A new book claims Hitler was a closet case.

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Dec. 3 2001 3:41 PM

Queer as Volk?

A new book claims Hitler was a closet case.

Book cover

One wants to sympathize with professor Lothar Machtan. With his ambition, his longing—or at least with the frustration that gives rise to his gay-Hitler thesis. He's correct to say, in his recent book The Hidden Hitler, that there's still something missing, something maddeningly incomplete when it comes to explaining Hitler. In particular, there's little evidence to account for his transformation from sub-Bohemian slacker and postcard artist in the Vienna flophouses to the Führer who seized control of the German nation and launched the world into a Götterdämmerung of war and Holocaust.

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Machtan is not alone in seeking—and declaring that he's found—the missing link between the personal and the political. One that will set us "on the path to a new perception of the Hitler phenomenon," as he puts it. One that will somehow explain what made Hitler Hitler. The history of Hitler explanations often has been the history of scholars and cranks who have decided that they alone have found the key, the ur-source of Hitler's behavior. Professor Machtan is not a crank: He is a German historian with serious academic credentials, who knows the rules of evidence even though he doesn't always abide by them. He seems to be quite intelligent, although not so fearsomely learned as the recent proponent of another eureka theory of Hitler, an Australian logician who convinced himself that Hitler's pathology could be traced back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Jewish philosopher who overlapped Hitler in junior high school in provincial Austria. The author argues that a fateful contretemps between Hitler and Wittgenstein (perhaps over strudel at snack time?) can be seen as the source of Hitler's later hatred of the Jews. The longing to believe in this sort of single-pointed explanation may come from the fantasy alternative it offers: If only that one thing hadn't happened, that one factor wasn't there, no Hitler, no Holocaust.

And finally, one has to sympathize with Machtan because his theory, his secret key to Hitler—"the hidden Hitler" of his title—comes from an area of Hitler speculation, conjecture, and rumor that has produced many contradictory secret keys but little corroborating evidence: the dicey realm of sexual theories of Hitler.

Sexual theories of Hitler go back to the very beginning of his political career in Munich; they've been endorsed (of course) by Freudians, even by the OSS, the wartime U.S. spy agency whose psychological consultant convinced himself (if not many others) that Hitler engaged in a particularly messy excretory practice with his niece, Geli Raubal. It's a story that was spread by Nazi defectors and endorsed by Jewish psychoanalysts with little more than perhaps wishful thinking to recommend it.

And to this day, all sorts of people you might not expect have found sexual explanations for Hitler's crimes. Simon Wiesenthal, for instance, the famed Nazi hunter, has argued, on the basis of third-hand stories about some doctor in Vienna who may or may not have treated Hitler for syphilis, that Hitler contracted the disease from a Jewish prostitute in Vienna. Wiesenthal believes that resentment over this episode was the source of Hitler's anti-Semitism—exacerbated by the brain-addling effects of the tertiary phase of the disease. The syphilitic-Hitler theory is a variation of what I've called "Genital Wound theories" of Hitler, the belief that some malformation in his genital architecture was the foundation of the fateful malformation of his character and politics. Many Freudian "psychohistorians," for instance, continue to hold on to the "missing testicle theory" as the missing piece of the Hitler puzzle.

It should be noted that biographers of Hitler tend to divide into three camps on the question of Hitler's sexuality. Quasi-sympathetic biographers such as Germany's Werner Maser (who once declared that he had located a son Hitler had fathered during the First World War; the poor fellow, living in France, denied the claim) believe that Hitler was "normal," just too devoted to Germany to raise a family of his own. There is the Party of Asexuality represented most recently by John Lukacs, author of The Hitler of History, who posited a Hitler too fearful of sexual embarrassment to engage in sex at all. A third party of historians feels that he was "different" sexually, either wounded, defective, or a practitioner of an outré—usually heterosexual—perversion.

Machtan is not the first to advance a homosexual theory of Hitler. The blackmail intrigues that plagued Ernst Rohm, his openly homosexual stormtrooper chief, were often accompanied by the unsubstantiated whispers that Hitler, too, was gay, and that Rohm had proof—else why protect Rohm for so long? (Hitler eventually used Rohm's homosexuality as a justification for slaughtering him and his followers on the "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934. And went on to murder homosexuals in his death camps, a fact Machtan's thesis must strain to explain as a product of the rage of the repressed.)

Such speculation has a long history outside Germany as well. Consider an analysis of the Nazi phenomenon that ran in London's Spectator in January 1934 under the heading "Hitlerism as a Sex Problem." The author posited the origin of this "Sex Problem" as a mass generational "sex starvation" (because German men were off fighting World War I) followed by "promiscuity and neurotic states" and the rise, due to military fanaticism ("the recognized enemy of full heterosexuality"), of something very sinister: "the literary preoccupation with perversity, the notorious nightclubs for men only." And then in 1931, after the Depression, "sex starvation turned guilty and flamed into fanaticism, cruelty and bitterness. Distorted sex showed itself in Jew-baiting, persecution and ultra-Puritanism." So that explains that.

But in fact, this is almost exactly the same analysis professor Machtan offers us in The Hidden Hitler: not Hitlerism as a Sex Problem, but Hitler as a Sex Problem. A problem Machtan claims to have solved. He believes that the course—and the success—of Hitler's political career was shaped by his hidden homosexuality, and he traces the much-disputed origin of Hitler's anti-Semitism to the same source. According to Machtan, Hitler turned against Jews because of a 1907 exposé in a Viennese newspaper in which a Jewish journalist attacked the "improper influence" of a homosexual adviser on Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hitler was still only a failed artist at this point, but Machtan argues that the incident left Hitler convinced that Jews threatened to expose hidden homosexuals like him.

This adds Machtan's theory to another category of explainers: the ones who claim to have found some Jew—the Jewish doctor who treated Hitler's dying mother, a Jewish art professor, a spectral Jewish ancestor—who somehow upset Hitler so deeply he decided to exterminate all of them. It's the ultimate blame-the-victim game and it ignores the deep source of Hitler's anti-Semitism: not some ill-mannered Jew but other anti-Semites, the ones like Martin Luther, Richard Wagner, and Henry Ford, whose anti-Semitic screeds inflamed Hitler's hatred.

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