Hitler's Niece offers the unforgettable spectacle of a tyrant in love: kneeling, shouting, groveling, sputtering with rage, posing naked for his lover with fists clenched and stomach sucked in--and that's leaving out the dog whip and jackboots. The unfortunate victim of these attentions is Angelika Raubal, daughter of Hitler's half-sister, and the only one in his circle who dares to stand up to him. "What a good game: Who's not frightened of Adolf Hitler?" Geli's friend Henny playfully asks. No one, as it turns out, but Geli--the one who should be most afraid.
Ron Hansen's tale begins with the most gemütlichkeit family gathering imaginable: a Sunday-afternoon party celebrating the infant Geli's baptism, with a pale, peevish, and hungry young Adolph as one of the guests. Geli's father Leo teases the would-be painter ("Rembrandt's only rival!"), the Monsignor needles him about his ancestry, and finally Hitler leaves in a huff. This is, truly, a new view of der führer--the 20th century's greatest villain as the embarrassing relative you don't want to talk to at reunions. By the time Geli has reached her teens, however, the tables have turned. Her father is dead, her mother is an impoverished widow, and Hitler has begun his meteoric rise to power. Geli herself is no intellectual, much less interested in politics, but she's a fun-loving, good-looking girl who captivates the Nazi inner circle even though she speaks her mind more often than she should. At first, her uncle seems like a savior, sending Geli off to university and showering gifts on his "Princess." As the infatuation deepens, however, Hitler's grip tightens, until what began with a family party ends 23 years later with a gunshot.
The basic outlines of this story are true--or at least rumored to be true--and although Geli's 1931 death was officially ruled a suicide, Hansen describes a quite plausible version of events. But the real enigma here is not who killed Geli Raubal; it is Hitler himself. How did he manage to seduce her? How did he manage to seduce an entire people? In a way, Ron Hansen's novels are all mysteries: solving the murder of a prodigal son, as in Atticus, or approaching the miracle of faith, as in Mariette in Ecstasy. He is preoccupied with the big questions, and in Hitler's Niece, that big question is none other than evil.
In this case, evil wears an ordinary human face. The novel's Hitler, much like the real one, is lazy, vain, jealous, and cowardly. In his relations with other people, "he shoots for love, but the arrow falls, and he only hits sentimentality," as his sister puts it. His looks are far from impressive; until Geli sees him speak in public, he seems "wary, officious, and ordinary, like a concierge in a hotel that had fallen on hard times." But what Hitler has is the most powerful seduction tool of all: the ability to inspire fear. By the time his niece has learned to fear rather than to pity him, it is too late--for her, and for the German people. In this heartbreaking portrait of aggression and complacency, Hansen has created a Hitler all the more frightening for how much he looks like us. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Writing about major historical figures is always a risk for a serious novelist; one must imagine thoughts and conversations for which no record exists, and integrate pertinent facts about peripheral people who figure in the story. For the first few chapters of Hansen's (Atticus) ambitious, provocative new novel, this problem seems likely to overwhelm his attempt to plumb the narrative's central question: what really happened to Hitler's 23-year-old niece, Geli Raubal, who was found dead, purportedly a suicide, in her room in Hitler's apartment, in 1931. Hansen has another task here as well: to convey how a mentally unstable, self-pitying failed painter became chancellor of Germany. He introduces the 19-year-old Hitler at the nadir of his fortunes in 1908, the year his niece Geli was born, traces the source of Hitler's monomaniacal mission to "save Germany" to a battlefield experience in WWI and portrays the effects of his spellbinding oratory and instinctive grasp of mass psychology on a shamed and economically devastated populace. Sometimes the sheer mass of information Hansen must provide results in a listless series of mini-bios of people who became Nazi stalwarts, in off-stage action scenes and in the past perfect tense: "the police had hesitated... had fired a salvo... Scheubner-Richter had been killed," a device that dangerously slows narrative momentum. But always the drama swings back to high-spirited, fun-loving, irreverent Geli, and Hitler's sexually deviant need to dominate her. Midway through the novel, the confluence of historical event and personal destiny becomes mesmerizing, as we perceive the torment of a sexually molested, psychologically manipulated woman, isolated and virtually imprisoned by a jealously possessive monster. The finale imagines Geli's death in a completely credible way, and leaves us with fresh insights into Hitler's twisted personality. The reader forgives the occasional longueurs in this textured picture of Hitler's histrionic personality and his insane mission for glory, presaging the genocide to come in the cold-blooded obliteration of one young woman's life. 8-city author tour; simultaneous audio. (Sept.) FYI: Ronald Hayman's Hitler and Geli will be released by Bloomsbury in August.
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