Ron Rosenbaum: Sex and Hitler & Norman Mailer

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ron Rosenbaum's most recent book is The Shakespeare Wars.]

Sex and Hitler. It's an all too irresistible combination. All too many attempts to explain Hitler have been haunted by the assumption that his heart of darkness resides in a dark secret about his sexuality. Whether it's a rumored deformation of his genitals, a putative degrading sexual preference, there must be some abnormality. It makes us nervous to think anyone in any way "normal" could become a Hitler. Norman Mailer's recent announcement that the next novel in his projected trilogy on the life of Hitler will focus on Hitler's tormented relationship with Geli Raubal, his half-niece, summons up some uneasy, unresolved questions about the relationship between sexual and political pathology.

Sexual explanations for Hitler have proliferated in a postwar, post-Freudian intellectual climate in which nearly all biographers seek to find some occluded sexual source, a secret key to their subjects' psyches in an idiosyncratic sexuality. Sexual pathology leads to political pathology in this simplistic equation. It's almost always reductive, almost always denies personal responsibility—in favor of uncontrollable compulsion—and it is almost never usefully illuminating.

It doesn't seem to matter that the evidence on the question is so fragmentary, rumor-ridden, uncorroborated, and conflicting. It doesn't seem to matter that the etiology of such putative aberrations involve contradictory, evidence-challenged theories of Hitler's childhood: among them, that he had a father who beat him (according to psychoanalyst Alice Miller); or rather that he developed "a malignant incestuous attachment" to his overprotective mother (according to Erich Fromm); that he witnessed a "primal scene" of parental sex, or had a missing testicle, or had contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute as a teenager, or was secretly gay.
Or maybe it was something else, something virtually unspeakable. Of all the sexual explanations of Hitler, none has the detail and drama of the one involving a young woman named Geli Raubal. She was 27 years old when she was found dead in a pool of blood in a bedroom in Adolf Hitler's apartment in September 1931 (on the eve of his first presidential campaign). Found dead with Hitler's gun by her side, a bullet through her lung, and unresolved questions about the nature of her relationship with her "Uncle Alf" in the air.

Later, Hitler explainers would posit that Raubal's death left Hitler so embittered it became a turning point in his political career. (The "No More Mr. Nice Guy" Hitler explanation). ...

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