On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 1999/ 26 Tishrei, 5760

Robert Leiter

Humanizing Hitler

EACH FALL AND SPRING, when the new novels and non-fiction start pouring into stores, book lovers depend upon a small band of critics to deflate the pretensions of certain titles and to skewer those that truly deserve it.

Daphne Merkin, now of The New Yorker and a novelist herself, is one of these fearless reviewers who's found worth in titles others have ignored while alternately having the courage to challenge the newest "masterpiece" on the block.

That is why when Merkin turned to novelist Ron Hansen's newest work, HITLER'S NIECE, in the Oct. 4 issue of The New Yorker, the possibilities seemed so ripe. Hitler's Niece is not Hansen's first excursion into historical fiction, but even so, it seemed an odd turn for him. It also qualifies as one of the strangest entries in the ongoing phenomenon informally known as the "Hitler novel."

As a number of news stories have already noted, the novel is concerned with what has been described as the "greatest mystery" in Hitler's life before he became Fuhrer --- his relationship with his much younger niece, Geli Raubal. Hitler insisted she was the only woman he ever loved, but her death at age 23, though considered a suicide by German police, has never been "definitively explained."


Hansen tries to provide answers, and that's where the trouble starts.

One would have expected Merkin to have a field day with the absurdities and stylistic whoppers that fill the novel, but while she identifies some of them, she ends up praising the work far more than I might have imagined.

Right off the bat, Merkin notes that despite the novelist's previous use of historical figures in his novels, "In basing his new novel on an alleged prewar affair that Hitler had with his niece Hansen is leaving terra firma for 'Twilight Zone' territory." But the affair is not the only surprise in store for readers. The work rests on the theory that Geli, as Merkin writes, "was shot by her avuncular and depraved lover because she was planning to leave him."

Hitler's obsession is called a"sticky enthrallment," and begins when Geli is an infant, the daughter of his half-sister, Angela. By the time the young woman is 19, she's calling the man who's begun to enthrall the German nation "Uncle Alf."

Merkin states that Hansen writes of the couple's "growing attachment with delicate precision": "She would look up from reading and find him just glancing away, or she'd turn when she was walking and find him intently watching the sway of her dress. At times she felt unclothed by him. At other times she felt protected, cherished and adored. She was his quiet den, his twilight stroll, his hobby."

If we were talking about anyone else but Hitler, this might be acceptable prose. But the Fuhrer as Romeo induces only nausea.

Merkin admits that some readers "will find the book a grotesque travesty that tries to humanize the demonic." She also writes that "Any novel that contains the sentence 'And that was how Geli met Heinrich Himmler' is asking for titters." Or lots worse.

But the critic also has to concede that "because of its mixture of historical detail and psychological nuance [Hitler's Niece] rings true."

I imagine that because Merkin has herself toyed with the Fuhrer in her essay "Dreaming of Hitler," she doesn't mind the liberties Hansen has taken. But this spate of Hitler novels is more than disturbing. I am not one who believes that everything in life is fodder for the artist. A sense of decency should tell people that some things, like adding human detail to the early life of a known sadist, should be off limits.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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©1999 Robert Leiter