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Portrait of the Monster as a Young Artist

In his dual biography of the two bloodiest butchers and worst moral monsters of the twentieth century, Stalin and Hitler (but is Mao not up there with them? and does Pol Pot not get a look-in?), Alan Bullock reprints side by side class photographs of young Iosif and young Adolf taken in 1889 and 1899 respectively, in other words, when each was about ten.* Peering at the two faces, one tries to descry some quiddity, some dark halo, some sly intimation of the horrors to come; but the photographs are old, definition is poor, one cannot be sure, and besides, a camera is not a divining tool.

The class photograph test—What will be the destinies of these children? Which of them will go the furthest?—has a particular pointedness in the cases of Stalin and Hitler. Is it possible that some of us are evil from the moment we leave our mother’s womb? If not, when does evil enter us, and how? Or, to put the question in a less metaphysical form, how is it that some of us never develop a restraining moral conscience? In regard to Stalin and Hitler, did the fault lie in the way they were reared? With educational practices in Georgia and Austria of the late nineteenth century? Or did the boys in fact develop a conscience, and then at some later time lose it: were Iosif and Adolf, at the time they were photographed, still normal, sweet lads, and did they turn into monsters later, as a consequence perhaps of the books they read, or the company they kept, or the pressures of their times? Or was there nothing special about them after all, early or late: did the script of history simply demand two butchers, a Butcher of Germany and a Butcher of Russia; and had Iosif Dzhugashvili and Adolf Hitler not been in the right place at the right time, would history have found another pair of actors, just as good (that is, just as bad), to play the roles?

These are not questions that biographers are happy to face. There are limits to what we will ever know for a fact about young Stalin and young Hitler, about their home environment, their education, their early friendships, early influences on them. The leap from the meager factual record to the inner life is a huge one, one that historians and biographers (the biographer conceived of as historian of the individual) are understandably reluctant to take. So if we want to know what went on in those two child souls, we will have to turn to the poet and the kind of truth the poet offers, which is not the same as the historian’s.

Which is where Norman Mailer enters the picture. Mailer has never regarded poetic truth as truth of an inferior variety. From An American Dream and Advertisements for Myself through The Armies of the Night and Why Are We in Vietnam? through The Executioner’s Song and Marilyn he has felt free to follow the spirit and the methods of fictional inquiry to gain access to the truth of our times, in an enterprise that may be riskier than the historian’s but offers richer rewards. The subject of his new book is Hitler. Hitler may belong to the past, but the past he belongs to is still alive or at least undead. In The Castle in the Forest Mailer has written the story of the young Hitler, and specifically the story of how young Hitler came to be possessed by evil forces.

The genealogical descent of Adolf Hitler is tangled and, by Nuremberg standards, not entirely kosher. His father, Alois, was the illegitimate son of a woman named Maria Anna Schicklgruber. The most likely candidate for paternity, Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, was also the grandfather, through another liaison, of Klara Pölzl, Alois’s niece and third wife, mother of Adolf. Alois Schicklgruber legitimized himself as Alois Hitler (his choice of spelling) at the age of forty, some years before he married the much younger Klara. The rumor never entirely died down, however, that Alois’s real father—and therefore Adolf’s grandfather—was a Jew named Frankenberger. There were even dark hints that Klara was Alois’s natural daughter.

Once he entered political life in the 1920s, Adolf Hitler did everything he could to hide and even falsify his genealogy. This may or may not have been because he believed he had a Jewish forebear. In the early 1930s, opposition newspapers tried to discredit the anti-Semite Hitler by pointing to a Jew in his family closet; their efforts came to an abrupt end when the Nazis took power.

Through his own efforts, Alois Hitler rose from the peasantry to the middle ranks of the Austrian customs service. With Klara he had three children; he also brought into the household two children from a previous marriage. One of these children, Alois Junior, ran away from home to lead a roaming, partly criminal (also bigamous) life. Alois Junior’s son William Patrick Hitler (by an Irish mother) tried ineffectually to blackmail the Führer over family secrets before emigrating in 1939 to the United States, where, after a spell on the lecture circuit as an expert on his uncle, he joined the Navy.

In Mein Kampf (My Struggle), the book he wrote while in jail in 1924, Hitler gives a highly sanitized version of his origins. Nothing about incest, nothing about illegitimacy, certainly nothing about Jewish forebears, nothing even about siblings. Instead we are presented with a story of a bright little boy who resists a domineering (yet beloved) father who wants him to follow in his footsteps in the civil service. Determined to become an artist, the boy deliberately fails his school examinations, thus thwarting his father’s plans. At this point the father providentially dies, and the boy, with the backing of his even more beloved mother, is freed to follow his destiny.

The story about deliberately doing badly at school is a patent rationalization. Adolf was a bright boy but not, as he liked to think, a genius. Convinced that success was his due simply because of who he was, he disdained study. Once he moved from junior school to Realschule, technical high school, he fell further and further behind the class and was eventually asked to leave.

The world would have been a happier place if Alois Senior had had his way and Adolf had become a pen-pusher in the obscurer reaches of the Austrian bureaucracy, but that was not to be. Alois certainly chastised his son, as most fathers did in those days, and much has been made of those beatings by biographers. In the case of Stalin, beatings at the hand of his father, an illiterate cobbler, gave rise to a seething vengefulness for which the Russian people eventually had to pay. In Hitler’s case, if one accepts Erik Erikson’s analysis, beatings and other displays of paternal power engendered in the boy a determination not to become a paterfamilias himself, but to assume instead in the imagination of the German people the identity of the implacably rebellious son, focus of the admiration of millions of other sons and daughters with the memory of past humiliations burning in their breast. In either case, the lesson seems to be that corporal punishment is a bad idea—that a culture in which young male pride is forcefully humiliated risks provoking the return of the repressed, magnified a thousandfold.

All of the strife between Alois Senior and Adolf is present in Mailer’s novel, though for a change seen as much from the father’s side as from the son’s. The much-maligned domestic tyrant Alois comes across sympathetically as a canny customs officer, a husband proud of his virility despite advancing years, a devoted but luckless amateur beekeeper, a man of little school-learning anxiously climbing the social ladder. The scenes in which Alois struggles not to make a fool of himself during gatherings with fellow small-town notables are worthy of the Flaubert of Bouvard and Pécuchet.

Mailer’s Adolf is, by contrast, an unappealing, whining, manipulative child riven with incestuous desires and Oedipal jealousies and deeply unforgiving. There is a bad smell about him that he cannot get rid of; he also has a habit of voiding his bowels when he is frightened. His most shocking act is deliberately to infect his attractive, much-loved younger brother Edmund with measles:

Why are you kissing me?” asked Edmund.

Because I love you.”

…[He] kissed Edmund repeatedly, a boy’s kiss full of slobbering, and Edmund kissed him back. He was so happy that Adi [Adolf] did love him after all.

Edmund dies, according to plan; Adolf is left in triumphant possession of the nest.

When young Adolf said he wanted to be an artist, it was not because he had an all-devouring love of art but because he wanted to be acknowledged as a genius, and becoming a great artist seemed to him the quickest way for an obscure youth with little money and no connections to get that acknowledgment. By the time he entered politics in the 1920s, he had dropped his artistic pretensions and found himself a more congenial role model. Frederick II of Prussia, Frederick the Great, had become his idol: in the last months of the war, besieged in his bunker in Berlin, he would for diversion listen to recitals from the biography of Frederick by Thomas Carlyle, anti-democrat, Germanophile, propagandist in chief for the great man theory of history.

Hitler was obsessed with his place in history, that is to say, with the question of how his actions in the present would be seen from the future. “For me there are two possibilities,” he told Albert Speer: “to succeed with my plans entirely, or to fail. If I succeed, I will be one of the greatest men in history—if I fail, I will be condemned, rejected, and damned.”

In the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky there are two drifters on the fringes of Russian society, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Stavrogin in The Possessed, who think they can take a shortcut to great man status by divorcing goodness from greatness and committing what they fancy to be great crimes: hatcheting old women to death, for example, or violating children.

The confluence of the notion of the genius—the human being of near-divine creative power, far in advance of the herd—with the notion of the great man, the man who both exemplifies and brings to their highest pitch the qualities of the age, who writes history rather than being written by it, contaminated further with the notion of the great criminal, the rebel whose Luciferian acts challenge the norms of society, had a powerful formative effect on the character of Hitler. There is a hint in Mein Kampf that he was first exposed to great man theory by a history teacher at school. He confirmed himself as a genius by the time he was fifteen. As for great crimes (for which, as Stavrogin recognizes, little-seeming crimes qualify as long as they are squalid, mean-minded, perverse, and vile enough), life in the Hitler household, at least in Mailer’s version of it, provided sufficient opportunity for young Adolf to practice these.

  1. *

    Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (HarperCollins, 1991), p. 27.

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