The Spectator

The Last Temptation of Norman Mailer

What will he make of “Hitler’s Chappaquiddick”?

Adolf Hitler

Sex and Hitler. It’s an all too irresistible combination. All too many attempts to explain Hitler have been haunted by the assumption that his heart of darkness resides in a dark secret about his sexuality. Whether it’s a rumored deformation of his genitals, a putative degrading sexual preference, there must be some abnormality. It makes us nervous to think anyone in any way “normal” could become a Hitler. Norman Mailer’s recent announcement that the next novel in his projected trilogy on the life of Hitler will focus on Hitler’s tormented relationship with Geli Raubal, his half-niece, summons up some uneasy, unresolved questions about the relationship between sexual and political pathology.

Sexual explanations for Hitler have proliferated in a postwar, post-Freudian intellectual climate in which nearly all biographers seek to find some occluded sexual source, a secret key to their subjects’ psyches in an idiosyncratic sexuality. Sexual pathology leads to political pathology in this simplistic equation. It’s almost always reductive, almost always denies personal responsibility—in favor of uncontrollable compulsion—and it is almost never usefully illuminating.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the evidence on the question is so fragmentary, rumor-ridden, uncorroborated, and conflicting. It doesn’t seem to matter that the etiology of such putative aberrations involve contradictory, evidence-challenged theories of Hitler’s childhood: among them, that he had a father who beat him (according to psychoanalyst Alice Miller); or rather that he developed “a malignant incestuous attachment” to his overprotective mother (according to Erich Fromm); that he witnessed a “primal scene” of parental sex, or had a missing testicle, or had contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute as a teenager, or was secretly gay.

Geli Raubal
Angela “Geli” Raubal

Or maybe it was something else, something virtually unspeakable. Of all the sexual explanations of Hitler, none has the detail and drama of the one involving a young woman named Geli Raubal. She was 27 years old when she was found dead in a pool of blood in a bedroom in Adolf Hitler’s apartment in September 1931 (on the eve of his first presidential campaign). Found dead with Hitler’s gun by her side, a bullet through her lung, and unresolved questions about the nature of her relationship with her “Uncle Alf” in the air.

Later, Hitler explainers would posit that Raubal’s death left Hitler so embittered it became a turning point in his political career. (The “No More Mr. Nice Guy” Hitler explanation).

The Castle in the Forest

Sex and evil, not unfamiliar territory for Norman Mailer. Mailer’s been criticized for the sexual content of his first Hitler novel, The Castle in the Forest, but in fact that novel, which concludes in 1905 when Hitler reached 16, has less to say about Hitler’s own sexuality than about the disorderly ménage of his backwoods white-trash Austrian parents and grandparents.

Whatever one thinks of the first novel, it leaves Mailer a free hand to indulge in whatever novelistic speculation he wishes to about Hitler’s sexuality, the nature of his relationship to Raubal, and the bearing it has on the genesis of the Holocaust.

I feel a personal responsibility to warn Mailer against some of the pitfalls of writing about the Geli Raubal relationship. While this may sound presumptuous, there is a basis for it: According to the New York Sun (and other media outlets), Mailer had initially planned to write a follow-up to Harlot’s Ghost (his novel about the CIA), but, after reading my book Explaining Hitler, changed his mind. “The book,” Mailer told the Sun, “stimulated the hell out of me … My mind began to race with all the possibilities about Hitler and at a certain point, I finally realized I had a lot to say about Hitler.”

Well, shucks, I’m grateful, but I’m not sure I want credit or blame; I’d like my book to stand on its own. Explaining Hitler is a largely skeptical examination of misguided attempts to account for Hitler’s psyche. Since I have the same editor at Random House as Mailer, I have turned down offers to review his first Hitler novel. But I think it might be useful to “review” some of the pitfalls the next novel might be prey to, when it addresses what is generally agreed to be Hitler’s most intense romantic and/or sexual involvement, and its relationship to his future as mass murderer.

When I say I mean to “review” the novel Mailer has yet to write, I mean that I’m going to examine the raw—extremely raw—material he might be tempted to use, the connections he might be tempted to make—and the problems raised by the Geli Raubal story and the all-too-tempting linkage of real evil and imagined sex in explaining Hitler.

I harbor the hope—or the hubris—that I can suggest that there are certain temptations in the Geli Raubal story that all too many writers have fallen for in writing about Hitler, sex, and evil. Another unfounded strain of Hitler explanation that allows him to escape personal moral responsibility for his crimes.

The Selbstmord register, the lustmord narrative, and a digression on orgone boxes.

When I think of Geli Raubal, I recall the grim fortress that is the Bavarian State Archives in Munich, where I got the chief archivist to show me the Selbstmord record for the year 1931.

Selbstmord, of course, is the evocative German word for suicide. The suicide register was a thick musty accounting-style ledger with hand-ruled pages, and ink black as night. The 1931 Selbstmord recorded 334 suicides in Munich that year, nearly one a day. No. 193, dated September 18, was for Angela Raubal, 27 years old, birthplace Linz, Austria, “medical student.”*

“Medical student” was false at the time, but more important was what the skeletal register didn’t record. Her true address, for instance: Adolf Hitler’s house. Nor was there room to report that she was Hitler’s half-niece, that her body had been found in a bedroom down the hall from his, nor any of the sordid rumors surrounding Hitler and Angela, known as “Geli.”

But people talked about it: A survey I did of German and Austrian newspapers for September and October 1931, made it clear that sordid rumors about questionable and quasi-incestuous relations between Hitler and Geli were widespread, and some accounts implied a connection with the suicide. “His demands became unbearable,” one anti-Hitler paper reported.

There was, the Bavarian State archivist told me, a hint in the Selbstmord ledger entry of some ambiguous indications of doubt about the verdict of suicide. There are some hard-to-decipher markings on the very right-hand box of the Geli Raubal entry under which the disposition of the case is recorded. To the archivist who showed me the Selbstmord, the numbered markings suggest the case had been reopened, the suicide verdict questioned by a public prosecutor.

There were all sorts of rumors and fragmentary reports of a reopened investigation at the time, rumors I was never able to confirm. No documents have surfaced to testify to it aside from the ambiguous encryptions in the Selbstsmord register. And in fact, whether or not the case was reopened then, the case has been opened and reopened and reopened by historians, biographers, and novelists for 75 years now. All, alas, too late.

I was one of the reopeners. I initially wanted to prove that Hitler murdered Geli Raubal (or at the very least drove her to suicide with his “demands”) and that the murder arose in some way from some depraved or degenerate treatment of his half-niece. It would make a good story, and some historians and novelists (Ronald Hayman and Ron Hansen, for instance) have tried to make a good story of it. But I did not find sufficient corroboration for the inferences I might have liked to make. The novelistic inferences.

What do we think of novels that incorporate history and then use potential versions of it? Do they illuminate the possibilities of unproven (but un-disproven) conjectures and thus benefit us? (Not that this should be the only criterion for a novel.) Or do they perpetuate unfounded distortions of history by presenting themselves as truth?

Mailer conspicuously includes a bibliography in The Castle in the Forest that gestures at the idea of responsibility to truth, but since so many books in the bibliography differ on crucial issues, what does it mean?

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer

Mailer has constantly toyed with the question of subjectivity, thus essential fictionality, of truth since Armies of the Night (“history as a novel, the novel as history“). I’ve come to think of The Executioner’s Song as probably his best nonfiction, and yet, I have a strong feeling that in one way or another he put his own thoughts in Gary Gilmore and Nicole Baker’s mouths. That it was a novel about Mailer talking to two badlands versions of himself—two trailer trash existential Manichaean theologians. You see a lot of them out West … Or maybe they’d just read a lot of early Mailer.

So, if Mailer can read himself into Gary and Nicole, one wonders if he’ll do the same with Hitler and Geli. Especially given his own particular sexual predisposition. I don’t mean his own sexual preferences or positions, I mean his theory of sex, of the orgasm, his early attachment to the sexual/characterological theories of Freudian disciple and psychoanalytic black sheep Wilhelm Reich.

Few remember Reich now, but in a way he’s a progenitor of the New Age Mind/Body/Energy ideology, especially through his American disciple Alexander Lowen of “bioenergetic” semifame. Reich believed that one’s character is determined (or determines—it gets a little fuzzy on this chicken/egg question) by the quality of one’s orgasm. If one has the right kind of orgasm, the “unarmored” liberating orgasm which allows the “orgone energy” of the universe (a force most physicists have not reported encountering) to flow through one’s body and mind, then one will have a good, liberated character and be less likely to commit pathological, genocidal acts. If one has the “wrong” kind of orgasm, one becomes a fascist or worse.

These theories Reich adumbrated in prewar books like The Mass Psychology of Fascism. In his postwar American expatriate period, Reich became more and more of an orgasm extremist and scold, publishing subsequent treatises featuring detailed instruction manuals—complete with diagrams of sexual positions, with directional arrows for every limb. Reich also devised a mysterious contraption called the “orgone energy accumulator” or “orgone box,” which one was supposed to sit in and, well, accumulate orgone energy. Reichian theory put a “scientific” gloss on the depiction of good and bad sexuality in certain postwar fiction. (Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, as well as Mailer, were said to have put in time in orgone boxes.) It seemed daring at the time, although Reich ended up regarded as a crank, did jail time for allegedly making cancer-cure claims for his orgone box, and eventually turned into a full-fledged UFO nut.

But aside from Reich, Mailer would have a long tradition of Hitler apocrypha to draw on in explaining the Führer through sex, explaining him, for instance, through the kind of sexual relationship he was supposed to have had according to what I call the “Lustmord narrative” of the Hitler-Geli Raubal ménage.

The Lustmord narrative fits the agenda of two strangely different parties of Hitler explainers. First, certain embittered former Hitler confidantes. Two of the latter, “Putzi” Hansfstangl and Otto Strasser, spread a particularly lurid, excretory version of what went on between Hitler and Geli Raubal. (It starts with “undinism” and doesn’t end there, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, you’re better off in your state of innocence.) In addition to ex-Nazis, the other parties that favor the Lustmord narrative are (mainly) Jewish psychoanalysts who sought to turn the ex-Nazi rumors into a psychosexual analysis of Hitler’s evil.

Let me summarize the lurid, unreliable narrative this way: Young, fresh-faced 23-year-old Geli comes to Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat in the Obersalzberg to serve as her mother’s (Hitler’s half-sister Bridget’s) helper in housekeeping duties for the paroled Nazi party Führer about the time he re-enters politics with a big Nazi-party parliamentary election surge in 1928. *

Geli is infatuated by the aura of celebrity and political significance that surrounded Uncle Alf. Uncle Alf is entranced by the beautiful young girl. Hitler is reported to have squired her around the countryside, almost as if she were an official consort; he called her the perfect image of an Aryan maiden; on the other hand, one of her rivals called her “an empty-headed little slut”…

The next step was Geli’s move into Hitler’s three-story Munich mansion as a vaguely defined “housekeeper” separate from the mother, who remained behind in the Obersalzberg.

She prompts grumbling in the Hitler party about public relations, prompts jealousy on the part of the party wives and women, all exacerbated by a secretiveness and ambiguity surrounding whatever went on behind closed doors between the two.

And whatever went on is much in dispute. Nothing? Something “normal”? Or something “nicht natürlich,” unnatural, degrading, not voter-friendly. In any case, things end badly in a short time when Geli, according the official version, shoots herself because of “frustrated artistic ambitions,” as Hitler’s party flack put it.

The cops asked nothing about Hitler’s attentions or his restrictions on her or his reported jealousy, all of which figure heavily in the Lustmord narrative. No, after a hasty suicide verdict (without an autopsy), her body was shipped off to be buried in Vienna, in her native Austria, leaving behind a trail of questions. When the fuss died down, what might have been Hitler’s Chappaquiddick did not affect his political momentum.

I tried to find evidence for murder or a cover-up by Hitler or by somebody in his circle. And while there was certainly a cover-up of the closeness of their relationship and perhaps genuine ignorance of what it was, there did not seem to be a cover-up of a murder or indisputable evidence of the nature of their relationship.

But Hitler’s alibi looked good, and no other suspect emerged. Biographer Ronald Hayman twisted himself into knots trying to discredit the alibi, mistakenly inserting an extra day into the chronology to allow Hitler time to kill Geli and scurry off to Nuremberg, but the theory was based, I believe, on a misinterpretation of Hitler’s chauffeur’s testimony. And novelist Ron Hansen bought the perversion story.

So, here are the temptations: Will Mailer be tempted by the murder narrative or the intimations of paraphilic sexuality, or both?

Will he attribute Hitler’s moral deformity to his sexual proclivities? Or will they be the promptings of a devil as such promptings are in Castle in the Forest? Will he underpin it with some Maileresque version of the Freudian interpretation of Dr. Norbert Bromberg, an NYU professor who, in the first book-length “analysis” of Hitler by a credentialed psychoanalyst, Hitler’s Psychopathology, attempts to link Hitler’s exterminationist anti-Semitism to his relationship with Geli Raubal and the discredited “Jewish blood” legend (the rumor that Hitler was obsessed with the possibility there was a Jew in his family tree)?

Here’s Dr. Bromberg’s strained link:

In 1928, “Hitler was deeply and more openly involved with … his niece Geli. About the same time he was preparing a work which became known as Hitler’s Secret Book published for the first time thirty-three years later. In this book he associated his hatred of Jews with ideas about blood and race for the first time. His sexual interest in his niece must have inevitably stirred in Hitler thoughts of incest and fears of harming her and possible progeny by what he believed might result: the corruption of her blood [by the putative “Jewish blood” Hitler believed he’d been tainted with—in Bromberg’s view]. All these ideas and wishes he projected onto the Jews …”

And so by ignoring certain realities (Hitler had invoked blood and race long before 1928) and by making certain unwarranted assumptions (Hitler believed he had Jewish blood; he was sexually involved with Geli) … Voila! Poor Geli Raubal becomes the unwitting cause of the Holocaust.

This stew of misinformation and sexual innuendo by a reputable Freudian alone should warn Mailer away from trying to make the Geli Raubal episode the decisive one in the history of Hitler and the Holocaust.

Wouldn’t it be more daring of Mailer if he attempted to create a relationship between Hitler and Raubal that wasn’t either sexual or decisive in shaping his subsequent political career?

One of the few historians to entertain the possibility that sex has been overemphasized in Hitler explanation is John Lukacs, who has argued (in The Hitler of History) that Hitler wasn’t that interested in sex. And there is just no reliable evidence of any of the outré perversions attributed to Hitler and Geli.

But one thing I’ve learned about Hitler explanation: The shakier the evidence, the more hidden from view, the more attractive an explanation becomes as a secret key to Hitler’s psyche.

What does it all matter in the scheme of things? The trouble with the sexual explanation of Hitler, with almost all sexual explanations, is that they are reductionist: They leave out the political dimension, the cultural and ideological dimension of causation. They leave out 19 centuries of European religious anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for Hitler; they leave out the proliferation of 19th-century German “racial science” that propagated the notion, indeed virtually invented the notion—of “racial,” biological, anti-Semitism—of Judaism as a genetic disease that couldn’t be cured by mere conversion as in the past. Because it was “in the blood,” it could be cured only by extermination.

It exculpates German culture that was so receptive to the murderous hate-filled rants of Hitler. It exculpates powerful influences on Hitler such as our own Henry Ford, whose book The International Jew shaped his thought and served as a template for Mein Kampf.

If only it were that easy, explaining Hitler’s political pathology as the product of sexual pathology.

I hope Norman Mailer won’t take the easy way out.

Correction, March 9, 2007: The original version of this piece misspelled Obersalzberg. (Return  to the corrected sentence.) It also stated incorrectly that Angela Raubal was born in Linz, Germany. She was born in Linz, Austria. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)