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At 84, Norman Mailer is frail but feisty. In his new novel, The Castle in the Forest, the literary pugilist shadowboxes with Adolf Hitler, probing the incestuous family history and twisted childhood of the future Führer.

Mailer’s ability to bob and weave while challenging convention is legendary. In 1960, at a party to launch his candidacy for mayor of New York, Mailer stabbed his then-wife Adele twice with a penknife because she allegedly said he wasn’t as good a writer as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. An American Dream, the autobiographical novel he wrote afterward, includes a poem with the line, “So long as you use a knife, there’s some love left.”

Mailer studied aeronautical engineering at Harvard before discovering his calling as a writer. In 1943 he was drafted and sent to the Philippines, the setting for his acclaimed first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Most critics agree his novels rarely rose to that level again. But his nonfiction works did, including two that won him Pulitzer Prizes: Armies of the Night recounted the 1967 Pentagon antiwar demonstration; and The Executioner’s Song, published a decade later, immortalized the murderer Gary Gilmore.

In 1997 he wrote The Gospel According to the Son, a novel about Jesus. He says: “The notion that Jesus Christ is the finest thing that ever happened to humans and Hitler is the worst made sense to me, as a Western man. I’m sure Muslims would get pretty annoyed at that. It does leave them out of the loop. Which is what we’ve been doing for over a thousand years. But aw, hell, they’ve been leaving us out too.

First, your experiences in World War II. You were assigned to the Philippines.

Yes, the 112th Cavalry. They’d lost their horses in New Guinea (laughs). By the time I got there they were just an understrength infantry regiment. We had eight men to a squad instead of 12. We had 16 men to a platoon instead of 36. And of course the Great Brain behind the lines didn’t know the difference. So we’d often be sent out on ridiculous missions.

Once our platoon was sent out to catch 100 Japanese marines (laughs). They’d gotten word that these marines were marauding behind our lines. It was actually very, very bad intelligence, and it was our great good fortune, all 16 of us, that we never encountered the Japanese. We just traipsed up and down a few muddy hills. But the end of the day gave me the climax to The Naked and the Dead.

We were climbing this very muddy hill. It was tough, because we were loaded up. So we’re slipping and sliding, and we’re gasping, and we’re all in pretty bad condition by then, with the jungle rot and bad food and so forth. Anyway, somebody kicked over a hornet’s nest. Half of the platoon, including me, scampered up the hill. The other half carrying the heavy stuff, BARs and mortars, ran down the hill. And so we were separated, and we knew we’d never get together that day. So there we were, last hill of the day. I remember our lieutenant, a marvelously brave lieutenant named Horton, a Virginian. He called headquarters and said: “We’re returning to base now. We ran into a hornet’s nest and we’re separated.” And back there a dumb major said: “What in hell does Horton mean, hornet’s nest? Is that literal or metaphorical?”

The perfect segue into The Castle in the Forest. You’ve been thinking about Hitler a long time.

Since my mother told me about him. Oh, let’s see, 84 minus 9—75 years (laughs).

Why write it now?

Well, for one thing it was getting late in the day. And for another, I read a book by Ron Rosenbaum [Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil] about the various interpretations of Hitler. Some really fine historians contributed: Alan Bullock, Hugh Trevor-Roper. And Rosenbaum was commenting on their interpretations. But when I finished it I thought, no one really has a grasp of it, no one can really explain Hitler. Some of the best people throw up their hands at a certain point and say it’s almost as if he were hell-inspired. They talk about his luck, his extraordinary adroitness at tight moments, especially in the early political years. Now I’d been thinking for a long time that he really was the spawn of the devil, and so I thought it’s about time it should be written that way. It’s almost as if it’s been begging to be said.

Your bibliography shows you did your historical homework.

It has also inspired a lot of attacks: Who does he think he is? What does he think he’s doing? One of the funniest things Gore Vidal ever said is, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” Well, that bibliography was my good deed. You spend four years writing a novel, you’re going to read a couple hundred books on the subject. So I’d read all these books, I’d gotten something from all of them, even the least of them. I know how annoyed writers get when they come across something they recognize was influenced by what they wrote and there’s not even the hint of a whisper about it. So I thought, let’s be fair. And that was it. So the bibliography was a real pleasure, and now I’m being attacked for it. Well, I’m an old club fighter; I get mad when they miss, but that irritated the hell out of me. Nice-Nellyism.

You say nobody else got inside Hitler’s head. How did you go about it?

My basic take is simple. You cannot understand Hitler as a human being. There’s not enough evidence, there are not enough causative factors to explain the monster who came out. If you study the life very closely, you can see a very unpleasant man being put together by life. But not a mass murderer on the scale of Hitler. And so I felt, what does the devil want to do? I happen to be religious enough to believe that God is a creator, not a lawgiver. And that opposed to the creator is a malign presence that’s opposed to the creation, for reasons totally beyond me. I don’t get to know that (laughs). This negative presence is very important. I don’t feel that God is all powerful or all good. God is doing the best He or She can do. But that’s it. And there’s the devil trying to destroy the creation. If this world ends in this century, it’ll be the devil’s triumph.

How did that get you inside Hitler’s head?

Well, I had to get inside two heads. First was the young boy, the developing boy. I’d never written about a boy or a girl before from birth through adolescence, so that was interesting to try. And then the devil. That was fascinating. I began to feel, as I was writing it, yes, of course, Satan oversees this immense bureaucracy. It isn’t simply that he casts a spell. No, no, it’s hard, very difficult work. They get hold of people, then they’ve got to work like crazy, because there are the Angels, whom they call the Cudgels, obstructing them every step of the way. The humor of it appealed to me. No matter where you are, here or the hereafter, you’ve got to deal with economy. You have to deal with bureaucracy. You have to deal with frustration. All the things that drive us nuts on earth, we’ll have more of it in the hereafter. Although I think you get reborn.

You say that’s one reason for creeping mediocrity on Earth.

Those who get it wrong get another chance, that’s right. So if you extrapolate from that….(laughs)

There’s the elusive quality we call genius. Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, their lives don’t necessarily explain what they did any more than Hitler’s upbringing and daily life does.

That’s it. That’s why I felt there had to be elements beyond the human. Because, if Hitler can be explained entirely in human terms, then it seems to me we are in real trouble. It’s better that we’re not capable of doing what he did. Nobody ever got around to pressing the button for nuclear war, and I really used to believe that the man who had to press that button, his finger would be shaking too much to touch it. Because there’s this deep instinct in human nature not to destroy humankind. I mean, we do, but never altogether. When that happens, to me it will be a sign that the devil has prevailed. Of course, you say things like “the devil has prevailed” and people think, oh he’s out there now, lost it. I hope not (laughs). But there are so many people who hate the very thought of God and the devil.

In the novel, you say there are now three kingdoms: God’s, the devil’s and humanity’s.

Right. In the Middle Ages, human beings didn’t see themselves as important. It was all God or the devil dictating their actions. Then through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, humans emerged with the feeling that we are important, we have equity with God and the devil. Now it’s gotten to the point where God and the devil don’t exist; we’re it.

Germany was one of the homes of the Enlightenment.

And that’s one reason for the long relationship between Germans and the Jews. It’s so ironic. They shared the deep sense that human culture was the ultimate product and savior of human existence. That’s what made the Nazis so tragic. Human culture took a great blow, and it’s never been the same. We admire culture now, but we don’t see it as fundamental or life-giving the way they did. What we see as lifegiving are slogans like, Free America From Terrorism. A load of BS—and you may quote me.

For millions of fundamentalists— Christian, Muslim, Jewish—God and the devil very much exist.

That’s different. It’s the result of immense anxiety. My feeling is that their kind of God is not there. The fundamentalists are absolutely wrong. And they’ll poison America before they’re done. The one value, I think, that we have to cling to, finally, is that the truth is not knowable by any one human, even by any one movement—that the truth evolves as we struggle. When we violate it by looking for quick solutions, for assurances we haven’t earned, we’re getting into more and more trouble, collectively.

You’re projecting another volume in your Hitler saga?

I’d like to carry this up to 1935, after the Night of the Long Knives and before Hitler’s prosperous period. That’s where my kind of book is needed.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.