On Hitler’s Niece and writing historical fiction
by Claudia Moscovici
If you want to know about Hitler’s life, then read Ian Kershaw’s Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). If you want to find out as much as possible about the history of the Nazi movement and Hitler’s role in it, then read Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock (Knopf, 1992). But if you want to get a sense of who Hitler was a human being, I encourage you to read a very well written historical novel by Ron Hansen called Hitler’s Niece (Harper Collins, 1999).
Hansen traces Hitler’s abnormal psychology from the perspective of Angela Maria (“Geli”) Raubal (1908-1931), his half niece. Geli is intelligent, beautiful, full of joie de vivre and untouched by the political obsessions and anti-Semitic hatred of her uncle and his cronies. She maintains an ironic distance from Hitler’s fanatical followers—Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Alfred Rosenberg and others—who also appear in the novel. Compared to her, however, they’re wooden characters in a farce, much as they were in real life. These vain men are fawning and obsequious, hungry for power and always ready to not merely follow, but also anticipate Hitler’s orders and wishes.
By the author’s own admission, however, the novel doesn’t adhere strictly to historical facts. It is only inspired by them, particularly by Bullock’s book Hitler and Stalin, which Hansen states provoked his fascination with Geli Raubal. (Author’s Note, 307-308) The novel describes Geli’s life, from beginning to end; from birth to tragic death. We find out that her father died at the young age of 31, leaving her mother, Angela, to take care of three kids (Geli, Leo and Elfriede) with almost no source of income. After seeing that Geli, at seventeen, had bloomed into a lovely young woman, Hitler invited her to be his housekeeper and companion. Her mother gladly accepted this unorthodox arrangement, in the hopes of making possible a better lifestyle for their family.
Becoming Hitler’s companion, caretaker, maid and eventually his mistress, Geli catches a glimpse of the inner workings of the Nazi party and its key players’ rise to power. Above all, Hitler’s Niece shows us, up close and personal, how a psychopath capable of genocide “falls in love.” Even after her death, Hitler called Geli the love of his life. Neither Eva Braun, his doting life companion, nor any other woman could compete with his obsession with Geli.
Geli Raubal spent six years either living with Hitler or being in frequent contact with him. For a period of time, she lived in his Munich apartment while she studied medicine and took music lessons. She also accompanied him to the opera, cinema, and the many other social functions he attended. The plot of the novel hinges on their sexual tension and on Geli’s psychological trauma as she becomes, increasingly against her will, his sexual partner in a sordid, sadomasochistic relationship that sickens her and intoxicates him. The more she tries to escape, the more possessive, dependent and desperate he becomes. As the narrator states, “She was his escape, his torpor, his surrender to the vacillation and passivity that were increasingly part of his nature” (220).
Need and obsessive desire, however, don’t imply love. For love to exist, the lover has to be able to consider, empathize with and fulfill the beloved’s own needs, as a separate individual. Hitler can’t do that. He “loves” his niece like a man who is incapable of real love. His idea of flirtation is bragging incessantly about himself. His idea of “affection” is engaging in perverse and demeaning sexual rituals. His idea of respect for women gives way to a fundamental misogyny and traditionalism that require them to serve him. His idea of passion is possession and control of the object of his desire.
Hitler demands to know at all times where Geli is, what she is doing and with whom. He retains the freedom to see other mistresses—including Eva Braun—but keeps a tight leash on Geli, discouraging other suitors. Once Emil Maurice, Hitler’s good-looking Corsican chauffeur begins dating Geli, Hitler finds a pretext to dismiss him. “She is with me,” Hitler snarls when another man, Schirach, asks his permission to take out Geli on a date. (244)
Caught in the vortex of her uncle’s overpowering addiction to her, Geli cannot escape the misery that dominates her life. When she expresses her distress, her friends turn their back on her and even her mother would rather, essentially, prostitute her to “Uncle Alf,” “the patriarch” of the family, rather than face poverty again. At the end, Hitler’s Niece adds an interesting but largely speculative twist to the story. Although the official version is that Geli committed suicide in 1931, in the novel, Hitler, realizing that he can no longer master his niece, beats her, breaks her nose, and then shoots her. His entourage quickly covers up the murder and presents it to the police and the press as an act of suicide. This adds an intriguing element of mystery to the plot, turning Hitler’s Niece into a detective story. But the novel’s main strength remains the psychological aspects of the drama. Hansen helps us see that there is not much difference between Hitler the public man, who could order the murder of millions of innocent people, and Hitler the private lover who could destroy the object of his desire rather than risk losing her.
Given this novel’s many strengths, it’s surprising to me that Hitler’s Niece received some scathing reviews, particularly from The New York Times. In “Springtime for Hitler, in love with his niece,” Michiko Kakutani offers a lengthy plot summary and then dismisses the novel as a poor representation of history which takes away from the gruesome reality of Hitler’s “public crimes, crimes that tragically were not speculative imaginings of a novelist, crimes that have been consigned to the margins of this inept and voyeuristic novel” (NYT, September 7, 1999).
I completely disagree with Kakutani’s harsh assessment and standards of evaluation in this case. The role of historical fiction is not to convey history accurately or in great detail. That is what (nonfiction) history books do. In my opinion, the role of historical fiction is to do exactly what Hitler’s Niece does so well: namely, find inspiration in real historical events to imagine the mindset, emotions and desires of its key figures. Often only more marginal characters, such as Geli Raubal, or Hitler’s niece, can give us a three-dimensional picture of the monster whose acts have marred the pages of history.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory