Somebody make it stop. This incessant fixation on Hitler’s sexuality, on his alleged perversity. I think it’s fair to say that the very apex of cultural stupidity in our era is the compulsive conjunction of Hitler and sex. He was a “predatory” homosexual. He engaged in excretory practices with his underage half-niece. And, one of the most enduring, a myth I thought I had refuted once and for all but that now rears its head again: Hitler had only one testicle.
Isn’t it obvious by now what this is about? Our need to prove that Hitler was not “normal,” thus not like us, normal human nature thereby exculpated from producing a Hitler. It fills a need to reassure ourselves there is no Hitler potential in human potential. We’re off the hook.
But despite the obviousness of it, it just doesn’t stop.
Consider this passage from a recent New York Times book review of a new novel by A.N. Wilson called Winnie and Wolf:
There is a scatological leitmotif in this narrative, morally figurative of the Nazi ambience. Watching Hitler deliver a speech from an upstairs window, Herr N. notes that with every patriotic phrase, “the buttocks let out the quickfire whumps and cracks that accompanied the volleys firing from the mouth, and the room gradually filled with a gaseous sulphur odor.” He comes up with his “flatulence theory”: the idea that Hitler at the moment of orgasm would break wind. No woman could be expected not to laugh, and to Hitler this would be intolerable. But Winnie Wagner, with her hero-worship of the man and her great warmth of heart—with her, it would be different.
Right. Brilliant. Even novels and films about Nazis that don’t feature Hitler somehow seem to have an unnatural quotient of sex. Take The Reader, the German best-seller (surprise!) and Oprah favorite in which a woman who served as a Nazi concentration camp guard later is subsequently sexually voracious with a teenage boy. Sex you will be able to see in great quantities in the soon-to-be-released film. Alas, the book has taken in literati over here as well (with the notable exception of Cynthia Ozick, who contended that it was ultimately an exercise in exculpation that metaphorically depicted the German people as somehow unaware of what was being done in their name). The movie version offers a plentitude of nudity and simulated sex with a plentifully nude Kate Winslet as the Nazi war criminal.
I’ve tried to point out the sheer lack of historicity or profundity in our efforts to link Hitler (and Nazis in general) with unconventional sex. I touched on these themes a few years back in a Slate column on the Hitler-was-homosexual claim,a claim that implicitly linked homosexual behavior to Hitler’s criminal pathology. And I devoted a chapter of my book Explaining Hitler to attempting to discredit the emblematic Hitler perversion rumor, the Geli Raubal story: an effort by Nazi defectors and Freudians to prove that Hitler was really, really bad because of an apocryphal sexual perversion he practiced with his half-niece, Geli, who committed suicide before he became Führer. (As if, if it weren’t for all that, he’d have turned out OK.) But my efforts to disprove this tall tale didn’t stop supposedly literary novelists such as Ron Hansen, Norman Mailer, and lesser lights from taking it seriously.
And now the “missing testicle” is back. One of the most widespread urban legends about Hitler is that he was monorchid, and the supposedly missing testicle has seemed—to many who should know better—not just a minor deformity but the key to Hitler’s psyche.
There is even a school of Freudian “psycho-historians” who view Hitler’s putatively half-empty scrotal sack as the root cause of his murderous character, his sexuality, and his anti-Semitism. The rumor offers one-stop shopping for Hitler explainers.
This is a theory I thought I’d put an end to. Back in 1995 I published a prequel-like excerpt from my Hitler book in The New Yorker in which I made reference to the persistence of the one-testicle legend, including dubious, then-new reports that the testicle had been lost when the child Hitler—I’m not making this up—took part in an ill-advised barnyard prank in which he attempted to urinate down the mouth of a billy goat.
Shortly after the New Yorker piece appeared, I received a letter from one Gertrude Kurth, a psychoanalyst who during the war had participated in an OSS-sponsored attempt to evaluate “the mind of Adolf Hitler.” In conjunction with the study’s author, Walter C. Langer, she had tracked down Hitler’s family doctor, Dr. Eduard Bloch, then a Jewish refugee living in the Bronx, N.Y. Bloch had unequivocally affirmed that he had examined Hitler during his childhood and found him “genitally normal.”
End of story? Unfortunately, no. Now comes a reporter from the London tabloid the Sun, one Alex Peake, who in a Nov. 19 issue claims a new document has surfaced, the alleged testament of a priest who took the confession of one Johan Jambor. Jambor, we are told, was a German battlefront medic serving with Hitler during the 1916 battle of the Somme. According to Mr. Peake, Jambor “died aged 94 in 1985, but had told his secret to priest Franciszek Pawlar, who kept a note of their conversation.”
Peake’s story goes on:
Johan’s friend Blassius Hanczuch confirmed the priest’s account of how the medic saved Hitler’s life. He said: “In 1916 they had their hardest fight in the Battle of the Somme.”For several hours, Johan and his friends picked up injured soldiers. He remembers Hitler.”They called him the ‘Screamer.’ He was very noisy. Hitler was screaming ‘help, help.‘“His abdomen and legs were all in blood. Hitler was injured in the abdomen and lost one testicle. His first question to the doctor was: ‘Will I be able to have children?’ “Blassius said that when the Nazis swept to power Johan began to suffer nightmares and blame himself for saving Hitler.
Astonishingly—though Peake neither produced the priest’s document nor gave any further evidence of the existence of the supposed corroborating witness, Hanczuch—serious broadsheets such as the Telegraph in the United Kingdom, as well as print and electronic media on both sides of the Atlantic, picked up his story and repeated it as gospel along with sniggering headlines and references to the dirty wartime ditty (sung to the tune of “The Colonel Bogey March”) that begins with the line “Hitler has only got one ball. …”
It is true that Hitler was wounded during the battle of the Somme. The most reliable recent biographer Ian Kershaw says he was wounded in “the left thigh,” not “the abdomen” as the Sun’s perhaps mythical medic Jambor has it. And it’s not unlikely this injury was the source of the dirty ditty.
But that’s the only nugget, so to speak, of Peake’s tale that appears to have any substantiation. I’ve e-mailed him twice asking where this alleged priestly document may be found and why it couldn’t be photocopied. Asked him as well where this alleged corroborating friend Hanczuch might be reached and interviewed. No reply from Mr. Peake so far. The literature about Hitler is littered with hoaxes and urban legends, and so I call on Mr. Peake and the Sun to prove that this is not another one of them, that they haven’t been taken in their eagerness.
But I’m still left wondering about the source of this eagerness. Why are so many so eager to believe, as the Sun’s headline put it, that “Hitler HAD only got one ball”? Even if it were true, what would it prove?
The nonsensical Freudian theories about Hitler’s monorchism are generally based on the idea that it was a condition he had from birth or one that developed in his pubescence, as is true for many males, mostly with little consequence. (Monorchism can refer to a testicle that never descends into the scrotum or one that descends but later retracts into the body.) It hardly needs to be pointed out that we’d live in a much more dangerous world if all monorchid youths grew up to be Hitlers.
Here’s an example from one of the leading psycho-historians, the late Williams College history professor Robert Waite, author of The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler. After detailing a host of supposedly deleterious consequences monorchism may have on the emerging character, he adds, “Monorchid boys favor symbolic substitutes for the missing testicle. … Patients may be excessively concerned about eyes. Hitler’s eyes were particularly important to him. … The adult Hitler was aware of their power and practiced ‘piercing stares’ in front of the mirror. He also played games with his eyes. He would slowly cross them in looking at people or would stare them down.” Ooh, scary, people.
Even if the Sun document is not a hoax, it complicates these theories, because it posits that Hitler lost his testicle as an adult and thus presumably developed much of his character in a blissfully two-balled state. Of course, the supposed battlefield injury itself sounds painful, even traumatic, but again: enough to make Hitler Hitler? A factor of his character or ideological formation? In fact, Ian Kershaw in his biography makes clear that Hitler “came to hate Jews during his time in Vienna,” years before the war.
And yet once again there seems to be a longing to believe what may turn out to be a shabby hoax. I think a clue to it can be found in the alleged words of the alleged medic, the poor, addled Johan Jambor: According to his friend, “[W]hen the Nazis swept to power Johan began to suffer nightmares and blame himself for saving Hitler.”
Here we can see the appeal of this story, fable, fabrication, or whatever you want to call it: It wasn’t the Western democracies who failed to save the world from Hitler with their fatal appeasing weakness. It was Johan Jambor who could have spared us. Hitler wasn’t the fault of the German people; he was the fault of this one German, Johan Jambor—and the one missing ball. If only Jambor hadn’t “saved Hitler,” all the millions of “good Germans” who, for some inexplicable reason, followed Hitler slavishly wouldn’t have to find excuses.
This has always been my problem with films like the German-made Downfall, which while initially being taken seriously by many, many film critics has found its true level as a YouTube camp joke. Downfall purports to offer the “inside story” of the last days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker and implicitly makes the case that the Holocaust wasn’t the fault of the German people—no, they were victims, too!—but rather of one man, Hitler, and the small coterie of madmen and evil women surrounding him. Nothing to do with Germany’s eager reception of exterminationist anti-Semitism.
The only good use for scurrilous sexual rumors about Hitler was the use found for them by contemporary opponents of Hitler who sought to discredit him during his rise to power. In my book I wrote about the brave, almost-forgotten, anti-Hitler journalists of Munich, Hitler’s hometown, particularly the reporters and editors of the Social Democratic paper the Munich Post. These journalists would exploit anything to smear Hitler and in fact found—and published—far more serious and disturbing grounds to fear and reject him (such as the initial blue prints for the Endlösung, or Final Solution). But if ridicule of his peculiarities, sexual and otherwise, would help, they were not above it. Either way, the German people managed to avert their eyes.
But that was then. There’s no excuse now for this incessant dwelling on Hitler’s sexuality, as if it tells us anything about the true nature of his evil. No, all the obsession can tell us about is the way the culture as a whole exhibits a refusal to face the profundity and complexity of evil and instead—with some honorable exceptions—prefers to escape responsibility for Hitler and the Holocaust by blaming it all on ludicrously unserious and ahistorical sexual mythologies, and the Freudian-influenced notion that all behavior has a sexual explanation at heart.
In a way, the focus on Hitler’s alleged sexual abnormality becomes the missing testicle of the German nation: the monocausal monorchid exculpation for the guilt for mass murder. Let’s not encourage it.