By Ron Hansen
People tend to take one of two attitudes toward historical fiction. Some expect a strict adherence to the known facts and insist upon the utmost faithfulness to the historical record (sometimes called “the truth”). Others are more inclined to let writers have their way, knowing that the very act of writing necessarily involves some kind of selection and interpretation. They don’t expect a work of the imagination to play by documentary rules.
Invention is given the most latitude in those misty areas where the evidence is sketchy and ambiguous. In this book, novelist Ron Hansen takes a closer look at one such historical mystery – the suicide of Adolf Hitler’s niece, Angelika (“Geli”) Raubal.
In 1931, the 23-year-old Geli (daughter of Hitler’s half-sister) was found shot dead in a room that she occupied in Hitler’s Munich apartment. Hitler’s later confession that she was the only woman he ever loved fed rumours of a relationship full of sexual delinquency and jealous passion. While her death was officially recorded as a suicide, there were enough suspicious circumstances to make many authorities believe that Hitler was responsible.
Out of this sensational material Hansen fashions an interesting but conventional-minded narrative. The result is a plausible historical scenario that fails to fully explore the personalities involved.
Geli herself is presented simply as the victim of Hitler’s madness – a bright, attractive girl who gets in over her head with a bad crowd. She feels no special attraction to either Hitler or Nazism, but becomes her uncle’s mistress for the material advantages it offers her and her family. Most of the time she seems to drift, only asserting a personality and identity of her own in the sarcastic comments she makes to the obsequious flunkies in her circle.
This same lack of depth also affects the novel’s presentation of Hitler. To some extent Hitler’s Niece is yet another attempt at “explaining” Hitler, this time using the tools of the novelist. This puts Hansen in a touchy situation. There are some who believe that any attempt to explain or understand Hitler necessarily involves enlisting our sympathy for him or in some way rationalizing what he did. On the other hand, a Hitler who is simply a monster without any human qualities wouldn’t be worth writing a book about.
And this is the problem. Hansen’s Hitler is a two-dimensional, at times almost cartoonish figure. Since caricatures of evil are the stuff of melodrama, it’s not surprising to hear him making all kinds of hammy theatrical pronouncements (“You have the temerity to challenge me? Adolf Hitler!”). In addition, the incorporation of his writing into his dialogue makes him sound awkward and artificial, even within informal settings. We know Hitler’s table talk wasn’t all like this.
Then, inevitably, there is the matter of sex. Since “expert” opinions on Hitler’s sex life (or lack thereof) exist all over the map, Hansen is free to describe a Hitler controlled by his bizarre sexual hang-ups. But the symptoms are not related to any cause. The book doesn’t provide any insight into where Hitler’s deviance (or, for that matter, his racism and hate) came from. Hansen’s Hitler is simply a pompous, lazy, but inexplicably charismatic pervert who happens to hate Jews. While this may be an accurate, albeit incomplete, description, it misses an opportunity to dig deeper. Since Hansen’s bent is clearly Freudian (Hitler is repressed and fixated on his mother), he might have used the license of the novelist for a more probing analysis.
Hitler’s Niece is a fast-moving, sharply-written book that has a superficial interest because of its focus on degeneracy and power. It does not, however, force us to think about Hitler or evil in any new ways.
Review first published September 18, 1999.