Sunday, September 18, 2011

This Day in German History (The Mysterious Death of Hitler’s Niece)

September 18, 1931—Even in a time when rumored intimate relationships between politicians and young women are greeted with shrugs, one involving a 27-year-old woman found dead from a gunshot wound is likely to elicit something else entirely. After all, the corpse of the attractive woman, Angelika “Geli” Raubal, was found in the Munich apartment of her uncle, whose ascension to power in Germany had suddenly entered the realm of distinct possibility.

Ultimately, the death was ruled a suicide. But questions about the involvement of Raubal’s uncle, Adolf Hitler—who would, in only 18 months, begin a 12-year reign of unparalleled terror as Germany’s dictator—have led one historian, Ron Rosenbaum, to term the case “Hitler’s Chappaquiddick.”

Yet, if possible, the circumstances surrounding Raubal’s death were far murkier and more controversial than those related to that of Mary Jo Kopechne. While Hitler, like Ted Kennedy, was considered a strong contender for his nation’s highest office, the German was not a liberal in a republic nearly two centuries old, but a far-right racist in the fragile Weimar Republic, with increasingly weak non-governmental institutions. Raubal was not a woman who, like Kopechne, had known the candidate primarily through his brother’s prior Presidential bid, but was the niece of Hitler’s half-sister, someone seen continually with the candidate over the last few years.

And there was this: Raubal was found dead not in the candidate’s car, but in a bedroom down the hall from his, with her uncle’s gun lying by her side.

In other words, not only were the facts immediately apparent in the Raubal case strongly suggestive of the need for further vigorous investigation, but the failure to conduct it led to a road not taken in German history, the point at which Nazism could have been crushed before it inflicted monstrous harm.

What might a competent, unhindered police investigation have determined?

At very least, voters would have had to reckon with a leader known to have quarreled with Geli over her whereabouts. Even if neither Hitler nor his confederates could not be linked forensically to the woman's death, voters would surely--and correctly--wonder about a possessiveness so creepy that it drove Geli to suicide.

Unfortunately, no such untrammeled investigation was begun.

To start with, no autopsy was conducted. This meant that there would be no objective facts to counter the coroner’s conclusions: that Geli had taken her own life the day before her body was discovered; that her broken nose came from her fall after shooting herself, and that the bruises came after death.

Other aspects of the investigation lead one to suspect that not only was an odd incuriosity about the death holding sway among the police, but that a coverup was forming.

The “suicide register” listing the case, for instance, did not contain Geli’s real address. Had the document done so, more than a few people might have asked what she was doing in her uncle’s apartment. Their curiosity might have been piqued further had they known that, though Hitler’s half-sister Angela had brought Geli with her when the Nazi leader asked Angela to serve as his housekeeper, mother and daughter no longer lived in the same home: It was now simply Hitler and his niece together.

In addition, none of the four witnesses in the case, all employees of Hitler, were asked the most elementary of questions: what time did the Nazi leader leave his apartment on the day Geli died?

In another sense, this was not surprising, as the longest of the four statements consisted of less than 10 sentences maximum.Observers might have asked if the head of the investigation was an uninterested party: The chief police investigator, Heinrich Muller, would, only a year and a half later, become Reich Minister of Justice.

How might a credible investigation have proceeded?

* It might have asked why young women associated with Hitler became desperately unhappy. Geli was still a teenager when she and her mother first moved in with the Nazi leader. Two other teenagers linked closely to Hitler attempted suicide, but managed to survive: Maria Reiter (saved by her brother) and Eva Braun (who managed to live another 13 years after her initial attempt, only to commit suicide, this time successfully, within 48 hours after marrying Hitler). Another young woman, the actress Renate Mauler, met her end in a manner like Geli’s: she leaped, or was pushed from, a window in an asylum.

* It might have asked why, if Geli were unhappy enough to commit suicide, a letter found in her room had broken off in mid-sentence, showing no signs whatsoever of strain. The Nazis practically fell over each other with explanations for Geli’s death. Hermann Goering claimed her death had been accidental—a rather odd statement, considering that Geli was trained with handguns and the angle of the single bullet to her heart—downward—was highly unusual. But at least it wasn’t flagrantly contradictory to the long-known nature of her character, as the suicide explanation. Geli was friendly and vivacious, hardly the type to commit such a desperate act.

* What was Hitler doing with a new driver recently? Eric Maurice had gone to prison with Hitler in 1923 because of his involvement in the Munich beer hall putsch. Upon release, Maurice had served as the driver for the Nazi leader (who never drove himself). Was it true that Hitler fired Maurice immediately after he had asked his boss for Geli’s hand in marriage? Did his departure have anything to do with a rumored affair with Geli?

* Oh, and about pregnancies—had Hitler gotten Geli pregnant? This last point contradicts at least a couple of the wilder theories about Hitler (e.g., that he was homosexual, or that he had only one testicle). But it couldn’t be completely dismissed out of hand. If it were true, the consequences would invite not merely tut-tutting, but an explosive reaction. It started with Hitler’s pretense that, as one uninvolved with women, he was pure and devoted solely to Germany—a stance that would be exposed instantly as hypocritical if this particular rumor were correct. But people would notice other aspects of this situation, too, including that a) Geli was unmarried, b) she was a relative of Hitler’s.

Hitler had an alibi for his whereabouts on the day of Geli’s death, but considering that law enforcement did not even ask his employees when he left the apartment that day, it’s impossible to say how airtight it was.

But, even as Hitler continued his rise to power, some refused to back away from their beliefs about the real nature of Gelic's death. If Geli had committed suicide, Catholic church practice at the time would have denied her burial in consecrated ground. But her family’s priest, Fr. Johann Pant, granted permission for burial. As war clouds gathered in 1939, he frankly told a French newspaper of his refusal to accept the official verdict of suicide.

Another person disinclined to accept the Nazis’ explanation was Fritz Gerlich, a conservative German newspaper editor. Ever since the Munich putsch, Gerlich was bent on exposing the multiple lies of his nation’s phantom menace. He was undoubtedly a marked man beginning with a 1932 article that exposed one of the oddest consequences of Nazi racial theory: i.e., that the dark-haired Hitler was hardly the ideal blond Aryan hailed by Nazis.

But many believe that the report Gerlich was planning to file only weeks after Hitler’s assumption of power—an expose of the death of Geli Raubal—was what finally doomed him. We’ll never know for sure, because on March 9, Hitler’s storm troopers burst into the editor’s office, beat him to a pulp, destroyed the story he had on the pressed, and shipped him to Dachau.
More than a year passed before Gerlich’s wife learned her husband had died in prison. The notice, delivered by the Nazis themselves, dispensed with the editor’s belief in the power of words, but it got the Nazis’ point across in a characteristically thuggish manner: the steel-rimmed spectacles of the editor who had seen Hitler and his henchmen for what they were sent to Gerlich’s widow in a blood-stained envelope.

One of the best accounts that I have read of the Geli Raubal cases is in Ron Rosenbaum’s book, Explaining Hitler. The power of this account lies not simply in the way that Rosenbaum painstakingly reviews theories, refusing to credit anything some of the more preposterous theories about this particular case, but because the author will not accept that any possible rationales for how Hitler turned out as he did can possibly explain away the Holocaust.

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