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.

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.

Still, in the field of "Hitler studies" (as Don DeLillo memorably dubbed it in White Noise), the notion of a secret key that would decode Hitler is a temptation for even the most respectable historians. I probably should mention an ambiguous reference by Machtan to my own book, Explaining Hitler, which examines, skeptically, various claims to have found the "hidden" truth about Hitler. Machtan calls it "probably the most lucid overview to date of (non-German) attempts to 'explain Hitler,' " and I would love to accept the compliment. Except that it can't be that lucid a book (to him at least) since Machtan inaccurately describes me as stressing the "inexplicability" of Hitler. My book attempts repeatedly to make the distinction between saying "Hitler is inexplicable" and my belief that "Hitler has not yet been adequately explained"—the position staked out by the Israeli scholar Yehuda Bauer, widely recognized as one of the foremost historians of the Holocaust, who believes that we just may lack sufficient biographical evidence for any certainty.

Of course it's not inconceivable that Hitler was secretly homosexual, but Machtan's evidence falls short of being conclusive and often falls far short of being evidence at all. Take Machtan's Exhibit A, the "Mend Protocol," the closest thing he has to a "smoking gun," and his only extant "documentary" evidence that Hitler may have engaged in a homosexual act.

The "Mend Protocol": It has a Ludlumesque ring to it, although this supposed eyewitness account from a known blackmailer and forger is more sordid and noir. And the document itself is not much more substantial than a Ludlum novel as evidence. Machtan's main endorsement of the Mend Protocol's importance and authenticity comes from the same Werner Maser who "found" Hitler's son and who tells us that the Mend Protocol "played an important role in the German resistance movement to Hitler."

That in itself, if true, is sad but revealing. The story of the German resistance to Hitler is, with a few heroic exceptions, the story of a "Resistance" that was forever resisting action. Always on the verge of making a move against Hitler, these generals and intelligence officers could never find just the right time and circumstances to act, delaying with Hamlet-like dithering until the Red Army and the Allied D-Day invasion doomed Hitler. But we are supposed to believe that this frequently self-mythologizing Resistance which couldn't be motivated to oppose Hitler's state terror and mass murder was deeply moved by a report from a blackmailer and forger that Hitler might have been homosexual during World War I. That tore it.

Who is Mend, on whom so much of Machtan's thesis depends? Machtan is candid in displaying the reasons for skepticism about his source, calling him "a parasitical hanger-on (who had fallen out of favor)." A World War I dispatch runner who was billeted with Hitler in the trenches, Mend fell on hard times after the war, garnering convictions for "theft and false pretenses," then for "theft of property," then for "forging documents." Having compiled this sterling record for veracity and trustworthiness, Mend saw Hitler's rise as an opportunity to capitalize on his wartime association by peddling a book about Hitler as a soldier.

When Hitler was on the rise, Mend's stories were all about Hitler's "brilliant traits of character … he was just the same in the field as he was today … courageous, fearless, outstanding." Then, apparently because Hitler wouldn't do enough to promote Mend's book on their wartime camaraderie, Mend started threatening that he'd really tell the truth. A pattern of payoffs, abortive extortion, arrests, and ultimately imprisonment on child molesting charges followed for Mend (who eventually died in one of Hitler's jails). Toward the latter stages of this blackmail war he supposedly produced the "Mend Protocol," a long memorandum of his convoluted history with Hitler. Here's its pallid "smoking gun":

In 1915, we were billeted in the LeFebre brewery at Fournes. We slept in the hay. Hitler was bedded down at night with Schmidl, his male whore. We heard a rustling in the hay. Then someone switched on his electric flashlight and growled "Take a look at those two nancy boys." I myself took no further interest in the matter.

Setting aside the ludicrous, lofty tone of the last sentence, that's the best evidence for the "new revelation." I find Machtan's other evidence even less convincing. Machtan's real contribution is not his dubious gay-Hitler thesis, but a deeper picture of the blackmail culture that surrounded Hitler (who himself used manufactured testimony to frame one of his recalcitrant generals as a homosexual).

Much of the rest of Machtan's book relies on interpreting virtually all Hitler's male friendships as homoerotic and then assuming that homoerotic meant physically homosexual. Or on secondhand reports of someone reading an alleged police report (such "dossiers" were a fixture of the blackmail culture that surrounded Hitler from the beginning). Many of these apocryphal secret files allegedly center around Hitler's military career and the somewhat puzzling fact that for all his front line service, he was never promoted beyond corporal. Machtan believes this was because of Hitler's well-known (and yet somehow "hidden") homosexuality.

I've called these reports of some bombshell file supposedly cached in some secret location the "lost safe deposit box syndrome," and sure enough Machtan tells us he hopes evidence supposedly hidden in "Swiss strong boxes" will eventually shore up his shaky gay-Hitler thesis. I'm doubtful. One of the lost dossiers, reports of which he relies on, the so-called "Dollfuss dossier," purportedly also "proved" Hitler's grandfather was a Rothschild.

So, that's Machtan's case for Hitler's homosexuality. Now let's see how he treats evidence to the contrary. Consider the case of Mimi Reiter, for instance, a woman Hitler courted in the mid-'20s. Machtan quotes only part of her story, which was printed in the German magazine Stern in 1959. She was a shop girl in Hitler's Obersalzberg retreat, and Machtan gives credence to the existence of a relationship but quotes only from the beginning of her description of it. From the time, on a woodsy picnic, when Hitler "Hugged me real tight around the neck. He kissed me. He didn't know what to do."

Machtan jeers: "How could he have known, in default of any physical desire to guide him?"—which assumes what it is supposed to prove. But what's most disingenuous is Machtan's selective quotation. He surely knows that later on in the Stern interview, Mimi Reiter claimed that on a subsequent occasion, she and Hitler slept together, and "I let everything happen." Who knows if there's any truth in this or what bearing it might have (though Machtan is fairly insistent that Hitler never slept with women)? But if Machtan quotes the earlier part of Reiter's account as evidence of homosexuality he should at least acknowledge the latter as contradictory.

Who cares? Well, Machtan thinks we should care because the "Hidden Hitler" explains the Hitler of history: his anti-Semitism and his murderous ruthlessness against enemies. And even if we doubt Machtan's belief in his theory's geopolitical ramifications, it might be interesting to know more than we do about this world-shattering figure. That is, if we could. But in the absence of much conclusive evidence, Machtan goes too far when he claims that Hitler's homosexuality is a "historical fact," much less an historical explanation. 

Machtan and his thesis are not, prima facie, homophobic, although he's aware that it might be misused by homophobes. He goes out of his way to give an enlightened spin to his view of the role homosexuality played in making Hitler Hitler: If only there were more tolerant laws in Austria and Germany, Hitler wouldn't have experienced shame over his putative homosexuality; the shame wouldn't have poisoned, distorted "the hidden Hitler"; the secret spring of his malevolence might not have developed. But despite the evident sincerity of the spin, it tends to put Machtan in the camp of those explainers who see Hitler as a victim—or at least the product of a corrupt system rather than a moral agent.

But it's perhaps more useful to think of The Hidden Hitler as a symptom of a recurrent fever in Hitler explanation. One whose source is a longing for the kind of consolation that sexual theories of Hitler offer.

Suggestions that Hitler can by explained by sexual aberration serve to distance. Distance Hitler from "normality," thereby distancing "normal" human nature from implication in Hitler's crimes. He was "not like us" in any way. Sexual theories imply there is no Hitler potential in "normal" people, only in "the abnormal type," whether it involves heterosexual or homosexual practices condemned by convention. And yet millions of conventionally normal people became Hitler's partners in genocide. It's far more disturbing to envision a Hitler normal in any respect than some "abnormal" Other.

I tend to feel that the historian John Lukacs has the better of the arguments over Hitler's sexuality. Lukacs suggests that the paucity of evidence of Hitler's having sex with anyone suggests not something repressed or hidden, but rather an aspect that was, well, absent. But I will concede there may be a longing for consolation of some sort beneath my own predisposition here: the consolation of never having to imagine Hitler in bed with anyone, male or female. The SouthPark movie gave us a brilliant and hilarious vision of Satan and Saddam Hussein copulating in Hell. I don't think I'm ready for the Hitler version yet.