(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Hermann Goring was, for most of Adolf Hitler’s bloody reign of terror, the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany. A large, handsome, imposing figure, Goring loved his friends, relatives, and servants, and cared deeply for animals and art. A heroic pilot during World War I, he was a compelling public speaker. Under Hitler, he created the Luftwaffe, the Gestapo, and the concentration camps. He was also a drug addict and a generally inefficient administrator. Ella Leffland presents Goring as a good and intelligent man who allows his conception of Germany’s destined greatness and belief in his homeland as a magical, mythical forest to override his better judgment. Leffland is the author of three previous novels: Mrs. Munck (1970), the story of an oppressed woman; Love Out of Season (1974), an account of a doomed love affair; and Rumors of Peace (1979), a portrait of small-town California during World War II. The Knight, Death, and the Devil, though a considerable departure from these books, confirms Leffland’s skill as a storyteller attentive to the nuances of time, place, and character.

Goring’s father, Heinrich, is a career diplomat, the first governor of southwest Africa, whose accomplishments are unappreciated. Expecting a promotion when he returns from Africa in 1889, he is instead appointed minister to Haiti because of his reputation for liberalism. In 1896, he retires and returns to Germany. Waiting for him is the three-year-old son he has never seen. When Franziska Goring, who is twenty-five years younger than her husband, becomes pregnant with her fourth child, she leaves Haiti for Germany and later deposits two-month-old Hermann with friends. When the family returns, the boy strikes his parents. Hermann, however, soon becomes devoted to his father but eventually transfers his affections from the weak, disillusioned Heinrich to Hermann von Epenstein, the family friend after whom he is named.

Von Epenstein, a wealthy Jewish aristocrat, is also the lover of Franziska and the father of her fifth child. These facts Heinrich ignores because his friend allows the Gorings to live for free in Burg Veldenstein, an elaborate Austrian castle that becomes the center of young Hermann’s life. As Leffland presents it, Goring’s story is the quest for a strong father figure with Adolf Hitler eventually filling that need, and a parallel quest to recover Veldenstein after von Epenstein evicts the family when he marries a younger woman.

Growing up at Veldenstein is an idyllic experience for Hermann, who has been filled with German history and myth by von Epenstein. To his parents he writes, “I am the inheritor of all the chivalry of German knighthood.” Hermann loves everything to do with the military and, after being expelled from several schools for rowdiness, spends five happy years at a military academy. He joins the army in 1912 and wins his first medal during World War I for showing initiative when he disobeys orders. Ignoring wrongheaded authority becomes a lifelong pattern of behavior, with the notable exception of his obedience to Hitler. Disabled by degenerative arthritis in his hips, Goring forges documents to become a pilot under a false name. After further heroics, he assumes command of Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron after the death of the German ace. Suicidally reckless, he crash-lands after being shot and sustains injuries that lead to morphine addiction.

Goring’s potential for following a dictator is evident even before he meets Hitler. He is disgraced by Germany’s defeat in World War I and angered by the political maneuverings of communists:

One can feel only outrage against people who attack those who sacrificed themselves for their country,” he tells his fellow fliers, “only outrage against the revolutionary forces sweeping through Germany and bringing deepest shame upon it. The new fight for freedom and principles and morals has begun. We will fight against those forces which are seeking to enslave us….The same qualities that made the Richthofen Geschwader great will prevail in peace as well as in war. Our time will come again.

In 1923, Goring meets the two most important people in his life. Curine von Kantzow, a thirty-four-year-old Swedish wife and mother, is overwhelmed by the dashing German, moves in with him a week after they meet, and soon marries him. Goring is unimpressed the first time he hears Hitler speak but finds that the politician's words stick in his mind. When they meet, Hitler is attracted by Goring’s energy—“A huge, eager drive, waiting for release”—and decides to exploit it, making the war hero the head of the National Socialist party’s private army. Though repelled by Hitler’s racism and unmoved by his ideology, Goring is drawn by his “genius for moving the masses….I want to break the Weimar government. I want to break the Versailles Treaty. I want a free and powerful Germany.” Goring’s romanticized idea of Germany’s destiny causes him to ignore Hitler’s obvious deficiencies until the middle of World War II.

As a burgeoning Nazi, Goring founds the Schutastaffel (SS), is elected to Parliament, and becomes speaker of the...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)