. What if Hitler had restrained his perversity with her, contenting himself with her company? What if she had been able to contain her disgust with his sexuality? What if she'd kept her mouth shut about it? Would true love have softened him?

    In the end, he destroyed her, the one great love of his life, just as he destroyed the world he held so dear. At its core, Nazism is about nostalgia, it is sentimental. That nostalgia is for a home that never existed, and that sentimentality is a poor substitute for love. It begins in mourning, the mourning of a son for his lost mother, and it ends in mourning, the mourning of a nation for dreams and hopes gone horribly wrong. In the center stands a willful, playful girl, blissfully innocent of the gathering storm clouds that will inevitably blow her away.