:: Article

Virtue Writes White

By Max Dunbar.


Young Hitler: A Non-Fiction Novel, Claus Hant with James Trivers and Alan Roche, Quartet 2010

In his book The Strange World of Thomas Harris, David Sexton introduces the criminologist Elliott Leyton. Leyton objects to the erudite, sophisticated serial killer in Harris’s Lecter novels. Real serial murderers, he says, have none of Lecter’s charm or insights:

[U]sually without intellectual or physical attainments, they are often uneducated and virtually illiterate… in sum, they are dull, unimaginative, socially defective, vengeful, self-absorbed and self-pitying human beings. In fact, there is no connection whatever between what serial murderers are really like and the way they are portrayed in films and books.

Sexton compares this with an observation by the philosopher Simone Weil: 

Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is as dreary, boring and monotonous as evil. This is the truth about good and evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm.

That essay was published posthumously in 1944 at a time when Europe suffered under a movement of banal, inadequate men who carried out acts of appalling evil. Their ideology was fashioned from gutter prejudice, risible conspiracy theory and an ugly sense of entitlement and grievance. We remain fascinated with them nevertheless. Perhaps it’s the Christian idea that God rejoices more in the conversion of one sinner than the thousands of the just. It follows from this that you should try and tease the light out of torturers and fascists, rather than protect the innocent from their predations. Perhaps virtue, like happiness, writes white.

Young Hitler, subtitled ‘A Non-Fiction Novel’, follows a teenaged Adolf Hitler into his thirties. The story is told by a longsuffering but loyal confidante, actually several of Hitler’s friends rolled into one for the sake of consistent narration. The novel is clunky and badly written, but it brings the demagogue to life. As a young man Hitler displays the worst features of youth: passion without consistency, emotional manipulation and extremism, fantastical pretension. In the young these traits can be a prelude to artistic greatness. In Hitler they led to genocide.

It strikes me that Hitler did not outlive these warped characteristics of adolescence. In 1939, in front of a German diplomat, the middle-aged Führer screamed: ‘I shall build aeroplanes, build aeroplanes, aeroplanes, and I shall annihilate my enemies’ just as the twentysomething ‘Dolferl’ had raged at random cafe-goers at the top of his voice about the impurity of the Jews. Hitler’s ‘Table Talk’, the late-night sessions in which he would bore colleagues and intimates almost to the point of unconsciousness, also speaks of an adolescent mind curled in on itself. It’s only as adults that we discover compassion and respect and have the epiphany that the world does not revolve around us. Perhaps evil men are simply trapped in an earlier stage of being – the boys that never grew up.

While Young Hitler doesn’t have great prose, its authors have done so much research that everything is well realised: the Vienna opera scene, the trenches, the war-ruined cities. There is also insight into the mystical roots of Nazism. Hitler formed the NSDAP by co-opting the Thule Society, a spiritualist group that believed in a lost Teutonic civilisation whose master race had psychic abilities. It was not as marginal as this description makes it sound. Thule members included aristocrats, academics, businessmen, civil servants. Nineteenth-century racist Guido von List, who disseminated the swastika that Thule used as its symbol, also left them its ‘Ariosophy’ – a term that meant ‘Wisdom of the Aryans’. Norse and occult mythology plus spiritualism, theosophy and Christian antisemitism combined into an ideology of the absolute superiority of the white race.

A Thule lecturer tells a hall of upper-class spiritualists that ‘Science is a belief system. It is based on the assumption that there is nothing more real than the physical, material stuff of the universe. And so also our laws of physics are merely part of that belief system. But there are other, alternative belief systems…’ Later, a countess enthuses about the Redeemer and Messiah who will one day come to reawaken Aryan culture. Hitler was in the right place at the right time. Although many left the Thule Society after he took over, the ones who stayed became influential figures: to the point where Berlin had an actual government department set up to prove that the Aryans had been preserved in ice on the lost continent of Atlantis from the beginning of time. In their appendix on the Thule Society, the authors ask: ‘what would have become of Hitler if he had not come across this society? What would have become of his delusions if certain members of this group of influential people had not validated them?’

All of which means only that understanding the Nazis cannot be limited to contemporary banalities about the evils of atheism or Enlightenment-based civilisation. For all its diligence and the wealth of its source material, Young Hitler cannot penetrate the man either. Perhaps there is nothing to understand. Historian Anton Joachimsthaler noted the total concealment of Hitler’s personal life from the masses, and wondered if there was anything behind the curtain:

Yet again, the principle proved true that the less you know, the greater the curiosity and the more virulent the speculation. When the curtain rose slowly over the affairs of Adolf Hitler after the war, the disappointment was great. The spectacle failed to materialise. The secret was that there was no secret.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 29th, 2010.