Ron Hansen, who is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Santa Clara University, is no stranger to historical fiction. Four of his eight books examine the past through the lens of the storyteller. Both Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983) explore the lives of legendary outlaws of the Old West, while the stunningMariette in Ecstasy (1991) observes a young nun in upstate New York who claims to be a stigmatic.
The language of Hitler’s Niece is quite different from the mystical, moon-drenched prose ofMariette in Ecstasy. Steeped in extensive but undocumented research, the new novel probes the ambiguous and largely hidden relationship between future Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and Angelika (“Geli”) Raubal, daughter of his half sister Angela. Hansen indicates that he first became interested in Geli (pronounced GAY-ly) when he read in Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991) that she was the only woman Hitler ever loved.
Hansen was further intrigued by the conflicting rationalizations of Geli’s sudden death as suicide, accident, or—although no one openly said so—murder. He relies heavily on two studies: Ronald Hayman’s Hitler and Geli (1997) and Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), as well as the letters, journals, and memoirs of Hitler’s contemporaries. Several scenes end in posed tableaux from the photographs in Hayman’s book.
The novel spans the life of Geli beginning with her 1908 christening in Linz, Austria, and ending with her death at the age at twenty-three. It is fiction based on fact, but it sometimes sounds more like a report. Unfortunately, Hansen’s respect for history, as well as his meticulous use of detail, adds some awkwardness to the early chapters. At the same time, he has taken a dangerous risk, for who is able to view Adolf Hitler merely as a character in a story? His name still evokes a terrible resonance.
This resonance is one of the chief problems of the novel. Hitler, observed only from without, is more a man of wood than of flesh and blood. His comments, excerpted from his own speeches or from contemporary accounts, often do not fit easily into a scene. A certain historical rigidity accompanies him.
The early chapters delve into Hitler’s background. Young Hitler did not do well in school, completing only four forms. When he attended Realschule, a less rigorous secondary school, he did not receive a diploma. He spent the next seven years in Vienna posing as an art student even though the Academy of Arts had rejected him. He exhibited some talent for sketching buildings (flanked by very tiny people). In his teens he developed a passion for the music of Richard Wagner, played the piano adequately, and enjoyed the juvenile novels of Karl May.
At twenty-four, Hitler left for Munich to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, yet when World War I began he enlisted in the Bavarian army as a courier and was awarded the Iron Cross. Later he trained as an education officer, taking courses in propaganda and politics. He was invited to join a small political group known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party) dedicated to overthrowing the Weimar government in Berlin. During Germany’s terrible economic collapse (when a stein of beer cost one billion marks), the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 resulted in his imprisonment along with fellow Nazis Rudolf Hess and Emil Maurice in Landsberg Fortress.
It is in Landsberg that the teenage Geli and her widowed mother, Angela Hitler Raubal, visit him and the handsome Maurice, who will later be Geli’s frustrated suitor and her uncle’s driver. The women realize that even in prison Hitler has become a man of influence. Once an oddly dressed, vermin-infested figure, he is now sensitive to public perception; it is necessary to revise his history and improve his image. His younger sister Paula, who is considered to be mentally defective, is forced to adopt the surname Wolf to obscure her connection to him.
Geli encounters her uncle again in Munich in 1925 while on an outing with her high school choir. Invited to hear him speak, she is chauffeured by Maurice in Hitler’s red Mercedes, a gift from the Nazi Party. A birthday celebration for Hitler follows, a set piece that introduces many of the people in his life. Heinrich Hoffmann, the host and Hitler’s official photographer, is a short, blond, gregarious man who is sympathetic to her, perhaps because he has a daughter, Henny, about her age.
As Geli reenters the...
(The entire section is 1911 words.)