HITLER’S DOOMED ANGEL
The unresolved and hastily covered-up death in 1931 of Geli Raubal, Hitler’s half-niece and romantic obsession, has long been relegated to the murky footnotes of the *Führer’*s early career in the demimonde of Munich. As calls for a new investigation stir up another Austrian crisis of conscience, Ron Rosenbaum reports on a sixty-year-old mystery.
She was beautiful, they said, but there was something unusual about her beauty, something peculiar—even frightening. Consider the testimony of Frau Braun, now eighty-six (and no relation to Eva), one of the few people left alive who knew Geli Raubal before she became Hitler’s consort. Knew her as a teenager in Vienna in the twenties, when Hitler would come to call incognito in his black Mercedes.
Indeed, until recently, Frau Braun was living in the very same Vienna apartment building that was once Geli’s refuge, the one she apparently was seeking to flee to on September 18, 1931—the day before she was found dead in her bedroom in Hitler’s Munich apartment with a bullet through her chest and Hitler’s gun by her side.
I was led to Frau Braun by Hans Horváth, the obsessed amateur historian whose current petition to exhume and examine Geli’s long-dead body has stirred up controversy—and resistance from the Vienna city government. Resistance that is “a scandal,” says a professor supporting Horváth. A scandal resuiting from a Waldheim-era desire to keep not just Geli buried but memories of onetime Vienna citizen Adolf Hitler interred as well.
“A mysterious darkness” surrounds the death of this “unusual beauty,” the Fränkische Tagespost reported forty-eight hours after her body was discovered. Sixty years later, when I traveled to Vienna and Munich to investigate the controversy, that darkness has yet to be dispelled. It still obscures the answers to such basic questions as whether Geli’s death was suicide or murder. Who fired Hitler’s gun that night?
Frau Braun’s recollection is a gleam in that darkness, eyewitness testimony to the peculiar kind of power Geli had even as a young teenage girl.
I’d been reading accounts of Geli’s beauty, the spell she cast over Hitler and his circle. I’d seen the blurry photographs of her. Some of them captured a hint of her haunting appeal, some did not.
Frau Braun, however, saw it face-to-face. “I was walking down the street and I heard her singing,” Frau Braun tells me one winter afternoon in the comfort of her dignified pension in a senior citizens’ residence, a place she moved into after living sixty years in the apartment building Geli grew up in.
As she approached the girl singing in the street, “I saw her and I just stopped dead. She was just so tall and beautiful that I said nothing. And she saw me standing there and said, ‘Are you frightened of me?’ And I said, ‘No, I was just admiring you. . . ’ ”
Frau Braun offers me another Mozart chocolate ball and shakes her head. “She was just so tall and beautiful. I’d never seen anyone like that.”
Geli, short for Angela: Hitler’s half-niece, love object, angel. Although the precise physical nature of that “love” has been the subject of heated debate among historians for more than half a century, there is little doubt she was, as William Shirer puts it, “the only truly deep love affair of his life.” Joachim Fest, the respected German biographer of Hitler, calls Geli “his great love, a tabooed love of Tristan moods and tragic sentimentality.” His great love—and perhaps his first victim.
Who was Geli? While many testify to the peculiar power of her beauty—she was “an enchantress,” said Hitler’s photographer; “a princess, people on the street would turn around” to stare at her, according to Emil Maurice, Hitler’s chauffeur—the question of her character is a matter of dispute.
Was she the perfect image of Aryan maidenhood, as Hitler exalted her? Or an “empty-headed little slut” manipulating her besotted uncle, as one resentful Hitler confidant depicts her?
“No other woman linked to Hitler has exerted the kind of fascination for succeeding generations” that Geli has, Der Spiegel said recently. “Geli’s sudden and apparently inexplicable death has challenged the imagination of contemporaries and later historians,” writes Robert Waite in The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler.
Part of the continuing fascination with Geli, this enigmatic femme fatale, is that she had such a pronounced impact on Hitler—and that an examination of their doomed affair may be a window into the “mysterious darkness” of Hitler’s psyche. “With the single exception of his mother’s death,” Waite believes, “no other event in his personal life had hit him so hard.” Waite cites a comment Hermann Göring made at the Nuremberg trials: “Geli’s death had such a devastating effect on Hitler that it . . . changed his relationship to all other people.”
Equally intriguing is the notion that a scandal surrounding her death in Hitler’s apartment could have destroyed his political career before he came to power. In the fall of 1931, he was Führer of the resurgent National Socialist Party and was poised to launch his campaign for the presidency the following year, the one that would bring him to the brink of power. (He became Reichschancellor, his first political office, in 1933.) The gunshot death of a twenty-three-year-old woman in an apartment she shared with him might have derailed his rise—had the potentially explosive scandal not been defused.
Certainly the moment the police arrived to find Geli Raubal’s corpse with his 6.35-mm. Walther pistol by her side, Adolf Hitler had reason to be frightened. But from the time her body was discovered, heroic efforts were made at what we would now call ”damage control.” Or “cover-up.”
Some of the damage control was so inept it damaged him further—as when Hitler’s spin doctors at the party’s press bureau put out the dubious story that Geli, a vibrant, confident young woman, killed herself because she was “nervous” about an upcoming music recital.
Some of the cover-up measures were, however, quite effective. Disappearing the body, for instance: party officials reportedly prevailed on sympathetic Bavarian minister of justice Franz Gürtner to quash an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office; the body was given only a perfunctory post-mortem; the police issued a hasty pronouncement of suicide and permitted the body to be slipped down the back stairs and shipped off to Vienna for burial before the first reports of Geli’s death—and the first questions about it—appeared in the Monday-morning papers.
Still, when the first scandalous report hit the streets in the Münchner Post (the city’s chief anti-Nazi paper), Hitler himself had reason to fear his skyrocketing political career was in jeopardy: A MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR: HITLER’S NIECE COMMITS SUICIDE
Regarding this mysterious affair, informed sources tell us that on Friday, September 18, Herr Hitler and his niece had yet another fierce quarrel. What was the cause? Geli, a vivacious twenty-three-year-old music student, wanted to go to Vienna, where she intended to become engaged. Hitler was decidedly against this. That is why they were quarreling repeatedly. After a fierce row, Hitler left his apartment on Prinzregentenplatz.
On Saturday, September 19, it became known that Geli had been found shot in the apartment with Hitler’s gun in her hand. The nose bone of the deceased was shattered and the corpse evidenced other serious injuries. From a letter to a girlfriend living in Vienna, it appeared that Geli intended to go to Vienna. . . .
The men in the Brown House [party head-quarters] then deliberated over what should be announced as the cause of the suicide. They agreed to give the reason for Geli’s death as “unsatisfied artistic achievement.” They also discussed the question of who, if something were to happen, should be Hitler’s successor. Gregor Strasser was named. . . .
Perhaps the near future will bring light to this dark affair.
According to the memoirs of Hitler’s lawyer Hans Frank, some newspapers went further. “There was even one version that he had shot the. . . girl himself,” Frank reports. Such stories “not only appeared in scandal sheets, but daily in the leading papers with pens dipped in poison.” Hitler “could not look at the papers anymore for fear the terrible smear campaign would kill him.”
To escape scrutiny Hitler fled town for the isolated lakeside cottage of a party friend on the Tegernsee. Distraught, raving over this “terrible smear campaign” against him, he spoke wildly to Rudolf Hess, the companion by his side, about how it was all over—his political career, his very life. There was a moment, according to one story, when Hess had to leap and grab a pistol out of Hitler’s hand before he could put it to his head.
Were Hitler’s hysterics in the Tegernsee cottage grief—or guilt? Consider the surprising reply Hitler himself authored and dispatched to the Münchner Post, which was compelled by Weimar press law to print it in full. Consider it both for what it denies and for what it fails to deny:
- It is not true [Hitler writes] that I was having fights again and again with my niece [Geli] Raubal and that we had a substantial quarrel on Friday or anytime before that. . . .
- It is not true that I was decidedly against her going to Vienna. I was never against her planned trip to Vienna.
- It is not true she was going to get engaged in Vienna or that I was against an engagement. It is true that my niece was tormented with the worry that she was not yet fit for her public appearance. She wanted to go to Vienna to have her voice checked once again by a voice teacher.
- It is not true that I left my apartment on September 18 after a fierce row. There was no row, no excitement, when I left my apartment on that day.
A remarkably defensive statement for a political candidate to issue. And for a while, despite Hitler’s nondenial denial (nothing about the fractured nose, nothing about the Brown House spin doctors’ being so concerned about the potential scandal that they had even selected Hitler’s successor), the story began to grow. Other papers followed up, adding dark hints about the nature of the physical relationship between Hitler and his niece. The Regensburger Echo spoke cryptically about its going “beyond her strength” to endure. The periodical Die Fanfare, in an article headlined HITLER’S LOVER COMMITS SUICIDE: BACHELORS AND HOMOSEXUALS AS LEADERS OF THE PARTY, spoke of another woman, whose suicide attempt in 1928 followed a purported intimacy with Hitler. Hitler’s private life with Geli, the paper said, “took on forms which obviously the young woman was unable to bear.”
It seemed as if the scandal had reached critical mass. But then, suddenly, the stories stopped. With the body buried safely out of reach and Minister Gürtner in the party’s pocket, there were no more facts left to dig up. With the Münchner Post silenced by the Nazis’ threat of lawsuits, the scandal died down—although Shirer reports that “for years afterward in Munich there was murky gossip that Geli Raubal had been murdered.” If Hitler did not escape unscathed, the sensation surrounding Geli’s death did not slow down his inexorable rise.
What’s ironic is that history and historians have let Hitler off so easily on the Geli case. Here’s a man who would go on to murder millions, who made the Big Lie his essential mode of operation. But a young woman is found shot with his gun a few steps away from his bedroom, and Hitler gets the presumption of innocence because he and his friends say he wasn’t there at the time? It’s useful in this connection to recall the post-Holocaust commandment enunciated by Emil Fackenheim, one of the most respected contemporary Jewish philosophers: Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories. Why give him a posthumous exoneration for any death without doing everything possible to hold him accountable?
Perhaps it might be argued that a single death is meaningless with so many millions to come. But this was no meaningless death. Fritz Gerlich understood that. Gerlich was the brave, doomed crusading journalist who wouldn’t let the case die, who believed that Hitler murdered Geli—and that if the world knew the truth about this crime it might save itself from worse crimes to come. Who continued to pursue the story so courageously that it cost him his life. In March 1933, just as he was about to publish the results of his investigation in the opposition newspaper he edited, Der Gerade Weg, a squad of storm troopers broke into his newspaper office, beat him up, seized and burned his manuscripts, and dragged him off to prison, and then to Dachau, where he was executed in July of 1934, during the Night of the Long Knives. Extinguishing, so it seemed, the last faint hope the case of Geli Raubal would be reopened. Until now.
Vienna. The Hotel Sacher. The specter of Geli Raubal still has an eerie power to arouse fascination—and fear. Those arguing for the exhumation of her remains charge the city authorities with stalling for fear of raising unsavory ghosts.
The exhumation effort has the endorsement of an internationally respected professor at the University of Vienna’s Institute for Forensic Medicine, Professor Johann Szilvássy. It was Szilvássy who told me that it was “a scandal” that the city of Vienna has delayed for five years now granting Hans Horváth’s petition to exhume the body of Geli Raubal. Szilvássy has endorsed the legitimacy of Horváth’s request, agreed to perform the examination, and believes that at the very least it could resolve such crucial questions as whether, in fact, as the Münchner Post first reported, Geli’s nose was broken (suggesting a violent quarrel before her death). And whether she was pregnant at the time, which might be discerned if the pregnancy had gone more than three months (there are rumors that she was carrying either Hitler’s child or the child of a Jewish music teacher—and some believe that a pregnancy announcement was the cause of her final, perhaps fatal quarrel with Hitler).
Professor Szilvássy told me he blames the “scandal” on the city’s ruling Socialist Party, which, he says, is reluctant to raise the ghost of the past the way the Waldheim affair did, and remind people of Hitler’s intimate ties to the town.
“But there is more to their fear than that,” Horváth tells me this afternoon, sitting at his favorite table in the café of the Hotel Sacher. The dapper Horváth, a well-to-do furniture restorer and art appraiser—who has his own, controversial theory about a Geli Raubal murder plot—has been pursuing Geli’s ghost for two decades with an obsessive passion that recalls the detective in Laura. Indeed, like the devotion of the homicide dick in that forties noir classic, who locks onto the unfathomable Laura after he falls in love with her portrait, Horváth’s fervor has been inspired, at least in part, by the beauty embodied in a portrait of Geli—a nude painting of the young enchantress which Horváth claims was the work of his fellow devotee, Hitler himself.ADVERTISEMENT
Horváth is not a professional historian; he’s more like an impassioned J.F.K.-assassination buff. But he’s made up for his lack of credentials with a kind of relentlessness that had him plunging into dank, subterranean cemetery archives in search of any last trace of Geli’s burial records. There, in those underground repositories, he made his most consequential—and controversial—breakthrough: his claim to have relocated Geli’s grave, rescuing her remains from the limbo of the lost, and perhaps from ignominious disposal.
Geli’s grave was once a grand thing. Hitler had paid for a spacious site facing the Central Cemetery’s architectural landmark, the Luegerkirche. But in the chaos of W.W. II Vienna, payment for the upkeep of the grave site ceased (a peculiarity of Viennese burial practices in the Central Cemetery is that grave leases must be renewed regularly). According to Horváth, the mercilessly efficient cemetery bureaucracy evicted Geli’s body from her expensive site in 1946 and moved it to a vast paupers’ field, where it was interred in a plain zinc coffin in a narrow underground slot. Although Geli’s grave was originally marked with a wooden cross, the paupers’ field is now denuded of any surface markings, and Geli’s slot is traceable only by a reference number on an intricate grid in a schematic diagram Horváth discovered.
In fact, Geli’s remains are scheduled to soon be erased from existence entirely: if the cemetery’s proposed redesign is carried out, all the bodies in the unmarked graves will be dug up and shoveled into a mass burial pit to make room for a “cemetery of the future.” So, Horváth maintains, it’s now or never.
Horváth comes close to saying that the obliteration of Geli’s grave is a conscious effort by the city of Vienna to bury all disturbing memories and ghosts of Hitler forever.
“Why would they be afraid of the exhumation?” I ask Horváth.
“It’s not the exhumation they fear,” he insists. “It’s the reburial. Because after the exhumation and Professor Szilvássy’s examination, she will be returned to earth in a grave site I have purchased for her, with a stone to mark her name. And the city is frightened that the new grave will become a shrine.”ADVERTISEMENT
“Yes. A shrine for neo-Nazis. A New Valhalla.”
Just who was Geli, this enigmatic charmer whose beauty had such a disproportionate effect on Hitler’s psyche? As with many legendary femmes fatales, her historical reality has been blurred by mythic images. “There is no other story” in the realm of Hitler studies, said Der Spiegel, “where legend and fact are so fantastically interwoven.”
Consider the rather basic question of hair color: was it blond or dark? One contemporary observer remarked with awe on Geli’s “immense crown of blond hair.” But Werner Maser, a sometimes reliable digger into Hitler’s domestic life, insists she had “black hair and a distinctly Slavonic appearance.”
Reports of her character are similarly divided between golden and darker hues. Some observers recall her reverently as “a deeply religious person who attended Mass regularly,” “a princess.”
The Golden Girl school sums her up as “the personification of perfect young womanhood. . .deeply revered, indeed worshiped, by her uncle [Hitler]. He watched and gloated over her like some servant with a rare and lovely bloom.”
Others saw her as quite another kind of bloom. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, for instance. The American-educated art-book publisher and confidant of Hitler in the early years (who later fled to the U.S. and became a consultant on Hitler to his Harvard Club friend F.D.R.) was one of the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated observers of the Caligula’s court of bizarre characters gathered around Hitler in his lesser-known Munich period. For some reason Hanfstaengl, who often had his own agenda, took a violent dislike to Geli; he called her “an empty-headed little slut, with the coarse sort of bloom of a servant girl.” He claims that, despite Hitler’s “mooncalf” adolescent infatuation with her, she betrayed him with his chauffeur, and perhaps with a “Jewish art teacher from Linz.” (Hitler reportedly fired the chauffeur, Emil Maurice, calling him a “skirt chaser” who ought to be shot “like a mad dog.”) And, Hanfstaengl adds, while she was “perfectly content to preen herself in her fine clothes,” Geli “certainly never gave any impression of reciprocating Hitler’s twisted tendernesses.”
Before we delve deeper into their physical relationship, it will be useful to explain their genealogical relationship. Geli’s mother was Hitler’s older half-sister, Angela, who married a man named Leo Raubal from Linz, the town in which Hitler grew up. In 1908, Angela gave birth to a girl, also named Angela, soon familiarly known as “Geli.”
This would make Geli, in shorthand, Hitler’s half-niece. Hitler himself was the product of a marriage between second cousins (or, according to some, between an uncle and a niece), a union that needed a papal dispensation to lift the customary church ban on such consanguineous marriages. Should Hitler have married Geli—as many, including her mother, speculated he would—it would have also required a papal dispensation to legitimate the marriage in the eyes of the church.
Around the time Geli was born, Hitler was living in Vienna, in a men’s shelter. A disaffected would-be artist, bitter about the rejection of his application to the Academy of Fine Arts, he was scratching out a living selling postcards he painted of local landmarks. It wasn’t until after the Great War, after Corporal Hitler returned to his adopted Munich and became, at thirty-three, leader of the National Socialist Party, that he got back in touch with Angela and Geli in Vienna. Geli was then about fourteen; her father had been dead since she was two; her mother worked as a housekeeper at a convent school; their life in a flat by the Westbanhof railway station was fairly plain aNd grim.
Suddenly, teenage Geli had an exciting gentleman caller, a celebrity, her “Uncle Alfie” (as he had her call him).
After Hitler’s failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, after his trial and nine-month jail term (during which he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf), after he returned to Munich and began plotting his political comeback, he summoned Angela Raubal and seventeen-year-old Geli to come to serve as his live-in housekeepers, first at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden.
By that time, in 1925, Geli had blossomed into something of a beauty. And Hitler soon began to take notice of Geli in a way that went far beyond the avuncular. One journalist, Konrad Heiden, described him squiring her around bucolic mountain villages, riding “through the countryside from time to time showing the blond child how ‘Uncle Alf’ could bewitch the masses.”
But it soon became clear that it was Uncle Alf who was becoming “bewitched.” He asked Geli and her mother to move to Munich. Set Geli up in an apartment building next to his and, leaving the housekeeping to Angela, paraded Geli around on his arm, escorted her to cafés and cinemas. Indeed, Hitler soon began to act like a Hearstian sugar daddy, paying for her lessons with the best voice teachers in Munich and Vienna, encouraging her to believe she could become a heroine of the Wagnerian operas he loved to distraction.
Soon others began to take note of his romantic fascination. According to Fest, a party leader from Württemberg named Munder complained that Hitler was “being excessively diverted by the company of his niece from his political duties.” (Hitler later fired Munder.) Putzi Hanfstaengl recalls that Geli “had the effect of making him behave like a man in love. . . . He hovered at her elbow . . . in a very plausible imitation of adolescent infatuation.” Hanfstaengl says he once observed Hitler and Geli at the opera, saw him “mooning at her,” and then when he noticed Hanfstaengl observing him, Hitler quickly “switched his face to the Napoleonic look.”
In 1929 something happened which changed the nature of their relationship. His political as well as his personal fortunes growing rapidly again, Hitler purchased a nine-room grand luxe apartment in a building on Munich’s fashionable Prinzregentenplatz not far from the Munich opera house. He sent Geli’s mother off to semi-permanent duty at the Berchtesgaden retreat. And moved Geli in with him. They maintained separate bedrooms, but they were separate bedrooms on the same floor.ADVERTISEMENT
Outside that apartment Geli seemed to revel in the attention her role as Hitler’s consort brought her. And the power it gave her over him.
Just twenty-one years old, the product of modest circumstances, she’d suddenly become a celebrity, flattered, catered to, the center of attention in the court of the man described as “the King of Munich”—who was on his way to becoming the emperor of the New Germany. She was the envy of untold numbers of women. Some of whom spoke resentfully of the spell she’d cast on Hitler. She “was coarse, provocative, and a little quarrel-some,” Henrietta Hoffmann, the daughter of Hitler’s photographer, told historian John Toland. But to Hitler, Henrietta says, Geli was “irresistibly charming: if Geli wanted to go swimming… it was more important to Hitler than the most important conference.”
Still, for Geli, there was a price. Part of the price was virtual confinement in a huge apartment with no company but Hitler and her pet canary, “Hansi.” Geli too was a bird in a gilded cage, trapped within the stony fortress with an uncle twice her age, an uncle increasingly consumed with what Hitler biographer Alan Bullock calls jealous “possessiveness” of her.
But possessiveness of what? Of a sexual relationship? What really went on between Hitler and Geli behind the granite façade of that Munich apartment building when night came? This has been the subject of a bitterly contested debate among historians, biographers, and memoirists for some sixty years—a special instance of the larger ongoing dogfight over the precise nature of his sexuality and its link to his character and his crimes. Scholarly antagonists confidently proclaim opinions that range from the assertion that Hitler was entirely asexual to the belief that he was virile and “led a normal sexual life” and may even have gotten Geli pregnant. To the view that his sexual life took a form so bizarre and aberrational that some found it, quite literally, unspeakable.
Whatever the explicit form Hitler’s affections took, it became increasingly evident that for Geli the rewards of her public celebrity could not compensate for the oppressiveness of her private confinement with Hitler. And that in the final months of her life, indeed within days of her death, she was making desperate efforts to escape.ADVERTISEMENT
Vienna: The Central Cemetery
“That’s it, you’re standing on it right there,” Hans Horváth tells me. Meaning that this patch of weedy grass in the gray-green gloom of this featureless field, in a section of the cemetery that looks as if it’s been deserted even by the dead, is the precise place on the surface of the earth beneath which the long-lost body of Geli Raubal is to be found. The grave lost to history, and soon—Horváth hopes—to be reopened to history.
Of course, as with every other aspect of the Geli Raubal mystery, there is controversy over Horváth’s claim. He says that he’s had a professional surveyor align the coordinates of the cemetery-grid diagram with the graveyard earth, that he’s found records indicating Geli’s remains were encased in a zinc coffin, unlike the lost souls in the paupers’ field enclosed in rotting wood. And that, with a metal detector, he’s confirmed the concurrence of zinc coffin and surveyor’s coordinates.
A Vienna city councillor, Johann Hatzl by name, the man in charge of the city’s cemeteries, replied to an inquiry of mine by expressing doubt that Horváth has proved his case for the Geli grave site conclusively.
But Horváth has no doubt it’s Geli below my feet and no one else. Hatzl and Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk, he says, are just searching for an excuse to deny the exhumation. (Zilk insists the chief reason for the city’s refusal to approve the exhumation is the absence of a request from the deceased’s family.)
I’m less interested at the moment in the bones beneath the weeds than in something Horváth told me as we were departing the Sacher café for the trip to the cemetery in his silver BMW. Something about new evidence he’s come upon that’s led him to believe there’s an “American connection” to Geli’s murder. And that he’s got documents to prove it. He won’t show them to me or get more specific at first: he’s worried that he should preserve the revelation for his own projected book about Geli. And besides, he says, he’s been burned by a journalist before. A Der Spiegel article which appeared five years ago, when he launched his exhumation crusade, portrayed him as something of a “National Socialist nostalgist,” overly obsessed with artifacts of the Third Reich.ADVERTISEMENT
Not true, he says: he has many criticisms of Hitler for his half-baked racial theories. In fact, as we rolled up to the forbidding black iron gates of Vienna’s Central Cemetery this afternoon, Horváth told me he wants me to meet his Israeli girlfriend, Miriam Kornfeld. “He says this will show you he’s not a neo-Nazi,” my translator explained.
Horváth’s “a bit of a difficult character,” Professor Szilvássy tells me later. A self-made man, an autodidact who’s financed his investigative crusade with the revenues from his three prospering furniture- and art-restoration shops, Horváth displays an aggressiveness and abrasiveness that have not endeared him to the Vienna authorities, Szilvássy says. But whether we like his style or accept his “solution” to the case, his exhumation cause is just, Szilvássy maintains.
Horváth, who is forty-two, started collecting Hitler memorabilia as a teenager, but his ruling passion is anti-Communism, not pro-Nazism, he says. He adopts a version of the line put forward by certain conservative German historians in the mid-eighties, the one that provoked the famous Historikerstreit (historians’ battle), the one that focuses on the “legitimately heroic” role of the German army battling against the barbaric Reds on the bloody eastern front (and tends to ignore what they were fighting for).
Horváth’s memorabilia collection has grown so extensive over the years, he’s accumulated such a copious supply of W.W. II army and SS uniforms and insignia, that he’s often relied upon by movie companies filming period pieces in Austria to outfit whole detachments. His Vienna apartment is hung with Nazi uniforms and insignia.
I once asked Horváth’s Israeli girlfriend, Miriam, how she felt spending her time in that kind of environment. Miriam is a tall, attractive young apartment-rental agent, not much older than Geli was when she died. “In Israel,” she said, “it is impossible to speak at all of Hitler. He is, you know, too awful to talk about. But I believe it is important to learn about him, and through knowing Hans I have.”
The surprising thing about Horváth as a researcher is that—unlike, say, most J.F.K.-assassination buffs—he does original research rather than merely weaving conspiracy theories. And, unlike them, he’s capable of abandoning preconceptions. In fact, he has radically changed his mind since the Der Spiegel interview several years ago in which he did not dispute the suicide verdict. Now he tells me he’s convinced Geli’s death was murder. And that he can prove who did it.ADVERTISEMENT
Horváth’s path to his “solution” started with a question that arose right here in the graveyard and still poses a stark challenge to the official story: How was it that Geli Raubal, whose death was publicly proclaimed a suicide in the press of Germany and Austria, could get to be buried in the Catholic cemetery’s “consecrated ground,” normally denied to suicides?
The question was first raised in its most accusatory form by Otto Strasser, a one-time Nazi Party insider who has been the source of a number of the most sensational stories about Hitler and Geli. In his 1940 memoir, Strasser recalled a message he had received from a priest named Father Pant. The Raubal-family confessor when Geli and her mother lived in Vienna, Pant remained a faithful family friend after they moved to Munich. According to Strasser, Father Pant confided to him in 1939 that he had helped ease the way for Geli’s burial in consecrated ground. And then, Strasser says, the priest made this remarkable statement: “I never would have permitted a suicide to be buried in consecrated ground.”
In other words: Geli was murdered. When Strasser pressed the priest about what he knew, Pant said he couldn’t reveal anything further—to do so would break the seal of the confessional.
What did the seal conceal? What might Father Pant have known that made him discount the official suicide story?
In the early eighties, Horváth decided to track down Father Pant. Discovered that he’d died in the village of Alland in 1965. Spoke to people who knew him in the village of Aflenz and in Vienna, where he’d met the Raubal family when Geli’s mother worked at the convent school Pant was attached to. What they told him initially led Horváth, in his Der Spiegel interview, to discount Strasser’s description of the priest’s murder innuendo.
Since then, Horváth claims, he has come into possession of new evidence from Father Pant, which, in effect, breaks the seal of the confessional two decades after Pant’s death.
Munich: Prinzregentenplatz and the Chinese Tower in the English Garden
It’s still standing, Hitler’s deluxe apartment building, that grim granite love nest on Prinzregentenplatz, with its stone gargoyles staring balefully out from what was once Geli’s bedroom window. No longer a residence: after the war the unhappy final home of the woman who may have been Hitler’s most intimate victim was transformed into an office of reparations for Jewish victims of Hitler. Now it houses another, lesser kind of reparations bureaucracy—it’s the city of Munich’s central traffic-fines office.ADVERTISEMENT
A friendly traffic cop there offered to show me around the death scene only after he’d carefully checked my press credentials. Apparently the bureau gets periodic visits from pilgrims, many of the neo-Nazi persuasion, who want to see the place where Hitler and Geli slept. The Munich cop said something similar to what Horváth said about the Vienna authorities: they fear that too much attention will create an unsavory shrine.
This kind of nervousness didn’t seem entirely misplaced, that week in particular. The day I arrived in Munich via Vienna and Berchtesgaden, a feature in the London Times began, “A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of fascism.” The story cited recent electoral gains of right-wing, racist, anti-immigrant parties. And the rise of openly neo-Nazi skinhead gangs roaming German cities attacking homeless immigrants, the scapegoats of the New Europe.
But here in the English Garden, Munich’s central park, a mile away from the death scene, all is peaceful, bucolic, seemingly insulated from the resurgent specter stalking the streets of the cities of Europe.
The Chinese Tower, a tall, pillared gazebo atop a grassy knoll—a stone structure modeled upon the faux-Oriental “Temples of Contemplation” that were a fixture of eighteenth-century English landscape gardens—is a kind of shrine to one key school of thought on Hitler’s psychosexual nature. It’s the place where Geli allegedly made a startling midnight confession about what went on behind closed doors in Hitler’s bedroom.
The account of this outpouring comes to us from Otto Strasser, who claimed to be the only man to have had a Hitler-sanctioned “date” with Geli, in the tormented final years of her life. Strasser and his brother Gregor were early Hitler allies, the leaders of a “left-wing” faction of the Nazi Party which emphasized the socialism in National Socialism. Otto, and later Gregor, eventually broke with Hitler; Otto set up an exiled opposition movement called the Black Front, based in Prague. Afterward, he fled to Canada and supplied American intelligence agents with a number of damning stories about Hitler—including the tale of the Chinese Tower.
“I liked that girl very much,” Strasser told a German writer, “and I could feel how much she suffered because of Hitler’s jealousy. She was a fun-loving young thing who enjoyed the Mardi Gras excitement in Munich but was never able to persuade Hitler to accompany her to any of the many wild balls. Finally, during the 1931 Mardi Gras, Hitler allowed me to take Geli to a ball. . .
“Geli seemed to enjoy having for once escaped Hitler’s supervision. On the way back . . . we took a walk through the English Garden. Near the Chinese Tower, Geli sat down on a bench and began to cry bitterly. Finally she told me that Hitler loved her but that she couldn’t stand it anymore. His jealousy was not the worst of it. He demanded things of her that were simply repulsive. . . . When I asked her to explain it, she told me things that I knew only from my readings of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in my college days.”
To American O.S.S. intelligence officers debriefing him in 1943 after he defected, Strasser gave a somewhat different account of Geli’s confession that was far more explicit.
Can we believe Strasser? The contentious question of Hitler’s sexuality is one of a number of basic biographical issues which remain disturbingly unresolved, even after fifty years and countless thousands of studies. In the psychosexual realm, what we have is a long-running debate among three main schools of thought, which might be labeled the Party of Asexuality, the Party of Normality, and the Party of Perversion.
Rudolph Binion, a professor of history at Brandeis University and the author of Hitler Among the Germans, is a leading advocate of the Party of Asexuality. “His tie to his mother unsuited Hitler for any normal erotic relationship,” Binion writes. He points to a statement made by Hitler in the early 1920s that “my only bride is my motherland”—this, Binion notes, “with his mother’s picture now over his bed.” Binion believes Geli Raubal was Hitler’s “single approximation to amour-passion. Their difference in age approached his father’s to his mother, who called his father ‘Uncle’ even after their marriage.” But Binion doubts the “amourpassion”was ever consummated.
The Party of Normality (most of them German historians) tends to portray Hitler as someone who had “normal” physiology and “normal” heterosexual relationships with women. They take Hitler’s pious declaration that his only bride was the motherland not as a rejection of sexual relations per se, merely as the reason he didn’t marry and have children. But that doesn’t mean Hitler never had sex. Werner Maser, the spearhead of the Party of Normality, went to such great pains to prove Hitler had the physiology and virility of a “normal” man that he once argued that Hitler had fathered a son back in 1918. And he told one of my researchers he believes Geli was probably pregnant with Hitler’s child when she died.ADVERTISEMENT
But the Party of Normality must contend with the fact that Strasser is just one of a number of sources among those close to Hitler who testified to the aberrational quality of Hitler’s intimate relations with women.
Rumors of Hitler’s strange sexual practices had haunted him in much the same way rumors of “Jewish ancestry” shadowed his rise. In the late sixties, historian Robert Waite succeeded in getting declassified the secret “sourcebook” on Hitler’s psychology compiled by the O.S.S. in 1943. Which made public for the first time a number of shocking accounts collected by U.S. intelligence specialists attesting to extremely unorthodox sexual practices on Hitler’s part. (Some say the O.S.S. material, which is a compilation of raw and uncorroborated interviews, is not entirely reliable, but there are several stories in memoirs by Hitler contemporaries which describe similar practices.)
Based on the O.S.S. report and other sources, Waite has written, “The idea that Hitler had a sexual perversion particularly abhorrent to women is further supported by a statistic: of the seven women who, we can be reasonably sure, had intimate relations with Hitler, six committed suicide or seriously attempted to do so.” In addition to Geli, “Mimi Reiter tried to hang herself in 1928; Eva Braun attempted suicide in 1932 and again in 1935; Frau Inge Ley was a successful suicide as were Renaté Mueller and Suzi Liptauer.” Perhaps the most dramatic of these was the mysterious death of thirty-year-old Berlin film actress Renaté Mueller. Her director, one A. Zeissler, later told the O.S.S. that she had confided in him shortly after spending a night with Hitler in the Reichschancellery how distressed she was at the nature of the sexual practices Hitler demanded of her—with which, to her mortification, she complied. She claimed Hitler “fell on the floor and begged her to kick him. . .condemned himself as unworthy . . . and just grovelled in an agonizing manner. The scene became intolerable to her, and she finally acceded to his wishes. As she continued to kick him he became more and more excited.”
Soon after confiding this to Zeissler, Renaté Mueller flew out the window of a room on an upper floor of a Berlin hotel. The death was ruled a suicide.
But according to the O.S.S. reports and other accounts from Hitler contemporaries, Hitler’ests of Geli were even more extreme.
Let’s begin with the affair of the purloined pornography. The most detailed account of the episode comes from Konrad Heiden, one of the first and most respected journalists to chronicle Hitler (he was widely credited with coining the term “Nazi”). Author of four books on Hitler and the Nazis, forced to flee Germany in the thirties, Heiden was described in his New York Times obituary as “the best known authority outside Germany on the party and its leaders” in the pre–World War II period.
Heiden’s magnum opus, Der Fuehrer, is remarkable for its portrait of Hitler’s Munich circle, a now nearly forgotten collection of misfits, hunchbacks, sexual outlaws, moral degenerates, decadent aristocrats, ex-cons, and occult con men. Heiden calls Hitler’s Munich circle “armed bohemians.” They were Fascist libertines who spent boisterous days in the Café Heck and the Osteria Bavaria, stuffing themselves with pasta and pastries. While pimps scoured Munich schoolyards to supply boys for SA chief Ernst Röhm’s predatory appetites, Hitler was reported to have been present at dissolute gatherings at the home of party photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, who had a wide acquaintance among artists, models, and other demimondaines.
But Heiden’s Geli is hardly an innocent pearl among swine. He describes her as “a beauty on the majestic side. . . simple in her thoughts and emotions, fascinating to many men, well aware of her electric effect and delighting in it. She looked forward to a brilliant career as a singer, and expected ‘Uncle Alf’ to make things easy for her.”
In 1929, according to Heiden, “Hitler wrote the young girl a letter couched in the most unmistakable terms. It was a letter in which the uncle and lover gave himself completely away; it expressed feelings which could be expected from a man with masochistic-coprophil inclinations, bordering on what Havelock Ellis calls ‘undinism.’. . .The letter probably would have been repulsive to Geli if she had received it. But she never did. Hitler left the letter lying around, and it fell into the hands of his landlady’s son, a certain Doctor Rudolph. . . . The letter was. . . bound to debase Hitler and make him ridiculous in the eyes of anyone who might see it. . . . Hitler seems to have feared that it was Rudolph’s intention to make it public”
In other words, blackmail. According to Heiden, several Hitler confidants—his party treasurer, Franz Xaver Schwarz, a shadowy ex-priest, Father Bernhard Stempfle (who’d assisted in the writing of Mein Kampf), and the peculiar pack-rat-like Hitler-memorabilia collector J. F. M. Rehse—purchased the letter from Rudolph and were reimbursed with party funds, ostensibly for a projected collection of Hitler and party memorabilia.
Strange as this episode sounds, it closely parallels a story from another source, this one within the Hitler entourage: Putzi Hanfstaengl. Who, in his 1957 memoir, Unheard Witness, tells a very similar story, with one key discrepancy. In Hanfstaengl’s version the purloined pornographic material in the blackmail intrigue was not an explicit letter to Geli but explicit nude sketches of Geli.
The way Hanfstaengl tells it, the “first indication that there was something wrong with the relationship” between Hitler and Geli “came, as I recall, fairly early in 1930 from Franz Xaver Schwarz.” Hanfstaengl says that he ran into Schwarz on a Munich street one day, found him “very down-in-the-mouth.” Schwarz took him to his flat and “poured out what was on his mind. He had just had to buy off someone who had been trying to blackmail Hitler, but the worst part of the story was the reason for it. This man had somehow come into the possession of a folio of pornographic drawings Hitler had made. . . . They were depraved, intimate sketches of Geli Raubal, with every anatomical detail.”
Hanfstaengl says he was surprised when he found Schwarz still had possession of the ransomed Geli porn. “Heaven help us, man! Why don’t you tear the filth up?” he asked the party treasurer.
“No,” he quotes Schwarz replying, “Hitler wants them back. He wants me to keep them in the Brown House safe.”
The discrepancy between these two stories—a letter in Heiden, sketches in Hanfstaengl—seems of less moment than the remarkable convergence of the two accounts.
Rudolph Binion, a proponent of the Party of Asexuality, contends that Hanfstaengl told “tall tales,” that Heiden “can’t be trusted” because he exaggerated to sell books. And that Otto Strasser was also a questionable source. The partisans of the Party of Perversion, on the other hand, believe their reports are substantially true. Unfortunately, there are no unassailable witnesses to give us certainty either way. Nonetheless, the accounts of Heiden and Hanfstaengl provide a corroborative context for the third and most explicit text cited by the Party of Perversion, the shocking story of Geli’s confession which Otto Strasser told the O S S
Strasser recalls a tearful Geli telling him that when night came, “Hitler made her undress [while] he would lie down on the floor. Then she would have to squat down over his face where he could examine her at close range, and this made him very excited. When the excitement reached its peak, he demanded that she urinate on him and that gave him his sexual pleasure. . . . Geli said that the whole performance was extremely disgusting to her and that although it was sexually stimulating it gave her no gratification.”
Disturbing as the details of Geli’s confession might seem, it is even more disturbing to conceive of Adolf Hitler as “normal”—more threatening to our notion of Western civilization is the idea that a “normal” person could turn out to be a Hitler, as one academic puts it.
Dr. Walter C. Langer, the psychiatrist who prepared a report (based on the O. S. S. sourcebook) titled The Mind of Adolf Hitler, appears to have had no problems accepting Strasser’s outré account. Undinism, the name Havelock Ellis gave to this practice (after the water nymph Undine), thus became the semi-official U.S.-intelligence diagnosis of Hitler’s sexuality: “From a consideration of all the evidence,” Langer wrote, “it would seem that Hitler’s perversion is as Geli has described it.” It is “highly probable that he had permitted himself to go this far only with his niece.” The Party of Perversion also includes the authors of the only fulllength psychoanalytic biography of Hitler, Hitler’s Psychopathology, medical writer Verna Volz Small and the late Dr. Norbert Bromberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who connect Hitler’s alleged undinism to what they describe as an overly close confinement with his parents during which he witnessed “the primal scene.” Langer attributes it to a close confinement during his mother’s pregnancies.
While all this is necessarily speculative, consider the implications for our understanding of Geli’s death if Strasser’s account of Geli’s cri de coeur is correct.
At first glance it might appear to support a verdict of suicide: the “disgusting” practice became unbearable for her, and she ended it the only way she knew how, with a bullet through her chest. But look at this scenario: The young girl is in possession of the kind of knowledge the mere whisper of which, were it to become public, could destroy Hitler. Worse, she’s incapable of remaining discreet. She blurts out the truth to Strasser; she tells a talkative girlfriend that her uncle is a “monster. You would never believe the things he makes me do” (according to Hanfstaengl); she may be talking to a Jewish lover in Vienna and God knows who else. And, according to Heiden, in their final quarrel, Geli may even have told Hitler she’d talked. Confessed that “in her despair [she’d] told outsiders about her relations with her Uncle”.
And thereby sealed her fate.
There were a number of things that troubled me about Hans Horváth’s confident assertion that he’d solved the Geli Raubal case.
Horváth has come up with a radically different theory of Geli’s death, in which money, not sex, is the motive for murder. Horváth claims he’s seen documents from the Raubal-family confessor, Father Pant, and from the archives of the Austrian secret police that link the mystery of Geli’s demise to the mystery of Hitler’s funding in his Munich years.
The question of Hitler’s financial support during the twenties has never been adequately explained. What sustained him, allowed him to buy mountain vacation homes, brand-new Mercedeses, and princely apartments, particularly in the aftermath of his prison term and disgrace following the 1923 coup attempt? The Bavarian parliament once investigated reports of financial links between Hitler and Henry Ford (whose anti-Semitic books Hitler revered) without discovering the smoking gun.
To Horváth, Geli was the smoking gun. He claims wealthy American Nazi sympathizers (not Ford) were secretly supplying Hitler with sums of money that were being funneled through Vienna bank accounts. “Geli was one of the trustees for the accounts,” Horváth maintains. “The man who organized the American connection was Franz von Papen.” (Von Papen was the politically prominent right-wing German aristocrat who later became Hitler’s ambassador to Austria.) “Von Papen would give Geli envelopes, little packages,” Horváth says. The young girl “didn’t know for a long time what it was for.” But by 1931, “she was twenty-three, and the time came when suddenly you start to grow suspicious.” Geli’s suspicions, her indiscretions, Horváth says, led Hitler’s inner circle to decide she was a threat to expose the secret money pipeline—and had to be eliminated.
(Hitler biographer Bradley Smith finds the notion of von Papen’s involvement in such a pipeline preposterous since von Papen was a determined opponent of Hitler until 1933.)
One afternoon in the bar of my hotel in Vienna’s Fifth District—after days of coyly refusing to show his “proof”—Horváth dramatically unfastened his expensive leather attaché case and, with a flourish, removed several sheets of transparent Lucite, pressed within which were pages of what he said were writings by Father Pant.
I listened as my interpreter translated. I kept waiting for the conclusive evidence Horváth had promised. . .but it wasn’t there. The few cryptic scrawls were disappointing, unconvincing. Equally troubling, he promised to show me the corroborating material he claimed he found in the Austrian-secret-police archives—but then said it had disappeared from his files and from the archives.ADVERTISEMENT
Which is why I was even more skeptical when, in our final meeting at the Hotel Sacher, Horváth told me he knew the name of the man who murdered Geli. He’d seen a document, he claimed, that was the final testament of a Hitler security officer. In it, Horváth said, the man confessed that he shot Geli on orders from his superiors. But when I asked Horváth the name, he declined to reveal it—he said he was saving it for his book.
I’m afraid my skepticism about his theory will persist until he produces all his documents and allows them to be examined and authenticated by independent experts.
Geli’s last day of life, September 18, a Friday, began with both Hitler and Geli making plans to travel. Hitler was off to the North to Hamburg, where he was scheduled to address a Saturday-night rally to kick off his upcoming presidential campaign in northern Germany.
Geli, too, had plans by then. She’d “made up her mind,” Heiden tells us, “to end her whole life with Hitler, and go to Vienna.”
Vienna. The name of the city could not have been pleasing to Hitler. He hated the place, reviled it as “the personification of incest” in Mein Kampf (where he also described it as the city which gave birth to his anti-Semitic consciousness), viewed it as a seething nest of his mortal enemies: Jews, Marxists, and journalists.
For Geli, Vienna was something else. It had been her only sanctioned escape from her confinement. He’d permitted her to go there to consult famous voice teachers, and if we believe several reports to this effect, she made the most of her brief flights to freedom, entering into a surreptitious relationship with a Jewish voice teacher—the ultimate act of defiance of her Jew-hating uncle.
And now, on the final day of her life, she was telling Hitler she was determined to go to Vienna—and, by some accounts, exactly why and for whom she was going.
Almost every source—except Hitler— says the two of them quarreled over Geli’s planned trip. John Toland, who conducted extensive interviews with surviving members of Hitler’s household staff, writes that Hitler had, just that week, aborted a previous escape plan. Geli had gotten as far as the Hitler cottage at Berchtesgaden when “she got a phone call from Uncle Alf urgently requesting her to return.” After she got back, “her indignation turned to fury” when Hitler told her she was forbidden to travel while he went on his Hamburg trip. “The argument continued at a spaghetti lunch for two. . . . As Geli rushed out of the dining room, the cook noticed her face was flushed.” Later, the cook “heard something smash and remarked to her mother, ‘Geli must have picked up a perfume bottle from her dressing table and broken it.’ ”
“As he was setting out” on his trip, Heiden writes, “she called down to him from a window in the house. . . . ‘Then you won’t let me go to Vienna?’ And Hitler, from his car, called up, ‘No!’ ”ADVERTISEMENT
At some point, Geli sat at her desk and began writing a letter. That letter, her last known act, in a way is the most eloquent clue of them all. According to the Münchner Post it was a letter to a girlfriend in Vienna. The letter began, “When I come to Vienna, hopefully very soon—we’ll drive together to Semmering an—”
It ended there, in the midst of her first sentence, in the midst of a word—the final d of the German und was left off. That missing d suggests an interruption that was sudden and unwelcome and compelling.
But even more consequential is the tone of the letter itself: remarkably upbeat, forward-looking, and hopeful-sounding for a young woman who is supposedly on the verge of shooting herself. Indeed, the big mistake made by the damage-control squad when it arrived at the death scene was not destroying this note, because it is actually a very strong piece of evidence against the suicide theory. Is it conceivable that Geli, happily envisioning a spell in the bracing air of the Semmering (a mountain resort sixty miles south of Vienna), would shortly thereafter proceed to ferret out Hitler’s 6.35-mm. Walther from where he kept it in his bedroom, and blast a hole in her chest?
In any case, sometime between nightfall and the next morning someone shot Geli. There are an extraordinary number of conflicting versions of how the body was discovered. In almost all the accounts, the housekeeper couple who lived there claimed never to have heard anything suspicious, not to have noticed anything wrong until the next morning, when Geli didn’t answer to a knock. According to the official story, they found her door locked from the inside. Rudolf Hess was summoned. Some say the door was broken open in his presence and he was the first to inspect the death scene. What he found inside was Geli in a beige dress and a pool of blood, lying face up on her couch, lifeless, Hitler’s gun still clutched in a death grip. (Toland, who bases his version on interviews with housekeeper Frau Anni Winter, says it was not Hess but party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz and party publisher Max Amann who arrived, found the door locked, and summoned a locksmith.)
Of course, we have only the word of Hitler’s staff on all this. We have only their word that no suicide note was found; in any case, none was there when the police were finally summoned to the death scene. (Hanfstaengl says snidely of Frau Winter, “I strongly suspect it was made worth her while for the rest of her life to adhere to the official version.”)
By that time the fix was in: Bavarian minister of justice Franz Gürtner reportedly permitted the body to be shipped off to Vienna after a cursory look by the police doctor and a hasty declaration of suicide. Later, according to some reports, when a public prosecutor began his own inquiry, Gürtner (later promoted to minister of justice for the Reich) had it quashed. There never was a thorough investigation.
But there was a cover-up. Why? Let’s briefly examine the competing theories of what might have happened in Geli’s bedroom that night.
It Was Just “a Lamentable Accident”
This was the way that Hitler’s handlers were going to spin the official story, according to Hanfstaengl, who was the party’s foreign-press liaison officer.
Hanfstaengl reports that Hitler “was in a state of hysteria, and left the same day” for the seclusion of a friend’s lakeside retreat to escape press scrutiny. (Most sources say Hitler never saw the body. One uncorroborated account from a Hitler confidant, Otto Wagener, has Hitler present when the coroner removed the bullet from Geli’s chest. Wagener dates Hitler’s vegetarianism to that moment, but no one else places him in a room with Geli’s corpse.)
In his wake, Hitler left four men—Rudolf Hess, Gregor Strasser, Franz Schwarz, and party youth leader Baldur von Schirach—to handle damage control. Which they did badly: one of the first things this nervous group did was to subvert their initial “stage fright” suicide story.
That afternoon, says Hanfstaengl, Baldur von Schirach phoned from the apartment to party headquarters at the Brown House to tell the press office “to issue a communiqué about Hitler having gone into deep mourning after the suicide of his niece. Then the group at the flat must have got into a panic, because twenty-five minutes later von Schirach was on the phone again asking if the communiqué had gone out and saying that the wording was wrong. They should announce that there had been a lamentable accident [emphasis mine]. But by then it was too late. The word was out . . . ”ADVERTISEMENT
Which is fairly suspicious when you think about it. They had decided to ask people to believe that Geli was playing with a loaded gun, which somehow shot her in the chest. And so, from the very first moment, the suicide story seems to have been just one of a number of possible stories, cover versions they were toying with, one that Hitler’s own advisers thought too shaky to foist upon the public—before they learned they were stuck with the theory that
Geli Killed Herself Because of Stage Fright
Even Hitler could barely bring himself to endorse the “explanation” for Geli’s suicide put out by his damage-control team: that she killed herself because she was “nervous” about her musical debut. In fact—in an anomaly that has been overlooked by historians—in his response to the accusatory Münchner Post article, Hitler himself undermines the performance-anxiety suicide theory. He does say Geli “was worried that she was not yet fit for her public appearance.” But he does not offer this as a reason for her suicide. Instead, he proffers it as a refutation of the Post report that he and Geli quarreled over her desire to make a trip to Vienna to become engaged to a music teacher.
Hitler claims that he did not object to the Vienna trip and that it was “not true that she was going to get engaged in Vienna,” that, in fact, Geli was going to Vienna “to have her voice checked once again by a voice teacher” to help her prepare for her recital. In other words, she wasn’t suicidal over her debut, she was planning practical steps to prepare herself for it. Hitler’s statement, then, leaves us with no viable theory from him or his henchmen to explain why Geli wanted to kill herself, no counter to the suggestion advanced in contemporary newspapers that
Geli Killed Herself Because She Was Unable to Bear Hitler’s Sexual Demands
This is the theory that seems to be supported by the research of Langer and Waite, who toted up the number of suicide attempts by women in the aftermath of a romantic interlude with Hitler. If one believes that Geli committed suicide, this appears to be the most compelling explanation, one where the motivation is commensurate with the act.ADVERTISEMENT
There is, however, a kind of unofficial, Hitler-sympathetic explanation of Geli’s suicide motive, a fallback theory that has been advanced by those of the Party of Normality who wish to absolve him of having driven Geli to her death with his unorthodox sexual demands. I’m speaking of the belief that
Geli Was Jealous of Eva Braun
Consider the way Werner Maser, the most energetic champion of the Party of Normality, makes Hitler’s love life with Geli and Eva Braun sound like a second-rate Dynasty episode: “His evenings and nights belonged to Geli Raubal who quickly sensed, indeed knew, that her uncle had another girl friend whom he did not wish her to meet. Geli was in love with Hitler and Hitler was flirting outrageously with Eva Braun.”
According to Toland, Geli found a note from Eva to Hitler in Uncle Alf’s jacket pocket. Toland’s source, Frau Winter, claims she saw Geli angrily tear up the note. When Frau Winter pieced it together, she maintains, it read as follows:
Dear Herr Hitler,
Thank you again for the wonderful invitation to the theater. It was a memorable evening. I am most grateful to you for your kindness. I am counting the hours until I may have the joy of another evening.
Some believe this was what drove Geli to suicide. The way Toland and Maser portray the relationship, Geli was madly, possessively in love with that charming cad Adolf and would rather have shot herself than face the prospect of losing him to Eva. Particularly when, according to a widely held theory,
Geli Was Pregnant with Hitler’s Child
Maser, in fact, believes their relations were so conventional sexually that Geli was probably pregnant with Hitler’s child.
And was driven to suicide because she realized she’d lost him to Eva, and perhaps feared she’d end up spurned with a father-less child.
An even more explosive variant of the pregnancy theory of motive holds that
Geli Was Pregnant with the Child of a Jewish Cuckolder
This theme appears in a number of variations. The Münchner Post merely reports an engagement to an unspecified suitor in Vienna. Another source has it as a Jewish voice teacher. Hanfstaengl suggests Geli was pregnant by “a Jewish art teacher from Linz.”
Was there a real Jew who put the horns on Hitler? Or did some Iago in Hitler’s entourage—eager to be rid of the troublesome girl, who was distracting him so dangerously—deliberately arouse unfounded suspicions about her Vienna trips, her Vienna music teacher, in order to provoke a quarrel between Hitler and Geli?
Hitler as Othello? Geli as Desdemona?
Geli’s consorting with a Jew would have been a deep sexual wound to Hitler. She would have been, to use his odious rhetoric, “polluted.” The humiliation would have been a political wound as well, perhaps a fatal one: Hitler’s sweetheart chooses a Jew over the champion of Aryan supremacy. It would have been unbearable.
There was also another kind of political danger: sexual intimacy might have led to confessional intimacy, an intimacy in which Geli might have told her Jewish lover exactly what kind of aberrational practices Hitler demanded of her. If Geli told just one Jew, and if, in Hitler’s eyes, all Jews were linked in an implacable conspiracy against him, she would be placing in the hands of all Jews (and their journalist allies) enough sensational material to destroy him. And there is evidence that by the end Geli was talking to outsiders. Which leads us to what might be called
The Himmler Bushido Theory
This very complex, seemingly farfetched theory nonetheless has the strong endorsement of one of the most trustworthy contemporary observers: Konrad Heiden. Also, according to Heiden, of Geli’s mother. He tells us that in the years after her daughter’s death Angela Raubal “hinted at murder, or else suicide under compulsion or strong suggestion.” She didn’t accuse Hitler. “On the contrary, she said, she was sure that Adolf was determined to marry Geli. She mentioned another name: Himmler.”
Suicide under compulsion? Heiden cites the Nazi Party exaltation of the code of personal honor—Bushido—proselytized by Hitler’s Japanophile geopolitical adviser, Karl Haushofer.
What would it mean in practice? Heiden paints the following “gruesome scene,” as he calls it: “We can see Himmler [the new head of the SS], calling at a late hour; explaining to Geli that she had betrayed the man who was her guardian, her lover, and her Führer in one. According to National Socialist conceptions, there was only one way of making good such a betrayal.” That is, a suicide of honor.
Hanfstaengl describes a remarkably similar final scene, only he places Hitler, not Himmler, in the bedroom with Geli, saying in effect that
Hitler Talked Geli into Committing Hara-kiri
“It may well be that Hitler extracted from her the real purpose of her visit” to Vienna—the Jewish lover—Hanfstaengl writes. “It is not too difficult to reconstruct the reaction of that tortured mind and body. His anti-Semitism would have caused him to accuse her of dishonoring them both and to tell her that the best thing she could do was to shoot herself. Perhaps he threatened to cut off all support from her mother. He had swallowed for so long the Haushofer line about the samurai and bushido and the necessity in given circumstances of committing the ritual suicide of hara-kiri that he may have overwhelmed the wretched girl.”
This is the belief, reported if not endorsed by Joachim Fest, that a death sentence had been passed on Geli by the inner-party “court” (or “Feme,” after the informal tribunals of medieval Germany). Such vigilante death sentences had previously been handed down on other troublesome individuals who were threats to the party. There was, for instance, the plot to murder SA chief Ernst Röhm when his homosexual love letters found their way to the press.
Finally, we come to the most explosive and least well-explored possibility of all, the one maintained by the brave, doomed investigative journalist Fritz Gerlich, who died trying to report it:
Hitler Did It
Consider this scenario: The violent quarrel over the spaghetti lunch escalates. Hitler strikes Geli, fracturing her nose. Geli, hysterical, runs to get Hitler’s gun. Waves it around for dramatic effect, threatening to kill either him or herself. Or Hitler, in one of his famous fits of rage, pulls out the gun to intimidate her. The gun goes off and Geli falls. Hitler has shot her, either deliberately or inadvertently, in a struggle. (If the latter, it might explain why some of his aides wanted to go with the “lamentable accident” theory.)
Let’s look at his behavior: We know he quarreled with her that day and lied about it. We know he lied about her real reason for going to Vienna. We know he fled town to escape scrutiny and had her body spirited out of town. We know he exhibited hysterical grief and suicidal despair afterward that could have been a charade to throw off suspicion—or genuine remorse over a crime of passion.
We know the only denial he made was a narrow nondenial that nonetheless succeeded in undermining his official story. We know that as soon as he came to power he had at least four former supporters who talked too much about the death of Geli murdered. (Gregor Strasser, Father Stempfle, and, as we shall see, Fritz Gerlich and one of his sources, Georg Bell.)
We know, in other words, that he acted guilty as sin.
Well, it has been said, he had an alibi. He left Munich sometime after lunch that Friday, his staff claimed, heading for Hamburg, his chauffeur Schreck at the wheel of his big Mercedes. According to Toland, citing party photographer Heinrich Hoffmann (who claims to have been in the car), Hitler spent that night at the Deutscher Hof hotel in Nuremberg, ninety miles north of Munich. It was not until the next morning, the alibi goes, when he’d already departed for Hamburg, that word reached him of Geli’s death. Supposedly, Hess called the Deutscher Hof from the death scene and had the hotel dispatch a motorcycle courier to overtake Hitler’s car. At which point Hitler raced back to Munich so fast his Mercedes was even stopped for speeding (going thirty-four miles per hour through the center of the small town of Ebenhausen) and he was issued a ticket—the only documentary support for the alibi—which conveniently placed him at a time and place remote from the death scene.
But not really remote enough to exempt his alibi from careful scrutiny—though most historians have accepted it at face value. Hitler could easily have been at the death scene Friday, sped away north, and spent the night at the Deutscher Hof hotel—around two hours away.
Should we really take Hitler’s word on faith that he wasn’t a murderer?
Who are the witnesses who corroborate Hitler’s alibi? His chauffeur, Schreck; his housekeeper, Frau Winter; his photographer, Hoffmann; and his faithful deputy Rudolf Hess (or, according to Toland, faithful staffers Schwarz and Amann). Since by most accounts no one admits to hearing a shot fired, it is impossible to reliably place the time of death—it could have happened anytime after the quarrel, leaving plenty of time for Hitler to manifest himself elsewhere. And since there was no police investigation to confirm whether the door had been locked from the inside and then broken open by Hess, we have only Frau Winter’s word on the crucial assertion that Geli must have been alone when the gun was fired.ADVERTISEMENT
None of these problem areas in his alibi prove Hitler guilty of Geli’s death, but it’s important to realize he doesn’t deserve the free pass he’s gotten on this case. There’s no good evidentiary reason for history to let him off the hook on what may have been his first murder, perhaps the only one he committed with his own hands.
Yes, there were millions more to come. All the more reason to care about this one. Particularly if what he learned from it was precisely that, with a Big Lie, he could get away with murder. If he could kill someone he “loved,” and escape the consequences, how much easier to go on to kill those he hated. Don’t we owe it to history to do everything humanly possible—including exhumation of the victim’s remains—to get to the bottom of it?
We owe it also to Fritz Gerlich, the one courageous journalist who tried, while Hitler was still alive, to get to the bottom of it. Who, indeed, may have gotten to the bottom of it, but who was silenced before he could bring what he’d found to the surface.
SPECTACULAR ARRESTS IN MUNICH
It is this sensational headline on a sixty-year-old newspaper preserved here, mounted on a wall in the somberly lit museum at the Dachau concentration camp, that put me back on the trail of Fritz Gerlich’s lost scoop.
Because those “spectacular arrests”—of three of Gerlich’s journalist colleagues, who’d been marked men after Gerlich himself had been seized—were one further dramatic indication of just how seriously Hitler’s people took Gerlich’s threat to publish a story linking Hitler to Geli’s murder.
Gerlich was an unlikely candidate to become a Hitler nemesis, at least in the 1920s, when he was a well-known conservative writer and editor, a right-wing nationalist. But in the mid-twenties a change came over this stout, hard-nosed Bavarian with the steely eyes and the steel-rimmed glasses: a mystical religious streak appeared. He became a devotee and biographer of a saintly young German woman named Therese Neumann, who was said to have lived for years on no food but holy Eucharist wafers.ADVERTISEMENT
A kind of Catholic spiritual-renewal cult emerged around her and Gerlich, who’d become editor of the powerful conservative daily, the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, gradually grew to be part of the small, embattled Catholic opposition to Hitler. In 1930, Gerlich launched a publication specifically designed to combat the nation’s lurch toward Nazism, a weekly he later renamed Der Gerade Weg (“The Right Way”). Did his devotion to the saintly girl lead him to believe that Geli was a kind of martyr?
Whatever the source of his courageous decision to publish his sensational allegations, he must have known it would lead to his own martyrdom. Because Gerlich planned to publish a story linking Hitler to Geli’s murder two months after Hitler came to power, in an issue scheduled to appear in early March 1933. Until then, Der Gerade Weg was still publishing; the machinery of total repression had moved at a slightly slower pace in Munich.
But not slow enough to save Gerlich. In early March, reports reached Nazi Party headquarters that Fritz Gerlich was about to publish a damning exposé of Hitler and the party. However word got out—one report maintains that there was a Nazi informer inside Gerlich’s newspaper office—the response was swift, brutal, and devastating.
According to the eyewitness report of Gerlich’s secretary, on the evening of March 9 a squad of fifty storm-trooper thugs burst into the Der Gerade Weg office, seized all the written and printed material they could find, cornered Gerlich in his office, and emerged shouting, “We kicked him in the face until the blood spilled out of his mouth!“ And when his secretary came into the room, she reports, “there was Gerlich, full of blood.”
As for Gerlich’s about-to-be-published exposé, “the SA found the copies of his documents, took them over to the police headquarters, and destroyed them.”
Gerlich himself was dragged off to prison, first to a holding pen at Stadelheim, then to Dachau. He lived for another year and three months in “protective custody.” Tortured by the SA, knowing he would eventually be killed, he tried desperately to smuggle out through his fellow prisoners his version of what had happened in Geli’s bedroom the night she died.
Indeed, Gerlich’s newspaper colleague and biographer, one Baron Erwein von Aretin, reports that Gerlich never stopped trying. And that he did succeed in getting one fellow prisoner, who later escaped across the border to Switzerland, to publish a sketchy account of Gerlich’s ordeal over the Geli exposé, in a Swiss Catholic newspaper. What appeared there, and what has been repeated elsewhere over the years, were assertions, not proof, assertions that Gerlich had discovered that Hitler murdered Geli, and had the documents to prove it.
But what documents? What was it the SA seized and burned the day of the raid? The late von Aretin describes them as documents concerning the mysterious 1933 Reichstag fire, scandalous material involving SA chief Röhm, and “the names of key witnesses in the murder of Hitler’s niece Geli.”
Was there more? Will we ever know if Gerlich cracked the case? A month after his arrest, one of his principal sources, Georg Bell (a onetime intimate of Röhm’s who turned against him), was found murdered in an Austrian border town. Gerlich himself was murdered on the Night of the Long Knives, in 1934. (The last victim, Father Stempfle, was a middleman in the purloined-porn affair who, according to Dr. Louis L. Snyder’s Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, “made the mistake of talking too much about the relationship between Hitler and Geli [and] was found dead in a forest near Munich. There were three bullets in his heart.”)
Must we concede victory to Hitler in his crusade to exterminate any questions—and questioners—who cast doubt upon his version of Geli’s death?
This winter in Munich I made one last effort to see if there was anyone alive who could throw any light on Gerlich’s lost solution to the Geli Raubal mystery. Through a researcher I was able to contact the son of Gerlich’s biographer, von Aretin. He said his father had told him the following:
“There was a state’s attorney inquiry into the murder of Geli Raubal. My father had a copy of the documents on his desk in February 1933. When the situation became difficult, my father gave these documents to his cousin and co-owner of the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, Karl Ludwig Freiherr von Guttenberg, in order to bring them to Switzerland and deposit them in a bank safe. As my father remembered, these documents showed that Geli was killed by order of Hitler. Guttenberg carried the documents to Switzerland, but kept secret the number of the bank account because he thought it would be too dangerous to tell anyone. Guttenberg engaged in the 20 July 1944 [anti-Hitler coup attempt], was killed in 1945, and took the secret with him into the grave.”
This recollection corroborates the account given by Paul Strasser, recorded in his brother Otto’s 1940 memoir: “An inquest was opened at Munich. The public prosecutor, who has lived abroad since Hitler’s accession to power, wished to charge him with murder, but Gürtner, the Bavarian Minister of Justice, stopped the case. It was announced that Geli had committed suicide. . . . You remember Gerlich, the editor of Der Gerade Weg? He made a private investigation at the same time as the police, and collected overwhelming evidence against Hitler. Voss, Gregor’s lawyer, no doubt knew all about it too. He had all our brother’s secret papers at his house, but he was killed like Gerlich.” Otto Strasser believed that his brother Gregor “knew Hitler shot Geli” —and that Gregor, himself assassinated on the Night of the Long Knives, was murdered because he talked too much about Geli.
I was also able to discover a ninety-year-old man living in Munich, another one of Gerlich’s colleagues during those dark days of the early thirties, Dr. Johannes Steiner. He’s the retired founder of a publishing house that bears his name. In response to questions I sent him, Steiner replied that he had no memory of what Gerlich was going to print about Geli. He did, however, have one haunting recollection. Of a final, cruel gesture Hitler’s men made after they murdered Gerlich at Dachau: “They sent to his wife, Sophie, Gerlich’s broken spectacles, all spattered with blood.”
A symbolic declaration, perhaps, that Fritz Gerlich looked too hard, saw too much to live.
“When I come to Vienna, hopefully very soon—we’ll drive together to Semmering an—”
The Semmering. This was Geli Raubal’s final vision, the insanely picturesque Alpine mountain-“cure” resort she was dreaming of driving to, at the moment her last letter was so suddenly and irrevocably interrupted.
One can see why, that September, with the oncoming Munich autumn making the Hitler apartment even more dark and grim, she’d focus on this place above the clouds, with its sparkling, cleansing vistas out of Heidi.
I drove down there one afternoon to take a break from my graveyard conversations with Professor Szilvássy and Horváth. The twisting road up the lower slopes of the Semmering range was choked with thick, cottony fog, but above the mist line the diamond-bright clarity of the razor-sharp crags in the crystalline mountain air was almost painful in its lucidity.ADVERTISEMENT
Looking out from the glassed-in sun porch of a hotel café suspended high above the clouds, I was trying to bring Geli into sharper focus—resolve the double image of her the memoirists have left behind: angel/enchantress or manipulator/slut. Each is undoubtedly a distorted magnification of two different sides of the same young woman. One who was, above all, still young, still a girl when she moved in with Hitler, hardly knew what she’d bargained for, and certainly must be regarded—whether suicide or murder—as Hitler’s victim. If he didn’t do it himself, he certainly drove her to it.
If she was not an entirely innocent victim, she must at least be accorded the excuse of having been ignorant—ignorant as everyone else in the world was of the magnitude of the future horror breeding in the mind of Adolf Hitler. And yet living day and night with her own personal experience of it.
She may have been the first one to know close up how monstrous he really was. And one of the first and only ones of those close to him to resist, subvert, or thwart his will with whatever weapon she had at hand, whether it meant defying him with a Jewish lover or firing his gun at herself, thus extinguishing his most cherished source of pleasure.
There’s one final, haunting image of Geli that lingers with me: Geli and the ill-fated canary. It comes from Heiden, who seems to have had a source on the household staff.
It’s the afternoon of her last day, after the spaghetti-lunch quarrel. Heiden pictures the doomed girl wandering, Ophelia-like, around the gloomy nine-room apartment. She was bearing aloft “a little box containing a dead canary, bedded in cotton; she sang to herself and wept a little and said she meant to bury poor dead ‘Hansi’ near the [Berchtesgaden] house on the Obersalzberg.”
It’s unlikely poor Hansi got the burial he undoubtedly deserved. Did Geli Raubal?
Certainly Hitler went to great lengths to demonstrate his posthumous devotion. “Geli became for him a kind of personal cult,” Robert Waite writes. “He locked the door to her room and would allow no one to enter except [his housekeeper], who was instructed never to change anything in the room but daily to place a bunch of fresh chrysanthemums there. He commissioned a bust and portraits [and] along with portraits of his mother, he kept a portrait or bust of Geli in every one of his bedrooms.”
But as elaborate and demonstrative as Hitler’s last rites for her were, Geli has been denied one last right: that the truth about the way she died be rescued from the shroud of mysterious darkness that still covers it.
The freshest-and most essential-updates from Washington, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley.Enter your e-mail addressSign Up
MORE FROM VANITY FAIR