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Second thoughts about Hitler's sexual history.

The Hidden Fuehrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality

HBO/Cinemax

THE ASSERTION that Hitler may have been homosexual was made by German historian Lothar Machtan in his 2001 book, The Hidden Hitler [reviewed and debated in the Jan.-Feb. and May-June 2002 issues]. Although dismissed by most experts as poor history based on hearsay and speculation, this book was used as the basis for a new HBO documentary, The Hidden Fuehrer. According to promotional materials, the film "explores the explosive revelations of Lothar Machtan's controversial best-selling book." Although the film makes only passing reference to Machtan's contention that Hitler's homosexuality may have been related to his rabid anti-Semitism, The Hidden Fuehrer does explores Machtan's theory that "some of Hitler's most infamous crimes may have been desperate attempts to cover up his youthful sexual history and shield himself from blackmailers."

The film's creators, some of whom are gay, proceed with what seems to be laudable care. We're informed that most historians rejected Machtan's claims, and a number of them appear throughout the film's eighty minutes to challenge Machtan's evidence. The documentary also presents a few prominent gay figures to support its raison d'etre, and provides brief caveats about the complexity of the issues that it's about to consider.

And yet, for all this apparent caution, the film's visual impact, suggestive editing, and stereotypical voice-overs give credence to most of the book's unfounded assertions, while bringing Machtan's speculations to life, even though the actual evidence here is no better than that of the book itself. For example, the film opens with images of children at Auschwitz and then segues to the narrator's shocking suggestion that Hitler may have been "gay." The misuse of this term removes Hitler from historical context, inappropriately associating him with today's gay community. Shortly thereafter, the film inserts a nearly subliminal clip of Hitler doing a mincing little jig at Berchtesgaden, as Machtan makes the assertion that "something must be in it," i.e., the claim that Hitler was homosexual.

Another striking example (apart from such gratuitous clips as half-naked SA men forking out sausages), is the notion that Hitler's affinity for Wagnerian opera was linked to the fact that homosexuals were drawn to Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner's operas were staged. This assertion seems to play on the old stereotype of gay men as opera queens. In fact, the Nazis and many other Germans who flocked to Bayreuth experienced Wagner's operas as the embodiment of a mythical folk community that they sought to resurrect. The film next argues that Hitler may have molested Wieland Wagner, a grandson of the composer. This segue seems calculated to lend credence to the charge. But the allegation, based mainly on the evidence that Wieland couldn't bear sitting next to other men as an adult, has no legitimate relationship to the tendentious segment on Bayreuth.

Much is made of a memoir by August Kubizek, Hitler's boyhood friend. Using insinuating voice-overs and a photograph of Kubizek in an arch pose, the film highlights a few incidents, such as an effusive kiss of greeting after a long separation, and takes them as evidence for Machtan's claim that they had a homosexual affair as youths. But Kubizek's memoir was published in 1943 with the approval of the Third Reich itself, which did not consider fond attachments between male youths to be licentious. On the other hand, Kubizek changed this greeting into something far more reserved in the 1953 edition of his memoir. While the film suggests that he was trying to cover up his homosexual relationship with Hitler, it seems more likely that he was simply trying to distance himself from the Fuehrer now that the Nazis' full monstrosity had been revealed.

The power of cinema is invoked again when extravagant clips from Visconti's The Damned are used to support the flimsy assertion that Hitler launched the infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934 to prevent the avowed homosexual Ernst Roehm, the leader of the SA, from blackmailing him about his homosexuality. Despite Visconti's lurid images of beefy young SA men in stockings and garters being gunned to death, the consensus of historians is that the purge was motivated by more pragmatic concerns. The SA was a radicalized "second army" that challenged the power of the Wehrmacht, an institution that Hitler needed to coopt in order to solidify his hold on Germany.

To the film's credit, instead of focusing exclusively on Hitler's possible homosexuality, it brings out the wider homoeroticism that characterized the early German Youth Movement as well as the hyper-masculine, militaristic culture of the Third Reich. For the fact is that during the Nazi era, this underlying homoeroticism, however powerful a dynamic, rarely translated into homosexual behavior as such. The filmmakers show how Germany's lively subculture, linked as it was to a burgeoning homosexual emancipation movement, was destroyed by the Third Reich through the persecution of suspected homosexuals--which included imprisonment, castration, and murder in concentration camps.

This attempt at balance makes the film a better history lesson than is Machtan's book. Still, the film wavers about the role of Hitler's supposed homosexuality and leaves open the possibility that it was, as Machtan maintains, a driving force behind his actions. And yet, most historians agree that Hitler's sexuality, the details of which are sketchy at best, had little bearing on his policies as Germany's dictator. The Hidden Fuehrer may provide a partial corrective to Machtan's questionable book, but its subtle and its disingenuous techniques undermine its credibility. The resulting film fails to dispel a claim that played on lingering suspicions about a connection between homosexuality and immorality.

Jud Newborn is the co-author of Shattering the German Night, a book about the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance.
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Title Annotation:Arts; The Hidden Fuehrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality
Author:Newborn, Jud
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Television Program Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
Words:952
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