ADMIRERS OF RON Hansen's previous novels, especially the National Book Award nominee Atticus, may be initially disappointed by Hitler's Niece. As Hansen states in an author's note, "This is a work of fiction based on fact. I have stayed faithful to the history of the period as often as possible and, especially in Hitler's case, freely incorporate actual quotations from him into the novel's dialogue." Not surprisingly, the result often has the feel of TV docudrama, and its public scenes especially lack the emotional urgency of imagined fiction.
However, as Hansen develops his material, this stiff method gradually becomes integral to the themes of Hitler's Niece. One central question about the Third Reich, which historians continue to probe contentiously, is how could a poorly educated, anti-intellectual and transparently deranged Austrian bastard become Germany's undisputed dictator, reducing Europe's most self-consciously cultured nation to degraded sycophancy? Hitler's Niece details the equally unlikely seduction of a beautiful young woman, intelligent, discerning and perfectly normal, by her older, coarse, self-centered, psycho-sexually disturbed and physically grotesque uncle. This speculative private world inside the novel is made the mirror of Hansen's historically referenced account of Hitler's public ascent to power in Bavarian beer halls.
Angelika Raubal -- called Geli -- was the daughter of Adolph Hitler's half-sister. She was found shot to death in 1931, in the luxurious Munich apartment she shared with Hitler and various domestic servants. Despite contradictory testimony and conflicting forensic evidence, the death of the 23-year-old beauty, known for her independence and high spirits, was ruled a suicide. Her profoundly ambivalent entanglement with the fuhrer-to-be is the repellent, yet insidiously alluring, story Hansen tells. It is "the spider and the fly" retold with dark Oedipal overtones, including one nauseating sex scene in which a masochistic master of the "master race" is described in the buff: "... his maleness was so odd and disconcerting, for he had skin so white it seemed powdered, no formation of muscles in his shoulders or arms, female breasts of a girl in puberty, and a flaccid, purple, uncircumsized [sic] penis that was like a short thumb above a boy's compact scrotum." What he wants of her would be a comic Nazi caricature, complete with jackboots and dog whip, were it not so hideous to the healthy Geli, who nonetheless complies.
Such closeted scenes, intensely imagined, take place in alternation with set pieces cut as if from period newsreels. Hitler the orator. Hitler relaxing on the terrace of his chalet in the Obersalzburg Alps at Berchtesgaden. Hitler signaling with the fascist salute before adoring crowds at massive rallies. Hitler in slouch hat and leather trenchcoat hobnobbing with German industrialists. Hitler at a glittering champagne-and-caviar reception opening the opulent new Nazi headquarters. Hitler boring formal dinner parties with his banal, pseudo-mystical monologues. In the background flutter giant party banners in red and white, ominous with black swastikas.
Hansen launches Geli's appealing vitality and wit into jarring juxtapositions with Hitler's henchmen. Ludendorff, Rohm, Rosenberg, Hess, Goebbels, Goering, Schaub -- except for Speer, the whole gang -- make their entrances, all their deformities and idiosyncrasies dutifully recreated.
Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's personal photographer, is particularly interesting because unlike the others he seems fundamentally decent, the regular father of Geli's best friend. A shrewd observer, as his craft requires, he sees Geli's peril, and might save her if only it were safe to do so. Yet, like the others, he is riding the tiger. His cynical manipulation of his talent to serve Hitler's mania becomes the paradigm of the whole sorry mess, in which an outer mask of purposeful strength is created to hide a pathetic core of infantile weakness and emotionally arrested appetites. Hansen makes skillful use of art generally, and of photography in particular, to advance his theme.
Hitler's Niece ends with Geli's death in 1931. The "triumph of the will" and the "final solution" are still years in the future. It is the achievement of this blandly creepy novel of incest and murder to explain it all.