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"?

Hitler
Adolf Hitler

Sex and Hitler. It's an all too irresistible combination. All too many attempts to explain Hitler have been haunted by the assumption that his heart of darkness resides in a dark secret about his sexuality. Whether it's a rumored deformation of his genitals, a putative degrading sexual preference, there must be some abnormality. It makes us nervous to think anyone in any way "normal" could become a Hitler. Norman Mailer's recent announcement that the next novel in his projected trilogy on the life of Hitler will focus on Hitler's tormented relationship with Geli Raubal, his half-niece, summons up some uneasy, unresolved questions about the relationship between sexual and political pathology.

Sexual explanations for Hitler have proliferated in a postwar, post-Freudian intellectual climate in which nearly all biographers seek to find some occluded sexual source, a secret key to their subjects' psyches in an idiosyncratic sexuality. Sexual pathology leads to political pathology in this simplistic equation. It's almost always reductive, almost always denies personal responsibility—in favor of uncontrollable compulsion—and it is almost never usefully illuminating.

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It doesn't seem to matter that the evidence on the question is so fragmentary, rumor-ridden, uncorroborated, and conflicting. It doesn't seem to matter that the etiology of such putative aberrations involve contradictory, evidence-challenged theories of Hitler's childhood: among them, that he had a father who beat him (according to psychoanalyst Alice Miller); or rather that he developed "a malignant incestuous attachment" to his overprotective mother (according to Erich Fromm); that he witnessed a "primal scene" of parental sex, or had a missing testicle, or had contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute as a teenager, or was secretly gay.

Geli Raubal
Angela "Geli" Raubal

Or maybe it was something else, something virtually unspeakable. Of all the sexual explanations of Hitler, none has the detail and drama of the one involving a young woman named Geli Raubal. She was 27 years old when she was found dead in a pool of blood in a bedroom in Adolf Hitler's apartment in September 1931 (on the eve of his first presidential campaign). Found dead with Hitler's gun by her side, a bullet through her lung, and unresolved questions about the nature of her relationship with her "Uncle Alf" in the air.

Later, Hitler explainers would posit that Raubal's death left Hitler so embittered it became a turning point in his political career. (The "No More Mr. Nice Guy" Hitler explanation).

The Castle in the Forest

Sex and evil, not unfamiliar territory for Norman Mailer. Mailer's been criticized for the sexual content of his first Hitler novel, The Castle in the Forest, but in fact that novel, which concludes in 1905 when Hitler reached 16, has less to say about Hitler's own sexuality than about the disorderly ménage of his backwoods white-trash Austrian parents and grandparents.

Whatever one thinks of the first novel, it leaves Mailer a free hand to indulge in whatever novelistic speculation he wishes to about Hitler's sexuality, the nature of his relationship to Raubal, and the bearing it has on the genesis of the Holocaust.

I feel a personal responsibility to warn Mailer against some of the pitfalls of writing about the Geli Raubal relationship. While this may sound presumptuous, there is a basis for it: According to the New York Sun (and other media outlets), Mailer had initially planned to write a follow-up to Harlot's Ghost (his novel about the CIA), but, after reading my book Explaining Hitler, changed his mind. "The book," Mailer told the Sun, "stimulated the hell out of me … My mind began to race with all the possibilities about Hitler and at a certain point, I finally realized I had a lot to say about Hitler."

Well, shucks, I'm grateful, but I'm not sure I want credit or blame; I'd like my book to stand on its own. Explaining Hitler is a largely skeptical examination of misguided attempts to account for Hitler's psyche. Since I have the same editor at Random House as Mailer, I have turned down offers to review his first Hitler novel. But I think it might be useful to "review" some of the pitfalls the next novel might be prey to, when it addresses what is generally agreed to be Hitler's most intense romantic and/or sexual involvement, and its relationship to his future as mass murderer.

When I say I mean to "review" the novel Mailer has yet to write, I mean that I'm going to examine the raw—extremely raw—material he might be tempted to use, the connections he might be tempted to make—and the problems raised by the Geli Raubal story and the all-too-tempting linkage of real evil and imagined sex in explaining Hitler.