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Adolf Hitler, family man?

Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

Better known as a novelist, British writer A.N. Wilson is also a biographer of such literary figures as Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis. In his latest book, he draws upon both strengths as he conjures up two real-life characters, Adolf Hitler and Winifred (known as “Winnie”) Wagner, composer Richard Wagner’s British-born daughter-in-law and Hitler acolyte.

But Wilson being Wilson, he does not stop there: He lets his prodigious imagination roam into uncharted territory, where his protagonists not only have a passionate affair but produce a daughter (who also takes the name Winifred) in 1932, only months before the Fuhrer becomes chancellor. The result is a rich confection of atmosphere and action, full of detail -- cultural, political and sexual -- and much fancy.

“Winnie and Wolf” takes the form of a letter to the spawn of this unholy affair, penned in 1960s East Germany by a nameless onetime functionary of the Wagner household who is the younger Winifred’s adopted father. The manuscript is discovered in her possession upon her death in 2006 in Seattle, where she has been living under the name Winifred Hiedler, a pretty clear indication that she believes the story contained in it. This somewhat creaky device enables Wilson to don his biographer’s hat and pen some footnotes along the way, although it must be said to his credit that he does not overindulge in this sport. This elaborate construction allows the adoptive father narrator to tell his story with the benefit of hindsight regarding the extent of Hitler’s genocide, while also refracting his tale through the lens of his bitter experiences in Communist East Germany. And so along the way, he gives a passionate personal view of his native Germany from the 1920s into the ‘60s.

Perhaps the best part of “Winnie and Wolf” is its evocation of the early 20th century strange operatic world of the Bavarian town of Bayreuth, ground zero of all things Wagnerian. Married while still in her teens to Wagner’s gay son, Siegfried, Winnie becomes more of a Wagner than any of the blood family and is the prime mover of the operatic enterprise even before the early death of her husband.

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The narrator is more than a little love-struck by this force of nature, and his portrait of her is a fond one. Perhaps too much so, because although he acknowledges her passionate adherence to Nazism (which she espoused a full decade before Hitler came to power), he offers up a great deal of supposedly exculpatory evidence involving her intervention on behalf of Jewish musicians in her opera house. That this was done more for her convenience than from lack of anti-Semitism seems clear even to her besotted admirer. A more serious fault of the portrait is that it is largely from the outside, as seen by the narrator.

He does the same thing with the private face of the Fuhrer, Wolf (his nickname in the family), a fond uncle to the Wagner kids and man about Wahnfried, the villa of that creepy family that includes the composer’s widow, Cosima, and their daughters. One of these, Eva, married English writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose anti-Semitic panegyrics were a great influence on Hitler’s thinking and who is seen here receiving Hitler’s homage. The narrator lays great stress on the contrast between the private Wolf, so amiable and low-keyed in the Wagner menage, and the ranting demagogue, capable of mesmerizing a great nation.

Fictionalizing Hitler is a bit like touching a live electric rail. Wilson seems to want to have it several ways. On the one hand, he revels in describing Hitler’s repulsive appearance and habits: his repellent sexual tastes involving coprophilia and other sundry unsanitary and unsavory practices for which there are no polite terms; his famous flatulence, described in excruciating detail on occasions ranging from making speeches to achieving orgasm. But on the other, there are scenes in which Wolf confides in the narrator in such a way that he cannot but be seen in an attractive light. Humanize Hitler at your peril: Wilson might have done well to emulate the Belgian broadcasters of a television series about historical figures’ favorite meals: At the last moment, they decided that an episode about Hitler’s vegetarian delights -- which this book showcases -- might send the wrong message and pulled it.

Because of his use of a partisan and not altogether reliable narrator, it is hard to get a handle on just where Wilson stands on his vexed subject. There are all the expected condemnations of the Holocaust along with lots of “how could anyone have known it would come to that?” But there are also scenes in which even anti-Nazis cannot hide their joy at Germany’s triumphs. Add to this some heartfelt denunciations of life in Communist East Germany, and the reader is left with an uneasy feeling. It leaves me wondering whether Wilson, erstwhile young fogy and in his maturity still very much part of right-wing English literary circles where it is fashionable to equate the horrors of Communism and Nazism, is indulging in special pleading for his rebarbative protagonists.


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