What will Norman Mailer make of "Hitler's Chappaquiddick"?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 6 2007 3:52 PM

The Last Temptation of Norman Mailer

What will he make of "Hitler's Chappaquiddick"?

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I harbor the hope—or the hubris—that I can suggest that there are certain temptations in the Geli Raubal story that all too many writers have fallen for in writing about Hitler, sex, and evil. Another unfounded strain of Hitler explanation that allows him to escape personal moral responsibility for his crimes.

The Selbstmord register, the lustmord narrative, and a digression on orgone boxes.

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When I think of Geli Raubal, I recall the grim fortress that is the Bavarian State Archives in Munich, where I got the chief archivist to show me the Selbstmord record for the year 1931.

Selbstmord, of course, is the evocative German word for suicide. The suicide register was a thick musty accounting-style ledger with hand-ruled pages, and ink black as night. The 1931 Selbstmord recorded 334 suicides in Munich that year, nearly one a day. No. 193, dated September 18, was for Angela Raubal, 27 years old, birthplace Linz, Austria, "medical student."*

"Medical student" was false at the time, but more important was what the skeletal register didn't record. Her true address, for instance: Adolf Hitler's house. Nor was there room to report that she was Hitler's half-niece, that her body had been found in a bedroom down the hall from his, nor any of the sordid rumors surrounding Hitler and Angela, known as "Geli."

But people talked about it: A survey I did of German and Austrian newspapers for September and October 1931, made it clear that sordid rumors about questionable and quasi-incestuous relations between Hitler and Geli were widespread, and some accounts implied a connection with the suicide. "His demands became unbearable," one anti-Hitler paper reported.

There was, the Bavarian State archivist told me, a hint in the Selbstmord ledger entry of some ambiguous indications of doubt about the verdict of suicide. There are some hard-to-decipher markings on the very right-hand box of the Geli Raubal entry under which the disposition of the case is recorded. To the archivist who showed me the Selbstmord, the numbered markings suggest the case had been reopened, the suicide verdict questioned by a public prosecutor.

There were all sorts of rumors and fragmentary reports of a reopened investigation at the time, rumors I was never able to confirm. No documents have surfaced to testify to it aside from the ambiguous encryptions in the Selbstsmord register. And in fact, whether or not the case was reopened then, the case has been opened and reopened and reopened by historians, biographers, and novelists for 75 years now. All, alas, too late.

I was one of the reopeners. I initially wanted to prove that Hitler murdered Geli Raubal (or at the very least drove her to suicide with his "demands") and that the murder arose in some way from some depraved or degenerate treatment of his half-niece. It would make a good story, and some historians and novelists (Ronald Hayman and Ron Hansen, for instance) have tried to make a good story of it. But I did not find sufficient corroboration for the inferences I might have liked to make. The novelistic inferences.

What do we think of novels that incorporate history and then use potential versions of it? Do they illuminate the possibilities of unproven (but un-disproven) conjectures and thus benefit us? (Not that this should be the only criterion for a novel.) Or do they perpetuate unfounded distortions of history by presenting themselves as truth?