Hitler, The Missing Years – Ernest Hanfstaengl – Book Review
The Jewish calendar, a microcosm of Judaism itself, has a complete cycle of everything from joyous times (Purim, Succos) to sad times (Tish B’Av) to everything else. This article is being written in the “9 days” leading up to Tish B’Av, commemorating the date recorded in the Torah when the spies came back with a negative report about the land of Israel, destruction of the two Temples, the Spanish Inquisition, assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand (setting off WWI) and the first trains destined for Auschwitz. In my family research, I found testimony recorded at Yad Vashem by two distant cousins indicating that my great-great grandparents, about 70 years old at the time, and just about all of their children were killed in Belzec. My great-grandmother left Poland, or rather, snuck out in the back of a hay truck, when she was 12 years old to avoid being abused by the Cossacks as she was coming to that age. Turns out, their hatred of Jews saved this entire line of descendants from even greater haters. It is debatable whether the holocaust was something different, as a new and greater form of hatred against G_d and everything that the concept of a creator and master over you represents, or was just more of the same.
Ernest Hanfstaegnl’s biography was a past year’s Tish B’Av reading for me. His book, Hitler, The Missing Years seems to be attempt to exculpate himself from any wrong doing. He was very close to Hitler beginning in 1921, helping him ascend to power during years when the German Parliament building was set on fire, Hitler wrote his biography explaining his plans for concentration camps, and the Nazi party took over Germany. Hanfstaegnl fled to Switzerland in 1937 after an “elaborate joke” would have had him killed by Hitler. Hanfstaegnl actually had dual citizenship and spent many years in the United States, his son being raised in the U.S. and accusing his father of not being there for him and having little understanding of democracy. The elder Hanfstaegnl actually escaped to England and was held in prison as an enemy, being associated with Germany. He was moved to Canada and eventually released temporarily to the United States to help aid the war effort. This was all under the direction of President Roosevelt, and Hanfstaegnl’s guard was his very own son, a member of the United States military. There is nothing stranger than stories which comes out of World War II.
Hanfstaegnl does talk about Jews often in his book, usually accompanied by, “I did my best to play down the excesses of the Nazi’s in this area and focus on the economic policies” (like “not having over representation of Jews in university, which, by the way, was also a huge concern in the United States with Columbia being famous for finding not so ingenious ways to restrict entry from the over-represented suburban “donut around the city” to which a Jewish professor at the meeting responded, “it’s not a donut, it’s a bagel.”) In true Hanfstaegnl fashion, he claims constantly that he tried to play down or steer Hitler away from, you know, murdering 12 million people and starting a world war, but was unsuccessful.
The alleged real point of the book is to speak about Hitler before he rose to power. It does, to be fair, have a lot of that too. Hanfstaegnl tells of a man who was wholly uneducated, had a very strange and seemingly impotent sex life, and had no regard for others, but at the same time, was an amazing orator who he saw early on could lead the German people. Some of the more personal examples include Hitler having no idea what he was looking at in an art museum while pretending that it was something he liked, and finding this piece of art by wandering off without telling the rest of them, leaving them to find him staring at the wrong work. Hanfstaegnl also tells of Hitler’s constant prodding for him to play piano for long periods of time, while he plotted, and once, while in the lap of Hanfstaegnl’s wife (they eventually divorced, but that’s another story). According to Hanfstaegnl, he wasn’t worried about anything sexual because Hitler was acting more like a child, telling his wife that he’d like to get married but couldn’t because of his duty towards his country. Meanwhile, there is also talk of very disgusting and vulgar things that Hitler made his niece do (who committed suicide) and pictures which were hidden to avoid hurting Hitler’s political career.
Towards the end of the book, we see, through Hanfstaegnl’s eyes, how Hitler turned on him for accepting an award at Harvard (clearly, the United States was an enemy in Hitler’s eyes). Hitler requested his family tree to ensure no Jewish lineage, and so it went. Goebels and others are also described, all of them being pained as the evil influences on Hitler, as if he needed them.
It’s all part of G_d’s creation. G_d gives man, and even animals and plants pretty wide range to choose their path. There are those who do things to further their connection to the infinite, and those who do not. This year’s Tish B’Av reading for the author is the midrash (early Rabbinic commentary explaining the text) on Lamentations, the story of the destruction of the first Temple and exile, read on Tish B’Av in synagogues. While there is a wealth of information in the midrash, one point I want to draw out is that when things are going well, we have to find that relationship to the Creator, which can be harder than finding that relationship in a time of trouble. The power of the nations to do war and destroy is only when Yaakov (the Jews) doesn’t exercise his power to raise the world up to a G_dly state. May we serve the Creator with joy.