The Sound and The Führer


In September of 1931, with the Weimar government in terminal crisis and Hitler’s party widely expected to play a role in any future right-wing government, the Nazi leader suddenly found himself mired in an ugly personal scandal. His 23-year-old half-niece, Angelika Raubal, a vivacious brunette known as “Geli,” was found shot to death in the luxurious Munich apartment she shared with him, his pistol by her side.

Though allegations of incest and murder were rife in the opposition press, the investigation was quickly brought to a close by a compliant Bavarian minister of justice, an ally of Hitler. The U.S. wartime intelligence services (OSS) later concluded that Hitler suffered from a coprophilic perversion, and that he had driven his niece, and possibly several other women, to suicide by demanding they urinate on him. Alongside the widely held belief, based on Soviet autopsy reports, that Hitler had only one testicle, the Geli affair, as it has come to be known, still holds a major place in the pantheon of theories purporting to decipher Hitler’s mind.

In a carefully crafted and distinctly macabre work of fiction, Ron Hansen develops a hypothetical trajectory of the führer-Geli relationship that begins with Geli’s christening party in 1908, an event attended by Hitler as a down-at-heel aspiring artist. She is the daughter of his half-sister Angela on his father’s—the Schicklgruber—side. Nineteen years later, when her widowed mother moves to Hitler’s retreat at Obersalzberg to become his housekeeper, Geli goes along and soon finds herself accompanying the increasingly famous man she calls “Uncle Alf” to the opera and cinema, to picnics and rallies in Munich, where he is a rising star of the nationalist right.

Hansen’s early Hitler is the very picture of indolence and corruption, rising at 11 to put in an appearance at his new headquarters, “the fenced and gardened, three-story Barlow Palace on fashionable Briennerstrasse” known as the “Brown House,” financed by the industrialist Thyssen. He whiles away much of the rest of the day at the Cafe Heck, “holding forth to a group of six or seven passive, reverential men at his Stammtisch.” Far from a mesmeric figure, he’s a prim little man with square brown teeth, awkward and impersonal even in the most convivial circumstances, equally possessed by vindictiveness and an abject and whining self-pity.

Geli, who comes across as a moral cripple at best, has some reservations about Nazism, which she puts aside rather easily, satisfied to share the affluent lifestyle of her uncle—for whom she feels genuine affection—while most of the country suffers under a worldwide depression. Hitler is chaste, almost fatherly at first. “I feel I have to watch over you . . . I feel such love for you.” Eventually he involves her in lewd drawing sessions, and then her own character seems to subtly regress and deteriorate as she gradually comes to understand she is his prisoner. Unlike Hitler, a cutout who never comes to life, she’s a believable character, yet it’s hard to know exactly what to feel about her.

Though Hansen claims in an afterword that Hitler’s Niece is “based on fact,” few historians with access to the same facts have reached the conclusion that Hitler murdered his niece. His novel echoes the thesis developed in Ronald Hayman’s 1998 nonfiction work Hitler and Geli that Hitler personally killed her to silence her.

In a melodramatic coda, Hansen even suggests that Hitler’s murder of the only person he ever loved might have represented a watershed in the evolvement of his psyche, further deadening his emotions and making him more ready to orchestrate mass murder. But even as a self-contained work of fiction, Hitler’s Niece never develops his inner life to the point where such a conclusion is persuasive. Nor does it ring true factually: Hansen doesn’t take into account the great numbers of assassinations the Nazis had already perpetrated by the time of Geli’s death. Despite its success at times in evoking private scenes among Hitler’s inner circle, the novel has too much of the deadpan literalness of semifictionalized reportage.