Hitler at Heathrow

E.S. Shaffer

  • The Memoirs of Bridget Hitler edited by Michael Unger
    Duckworth, 192 pp, £4.95, March 1979, ISBN 0 7156 1356 1
  • The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. by George Steiner
    Granta, 66 pp, £1.50
  • Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 174 pp, £6.95, November 1978, ISBN 0 7156 1323 5

As the unwary traveller hurries into Heathrow’s international bookstall hoping to light on a good read for the plane, his eye is assaulted by a thwacking array of swastikas on black, gold and blood-red fields. Approaching them at random but with a certain circumspection, he finds, for example, Philippe van Rindt’s The Trial of Adolf Hitler, in which it is revealed that Hitler survived his attempts at suicide in the bunker; The Murder of Rudolf Hess, by Hess’s Spandau doctor, demonstrating that the prisoner who the other day celebrated his 85th birthday is not Hess at all, but a small Nazi only too glad to avoid vengeance from his fellows by impersonating the great in perpetual concealment; James Pool and Suzanne Pool’s Who financed Hitler?, which opens with a luxurious gathering of bankers and party ‘higher-ups’ with their sleek women, just a shade less exotic than the gathering in a Japanese restaurant of Spanish-speaking kameraden that begins The Boys from Brazil. He finds Isser Harel’s deadpan account of the tracking and capture of Eichmann in The House on Garibaldi Street; Richard Deacon, The Israeli Secret Service, which tells the story, among others, of Wolfgang Lotz, the Israeli spy with unassailably Aryan looks who infiltrated Egyptian government circles to get plans for rocket sites and the names of German technicians: a story familiar from The Odessa File, where the private dick with the black and yellow-striped Mercedes is obliged to display his uncircumcised penis to the Odessa chief as bona fides.

Here, too, is The Murderers Among Us, Simon Wiesenthal’s account of the escaped Nazis whom he has been tracing for so long from the Vienna Documentation Centre, together with a child’s biography of that world-famous, heroic and kindly old Jewish detective with a penchant for postage stamps. Here, again, impeccably jacketed in black with red swastika’d armband on white ground, is Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich: The Definitive Account of Nazi Germany by Hitler’s Armaments Minister. After a few minutes spent considering this Berlin Wall of travellers’ dulce et utile, one would hardly be surprised to find a comic book of the filmscript of Syberberg’s Hitler, or a bag of (used) truncheons for sale.

Once ensconced in the plane, a smiling hostess hands one a copy of Esquire for April featuring ‘The Hitler Formula: Out of the Ashes of World War Two and onto the Best-Seller List in 14 Easy Steps’, which in a two-page spread sums up the rules of the genre. Step One: arrange any six of the elements below in a six-inch-by-nine-inch space and red, black and white decor: Nazi flag, eagle, swastika, iron cross, whip, hypodermic etc. Step Two: to obtain title, take one word from each of three columns: Column A – The; Colume B – Hitler, Jackboot, Führer, Gestapo etc; Column C – Testament, Conspiracy, Manifesto, Gambit, Mission, Mandate etc. Other useful suggestions include: ‘Insert actual Nazis to lend authenticity. Hot Nazis: Hitler, Bormann. Avoid Albert Speer, who is rehabilitated, and Rudolf Hess, who is funny.’ ‘Now check plot to make sure it starts reader thinking to himself: Nazi nightmare not over after all! Evil fiends not dead after 35 years but scheming to rise again! Brrr!’ ‘Change story setting every seven pages to a new location, making sure to include some or all of the following: Alpine resort, luxury hotel, KGB headquarters, South America, Paris/London, East Berlin.’ ‘Be sure there’s a World War Two flashback, preferably to a camp.’ In the final scene: ‘Overlook the ruins of something,’ possibly backlit by flames.

One of the most painful aspects of the history of this century is that a man like Adolf Hitler should have been so vital to its forging. His most authoritative German biographer, Joachim Fest, discussing ‘Hitler and Historical Greatness’, while acknowledging with Hegel that world history is not played out on ‘the true site of morality’, and with Burkhardt that we grant ‘a strange exemption from the ordinary moral code to great individuals’, yet holds that the absolute crime of mass extermination planned and committed by Hitler is ‘of an utterly different nature, overstepping the bounds of the moral context recognised by Hegel and Burkhardt’. Moreover, if the phenomenon of the great man is very rarely moral in nature, but rather aesthetic, Hitler’s vulgarity is so fundamental as to disqualify him.

It is characteristic of Hitler that even after his death an undergrowth of sensational subliterary writing and media spectaculars should spring up around him. Written by and about both those who embraced and thought to profit by him and those who were his victims, this writing ranges from ‘holocaust’ literature, concentration-camp memoirs (genuine, ghost-written, or spatchcocked together from a variety of sources), autobiographies of his henchmen and his kitchenmaids, war-, spy- and detective-thrillers of the pulpiest kind, to atrocity porn (both soft and hard-core). In all of them, whatever their purported allegiances, historical truth sinks almost without trace: it is labour of the most excruciating kind to attempt to sift fact from fiction.

Hardly less could be expected of the man who led the way with the barefaced historical and domestic lies of Mein Kampf, whose ‘intellectual sources’ were the scurrilous propaganda pamphlets peddling Social Darwinist racialism and imperialism to the doss-houses of Vienna, who, as J.P. Stern has pointed out, appears never to have read a line of the Nietzsche he pretended to quote, who as Reich Chancellor read and reread the adventure stories of Karl May which had occupied his boyhood, who locked himself into his nightly showings of Hollywood films while Germany burned. The would-be creator and composer of Zukunftsmusik, Wagnerian music of the future, was a travesty of the romantic artist, an aesthetic forger. As he himself said, he picked up his tactics and his aims ‘from all the bushes alongside the road of life’.

If Hitler is not in a class with Napoleon (but rather with Napoleon III, whose advent caused Victor Hugo’s Napoleon in the poem ‘L’Expiation’ to turn in his grave and cry out that his punishment had come not at Waterloo nor at St Helena but only now, with this travesty of his return), if no symphony such as Beethoven’s Ninth, no novel such as Le Rouge et le Noir or War and Peace, can arise in his wake, this is not to deny that works of merit have worked their way gradually through the morass of his pathological deeds and the national shame of his rule. Indeed, it is one of the most affecting aspects of the post-war reconstruction that German writers have attempted to come to terms with the unspeakable, and tittle by little begun to salvage the honour of a nation whose intellectual and cultural achievements could scarcely be doubted, yet seemed irretrievably tainted, even in a long retrospect, by the monstrous charade in which Hitler had usurped the right to embody them. Much of the best of this has distanced Hitler himself and used the events of the time as allegories of longer-standing human evil. The unvarnished records of the Auschwitz trials have yielded a work of some stature in Peter Weiss’s The Investigation, and even the sub-genre of the memoirs of Hitler’s dog has achieved ironic elevation in Grass’s Hundejahre. Closer to home, Michael Hamburger has devoted himself to bringing German poetry before us and to maintaining its unity over time, space and civil warfare.

Where, we must ask ourselves, do the books under review belong in the bushes that have sprung up along Hitler’s posthumous path? The Memoirs of Bridget Hitler tells the story of a set of Hitler’s obscure relatives, his half-brother Alois’s Irish wife Bridget and their son William Patrick Hitler, who for a time lived in Liverpool. The book is ‘edited’ and introduced by Michael Unger of the Liverpool Daily Post, who describes the discovery of the heavily ghost-written manuscript in New York Public Library. This is a sub-genre of considerable potential power and importance, simply because Hitler attempted to blot out all public knowledge of his family history and connections. His fears and obsessive anxieties clustered round the fact that his own origins were so uncertain. Despite his attempts to unearth and destroy the records, it is now clear that Hitler never knew who his own grandfather was, and that that grandfather was either the son of a housemaid and her Jewish employer, or was a party to an incestuous marriage with his own niece, for which the Church’s permission had to be obtained: in either case, he was illegitimate. By Hitler’s own criteria, he must account himself a ‘degenerate.’

Although these relatives did exist (Alois went back and survived the war as a Berlin restaurant-keeper, Bridget and her son ended up in America), the memoirs are ‘hyped up’ to cast sensational light on some obscure patches in Hitler’s career: in particular, the year between his departure from Vienna and his reappearance in Munich, where he was arrested for draft evasion, having falsely registered as ‘stateless’, after failing to register in Austria. In 1914 he was declared unfit for service. Later, in Mein Kampf, he falsified the date of his departure from Vienna by a year. The Memoirs fill in the gap with a purported visit to Liverpool to scrounge on his relatives. They also display Hitler as having personally murdered his beloved niece Geli Raubal, and here they must certainly be wholly rejected, though he undoubtedly played an unsavoury role in the events leading up to her death. Beryl Bainbridge, in her novel Young Adolf, adopts only the relatively plausible, if probably apocryphal, tale of Hitler’s visit to Liverpool, and uses it to place Hitler with barbed accuracy in the petit bourgeois milieu to which he belonged and which is her special province as a novelist.

George Steiner, in his short novel or novella (cut for publication in the Cambridge magazine Granta), returns us to the black-red-white formulaic fiction, in which the aged Hitler is tracked down in the swamps of South America by an Israeli search party whipped on by the obsessed voice of ‘Lieber’, alias Wiesenthal, until, one of their number dead, and fearing they will not be able to carry out their mission, they put Hitler on trial, and after permitting him a final speech on his own behalf, are about to pronounce sentence, when the first helicopter begins to descend. In the original version, published as an entire issue of the Kenyon Review, there are interludes in England, Germany, France, the US and Russia, exploring the reactions of the various nations to the news of Hitler’s return. In the cut version, only an American news conference and a highly-truncated two-page version of the French scene remain, playing hob with the proportions and the theme of the novel, and stressing the two set-piece monologues, one by Lieber-Wiesenthal, one by Hitler.

George Steiner is not a newcomer to the writing of fiction: his earlier collection of novellas, Anno Domini (Faber, 1964), is happily about to be reissued in the States. They, too, were about the continuation of war-time experiences into peacetime; at their best, they are inhabited by a precisely controlled scream of pain. It is only gradually that one realises that ‘The Portage’ is not another piece of straight or even genre fiction, but an attempt to use these appalling stereotypes to protest against the very genre itself. Steiner is making an impassioned plea to let Hitler and all the boys from Brazil die; at last to forget, not to remember; to let the swamp claim its own. The novel is a polemic, a work of criticism cast in a fictional mode; as such it gathers up in itself the holocaustal rhetoric, the pathos of vengeance, the special meretriciousness of the Hitlerian grandiose, in order to purge them.

‘The Portage’ is about the cost of remembering, and it is a literary critic’s work: that is, the cost is not only a human and personal one, but a literary one. It is about the sheer difficulty of attending to the fine threads of literary analysis in a sub-literary quagmire. Steiner calls upon the reader to attend to the fact that this Hitler is 90 years old, not in order to render his resurrection more fabulous, but to signal that he should remain in his grave: the throne-chair built for him is not a way of aggrandising him, but of pointing up the dangers of resuscitating him. Only if one has experience of the sub-genre can one see how Steiner is using it as a vehicle for a dissent from it. Anyone who has that experience knows how difficult it is, once one has entered the world of such a novel, to see, hear or feel clearly enough to retain literary critical habits at all. Can anyone, reading at this level, cultivate fine discriminations? That is the question Steiner poses: do we not with the best of intentions become complicit with the material and the mode? It is not any longer a question of whether we can cope with the reality, somehow come to terms with the facts of what happened: it is a question of whether we can cope with the ‘literary’ terms in which the material has now been cast and incorporated.

This is, of course, a second-order question: but it signals of itself that the first raw phase is over, that this material now exists not as unexpurgated event, nor as archive and dossier, but as particularly cheap and vile pulp fiction. Steiner challenges the literary sensibility, in which he has with good reason little confidence (as he has often and powerfully made clear), to cope with the literary consequences – not the indirections and subtleties of the best attempts to record the fine tremors from the central event (as in Agnon’s superb novel A Guest for the Night), but the vast commerce in trash history, the forgery of ‘documentation’ and ‘documentary’. Recently, he has written ‘on difficulty’, recording his sense of the decline, with the increased external stridency of confession, of the inner voice: in the past, he writes, ‘inner consciousness and speech are made dense with, are charged by, the specific imprint of literacy on remembrance (and it is on this referential literacy, as it reaches to the very roots of the subconscious, that so much of Freudian decoding relies).’ Foucault, too, has recently written of the externalised confession as a technique of manipulation in the modern ‘disciplinary society’.

The difficulty Steiner points to is a real one, and it cannot be set aside by an angry reminder of the actual events and a demand that they should be remembered in perpetuity. In Lieber’s monologue, Simon Wiesenthal’s services to the world and to his people are not questioned: only the personal cost of incessant public memorial is mourned. The climax of ‘The Portage’ is the threatened convergence of the commercial media on the story and the domination by Hitler of the world’s communication channels; not ‘the hundred days of A.H.’, but the impending seizure and paroxysm of the media during his mock trial, are the subject. Steiner, like Syberberg, is writing an essay about the quality of the media, including the literary media, and this is in the best traditions of German Kulturkritik, If Syberberg sometimes revels in media atrocity, in the capacity of the cinema to render the meretricious ‘arty’, and Steiner in the incapacity of the literary mind to cope with ‘the criticism of life’, a critique of this kind in the hands of Adorno or Szondi could rise to a subtle and brilliant analysis of the distortion of poetic interpretation itself by political and cultural biases, as in the German handling of Hölderlin from Heidegger to Beissner, the editor of the Stuttgart edition of Hölderlin’s poetry, it is scarcely, then, to the luxury of sweet nepenthe that Steiner summons us, but to the difficult awareness of how compromised even the inner voices of memory are.

Hannah Arendt spoke of the ‘banality’ of evil; certainly its most everyday, common-or-garden aspect is the effacement of every kind of confidence in fact, the distortion not only of public but of private language. Thus Steiner’s Hitler defends himself with the arguments of Steiner’s Hannah Arendt lecture: ‘Gentlemen of the tribunal. I took my arguments from you.’ Steiner deliberately implicates himself, in order to press home his argument about difficulty: not only may the inner voice itself be that of the devil (an old puritan point, after all), but the voice of ‘referential literacy’, the voice that naturally speaks in quotations from world literature, may also be the voice of bad faith.

Steiner’s work of criticism cast in a fictional form is only one of a number of recent works by notable critics that occupy a place somewhere along the spectrum between philosophic criticism and literary creation: one thinks of Derrida’s Glas, Bloom’s Lucifer, Lindenberger’s Saul’s Fall, all works marked by an aspiration to show (in Geoffrey Hart-man’s hospitable phrase) that criticism itself is the new literature.

Beryl Bainbridge is a novelist who writes in a central English tradition of moral sanity and high social comedy. Bridget Hitler and her ghostwriter have a nice indirect way of presenting young Adolf. Bridget, of course, sees him simply as her husband’s younger brother, and little by little, pieces together his traits by comparing him with the irascible, changeable and dogmatic man she married, with his fantastic dreams of glory as restaurateur, entrepreneur and bookie. Of course, that’s what husbands are like; and it’s only natural young Adolf should resemble him, though he is more of a drifter and a sponger. One wonders at first why Miss Bainbridge has also attempted to render Adolf’s own dreams and fantasies directly. Comically macabre and apt as some of these are – his visionary memory of the communal shower room at the doss-house, for example – one is reminded that it is an elementary lesson of the craft, at least since the Napoleon of La Chartreuse de parme, never to try to paint a ‘great man’ from within or even at close quarters. Suddenly it dawns: the point is just that – Adolf Hitler is not a great man. After that, the novel is plain and hilarious sailing, provoking the sort of mirth one experiences after a narrow escape. The world regains its senses. All the pompous kitsch falls away. That Adolf Hitler should turn out to be a fictional character is as much a tour de force as when, in At Swim Two Birds, the characters plan their revenge on the absent author and then carry it out. Even Hitler’s shade might be proud to have graduated from being an artist so very manqué to being a real live fictional character. The novelist’s tour de force recovers a piece of the truth, for Hitler’s opponents, of whatever political persuasion, saw him as a ‘fictitious character’: his personality seemed so disintegrated, as if it had evaporated into unreality.

As Hitler once said, ‘you would hardly believe what power a small mind acquires over the people around him when he is able to show himself in such imposing circumstances. Such rooms, with a great historical past, raise even a petty successor to historical rank.’ Hitler was referring to his successors in the palace he and Speer planned to build for him, 22 million square feet right in the centre of Berlin, outstripping the 11 million square feet of Nero’s legendary palace, the Golden House, and connected by a series of covered galleries to the great dome housing the ‘St Peter’s’ of the swastika. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the ‘aestheticising of politics’ was one of the hallmarks of Fascism, the creation of exhibition value for the masses. ‘History’ is ornamental and inflates nicely to fill the Halls of Fame that third-rate men erect for themselves on foundations as unsteady as blood.