Hitler's Nieceby Ron Hansen
Hitler's Niece tells the story of the intense and disturbing relationship between Adolf Hitler and the daughter of his only half-sister, Angela, a drama that evolves against the backdrop of Hitler's rise to prominence and power from particularly inauspicious beginnings. The story follows Geli from her birth in Linz, Austria, through the years in/em>… See more details below
Hitler's Niece tells the story of the intense and disturbing relationship between Adolf Hitler and the daughter of his only half-sister, Angela, a drama that evolves against the backdrop of Hitler's rise to prominence and power from particularly inauspicious beginnings. The story follows Geli from her birth in Linz, Austria, through the years in Berchtesgaden and Munich, to her tragic death in 1932 in Hitler's apartment in Munich. Through the eyes of a favorite niece who has been all but lost to history, we see the frightening rise in prestige and political power of a vain, vulgar, sinister man who thrived on cruelty and hate and would stop at nothing to keep the horror of his inner life hidden from the world.
It sometimes happens that a gifted novelist who becomes emotionally committed to a work in progress fails to notice some fundamental flaw. Hitler's Niece, by Ron Hansen, has all the markings of one of those sad cases. Hansen's novel Atticus, a retelling of the prodigal son story, was one of the most beautiful books of this decade. But he has followed it up with a distinctly uninspired rendering of Adolf Hitler's weird and ominous relationship with his young niece Geli.
The facts are these: Geli was about 16 when her mother, Hitler's half-sister Angela Raubel, became Hitler's housekeeper. Hitler paid for Geli's education, took her on vacations and to the opera and soon, apparently, fell in love with her. He moved her into his own apartment and refused to be separated from her; their relationship probably became sexual. In 1931, at 23, Geli allegedly killed herself with Hitler's gun in their Munich apartment.
You can see what a brilliant opportunity this provocative material presents: to portray Hitler from the perspective of an apolitical teenager, with a teenager's lack of awe for her elders; to solve the mystery of Geli's death; to give life and depth to a girl about whom history tells us almost nothing. Hansen makes Geli clever and moderately talented. She is repelled by the growing cult around her uncle; at the same time, she is seduced by his ardor and as susceptible to bribery (fine clothes, expensive lessons, elegant vacations) as any teenager might be. Within a few years she is in way over her head. She finds herself totally isolated within Hitler's small cadre of fanatics and forced into perverse sex. ("The things he makes me do!" she wails to her mother, who responds by putting her hands over her ears.) She cannot free herself.
It's a great story, but it presents several intrinsic problems. For one, the personalities of Hitler and his coterie are so well-known by now that it's unlikely a teenage girl's perceptions, even intimate ones, could add much. We see Hitler early on, bashful and flirtatious with Geli. We hear Goebbels and Goering and Himmler confess to Geli their love for the Fuhrer, their fawning eagerness to obey. We observe that Eva Braun is not very bright. But we knew all this.
Second, Hansen is so careful to stick with the facts (as he stresses in an afterword) that Geli remains, to the end, less than three-dimensional. Finally, the novel climaxes with a murder instead of a suicide, and the facts do support such a possibility. But this small distinction is a major reason the novel doesn't work. If Geli killed herself, she was driven to the act by Hitler's entrapment and perversions. If her uncle murdered her, does that make her more of a victim? Is Hitler more evil than we thought? Hardly.
Years ago, Thomas Keneally wrote a novel based on another minor figure in the history of the Third Reich. In Schindler's List Keneally used the techniques of fiction not to reinterpret the facts but to pose complex and profound questions: At what point do good deeds outweigh misdeeds? Can people stumble into heroism the way they sometimes descend into evil, with a misstep or two, a failure to consider the implications, a momentum that gathers regardless of their intent?
I suspect that Hansen, a writer who takes risks, intended something equally ambitious with Hitler's Niece. Unhappily, the result is strangely bereft of insight or effect. Geli's tragic fate was to become enmeshed in a process she could not control. Hansen's creative process seems to have undergone a similar fate.
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Hitler's Niece Fans of Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus -- as well as aficionados of his less-famous books, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Desperadoes -- will hardly be surprised that his new novel is a compelling, twisted psychological thriller. A longtime chronicler of the American West, Hansen here breaks new ground in his retelling of a historical mystery from another part of the world: how Adolf Hitler carried on an affair with his 20-something half-niece (his half-sister's daughter) through most of the decade in which he rose to power, and how she died, inexplicably, one morning in his apartment. Out of fascinating, little-known facts, Hansen has again constructed morally complex, sophisticated, and highly readable fiction.
Geli Raubal was, according to Hansen, who explains in his epilogue that he is quoting from history books and memoirs of the principals, the "only woman [Hitler] ever loved." Practically from the time she was a child, she and the Führer-to-be had a special bond; he played with her (in between quizzing her on the facts of his autobiography, which he had given her to read), took care of her, and indulged her. By the time she was a beautiful teenager, she had come to live with Hitler in Berlin, ostensibly as his "ward"; within a few years, she was his regular public companion, attending his speeches and state occasions as he rose through the ranks of German government, his sometimes willing pupil, and his occasional bedmate. Though young and obviously beholden to the uncle who'd lifted her out of poverty, paid for her education, and bought her designer evening gowns, Geli was neither simple nor a pushover; in Hansen's telling, she claimed never to have been "afraid" of him, even when other relatives and government subordinates admitted that they were. She'd talk back to him, roll her eyes at his lectures, and even, occasionally, openly disobey him. Throughout their odd, to put it mildly, arrangement, she also dated other men, at least one of them a chauffeur in Hitler's employ. (During this period, Hitler was also involved with Eva Braun, who is portrayed here as a bubble-headed Hollywood worshiper.) In 1931, Geli died mysteriously of a gunshot wound; rumor called it suicide (some said she was pregnant by another man), but Hansen suggests Hitler himself shot her because she was starting to pull away from him and, worse, to speak openly of their "relationship."
Obviously, this is ripe material for a novel -- so ripe, in fact, that one wonders why it hasn't been used as a plotline before. (Hansen explains in his epilogue that the affair is mentioned in some historical texts and that there is at least one nonfiction book about Hitler and Geli, but certainly none as mainstream as this.) Part of the reason may be because of the inherent difficulties in pulling off such a feat. If, for example, a novelist succeeds in humanizing the Führer, he will likely be attacked for sympathizing with a monster; on the other hand, it's nearly impossible to construct a story around a character who is wholly unsympathetic. Talk about an unlikable protagonist: It is quite simply too creepy for most readers to page through -- much less enjoy -- a novel about an unmitigated monster.
Hansen thus walks a fine line here, and if his Hitler is not completely human, neither is he without fleeting moments of humanity. The scene of Hitler accompanying his niece, whom he called Princess, on a shopping spree, and teetering behind her carrying boxes full of her purchases, is priceless. The bizarre sexual scenes -- rendered as unpruriently as possible, to Hansen's everlasting credit -- are pretty much what you might expect from a despot who popularized the wearing of jackboots. One particularly striking passage is a note from Geli's diary, in which she lists the things that make her paramour unhappy: "Questions...Contradictions...Any touching...Any mention of cancer." And those that make him happy: "My asking permission...Head and neck massages (Wagner playing)...Watching me shave my legs." So predictable and yet so weird, monstrous and ultimately unknowable: Ultimately, these are Hansen's conclusions about Adolf Hitler.
The novel's greatest strength -- aside from its catering to a universal fascination with evil (think Hannibal Lecter) -- is that it combines a history lesson about the early years of the Nazi Party with a portrait of characters we've heard so much about but rarely met. Hansen's portrayal of Joseph Goebbels as a kind of frat-boy-on-the-make, for example, is particularly interesting. And then, of course, there's Geli herself, a young woman who, by all accounts, was delightful and beautiful and funny and warm. (She was also unabashedly opposed to her uncle's anti-Semitism and told him so.) Why such a woman would give herself to a man who was her opposite is the central and perhaps unanswerable question that drives this narrative and will obsess all those who read it.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report, and book columnist for Glamour, is now editor-at-large of Self magazine. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
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Read an Excerpt
She was born 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. Within the month she was christened as Angelika ("Ahn-GAY-leek-ah") Maria Raubal, in honor of her mother, Angela, Hitler's half-sister, but the family was soon calling the baby Geli ("Gaily"), as she was to be known all her life.
Hitler first saw his niece at a Sunday-afternoon party after the June baptism in the Alter Dom cathedral in Linz. Angela heard four hard knocks on the front screen door and found Adolf on Bürgergasse in front of the Raubal house, looking skeletal and pale in a high, starched collar and red silk bow tie and the ill-fitting, soot-black suit he'd worn at his mother's funeral in December; his wide, thin mustache so faint it seemed penciled on, his hair as chestnut brown as her own and as short as a five-day beard. With unquestioning love, Angela invited him in and hugged him, but it was like holding wood. And then she saw that hurrying up Bürgergasse from the railway station was his only friend, August Kubizek, whose father owned an upholstery shop in Linz. Angela hugged him, too, saying, "We've missed you, Gustl."
"And I, you."
She called to the kitchen, "Leo! Paula! Look who's here!"And then she noticed that her half-brother held a silk top hat in his hand and was absurdly twirling a black, ivory-handled cane, as if he were a gentleman of plenty. "Aunt Johanna's here, too,"she said. "And the Monsignor."
"Oh, Lord,"Hitler said.
Swerving out of the kitchen with atankard of beer was Leo Raubal, Angela's husband, a flinty, twenty-nine-year-old junior tax inspector in Linz whose jacket and tie were now off. Everything Hitler loathed about his dead father, Leo Raubal professed to admire, and he seemed to be imitating the late Alois Hitler as he said, "Why, it's Lazy himself! The bohemian! Rembrandt's only rival! Aren't we honored to finally have you here!"
"Leo, be nice,"Angela said.
"Who's nicer than I? I'm Saint Nicholas! I'm a one-man charity!"
Hitler's twelve-year-old sister, Paula, who suffered frequent trials with mental illness and would be nicknamed "The Straggler,"hung back in the kitchen, winding string around a fist and flirting a stare at Kubizek, whom she was fond of, until Hitler held out a present to her. "I have a gift for you, Paula!"
She scuttled forward in once white stockings and took the package, irresolutely staring at a festive wrapping of tissue paper that Hitler had hand-painted.
"You can tear it,"he said.
"But I don't want to."
"Oh, for God's sake, do it!"Leo Raubal said.
She tore off the paper and found underneath it a fat and difficult novel, Don Quixote. "You say the title how?"she asked. Hitler told her. She opened the book, and inside, where she hoped for a sentimental note from the older brother she worshiped, or even a "To My Dear Paula,"she instead found Hitler's handwritten list of other books in history, biography, politics, and literature that would possibly benefit her. Her face fractured with disappointment as she said, "Thank you, Adolf,"and hurried to put Don Quixote away.
"What a treat,"Raubal told Hitler. "Girls really go for things like that."
"She's all right?"
Raubal touched his head. "She's all wrong up here."
Aunt Johanna Pölzl, the wealthy, hunchbacked, forty-five-year-old sister of Hitler's late mother, walked down the hallway from a bedroom. She smiled. "I was taking a nap with Leo Junior when I heard your voice, Adi."
"My favorite aunt!"he said. "My sweetest darling! Are you feeling well?"
"Oh, just tired,"Aunt Johanna said. "I'm used to it."She held out her left hand and he kissed it, as did August Kubizek.
Angela got the baby from a bassinet and held the tiny girl up to Hitler's face so he could kiss her on the forehead.
Jiggling Geli's left hand with his index finger, her uncle said, "Aren't you pretty?"She gripped the finger in her fist. "Will the fräulein allow me the pleasure of introducing myself? My name is Herr Adolfus Hitler."
"Your uncle, Angelika,"Angela said, and shook the baby, trying to get her to smile, but Geli only stared at his hair. "See? She loves you."
"And why not?"he asked.
Leo Raubal called, "August Kubizek! Would you like some good beer?"
Walking into the kitchen, Kubizek said, "Clearly I have some catching up to do."
"Won't take but a pitcher,"Raubal said.
Hitler stayed in the front room as Angela gave Geli to Aunt Johanna and went into the kitchen behind August in order to get out the potatoes in jackets. Canting back into the pantry with a full stein of beer was a stout and white-haired monsignor in rimless glasses and a pitch-black soutane with red buttons and piping. "Welcome, Herr Kubizek!"he too loudly said. "Are you liking the Conservatory of Music?"
"Very much, Monsignor."
"The child's a miracle at music,"the old priest told Raubal, "You play, what, violin, viola, piano.... What else?"
"Also trumpet and trombone."
"Amadeus Mozart,"the old priest said.
Angela got a braising pan out of the oven and put it on an iron trivet on the kitchen table. "We have potatoes in jackets here. And herring rolls in the icebox."
Raubal handed Kubizek a stein of beer and a cold skillet of sliced kielbasa in ale, then focused intently on his high forehead and his soft, feminine face. "And what does our Adolf do in Wien while you study your music?"
"Oh, he works; very hard. Even to two or three in the morning."
Raubal was astonished. "At what?"
"Watercolors of churches, parliament, the Belvedere Palace. Reading in Nordic and Teutonic mythology. Writing of all kinds. And city planning. Adolf strolls around the Ringstrasse in the afternoons, carefully observing, then redesigns sections of it at night. Amazing . . .
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