Paul Scraton reviews a new ‘non fiction novel’ that looks at Hitler as a young man…
Using real, historical figures as characters in a novel is not completely unusual; nor is the concept of the ‘non-fiction novel,’ that by most accounts began with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
So the premise of Claus Hant’s Young Hitler should not necessarily be a problematic one. Over three hundred pages Hant tells the story of Adolf Hitler from the age of sixteen in 1905 up to his thirty-first year in 1920. The story, somewhat oddly, is not narrated by Hitler but by hs best friend, for whom the friendship with young Adolf – from their childhood in Linz to Munich and World War One – is a defining and often troubling experience.
The fact that no such friend existed (the narrator is an amalgam of Hitler’s four best friends during that period) is part of what makes this a novel. The pain-staking research and commitment to historical fact, as laid out in the 130 pages of appendices and references that come after the novel is finished, is what makes it non-fiction. Whether it works is another question altogether.
Hant argues that ‘the non-fiction novel lets me tell a complex, fact-based story in a way that is still accessible to the reader,’ and in this respect he has achieved his goal. The book is well-written, and as a scriptwriter who made his name with a detective series in Germany, he should after all know how to craft a well-paced, engaging story.
That it is impossible to ‘lose yourself’ in the story is almost certainly not a technical problem, and in that sense the ‘non-fiction novel’ approach works fine; but there is a wider difficulty with the book and its form, and that is the subject matter.
The question that kept returning to me time and again as I was reading Young Hitler was not whether Claus Hant made the right choice when melding historical fact with novelistic techniques, but whether it could work when the historical facts centre on the life of a man who cast arguably the longest, darkest shadow of the twentieth Century. Is Adolf Hitler simply too difficult and problematic a subject for such a technique?
Hitler remains a problematic figure because of the questions that his rise to power and subsequent crimes ask not just of Germans, but humanity as a whole. To take a fictional approach, however fact-based it may be, is obviously a sensitive choice to make, and one which the author himself realises may be met with a resistance to any kind of blurring of the truth through creative interpretation.
In an interview on his website, Hant explains the difficulties he had in getting a screenplay about the young Hitler made and the debates around the recent Hitler And The Germans exhibition at the German History Museum show that this is still, a century on from the period covered in this book, a sensitive topic that can create a certain amount of unease.
It’s clear that Hant is aware that this discomfort might be heightened through the choice of the non-fiction novel as the method for delivering his story; that this is perhaps a topic whereby creativity and inspiration could be turned into an accusation of playing fast and loose with the truth. The appendices that follow the novel are clearly a part of answering any potential disquiet in the minds of the reader, showing the historical facts upon which the book is based in extraordinary detail.
An author’s note adds further context and explanation, as does an introduction written by Dr. Lankheit from the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, where Hant undertook much of his research. Dr. Lankheit uses the end of his introduction to deal with the nature of the work, highlighting the fact that ‘the story fits the acknowledged historical facts as known to date, while at the same time leaving space for individual interpretation: plenty of matter, with plenty of art.’
Despite the fact that Hant has done his best not to view the young Hitler through the prism of what was to come next, for the reader it is impossible, and ultimately this is where the book does not – and probably cannot – succeed. Hitler will be a difficult subject for historians, curators, novelists, filmmakers and artists of all stripes for a very long time to come, chiefly because his legacy still weighs so heavily within Germany and beyond it.
In a sense he is ‘beyond fiction’ as he is an all-too-real embodiment of human evil. Had he not existed perhaps he could have been invented, but he did and therefore it is difficult to re-create him with even pseudo-fictional strokes. Hant has done what he set out to do: exploring a period in Hitler’s life that has received unsatisfactory attention elsewhere, serving at times as a subtly illuminating portrait of the dictator as a young man.
But as has become normal with any work based on or around Hitler, I finished the book thinking more about the nature of the work itself than the story that had just been told.
Young Hitler by Claus Hant is published by Quartet Books.