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The Castle in the Forest

by Norman Mailer, Random House, New York, 2007, $27.95

Norman Mailer’s first novel in nearly a decade traces Adolf Hitler’s ancestry and development to age 16, portraying the Führer’s evil genius as the product of what you could call bad blood: Hitler’s mother was his half sister, and Satan took part in his conception.

Novels, of course, aren’t history. Mailer provides a seven-page bibliography that shows he did his homework, but his book springs from his conviction that no human being is capable of Hitler’s evil, so he must have been the devil’s spawn.

The Castle in the Forest is a grim fairy tale: part exposition of three incestuous generations of Hiedler (later Hitler) family life; part depiction of the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire; part soft-core porn and violence; part study of the banality of evil; and part metaphysical speculation. By turns it is provocative, disturbing, repellent, insightful, repetitive, meandering, suggestive, flatulent, whimsical, nasty and funny. By the end, Mailer, master of the nonfiction novel, has diagrammed more than illuminated one of history’s greatest enigmas.

Aside from the supernatural ingredients, Mailer’s young Hitler often seems like a Freudian windup toy. His perverse mechanism is shaped by three generations of several types of overlapping incest, and his formative influences set his direction.

Center stage stands Adolf’s father. Alois is authoritarian, adulterous and sexually voracious—a smug bourgeois predator. The illegitimate child of incest, Alois is thought to be the son of a Jew but rises to be a midlevel customs functionary, a relentless bully who cultivates a resemblance to Austrian Emperor Franz Josef.

At Alois’ side is his niece, daughter and third wife, Klara Poelzl, Adolf’s overdoting mother. Drawn inexorably to her uncle-father’s bed despite her religious convictions, she is tortured by guilt over their ecstatic sex, devastated and traumatized by the deaths of three children, and believes Adolf—her little Adi—is blessed by God.

Adolf bites Klara’s nipples and balks at being toilet-trained. As he grows, he throws tantrums; bursts into tears easily; harbors inchoate yearnings toward greatness; hates and fears his father; adores his mother (until he walks in on his parents coupling); lies and bullies and evades responsibility; learns to lead child armies in mock battles; masturbates on leaves; is buggered by a devil-manipulated hermit beekeeper; and denies his father the satisfaction of him screaming when the old man beats him.

Adolf’s fragile personality and dark leanings are what makes him such rich territory, explains our narrator, the devil who oversees his development. The pool of incestuous blood is enriched via periodic “interventions” by the family’s guardian devils: these include “dream-etching” and forays into beekeeping (population organization and control and the use of gas are major themes).

This is one front in the war between the Maestro (what the devils call Satan) and D.K. or Dummkopf (what the devils call God). They are battling over the future of civilization, but D.K.’s powers are declining while the Maestro’s strengthen. D.K.’s creation is also diminishing steadily.

Some of this is fascinating. But as a look inside one of history’s outsized enigmas, it’s less than compelling unless you share the author’s faith in Satan and Sigmund Freud.

Mailer plans to continue this saga to 1936. And his novel’s opening, its most engaging section, hints that he might yet discover more of the textured complexity of evil that Alexander Solzhenitsyn wove from Stalin and his cohorts in The First Circle.

The Castle in the Forest begins with an elite SS unit formed by Heinrich Himmler. The assignment: to trace Hitler’s true genealogy. The mission: to confirm or deny recurrent rumors of Jewish blood and incest. Himmler sees the possibilities, whether they’re true or false, as evidence of the triumph of the Führer’s will—and, not coincidentally, as fuel for machinations.

Stay tuned.


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