978-0-06-019419-2 / 9780060194192

Hitler's Niece: A Novel





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About the book:

Hitler's Niece offers the unforgettable spectacle of a tyrant in love: kneeling, shouting, groveling, sputtering with rage, posing naked for his lover with fists clenched and stomach sucked in--and that's leaving out the dog whip and jackboots. The unfortunate victim of these attentions is Angelika Raubal, daughter of Hitler's half-sister, and the only one in his circle who dares to stand up to him. "What a good game: Who's not frightened of Adolf Hitler?" Geli's friend Henny playfully asks. No one, as it turns out, but Geli--the one who should be most afraid.

Ron Hansen's tale begins with the most gemütlichkeit family gathering imaginable: a Sunday-afternoon party celebrating the infant Geli's baptism, with a pale, peevish, and hungry young Adolph as one of the guests. Geli's father Leo teases the would-be painter ("Rembrandt's only rival!"), the Monsignor needles him about his ancestry, and finally Hitler leaves in a huff. This is, truly, a new view of der führer--the 20th century's greatest villain as the embarrassing relative you don't want to talk to at reunions. By the time Geli has reached her teens, however, the tables have turned. Her father is dead, her mother is an impoverished widow, and Hitler has begun his meteoric rise to power. Geli herself is no intellectual, much less interested in politics, but she's a fun-loving, good-looking girl who captivates the Nazi inner circle even though she speaks her mind more often than she should. At first, her uncle seems like a savior, sending Geli off to university and showering gifts on his "Princess." As the infatuation deepens, however, Hitler's grip tightens, until what began with a family party ends 23 years later with a gunshot.

The basic outlines of this story are true--or at least rumored to be true--and although Geli's 1931 death was officially ruled a suicide, Hansen describes a quite plausible version of events. But the real enigma here is not who killed Geli Raubal; it is Hitler himself. How did he manage to seduce her? How did he manage to seduce an entire people? In a way, Ron Hansen's novels are all mysteries: solving the murder of a prodigal son, as in Atticus, or approaching the miracle of faith, as in Mariette in Ecstasy. He is preoccupied with the big questions, and in Hitler's Niece, that big question is none other than evil.

In this case, evil wears an ordinary human face. The novel's Hitler, much like the real one, is lazy, vain, jealous, and cowardly. In his relations with other people, "he shoots for love, but the arrow falls, and he only hits sentimentality," as his sister puts it. His looks are far from impressive; until Geli sees him speak in public, he seems "wary, officious, and ordinary, like a concierge in a hotel that had fallen on hard times." But what Hitler has is the most powerful seduction tool of all: the ability to inspire fear. By the time his niece has learned to fear rather than to pity him, it is too late--for her, and for the German people. In this heartbreaking portrait of aggression and complacency, Hansen has created a Hitler all the more frightening for how much he looks like us. --Mary Park

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