Hitler’s Niece

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Books, Posts.

A Family Affair
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

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

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
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

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.