When the novelist plays with history

Fiction: Dutch writer Harry Mulisch's original if unsettling narrative, Siegfried, forces the reader to consider a number of…

Fiction: Dutch writer Harry Mulisch's original if unsettling narrative, Siegfried, forces the reader to consider a number of difficult questionswrites, Eileen Battersby

Which is the greater evil, the extermination of an entire race, or ordering a terrified servant to kill your own child? Exactly how far can fiction play with historical fact? Is the novelist a storyteller or a moral philosopher? Does a novelist have the right to play with the reader's grasp of the past? A number of such questions must be considered when reading Dutch writer Harry Mulisch's original if unsettling narrative, Siegfried, which sets out to explore the private individual behind the tyrannically evil figure of Adolf Hitler.

The career and bizarre leave-taking of life orchestrated by history's supreme madman is the stuff of history. No study of mass murder and destruction, never mind the brainwashing of a nation, would be complete without reference to Hitler and his reign of terror. It is now impossible not to be aware of the final days in the bunker as Hitler faced certain defeat. Every schoolchild knows about the death of his new bride, his long-serving - and suffering - mistress, Eva Braun, and his own suicide as the Allies closed in on Berlin.

How can evil be quantified? Is it even worth quantifying it? Probably not, but in any poll of inhuman devils down the ages Hitler would win the dubious honour of coming number one. He still fascinates, the lowly soldier who was decorated for bravery in the first World War and brought the world to its knees in the second.


Mulisch brings his creation, Rudolf Herter, also a Dutch novelist, to Vienna for a series of engagements centring on the public life of a famous writer. Herter, though old, is more broken by disease than age, and remains alert to both the demands and responsibilities of the writer as public man and articulator of truths and meanings. In a television interview, he speculates about the nature of evil and selects Hitler as his personification of it.

His remarks draw two old people from a life of secrecy. The couple, Ulrich and Julia Falk, now living in an old people's home, have a story that would defy the imagination of most novelists. As they face death, they are anxious to shed their appalling secret - and who better to tell their story to than a writer with an admitted interest in the nature of evil? Life's various twists and turns had led Ulrich and his wife, both then young, to employment in Hitler's household at Berchtesgaden. Unquestioning loyalty was the key to survival in such an establishment. Privy to some of the Führer's personal secrets, they become aware of intimate details of his relationship with Eva Braun. Mulisch portrays her as a sympathetic slave to an obsessive devotion to a man who seemed incapable of love and acted out his life between the twin pillars of Napoleon and Wagner. At no time does the narrative become a tale of tragic lovers thwarted by the demands of Hitler's crazy destiny. Instead Braun emerges as a pathetic victim suffering the indignity of a secret pregnancy, while Mulisch, thankfully, makes no attempt to fabricate a human side to Hitler.

In a moment of near-farce, the dictator is described holding his newborn son, the aptly named Siegfried, in his arms: "He looked terribly awkward . . . gazed around in a kind of clumsy ecstasy, and said solemnly: 'A child is born.' "

It is obvious that Hitler has no intention of publicly recognising either Braun or their child. The Falks tell the listening novelist that the problem had been explained to them at the time, some 60 years earlier: "All German women wanted a child by the Führer . . . If he were now to marry Miss Braun, and if it were subsequently to emerge that he had become the father of a child, supposedly born two months premature, they would feel he had betrayed them, and that was undesirable for political reasons - after all, it was mainly women who had brought him to power."

Long before the child is born it is decided that it will be presented as the child of Ulrich and his wife. Little is said about the impact this will have on Eva but still she battles on as the lover of the dictator. The Falks raise the child, with Hitler and Eva in the roles of uncle and aunt. All of which is grotesque enough, but worse is to follow when Ulrich receives the order to kill the boy.

Clearly, Mulisch is not trying to rehabilitate Hitler and, in fact, he adds yet another horror to the dictator's list of crimes against humanity. Throughout the narrative the reader swings between fascination and revulsion, the operatic and the biblical. Falk duly murders the boy he has raised as his own son, on the order of the child's father.

There are moments when Herter is confronted with the possibilities of history if fate, and human nature, had acted differently. The novelist, in the company of the old couple, considers an ancient photograph of the boy killed on his father's command. "Siegfried Falk," thinks Herter, "would have been sixty-one now, without knowing who he was; on certain days, with his wife and children, he would have visited his parents", the Falks in their little flat, without ever suspecting he was Hitler's son.

Overwhelmed by the story, Herter returns to his hotel and his girlfriend, the mother of his seven-year-old boy, currently at home in Amsterdam being minded by Herter's ex-wife and her boyfriend. The novelist must write it all down - immediately. His Faustian version is framed in intellectualised, academic language replete with cultural and historical cross-references to Nietzsche's life and madness as well as coincidences far removed from the candour of Falk's simple confession of his part as witness and perpetrator of yet another of Hitler's sins.

The symbolism of the weight of responsibility and its toll on Herter injects potential melodrama into a tale of high drama that succeeds through its wayward plausibility. Ultimately, Hitler emerges as less interesting than Napoleon and far more ridiculous. But then Mulisch is alert to the ridiculousness of history and of life itself. It is a performance balanced between pity and farce. Perhaps the riskiest and most human (and humane) aspect of it all, are the entries from Eva Braun's journal.

Fact or fiction? It is irrelevant. Her simple confusion and unexpected eloquence both jar and compel during the reading of this impressively, and disturbingly, ambivalent book.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Siegfried. By Harry Mulisch, translated by Paul Vincent, Viking, 180pp. £16.99