I’ve been thinking a lot about Hitler recently. He’s a cultural figure who’s hard to avoid. He’s the star of Oscar-winning comedies like 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, and he’s the butt of jokes in novels like DeLillo’s White Noise and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D has Mecha-Hitler as the game’s final boss — he screams "die welt ist unser!” while firing quad chain guns at the player, occasionally calling you an “allied schweinhund.” These representations tend to bend towards the parodic and the cartoonish. 80 years on and World War II can seem pretty distant now, to the point where these representations are cartoonish on top of how increasingly mythical the war, itself, has become. Many of the conditions that betokened that era persist today, however, despite the time distance. The similarities are uncanny.
I would not have been born were it not for the war that Hitler started. Both sets of my grandparents met in post-war Europe, settling down in Canada shortly thereafter. My father’s father trained fighter pilots, witnessing the devastation the war wrought across Europe only after the fighting had already stopped. He was part of a post-war allied initiative to help recover and rebuild, organized under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA for short), where he helped reconnect displaced civilians with what family they had left. He toured the liberated camps, listening to the survivors and hearing about the horrors they’d witnessed. On my mother’s side, practically everybody died in concentration camps. I learned about this when I asked my parents — I don’t know what age I would’ve been, but I was young — why we didn’t have a bigger family, like my friends did. How come I didn’t have a litany of cousins to argue with, like everyone else? As a child, learning about the camps and about genocide, I developed a somber reverence towards the war while simultenously watching action rhomps like Kelly’s Heroes and playing video games like Medal of Honor: Frontline, taking control of a US soldier on D-Day through my chunky Xbox.
Growing up with real, first-hand accounts of the war, I easily distinguished the reality from its fictional permutations. Further, I saw that people like my mother’s father (who was held hostage in a forced-labor camp, where he had to wear wooden shoes and shovel snow in tattered rags while the rest of his family was systematically executed) were able to make the same distinctions. I have a memory of him, not long before he died: we were watching The Great Escape on the couch, just as the leaves were starting to turn outside, and he appeared just as giddy as my eight-year-old self, watching Steve McQueen egg on the camp’s officers, his character gleefully antagonizing his way into another month in the cooler. My grandfather was dead a few days later, yet my most vivid memory from that week remains us watching that cheesefest of a movie together. We both agreed that Charles Bronson’s sub-plot, about digging his way out of the camp (his nickname in the film was ‘Tunnel King’), was far superior to the rest of the movie. I tried to dig a tunnel under the shed in our backyard the following spring, but the soil on our property had been artificially raised before the house was built, and so it was full to the brim with large rocks and heavy stones. I didn’t get more than a few feet down before giving up, thoroughly exhausted. It took me a long time to fill the hole back in.
I’m providing all of this exposition, here, because I encounter a vanishingly small number of people who can say they know much about the war or that era, generally. And I don’t mean that they lack the same personal connection(s) that I have to the war, or aren’t aware of the same geo-political minutiae I might know. I mean that they can’t manage a ballpark average of how many people were butchered in the camps; they can narrowly comprehend how political/ideological fervor led millions of Germans to murder their fellow countrymen; and, more still are unaware that the war only officially ended after the US nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 200,000 (roughly) as a result of the “new and most cruel bomb.”
This brings me to Roger Boylan and his new book The Adorations, published this past January by Dalkey Archive Press. The plot consists of a story within a story, where an alcoholic Genevese professor believes he’s seen the archangel Michael. In order to learn more about his rather unique circumstances, he researches other mystics from the past and comes across a (fictional) book about Stefanie von Rothenberg, a woman from the early 1900s who studied theology after seeing the Devil during teatime with Adolf Hitler. Hitler is a recurring character throughout the novel, and the reader gets to see the full arc of his character, from Stefanie’s first acquaintance with him as a poor, passionate artist, pre-WWI, all the way to his Führer zenith — much changes in him; but, also, not much changes at all. While he doesn’t begin as someone who would necessarily condone the slaughter of millions, his abilities as a painter are “severely compromised by the stiffness and rigidity of his style, which lent itself to landscape and city-scene,” devoid of the tenderness needed to consistently render an unblemished human likeness. Despite Hitler being Stefanie’s suitor, she opts not to consummate their courtship. Instead, she prefers a Jewish musician named Arthur, who, while just as passionate as Hitler, also possesses compassion: Arthur reveals to Stefanie “to what degree Adolf had lacked [compassion], and, consequently, why . . . Adolf’s art, and his opinions, missed the point entirely.”
This portrayal of Hitler is just spotless. He is not a cartoon, à la Wolfenstein or Inglourious Basterds, nor is he dripping with sympathy, like he was in the film Downfall. Rather, his portrayal makes the reader’s skin crawl, because Boylan is describing someone we’ve all seen and probably even know personally. He’s annoying — pitiable — and totally normal. Adolf and Arthur even share similar views occasionally — they’re both Romantics at heart; they both have their suspicions toward a style of government that’s laced with stuffy royalty — yet Adolf is self-absorbed, to the point where any opinion differing from his own is dismissed as foolish or incorrect. He is a temperamental artist who is very self-conscious. He is an anxious person who clings onto idealized concepts from art and literature because he can’t comprehend the unruliness of the real world. He lusts for control because he feels like people dismiss him, worrying that he (like those who serve under him) will be seen as “stupid, clumsy, boorish, pathetic. Funny, like a clown? No. Laughable but not amusing.” He has energetic arm/hand gestures to match his enthusiastically hateful orations. His opinions are bombastic, zealous and convenient. He pretty brazenly sprinkles in how this problem and that are all due to the untermensch — the Jew, the G*psy, the Slav; basically anyone else who isn’t immaculately Germanic — and preaches how clean and orderly the streets would be, and how happy everyone would be (with smiles stretching sorely across their faces, 24/7) were it not for those pesky foreigners ruining everything for the rest of us. His goal is to spin spiels that demonstrate just how passionate he is and how much he knows. He speaks with such confidence. Surely, this guy really knows what he’s talking about!
Have you thought of anyone who reminds you of this yet? I bet you can think of one or two people you’ve met personally who talk just like this. Maybe you’ve had arguments with a family member who thinks like this. I know for certain that you’ve seen this kind of rhetoric on TV or Facebook, beginning their presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, reducing states in their country to being either Red or Blue, regardless of the fact that every state is essentially Purple. Of course, Trump is already a worn-out, obvious comparison (although, even Anne Frank’s stepsister thinks Trump “obviously admired Hitler”), and focusing on him too much might be a detriment when considering this topic. Trump is not the problem: we all are — everyone — since we all have the capacity to think the same way and spew the same rhetoric. We’re the ones who vote. Hitlers and Trumps don’t get elected because they’re brilliant, preordained leaders. They’re elected because their citizens (most humans, really) are generally self-absorbed and possess limited (or, at least conditional) compassion, and we seem to always expect someone with some assumed boundless virtue to just rise up and lead us out of whatever ‘awful’ place we’re in, lead us towards something great — by force, if necessary. ‘Sure, I don’t agree with everything he says. . . but the system is corrupt, and he gets the job done!’
I digress. What makes Boylan’s novel so brilliant — beyond its witty prose, metatextual playfulness and jaunty sense of humour, ja? — is that it’s relatable. It conjures up early 20th century Paris and Vienna with superlative clarity while simultaneously describing events, themes and characters that are all entirely relevant. Nothing in the book — xenophobia, faux-nativism, facism, fear, division and genocide — feels dated. Its issues are contemporary. A cursory glance at today’s global newsfeed provides a lot of relevant dread around these same topics: Burma’s military is slaughtering its own people (again); India is consistently triggering internet blackouts in Kashmir; China is exterminating its Muslim population; and, the Nunatsiaq newspaper (which covers Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec) has been reporting on the forced sterilization of Inuit women “without their full and informed consent . . . with occurrences as recent as 2017.” (This is only a sliver of the reports out there about modern genocides occuring around the Earth. It’s not fiction, nor is it history.)
I’ve had trouble making heads or tails of what Boylan intended for the novel’s upshot to be. There’s a happy ending, but not any clearly identifiable closure for the themes the book has been dealing with. A tentative connection seems to be made between facism and Islamic terrorism, though Boylan fails to make this link crystal clear. I do, however, keep thinking about how people reacted to Gustave’s holy visions. Some seek to have him fired from the university, while others lampoon him through anonymous, highly sardonic newspaper articles. Yet, many people treat him with understanding, even if they might think he’s a little strange. There’s a wholesome, collective air of compassion, one where ‘othering’ is largely avoided. Even when people disbelieve or don’t completely understand Gustave’s circumstances, they still act in ways that are laced with care and overall good humour.
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