A trilogy of novels
Novel is currently with agent Tim Bates at Peters, Fraser, Dunlop Agency, London, UK
In 1925, Stefan Streichland, a beginning professor of European history at the University of Munich, publishes a controversial monograph on modern history that includes a chapter on Frederick the Great of Prussia, the reputed founder of the modern German state.
The small study, coming at the end of Germany’s capitulation in the Great War and subsequent humiliation at Versailles, is read approvingly by the leader of the fledgling Nationalsozialistische Partei, a party that is gaining support throughout the country. When this party leader, or Führer, becomes Reichskanzler in 1933, he conscripts the young professor to write the official history of the German Reich—a Reichshistory, in effect—beginning with Frederick and culminating in himself.
Despite his reservations with the new chancellor—from the start he recognizes the leader as dangerous though he only slowly comes to understand how dangerous—Streichland accepts the challenge, believing that he can, as court historian, provide an important perspective on his age, while still retaining his moral dignity.
The reader is taken on a journey not unlike Dante’s descent through the layers of human depravity and brutality of his own country’s dark past in his Divina Commedia. On one level, the novel depicts a single individual’s struggle to make sense of the madness; but also—because the novel’s protagonist is a historian, holding a privileged insider’s point of view—the novel provides an overview of the times. Little is invented—merely imagined—in this work.
On its deepest level the novel is a meditation on history—on the very history-making process itself. At one point, Streichland poses the question in his secret notebooks: “Is history—the writing of history—a matter of degrees of truth? Of showing facets of truth? Is it ever possible for history to tell the whole truth, hiding nothing, concealing nothing?” Impossible as he believes such an ideal to be, this is the goal that he sets for himself.
Through the eyes and sensibility of this perceptive and tortured individual, the reader is taken on a personalized tour of this extraordinary moment in human history. Indeed, the novel can serve as a genuine psychological study of the times and of the malevolent forces unleashed by this demonic Führer, whose spectre still haunts us to this day and whose presence on the European stage reshaped human history, if not, indeed, the human mind itself.
This book is a novel in the guise of history; history in the guise of a novel. Following the model of Tolstoy (to whom the book owes an enormous debt), I have chosen to write historical fiction that veers as little from the actual “facts,” the actual historical personages, and the timbre of the times as possible; that bases itself on real events and historical personages; that follows history’s own timetable.
The book’s fictional personalities, including its central protagonist, have merely been inserted into the times; they cleave to and are beholden to those times absolutely. Only minor licenses and none that contradict or diminish the actual historical events or personages themselves have been taken.
This pursuit of “historical accuracy” is in keeping with the over-riding theme of the book, which explores and questions the notion of history itself; the process by which we enter the consciousness of the past and allow the past to enter the consciousness of the present.
|PROLOGUE||Death on Capri. April 1992|
|CHAPTER ONE||The Messenger. April 1926|
|CHAPTER TWO||Austrian beginnings. 1900-1917|
|CHAPTER THREE||Meeting with the German Reichskanzler. June 1933|
|CHAPTER FOUR||Invitation to the Obersalzberg. September 1933|
|CHAPTER FIVE||Berlin Encounter. April 1934|
|CHAPTER SIX||A New Friend. April 1934|
|CHAPTER SEVEN||Bismarck & the Second Reich. May 1935|
|CHAPTER EIGHT||Birthday on the Obersalzberg. April 1936|
|CHAPTER NINE||Eviction. Summer 1936|
|CHAPTER TEN||Visit to Sans Souci. September 1936|
|CHAPTER ELEVEN||Baron von Feuerbach. October 1936|
|CHAPTER TWELVE||Villa Michelangelo. February 1937|
|CHAPTER THIRTEEN||Tuscan Winter. 1937-38|
|CHAPTER FOURTEEN||Year of Faits Accomplis. 1938|
|CHAPTER FIFTEEN||The Fate of Czechoslovakia. September 1938|
|CHAPTER SIXTEEN||Assassination Attempt. September 1939|
|CHAPTER SEVENTEEN||A Clear Moral Soul|
|CHAPTER EIGHTEEN||Christmas in Berlin. December 1939|
|CHAPTER NINETEEN||Sichelschnitt. May 10, 1940|
|CHAPTER TWENTY||Christmas on the. Obersalzberg 1940|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE||Alma Schönborn|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO||An Aristocratic Visitor. Spring 1941|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE||Fall Barbarossa. June 1941|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR||Feldmarschall. Winter 1941-42|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE||Nature Amiss. April 1942|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX||Christus versus der Führer. Summer-Fall 1942|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN||Die Weisse Rose. February 1943|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT||The Trial. April 1943|
|CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE||Freesia & Mimosa: Family Sorrow. May 1943|
|CHAPTER THIRTY||Revelation. Summer-Fall 1943|
|CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE||Gotterdammerung. Winter-Spring 1944|
|CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO||Ave atque vale. July 1944|
|CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE||A Fateful Day. July 20, 1944|
|CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR||Isle of Capri. April 1992|
PROVIDE THE READER WITH AN OUTLINE OF YOUR NOVEL
The novel is a fictionalized account of a good man, a professor of history at Munich University, who, through personal weakness and a series of miscalculations on his part, is drawn into the web of the Third Reich.
Professor Stefan Streichland is approached by the new German chancellor to write the official history of the Reich—a history that begins with Frederick the Great of Prussia and culminates with the present leader himself. In the course of researching and writing this history, Streichland is drawn ever deeper into the tyrant’s life and into the events of his age. By the time he sees his way clear to act, it is too late—too late for him and too late for the German people themselves.
This is the scope of the novel and by its end the reader has been taken on a fantastical journey through the madness and horror of that age. Indeed, in a real sense the novel can serve as a history of those times—with the major themes and, if you will, leitmotives of that horrid spectacle set before the reader’s eyes.
WHAT WERE YOUR AIMS IN THE NOVEL?
In the novel, many things are attempted. First, keeping in mind Conrad’s injunction “to make the reader see,” I wanted to bring those times—Germany 1927-45—alive for the reader. To relive something of that precocious era from a particular—granted, privileged—point of view, and to show the fascination that Nazism held for so many otherwise sane individuals. I wanted to resurrect the times from as wide a perspective as possible. Though Streichland’s initial reaction to the party leader is a negative one, he is soon drawn into the snare that the latter has prepared for him, indeed for the German people themselves.
Only slowly—again, like the German people themselves—does my protagonist become aware of the leader’s true maniacal intent. But by then, as he realizes, it is too late to do anything about it; and he decides that the whole mad drama must play itself out—at least if history is to draw any important lessons from this most terrible of moments.
Consciousness coheres slowly and in painful stages at the best of times—but perhaps even more so at the worst of times. The important eyewitness accounts of the Nazi era, if read carefully, reveal this slow and painful process at work. Streichland’s burgeoning moral consciousness parallels—I would like to think—Germany’s own moral awakening to the evil emanating from its centre. Beyond any conscious design on my part, Streichland became, in effect, a kind of German Everyman—a prototype of the intelligent, sensitive, historically aware individual who finds himself caught in a web of evil.
For the novelist this slow, smouldering process of awareness—this slow, incremental passage of time and consciousness—serves as the most fertile ground for serious excavation.
HITLER PLAYS A CONSIDERABLE ROLE IN YOUR DRAMA. IS YOUR HITLER DIFFERENT FROM THE HITLER FOUND IN THE MAJOR HISTORIES AND BIOGRAPHIES?
Part of my aim was to capture the person of Hitler—or, more specifically, to track the man as he evolved into the tyrant and finally the terrible icon of evil that he became. A German historian has suggested that had Hitler died prior to the invasion of Poland in September 1939 (thus before he had actually set his Wehrmacht in motion), he would have entered the annals of history as one of the great statesmen of all time. We might quibble with the claim but still find a good deal of truth in it.
Hitler evolved—or let’s say devolved—into the character of Hitler; just as many Germans devolved in their day-to-day existences into their evil counterparts. This process—or devolution, as we have come to think of it—is often overlooked or misprized by historians who bring the powerful arsenal of hindsight to bear upon the past—often treating it as a sequence of clearly defined moments instead of a fluid succession of events—a process in search of itself.
The Hitler who emerges, who grows through the novel, is unlike any found in the historical literature—certainly unlike the cartoons or caricatures of the man that appear in Bullock’s or even Kershaw’s lengthy but in the end unsatisfactory biographies. Granted, it is a Hitler perceived through the eyes and moral perspective of the book’s protagonist—thus limited, to a degree—but still a full dimensional and credible Hitler, a talkative Hitler, a Hitler who reveals much of his dark personality and past. We see the German Führer at home in Berlin, Munich, Berchtesgaden, and his east Prussian redoubt. We come to know him through the ever dissecting eyes of Streichland, and, I hope, begin to plumb the man’s complex nature. It is true, we never become Hitler or delve into the darkest reaches of his soul, but we come close to doing so—as close perhaps as humans can come to such an enigmatic personality.
No book that I am aware of explores this fascination, this enthralment with Hitler, from the “inside.” Albert Speer does so in Inside the Third Reich (Memoirs) and his Spandau Diaries—and with some success. Speer’s is the only account that challenges the thousands of others (both in fiction and non-fiction) that stand outside Hitler’s life and simply hurl moral opprobrium upon him. Almost always such books fail to see the human—albeit antihuman—side of his nature; and almost always fail to fathom his appeal. Without Speer’s intimate “insider’s view” (“If Hitler had had a close friend, it would have been me,” Speer attests), we would be in the dark about one whole aspect of Hitler’s personality—arguably the most important aspect—which is Hitler the artist. By this, I mean artist in the Nietzschean and Wagnerian sense of the term, as cultural magus. His political ambitions by comparison take second place when the man’s aspirations for the future are taken into account.
SPEAK A LITTLE OF THE FRAME OF THE NOVEL—YOUR USE OF A NARRATOR TO GET THE STORY GOING.
I use a first person narrator to set the story up and frame the narrative—a young assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto named Adrian Wagner. Herr Wagner’s shaping presence is felt throughout the first hundred or so pages of the novel but then retreats into the background—letting the story unfold through Streichland’s “imagined” point of view; drawing upon Streichland’s own verbal accounts of his experiences as well as his extensive wartime notebooks—his Realhistory notebooks—which Streichland has turned over to the young professor.
At the end of the novel, Herr Wagner returns with some important reflections of his own regarding Streichland. Without this frame, and these reflections—this distancing or mirroring effect—the reader would have little chance or indeed compulsion to stand apart from these events and to evaluate them. Through the narrator, the reader achieves a voice within the narrative itself and gains a certain moral and intellectual detachment from Streichland and his world.
In this sense, the narrator serves the same role of “amanuensis” and moral interpreter of Streichland’s life as Streichland did for the German Führer. I need this distancing or mirroring effect if the book is to treat seriously its deepest theme, which is the meaning of history itself—the convoluted process by which the thing we call history comes into being; the process by which each generation arrives at its own understanding of the past.
SPEAK ABOUT STREICHLAND’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE GERMAN LEADER.
Hitler is drawn to Streichland because Hitler considers himself a historian, one of the “great movers of all time.” He conscripts Streichland to write the history that will illuminate his tyranny and highlight his place in history. Streichland is snared by the challenge. It is, indeed, the same challenge that he has set for himself to revision the past—though he hasn’t, of course, planned on the challenge shaping itself in such a personal manner.
Having accepted the challenge, however, he is doomed to a life that, intellectually and morally, becomes indefensible to him. Thus his dilemma—“his Faustian bargain,” as he comes to think of it—a dilemma that he doesn’t resolve but passes on to the young Wagner, whom he conscripts to tell his story, and, by implication, to us the reader.
Streichland agrees to write a history of the Reich (a Reichshistory) because he believes that the project will provide him with an Archimedean point of vantage within his age—the dream of every historian. But almost immediately, he realizes the impossibility or at least dishonesty of such an undertaking. Too much of necessity would have to be overlooked or whitewashed. In secret notebooks, he begins to compose a very different kind of history. These Realhistory reflections will, he hopes, become the seedbeds of a more probing study of the times. In striking this distinction between a Realhistory and Reichshistory version of events—of historical truth, in effect—Streichland parallels the distinction often struck between the Rankeian “factual” approach and the more “psychologically intuitive” Burckhardtian approach to history.
WHAT ADVANTAGE IF ANY DOES THE HISTORICAL NOVEL HAVE OVER THE FORMAL HISTORY?
As we recede from the aeon of the German tyrant and wait for the last eyewitnesses to die off, the phenomenon of Nazism (its claim to a total world order) appears more and more unreal. Certainly I find this happening to me personally as I grow older. The events 1933-45 become more and more unreal and thus more inaccessible to us. It’s important at this crucial “last, perceivable stage” to make a final reckoning; to memorialize, in language, as much of the evil as possible, so that, yes, we will never forget, but just as importantly so that we can recognize the phenomenon for what it was, a totally primitive philosophy of life, an utterly barbaric yet human—again, antihuman—event. The novelist has the advantage over the historian when it comes to understanding the human dimension of the problem. Only the novelist can take us within the actual event. Only the novelist can feel the human pulse. Only the novelist gauge the moral timbre of the times.
The novel, carefully poised—with the vividness and actuality of the memoir and something of the detachment of the objective history—can offer a perspective on the past and its dramatis personae that is different from any other kind of narrative; it can provide the reader with a sense of the day-to-day, month-to-month reality as that reality unfolds and as events send their shock waves through a culture; in short, the times as they are lived and perceived by the most aware of witnesses.
The novel can trace the slow, incremental decline of a people, its moral devolution and dissolution, in effect; thus replicate the slow, incremental process of consciousness—especially consciousness as it tries to battle with the problem of evil. But the novel, because it, too, is written with hindsight—or irony, in the hands of the discerning writer—gains yet another advantage. It can tease out leitmotives, relationships, patterns inherent in past actions that aren’t available to even the most astute participants in the drama. Indeed, this wider, deeper perspective—which the novel and the novel alone can achieve—comes over time to constitute the “real history” of an era; to expose its true character before the eyes of history, we might say. After all, the great—and clearly lasting—histories of the nineteenth century weren’t written by the historians but the novelists of the age: the Herzens, Stendhals, Dickens, Melvilles, Tolstoys, Pasternaks, Manns.
WHAT AUDIENCE DO YOU HOPE TO REACH IN THIS NOVEL?
Part of my aim was to reach a new generation of readers who have, at best, only a generalized or hazy knowledge of this past (a knowledge that now becomes hazier by the year). My own generation has been brought up on the war and has for the most part made up its mind about it—though, I hope, still open to new insights. Twenty years ago, a New York agent tried to convince me that the Nazi phenomenon was dead as a viable subject for literature. How wrong that person was, as seen by the fine books that continue to be published—and the fine films that continue to be made—on the subject.
Indeed, I prefer Tolstoy’s observation that it takes two or three generations for an age to put its past into proper perspective. We must clear the blackboards of time, in effect. War & Peace was written nearly sixty years after the events and characters portrayed in that novel. I find it gratifying—and a little chastening—that in just the last few years several big budget films have been made about some of the major themes of my own novel: the film Max, depicting Hitler’s early life as an artist in Vienna; the magnificent German film Sophie Scholl; the German mini series on Albert Speer; and the recent Hollywood film on von Stauffenberg and the July ’44 conspirators.
A FINAL REFLECTION?
The past, the significant past, is always with us; always alive to fresh interpretation. The more significant the moment the longer such assessment takes; the longer consciousness takes to assimilate its complexity. And the longer it takes for the serious writer—and work of art—to gain a meaningful perspective on that past.
The present age is obsessed with Hitler and Nazism. More books—as George Steiner observes—have been written on Hitler than on Christ. There are reasons for this and reasons why we today, nearly seventy years later, are still drawn to the phenomenon of Nazism and driven to understand its appeal. As my protagonist, Stefan Streichland, notes: “Nazism has become the mythology of our time, compelling us to fight our own moral battles vicariously through this past; our own problem of evil—in a sense—which won’t let us rest.”
In The Reichskanzler’s Historian, I have tried to write a parable or allegory of history at work on itself: to delineate the search for the ‘real history’ that will make sense of the past. The novel resonates through the life of one weak, tragic individual into the age itself: into German culture, the German mind, the German language—which, at some fundamental level collectively played with the phenomenon of Nazism and tragically succumbed to its blandishments.
Is there a sense in which a culture can be held accountable for an Adolf Hitler and Nazism? The novel tries to address that issue as well. Certainly it cannot solve these problems, any more than it can solve the problem of evil itself. No book can do this. But The Reichskanzler’s Historian, I hope, provides the reader with a drama, a life, large and self-reflective enough to challenge and perhaps illuminate our understanding of these things.