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What We Talk About When We Talk About Hitler: Why We Write Nazi Books

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When I visited Munich in 2009, I could find almost no signs of the city's Nazi past. My focus on classical art took me to the Glyptothek, a stunning museum rebuilt after the war and filled with ancient Greek and Roman treasures, some of the most beautiful classical statuary on view anywhere in Europe.

But the recent history just outside the Glyptothek's doors --the Königsplatz, Hitler's granite-paved marching grounds and the site of enormous party rallies--had been literally torn out, making way for a full renovation of the area in 1988. Also missing entirely was the nearby Brown House, the old Nazi headquarters, one of many awkward landmarks that for years, Munich wanted only to forget.

I can understand the reticence and evasion. Just as some Munich residents don't want to remember what happened in their city, I wasn't eager to visit their city--the birthplace of Nazism--period.

I avoided visiting Germany my entire life, despite knowing how much I was missing (there's much more to Germany than its Third Reich past, of course), and despite recognizing my own feelings as an inadvertent form of prejudice. Backpacking through Europe at the age of 15, I veered off for a solo trip to Barcelona rather than follow my sisters to Berlin, a place that seemed simply too haunted in my mind. The amateur historian in me now regrets that choice; I could have seen the Wall just before it came down. Then again, that trip to Spain inspired the first novel I wrote, 20 years later.

When publication of my novel The Spanish Bow (set in Spain, France, and Germany) paved the way for yet other opportunities to visit Germany, I kept stalling. A tour of the place responsible for deaths and dislocations in my husband's family --he's Jewish, I'm a Jewish convert with both German and Italian heritage--didn't feel right at the time.

Yet clearly, Germany and the Third Reich didn't stop fascinating me--just as it still fascinates many readers, and for good reason.

We don't mean to be fascinated--about that, I can attest. After writing one novel that featured Hitler in a bit scene, I promised myself never to write about the Führer again; the discouraged artist who converted his personal failings and resentments into sadism has already had more than his share of the limelight. I didn't even intend to write about Europe. And yet, my interests--politics and the arts, and that time period when arts, aesthetics, and propaganda were such an important part of politics--kept pulling me back.

When I decided to write a new novel about a fictional, young art curator who works at 45 Brienner Strasse (Nazi Headquarters), my normally supportive, hands-off husband said, "You can't write that."

What he meant was that I shouldn't attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait that might excuse or humanize Nazi behavior. (Clarification: my narrator carries no party card and expresses no sympathy with his employer. He is, at absolute worst, what post-war Germans might have labeled a "fellow traveler"--someone who did not actively resist and briefly benefitted from the Nazi regime's patronage.)

But the fostering of sympathy--or rather empathy--is one of literature's greatest services, and it's only a high-wire act if the character is complex and sometimes less than likable.

I see no point in writing any book that merely condemns an obvious villain, or writing about a past that no longer matters. A book set before or during World War II has relevance now only if we use it as a mirror through which we can better understand our own lives and times.

To link past and present, it sometimes helps to steer clear of the cartoon villains we all know and focus on less-known people or stories that take place in the years leading up the war, when all was not clear.

Erik Larson did just that in his In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, which topped bestseller charts around the country last year, despite featuring real-life characters (the family of an ambassador to Berlin) that very few readers had ever heard about.

By detailing the 1930s, Larson sneaks up on one of the century's most horrific chapters from behind. Two other just-released works of fiction come at the subject through a rear-view mirror, showing us how the Holocaust, guilt, and war-related fear still affect people generations later. This is Philip Roth territory, explored in many of his books, including the very first in his Zuckerman series, The Ghost Writer (1979), about a young writer who imagines he has discovered Anne Frank living a double life in New England.

If the plot sounds familiar, it may be that you've read a review of Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, a novel released in January, in which a still-living Anne Frank also appears.

Memories of the Holocaust's most famous victim show up yet again in the new short story collection by Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.

Why this renewed or continual interest in the Third Reich, its precedents, and its victims?

For one thing, we're reaching the end of the generation that actually experienced these tragic events.

For another--and this is what interests me most as a writer--we don't have enough distance and perspective to interpret our own present and recent past. A more focused--and finished--chapter from the distant past is easier to dissect in this age of invisible, decentralized threats and unresolved moral issues.

Want to think about the prisoners at Guantanamo, current policies on terrorism, the way today's media affect citizen perceptions, the way that one Middle East war becomes two becomes (we all hope not) three?

A discussion of these topics quickly becomes a strident debate, all yelling and no listening. It's easier, and maybe more instructive, to learn about how the concentration camps started up in 1930s Germany (not with Jews, at first, and in the case of Dachau, with a surprising amount of international approval), and to recall what happened to civil rights under the Nazis, how Goebbels mastered the art of propaganda, and how a world war started quietly, and then spread insidiously.

Set those issues in the past, and people seem more willing to engage. Frame those issues or their modern reverberations within the framework of fiction or narrative nonfiction, and readers have a chance to slip out of their own shoes, and into someone else's--one of the few ways we open our hearts enough to let new realizations take shape.

Teenagers, and adult readers too, love reading apocalyptic and paranormal novels as a way to work out their own responses to moral dilemmas, to imagine how their own mettle would be tested by supernatural or epic events. Some of us read history or historical fiction for the same reason. Immersing ourselves in the vivid details and everyday lives of dark periods past, we try to imagine: what would we have done?

How would we recognize fascism or evil in its first stages? If we recognized it, how would we make other people listen? If we did nothing, would our passivity make us guilty--and if so, how would we deal with that guilt?

Those questions never get old.

As if books and movies weren't enough fodder for the moral imagination, there is more straight-up information and public interpretation on its way.

That demolished Brown House Nazi Headquarters site, where in 2009 no sign of a Nazi past could be seen? That's the location for a new Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism. Planned for decades, opposed by some, the museum is scheduled to open in 2013.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour [Soho Press, $25.00], a novel about art, adventure, and second chances, set in 1938 Munich and Italy. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.