Saturday, 26 June 2010

HITLER AND GELI: KRIS RUSCH AND HITLER'S ANGEL

Adolf Hitler was unlucky in love. But not half as unlucky as his women. Maria Reiter, just 16 when Hitler first approached her, tried to hang herself, but was saved by her brother. The actress Renate Mueller jumped (or was thrown) from the window of a sanitarium. Eva Braun tried to kill herself in 1932, before she and Adolph celebrated their 1945 marriage with a joint suicide the next day. And, in 1931, Hitler's niece, Angelika 'Geli' Raubal, daughter of his half-sister, was found dead from a gunshot wound in his Munich apartment. That death too was ruled a suicide.

The question of whether it was suicide or murder, and if the latter who committed the crime, is at the core of Kris Rusch's Hitler's Angel, originally published in the US in 1998, and now reprinted here by Max Crime, part of that list's adventurous mix of new work and reprints of lesser-known titles. This may be the best so far, a serious novel structured around the reminiscence of a long-since retired Munich detective, Fritz Stecher, famed for solving one notorious murder, but trapped in the politics surrounding Geli's death.

This was the time when the Nazi party was starting to make its impact on German politics, when the country was polarising between left and right, and brown shirts fought street battles with communists, and left a trail of enemies dead. Rusch does a good job of catching the chaotic and uncertain political atmosphere, if only second hand, as the novel is structured as Stecher's telling his tale to a young American student, researching his earlier success as a detective, and set against the 1972 Munich Olympic games. That setting ought to serve to remind us only 36 years had passed since the Berlin games, only 27 since the end of the war, yet it was a whole new world opening up. To be honest, Rusch doesn't make enough of this, mostly because the character of Annie, the student, is allowed to develop only in reaction to Fritz, and serve as his springboard.

Part of that relates to her resemblance to Fritz's wife, lost to the depravations of Germany in the years immediately after World War I, and here, subtly, is the strongest contrast of all in the book, between Fritz's controlled grief and the furious bitterness of the NSDAP, a bitterness which was shared widely enough in Germany to help vault them into power. This is Fritz's internal story: Rusch might have wrung more atmosphere out of Munich in both 1931 and 1972, but basically this is a book set in two places; Fritz's dingy apartment in the latter year, and Hitler's luxurious flat in 1931.

Geli's death was ruled a suicide without an autopsy being performed. Hitler was well alibied, but rumours abounded. His relationship with Geli had already been the object of salacious speculation in the anti-Nazi press, and there was no shortage of enemies, even within the party itself, who would have an interest in framing Hitler, or simple creating a scandal around him. Again, one might have liked to see more made of some of the potential suspects, Otto Strasser and the like, but the book's focus, via Fritz, is obviously on Herr Hitler himself.

Ron Rosenbaum once called this moment 'Hitler's Chappaquidick', while reviewing Norman Mailer's The Castle In The Forest. Rusch credits Rosenbaum's Vanity Fair article with triggering her interest in the case; given the timeline it's not unreasonable to think it had a similar effect on Ron Hansen, whose novel Hitler's Niece appeared the year after Rusch's. He also may be the man to blame for Mailer's never getting around to the promised continuation of his massive CIA novel, Harlot's Ghost; Mailer apparently got distracted while reading Rosenbaum's exceptional book Explaining Hitler, from which the Vanity Fair article was extracted. The book is an exegesis of studies of the 20th century's icon of evil. Rosenbaum, a natural skeptic, found most of them reductionist, that is, attempting to somehow get to the root of Hitler's evil, while leaving out the wider political, cultural, or social factors behind the Nazis. So it was with the Geli case. Attesting that he wanted to find Hitler guilty of the crime, he found himself unable to prove any such thing. In fact, although alibis are alibis, he performed a ruthless dissection of Ronald Heyman, who had previously made the strongest case for Hitler as Geli's killer. But the story goes deeper than that, because the nature of Hitler's alleged perversions provides us with a motive, not only for him as killer, but for his supposed lovers as potential suicides, and, of course, for the deaths of millions in Europe.

This would appeal to Mailer, of course, who believed firmly in the power of male sexuality. In Oswald's Tale he had theorized that, had Marina Oswald actually put out for Lee on the night of October 21, 1963, JFK might not have been shot. Rosenbaum dismisses the idea that such ideas might be meaningful, but Rusch has Fritz merely drop them in to suggest why Geli might have been dissatisfied, why she and Hitler might have fought, and why she might have died. But again, this sexual and psychological deep focus underestimates Hitler, as surely as Hindenburg and Von Papen and so many others did on his rise to power and to domination of Europe.

The real suspense in Rusch's book comes as she builds up to two revelations, the big one as Fritz gets closer and closer to Hitler himself, and the other as we learn about Fritz's own life. In this sense we are like Anna, forced to move at Fritz's pace and accept his version, but perhaps not conclude that, even were Hitler the killer, and even had he been found guilty, that Germany would have moved in a different direction. That is an even more interesting piece of speculation.

Rusch has written novels under six different names, some just variations of her own name, but as far as I can see this is the only one published as Kris Rusch. It's a good enough book to deserve that special status, and it's a boon that Max Crime have brought it back into print.

NOTE: This review will appear also at Crime Time, www.crimetime.co.uk

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