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Book Review: Sins of the Fathers

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Another book on Hitler? And a novel, yet? It’s called Sins of the Fathers, and it continues to correct and add to the biographical and political record of Adolph Hitler which Herbert Stern and Alan Winter explored in an earlier novel, Wolf, also a fact-based fictional account. That book garnered critical acclaim, and it’s likely that the sequel, Sins of the Fathers, which covers the years leading up to World War II, is likely to do as well. The narrative is exciting and provocative.

Sins of the Fathers is structured as suspenseful dateline chapters that begin in Berlin 1934 and go to November 1938, after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous capitulation to Hilter in Munich, foiling an intricate assassination plot that the authors believe would have prevented World War II.

Stern, a former United States judge in the occupied American sector of West Berlin, and Winter, a writer and former academic, have done impressive research, the only question eluding them being the cause of Hitler’s implacable hatred toward Jews. But why fiction? And why, along with real-life characters, do they introduce the made up handsome, intelligent and sympathetic Friedrich Richard as the narrator? He’s a senior-ranking paramilitary SS officer, but no Nazi. Indeed, as the novel opens he’s out to avenge the brutal murder of a good friend, a Jew.

They met — Friedrich and Wolf, the name Adolf went by in early days — when they both were in a military hospital in northeast Germany just as The Great War was ending. Hitler, a corporal, was said to have been temporarily blinded by mustard gas and was befriended in the hospital by the severely wounded Richard, whose shattered condition resulted in a total loss of memory. Hitler refers to his hospital stay in Mein Kampf though, as the authors note, he was treated by a psychiatrist, not an eye doctor.

Now,15 years later, in Sins of the Fathers, Friedrich still has no recall of his life before he was injured, but it’s clear that he’s become an intimate of Hitler and privy to The Fuhrer’s plans to solidify power, invade Austria, then Czechoslovakia, and get rid of the Jews. The use of an enigmatic, likable functionary with an unknown personal history as narrator is an inspired device to explore the extent to which those opposing Hitler’s plans acted, and when.

A lengthy Authors’ Note at the end documents the authors’ extensive reading and emphasizes where they differ — and why — from accepted hypotheses and interpretations. Their findings include information about Hitler’s sex life (especially with girls, and his attractiveness to women, some of whom attempted suicide over him); his loyalty to friends, including the Jewish doctor who treated his dying mother; his love of music and painting; his good manners, his savvy oratorical skills; and... his deteriorating mental state. Their goal is not to humanize Hitler but to destroy myths — namely the self-generated one that he was a celibate savior of the Aryan race.

They also would point out contemporary historians still underappreciate early opposition to Hitler within his own ranks. In fact their book is dedicated to several German officers and citizens who not only died participating in the July 1944 assassination attempt, but who years earlier risked their lives to stop the tyrant that Friedrich calls “a genius… wrapped in a chrysalis of insanity.”

As for that odd, ambiguous book title — Sins of the Fathers — ARE they visited upon subsequent generations? An intriguing question for Germany and our own divided country.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.