Hinting at Hitler
A great, great writer takes on a bad, bad man.
by Shelton Hull
Norman Mailer’s newest novel, The Castle in the Forest (Random House), is probably the only indispensable novel of this decade. Without question, it is the most important, since it addresses what has become the central issue of our time: the evolution of evil within the human soul. A man who has written lucidly of such notorious villains as Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald and Joe Frazier has turned his sniper’s eye onto the most hated man in all of history: Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Mailer’s story covers the period between the birth of Hitler’s father in 1837 and the end of Hitler’s formal education in 1905, bookended by diversions into World War II. Much of the information regarding Hitler’s life before the early 1920s is lost to history, and what does exist remains subject to feverish speculation to this very day. In fact, this novel is sure to play a role in such debates long into the future. Anything– or anyone, for that matter– known by Hitler to be incriminating was destroyed in a series of purges that followed his ascent to power in 1933. If this book is Mailer’s last, he’s going out very strongly– far more so, in fact, than his subject did.
Despite a considerable amount of graphic, scatological language, there is little in Mailer’s narrative that reeks of the overtly sensational. Indeed, Mailer appears at pains to tone down the vast potential that exists to define the overall Hitler by the synecdoche of these youthful exploits. There is nothing, for example, that depicts him killing animals, a typical sign of a sociopath-in-training. This Hitler never strikes a serious blow against anyone, though he takes a few good beatings from a father for whom these increasingly tiresome episodes are rare revelations of his own advancing age.
If one is looking for the man in the boy here, it’s worth noting that the Hitler of this book– who may be the most detailed version yet presented in fiction– enters the world already as a young master of psychological warfare. Adolf Hitler exists at– or as– the intersection of modern propaganda techniques and ancient black magick mysticism, and that side is presented most vividly. The device Mailer uses to enter the minds of all his half-dozen principal characters, thereby exposing the business from all sides while also advancing the narrative to suit his needs, is to assign the narrative duties to a devil.
The narrator makes clear that he is not the devil but merely a powerful functionary. As such, the “boy Hitler” story becomes also a study of the otherwordly dynamic existing between minions of “The Maestro” (aka Lucifer) and “The Dummkopf” (aka God). The narrator’s sense of respectful skepticism is applied equally across the board, with the result that neither God nor the Devil comes off much better than any other flaccid authoritative construct. The conceit– which stood near the core of Hitler’s idea system and continues to animate his successors– is that he was chosen and directed by forces beyond this world to be what he was. When the narrator speaks of “dream-etchings” and impersonation of angels, he gets dangerously close to Moral Relevance, and that may well be the point. That he can express moments of compassion and even love for some people while espousing a fundamentally amoral attitude toward humanity brings narrator and subject chillingly close to each other’s souls.
It must be awfully hard to sell a story like this. If anyone other than a man of Mailer’s undisputed master status took up this project, the result might never see the artificial light of bookstore shelves. Even if the book were any good, the subject matter would dissuade major publishers, and the critical backlash would have an effect on sales not unlike a dilation and curettage. After all, we already know how the story ends: with six million dead Jews, 20 million Russians, millions more Japanese, American, British bodies, Germany burnt to ash and split up the middle, and the United States in control of the world. Hitler and his crew were shot, hanged, poisoned, and anything associated with them is strictly anathema in the civilized world.
A book that tries, in its own small way, to make sense of what Chomsky would later call “the most fantastic outburst of insanity in all of human history” would thus be unlikely to succeed absent real talent at the keys. Mailer has been hyped as the last active link to the glory days of American literature, the days when fiction mattered and the news was still reasonably trustworthy. The man has brutalized both men and women, been dragged out of media events, arrested more times than the average rapper; along the way he was able to write nearly 50 books, winning a National Book Award and two Pulitzers. Who better, then, to tackle such a subject?
The Adolf Hitler of Mailer’s book– usually referred to as “Adi”– gives little sign of what he would become. What little remains of the historical record is interpreted by the author to imply that Adi was the result of sex between his father, Alois Hitler (née Schicklgruber, 1837-1903), and his own daughter, Klara Poelzl. Where one looks for the violence, one finds only sexual debauchery, self-delusion and familial brainwashing, all aspects of the eventual Nazi military/mythological apparatus.
The book begins with Himmler feverishly seeking to prove the Fuhrer’s incestuary ties in order to confirm the “logic … that any Superman who embodies the Vision, is bound to come forth from a mating of exceptionally similar genetic ingredients. Only then will these separate embodiments of the Vision be ready to reinforce each other.” Imagine the advocacy of incest, which reputedly causes birth defects, by people who sent thousands of handicapped children into gas chambers. If one can accept such fundamental contradictions, world domination may seem “logical.”
Such paradox! One of the all-time prolific butchers of people was himself vegan. The auteurs of white supremacy, built around an abstract racial formulation, found their antecedents in the mountains of Tibet. Hitler, who openly sought to crush every religion his regime could not control, was actually hailed by some as a reincarnation of the Buddha. That would explain his diet, but not the mass-murder or the cocaine eyedrops.
One thing about which there is no dispute: Hitler loved his mother. Nevermind that she was, by all accounts, a decent woman who would have been outraged by what her son wrought in this world. Russian troops storming Hitler’s bunker found, among his possessions, the only known photograph of Klara Poelzl Hitler (1860-1907), whose premature death from breast cancer scarred him for life. (It’s almost perverse to imagine him wearing the pink ribbon or giving the Seig Heil with a LiveStrong bracelet wrapped around his iron fist.) The father, and his siblings, would prove more complex.
His father’s distaste for religion and outsized devotion to Franz Josef I (1830-1916), the second-to-last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was rooted in his career as an Austrian customs official; his retirement stripped him of much that was at the core of his being, such as the uniform. A later dalliance with bee-keeping, and the results (which results in a number of unsavory scenes involving the Hitler boys), comprise a big portion of the book’s text and dramatic tension. His father’s struggles to fit these bees (which have their own agenda) within the rigid but rapidly eroding worldview he’d developed in a century just then past serves as the central metaphor of the novel.
By 1906, Hitler was an orphan. After years spent failing to launch a serious art career– likely the true root of his anti-Semitism– he found his new family on the fields of World War I. It was there, and not in childhood, that most historians agree the the Hitler of history was born. He spent most of the war on the frontlines, as a courier, and by cheating death dozens of times, the notion of invulnerability (implanted, says Mailer, by the Devil at an early age) was reinforced. His father’s beloved monarchy was barely over before he saw himself as the obvious answer to the existential problems facing his country after a humiliating loss and crushing “settlement” at Versailles.
Like Cuba’s Castro, 30 years later, Hitler’s failed coup of 1923 only enhanced his fame. By the time he was released, Mein Kampf had been written and the die was cast for all that would come to pass. Allowing Hitler to leave prison alive, rich and famous, was a fatal mistake for the German elites, many of whom would be ruthlessly purged a decade later. It was a mistake Hitler himself would never have made, not even as a child. If nothing else is made clear from this book, that certainly is.