It sometimes happens that a gifted novelist who becomes emotionally committed to a work in progress fails to notice some fundamental flaw. "Hitler's Niece," by Ron Hansen, has all the markings of one of those sad cases. Hansen's novel "Atticus," a retelling of the prodigal son story, was one of the most beautiful books of this decade. But he has followed it up with a distinctly uninspired rendering of Adolf Hitler's weird and ominous relationship with his young niece Geli.
The facts are these: Geli was about 16 when her mother, Hitler's half-sister Angela Raubel, became Hitler's housekeeper. Hitler paid for Geli's education, took her on vacations and to the opera and soon, apparently, fell in love with her. He moved her into his own apartment and refused to be separated from her; their relationship probably became sexual. In 1931, at 23, Geli allegedly killed herself with Hitler's gun in their Munich apartment.
You can see what a brilliant opportunity this provocative material presents: to portray Hitler from the perspective of an apolitical teenager, with a teenager's lack of awe for her elders; to solve the mystery of Geli's death; to give life and depth to a girl about whom history tells us almost nothing. Hansen makes Geli clever and moderately talented. She is repelled by the growing cult around her uncle; at the same time, she is seduced by his ardor and as susceptible to bribery (fine clothes, expensive lessons, elegant vacations) as any teenager might be. Within a few years she is in way over her head. She finds herself totally isolated within Hitler's small cadre of fanatics and forced into perverse sex. ("The things he makes me do!" she wails to her mother, who responds by putting her hands over her ears.) She cannot free herself.
It's a great story, but it presents several intrinsic problems. For one, the personalities of Hitler and his coterie are so well-known by now that it's unlikely a teenage girl's perceptions, even intimate ones, could add much. We see Hitler early on, bashful and flirtatious with Geli. We hear Goebbels and Goering and Himmler confess to Geli their love for the F|hrer, their fawning eagerness to obey. We observe that Eva Braun is not very bright. But we knew all this.
Second, Hansen is so careful to stick with the facts (as he stresses in an afterword) that Geli remains, to the end, less than three-dimensional. Finally, the novel climaxes with a murder instead of a suicide, and the facts do support such a possibility. But this small distinction is a major reason the novel doesn't work. If Geli killed herself, she was driven to the act by Hitler's entrapment and perversions. If her uncle murdered her, does that make her more of a victim? Is Hitler more evil than we thought? Hardly.
Years ago, Thomas Keneally wrote a novel based on another minor figure in the history of the Third Reich. In "Schindler's List" Keneally used the techniques of fiction not to reinterpret the facts but to pose complex and profound questions: At what point do good deeds outweigh misdeeds? Can people stumble into heroism the way they sometimes descend into evil, with a misstep or two, a failure to consider the implications, a momentum that gathers regardless of their intent?
I suspect that Hansen, a writer who takes risks, intended something equally ambitious with "Hitler's Niece." Unhappily, the result is strangely bereft of insight or effect. Geli's tragic fate was to become enmeshed in a process she could not control. Hansen's creative process seems to have undergone a similar fate.