Sunday, 18 September 2011

Hitler: on mature reflection, not a bundle of laughs

I often think about how it might have been to get to know some of the larger-than-life figures from history.

There are some I would really like to have met. I can’t help feeling that an evening with Abraham Lincoln would have been as enjoyable as it would have been memorable – that extraordinary intellect, the subtlety of his thought, all laced with acute wit. He may have pushed the powers of his office to the limits of the US Constitution – some would say rather beyond them, for instance when he suspended habeas corpus – but I feel no sense that he was serving some kind of hidden agenda of self-aggrandisement, but that he really was striving for his openly proclaimed aims: preserving the Union and later on, freeing the slaves.

But what about some of the monsters? What about Hitler, say? I’ve always felt that it would be galling to discover that behind the vile public persona there lurked a man of charm and kindness displayed only to his personal entourage. So it was a relief to discover that, unlike Lincoln, he would probably not have been congenial company over a light-hearted dinner.

Another of the figures who did so much to make Europe in the twentieth century the ‘dark continent’, as the historian Mark Mazower called it in an outstanding study, was Stalin. One of his more inspired statements was ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’. So we can probably learn as much or more about Hitler’s personality from the death of a single woman than from his attempted extermination of 12 million Jews.

The woman in question was Angelika ‘Geli’ Raubal. She was Hitler’s half niece. Her mother became his housekeeper at the end of the 1920s and she moved into Hitler's house. For two years, Hitler kept her in a state of virtual captivity, wanting her always accompanied by one of his acolytes if she was out and, according to some claims, keeping her under lock and key when she was indoors while he was away. Finally, on 19 September 1931, her body was found dead in her room, which was locked from the inside; she had been shot with Hitler’s personal pistol – the one that nearly 14 years later he would turn on himself.

Geli was 18 when she died.

The odd thing was that Hitler never left his pistol at home. All the staff had been given the previous evening off, except for one who was deaf. There was, of course, no autopsy and no proper investigation. There’s also a rumour that she had somehow contrived to have an affair – or a brief fling, which seems more plausible in the circumstances – with one of Hitler’s rivals in the Nazi leadership, Gregor Strasser, and had told him that Hitler had some odd sexual habits and problems of impotence.

Strasser himself was murdered in 1934 in the wake of the Night of the Long Knives that wiped out so many of Hitler’s rivals.

The priest who officiated at Geli’s funeral later told a French newspaper that he had given her a Catholic funeral, from which he suggested it was easy to draw a conclusion concerning the likelihood that she had committed suicide. But that seems of academic interest only: whether she was murdered or was driven to suicide, her death does rather suggest that Hitler’s persona was about as endearing in private as it was in public. Which I suppose is comforting in its way: when I first learned of Geli’s story it shocked me but confirmed the impression I had received from photos of him in a supposedly relaxed setting: uniformed as ever, unbending, ungracious, unappealing.  

So, while I think it would have been fun to spend a few hours in Abe’s company, when it comes to Adolf, I think I’d prefer to say ‘nein, danke’.

Simpering instead of smiling, and an uptight uniform. Where's the appeal?

PS. The rudimentary examination of Geli’s body on 19 September 1931 suggested she had died the day before, which makes it the eightieth anniversary of her death as I write these words. A strange coincidence: I had no intention of marking the occasion any more than anyone else will – I just happened to think of all this because I’m beginning to read one of Ian Kershaw’s books on the Nazi leader – if you’re interested in the subject and don’t know his work, I strongly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Maggie Thatcher was supposed to be kind to secretaries and office workers- unlike Gordon!


David Beeson said...

Good point - on occasions it's the nice ones who are nasty, or vice versa