In September 1931, a 23-year-old woman was found dead in the Munich flat owned by Adolf Hitler, an unfinished letter on her desk and his handgun on the floor beside her. She was Geli Raubal, the daughter of Hitler's widowed half-sister, and, as Hitler later melodramatically claimed, the only woman he ever loved.
Although he had known of Geli since her birth, he was aloof from his Austrian family during his first years as head of the struggling Nazi Party. But in 1927, six years before he became chancellor, Hitler invited his half-sister to become housekeeper of his alpine home in Obersalzberg and to bring along her daughter, offering to pay for Geli's medical studies at the university in Munich. Seeing his niece on a daily basis, he soon fell jealously in love, for Geli was, as Hitler's friends later said, "an enchantress," pretty, fun-loving, witty, flirtatious, and able, as no one else was, to put her strange, high-strung uncle at ease.
In a carefully researched historical novel that is haunting, unflinching, shocking, profound, and as compulsively readable as a psychological thriller, Ron Hansen presents Adolf Hitler as he has never before been seen in fiction, but as his intimates must have seen him. And 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 hate and cruelty and would stop at nothing to keep the horror of his inner life hidden from the world.
Hitler's Niece is a masterpiece, a luminous, suspenseful, beautifully crafted novel, full of passion, events, and insight, that reinforces Ron Hansen's growing reputation as one of our foremost writers of fiction.
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Hitler's Niece offers the unforgettable spectacle of a tyrant in love: kneeling, shouting, groveling, sputtering with rage, posing naked for his lover with fists clenched and stomach sucked in--and that's leaving out the dog whip and jackboots. The unfortunate victim of these attentions is Angelika Raubal, daughter of Hitler's half-sister, and the only one in his circle who dares to stand up to him. "What a good game: Who's not frightened of Adolf Hitler?" Geli's friend Henny playfully asks. No one, as it turns out, but Geli--the one who should be most afraid.
Ron Hansen's tale begins with the most gemütlichkeit family gathering imaginable: a Sunday-afternoon party celebrating the infant Geli's baptism, with a pale, peevish, and hungry young Adolph as one of the guests. Geli's father Leo teases the would-be painter ("Rembrandt's only rival!"), the Monsignor needles him about his ancestry, and finally Hitler leaves in a huff. This is, truly, a new view of der führer--the 20th century's greatest villain as the embarrassing relative you don't want to talk to at reunions. By the time Geli has reached her teens, however, the tables have turned. Her father is dead, her mother is an impoverished widow, and Hitler has begun his meteoric rise to power. Geli herself is no intellectual, much less interested in politics, but she's a fun-loving, good-looking girl who captivates the Nazi inner circle even though she speaks her mind more often than she should. At first, her uncle seems like a savior, sending Geli off to university and showering gifts on his "Princess." As the infatuation deepens, however, Hitler's grip tightens, until what began with a family party ends 23 years later with a gunshot.
The basic outlines of this story are true--or at least rumored to be true--and although Geli's 1931 death was officially ruled a suicide, Hansen describes a quite plausible version of events. But the real enigma here is not who killed Geli Raubal; it is Hitler himself. How did he manage to seduce her? How did he manage to seduce an entire people? In a way, Ron Hansen's novels are all mysteries: solving the murder of a prodigal son, as in Atticus, or approaching the miracle of faith, as in Mariette in Ecstasy. He is preoccupied with the big questions, and in Hitler's Niece, that big question is none other than evil.
In this case, evil wears an ordinary human face. The novel's Hitler, much like the real one, is lazy, vain, jealous, and cowardly. In his relations with other people, "he shoots for love, but the arrow falls, and he only hits sentimentality," as his sister puts it. His looks are far from impressive; until Geli sees him speak in public, he seems "wary, officious, and ordinary, like a concierge in a hotel that had fallen on hard times." But what Hitler has is the most powerful seduction tool of all: the ability to inspire fear. By the time his niece has learned to fear rather than to pity him, it is too late--for her, and for the German people. In this heartbreaking portrait of aggression and complacency, Hansen has created a Hitler all the more frightening for how much he looks like us. --Mary ParkAbout the Author:
Ron Hansen is the author of the novels Mariette in Ecstasy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Desperadoes, and of the short story collection Nebraska, for which he received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
He is the editor, with Jim Shepard, of the anthology You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe. He wrote the screenplays for Mariette in Ecstasy and, more recently, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
A practicing Catholic who attends noon Mass daily, Hansen now lievs in California, where he writes and teaches at the University of Santa Clara.
A conversation with Ron Hansen about Hitler's Niece
When did you first hear the nearly forgotten story of the strange love affair between Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal?
I was reading Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock, and he mentions Geli Raubal several times. I had never heard about her, but was struck by the fact that she was the only woman that Hitler every loved or wanted to marry. I at first intended to write a short story about her, a story that would consider what it might have been like to be loved by this evil man, one of the monsters of the 20th century. Was she seduced by Hitler, was she an accomplice, or was she in love with him? I started reading other books, mostly reminiscences of people who knew her, and as I got into it I realized that there was so much more than a short story. I had a novel.
What was it about Geli's story that attracted you and inspired you to write a novel?
I've long been fascinated by Hitler's character. How did this monster have such control over people and almost win his war? He was an unprepossessing character with no education--seemingly nothing going for him except his incredible oratory skills. Why was that enough to sway a whole country? I thought that by looking at Hitler through Geli's eyes, from her perspective, we might gain some insights.
What did you feel you, as a novelist, could bring to the story that may have eluded historians and biographers?
Historians are stuck with the facts as they've been presented, and in some ways they are facts that were massaged by the machinery of the Nazi party. And, in the case of Hitler, there are enormous gaps. But if you read between the lines, it all makes perfect sense. And that's what novelists do. I try to take the facts and fill in based on what I've observed about human behavior--to try to figure out what would be the likeliest way for a character to get from one point to the next. That's what I've done with Geli Raubal in Hitler's Niece.
And, as a novelist, you needed to get inside Hitler and, sometimes surprisingly, imbue him with human characteristics.
I think the one thing we learn from fiction is that people are never totally good or totally bad. As hard as it is to believe, this has to have been true about Hitler as well. He had that extraordinary ability to dominate and control people, to keep people coming back to him. He had to be more than a selfish bore or people would not have been drawn to him.
Many years after the war, Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, was released from prison and he watched film footage of Hitler for the first time in many years. He said he was struck by how dull Hitler seemed on film, as opposed to how he really was. Hitler must have had qualities that have been lost to history, that we might even label redeeming.
So you think Hitler had a human side?
Human, if not good. But, I believe he was a brilliant actor who could only present himself publicly through these personas. We have no way of knowing how he transmitted this energy, yet the millions of people he seduced could not have all been idiots. He must have been charming. Of course, the idea that Hitler was charming is startling. We think of him as that figure on the podium, spewing vengeance against the Jews.
Back to Geli, who is at the center of the novel. What did you gain by casting the novel from her perspective?
For me, she was the pleasure of the book, because unlike the others in Hitler's circle, she could make wry comments. She treats him with irony, she is not swayed by his politics. She never becomes a Nazi and even holds herself up in opposition to his ideas and gets away with it. She becomes a heroine for these reasons, a stand-in acting the way I hope I could have acted in that situation.
But she doesn't really get away with her ideas? She is killed because of her independence....
True, she is doomed from the very first moment that Hitler falls in love with her. Everyone he ever fell for was doomed, because he didn't know how to have a love affair. Eva Braun had a terrible life, and was force to commit suicide. Renata Mueller committed suicide or was pushed out of a window. I think Geli was murdered.
Yes, of the numerous theories explaining Geli's death, you have chosen the one in which Hitler himself killed her. Did you make this choice for the purposes of narrative drama, or do you believe it is the most plausible solution to the mystery?
It seems clear to me that it was not suicide. Everything goes against that, especially the conflicting testimonies of what happened the day of her death. So, once you say it was a homicide, then you're left with only a few people who could have possibly done it. That Hitler would have allowed someone else to kill her and get away with it is preposterous. It's possible to dream up a scheme where one of the others plotted the killing, but they were so afraid of Hitler than they never could have carried it out. That Hitler did it makes the most sense--he was in love with her and needed to control her. And, even it she did commit suicide, it would have been because of Hitler, so it's metaphorically, if not historically correct to put the blame on Hitler.
Geli is simultaneously repulsed and seduced by Hitler's hypnotic hold. Is this duality symbolic of Germany's seduction?
Yes. I was consciously making that connection. You could say it was true about everyone he came in contact with. He was a seducer, and he did what he could to draw people in. Contemporary accounts talk about how Hitler worked on people--he would spend the first hour he met someone just listening, then after an hour he had that person figured out, and then he used that knowledge to manipulate him or her. They would feel that he was a person that understood them completely. They were in his thrall. All these fierce people who headed the Nazi party and caused irreparable damage and homicides by the score, they all confessed that they felt like children around Hitler. He had some sort of talent for mind control. I used Geli to show that in the same way that he imprisoned her in his apartment, he imprisoned people in a psychological way. In some ways Geli was more resistant, but in some ways she was equally susceptible.
On the surface, your novels might seem very different from one another, but are there common themes or concerns that you find yourself returning to in your fiction?
One thing I would say is that almost all my novels are about outlaws, people on the fringe, outside of normal society. People who don't fit in. Nuns in a cloister are women who have removed themselves from society and yet are trying to establish their sense of worth. Jesse James, the Dalton brothers--all these people feel excluded from the conversation, and yet they have the ambition to realize their goals and they do it in their mangled way. Even Atticus, so in control at home in Colorado, is walking on the fringes when he gets to Mexico. And Hitler and Geli, too, were outsiders.
Once again, as with Mariette in Ecstasy, you've written a penetrating story of a female point of view. Isn't this unusual for a male writer?
I believe that it is risk that energizes writers. I think writers are in many ways contrarians, we like threats. Writers like to imagine things, so the more imagining we get to do, the happier we are as writers and, we hope, the better our work is. I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine. Concrete details are what make fiction believable, what writers need to create for their readers. If I constantly push myself in creating these details, to try to see things the way other people would have seen them, it makes me a better writer. And that, of course, is better for my readers.
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