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Thursday, March 16, 2017

“Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich”, by Steven F. Sage

416 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0786717132


That’s right. According to Steven F. Sage, author of Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich, not only was Hitler one of history’s great monsters, he wasn’t even original. Sometime during Hitler’s wastrel years in Vienna he seems to have first encountered Ibsen, during the height of a German literary cult then current that was hailing the late playwright as a “prophet”. One play in particular would gain their interest: Emperor and Galilean (or Kejser og Galilæer in Norwegian), written in two complementary parts with five acts in each part and, thus, Ibsen’s longest play. In short it is about Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman Emperor and his quest to bring the empire back to its ancient Roman (read: Pagan) values. Ibsen conceived the play between 1864 and 1868 when he visited the Eternal City and actively collected historical material, before starting to write the play itself in 1871 and publishing it in 1873. Although it is one of his lesser known works, on several occasions Ibsen called Emperor and Galilean his “major work”.

All well and good, but does this really mean that Hitler cribbed Ibsen? Isn’t there more to go on? Well, according to Sage…yes. As related by August Kubizek, Hitler’s Viennese roommate in 1908, the future dictator tried then to write a play of his own about a pagan restoration, setting the action on a sacred mountain in Bavaria, the same mountain on which Hitler would build the Berghof, his mountain retreat. That was where Ibsen had completed writing Emperor and Galilean in 1873, the closing scene of which, as Julian dies from a battlefield wound, an aide predicts, “The Third Reich will come!” Hmmmmm…Thus, it should not be too surprising to find paraphrased lines from Emperor and Galilean among transcripts of Hitler’s casual remarks from 1931 and again from 1941-1942. The paraphrases are there, again and again, with Hitler’s metaphors veering too close to those of the play to leave any doubt that he had a literary source: Ibsen’s work. Moreover, as Sage continues, Hitler confided to Heinrich Himmler that the Emperor Julian had inspired his own mission, and the record of Hitler’s casual chats yields praise of Julian on three separate occasions between October 1941 and February 1942. Yet historians have failed to probe why Hitler carried on about Julian.

If limited to mere words, Hitler’s self-inculcation in Emperor and Galilean would amount to a historical footnote, but Hitler fulfilled and exceeded Ibsen cultist dreams by making life imitate art. As elucidated by Sage, when highlighted against the background clutter of everyday events, a series of Hitler initiatives matches Julian’s actions in the play, with the analogous events following Ibsen’s scripted sequence a little too closely for comfort. These likenesses to the scripted plot began with small scale events during the 1920s as Hitler struggled to gain power before escalating in consequence once he seized power in Germany. As Sage describes it, several Hitlerian moves foreshadowed by the life of Julian in Emperor and Galilean and include:

  • His youthful statement of apostasy from Christian doctrine; 
  • His relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, her violent death in 1931, and the arrangements for her burial in Vienna; 
  • Hitler’s unsuccessful run for the German presidency in 1932; 
  • As German chancellor, his assurance of tolerance to the churches and his quick betrayal of that promise;
  •  A curious mishap during the dedication of a Munich art museum, and Hitler’s speech at that event; 
  • Hitler’s naming of his rebuilt Rhine defenses the limes, in the Roman way; 
  • The destruction of synagogues on Kristallnacht in 1938; 
  • The Nazis’ non-aggression pact with Stalin in 1939; recalling Julian’s peace with the Persian empire, and Hitler’s betrayal of that pact in 1941, shadowing Julian’s breach of his peace with Persia; 
  • Hitler’s original plan to invade Russia, with a baffling northward turn of key panzer units away from Moscow, defying military logic but recalling Julian’s avoidance of the Persian capital by marching north instead; 
  • Hitler’s order to exterminate European Jews under the pretext of fighting partisans, recalling Julian’s similar threat to wipe out all Christians in the Roman empire.

According to Sage, taken alone each of these analogous moves might be deemed merely coincidental, but together they constitute a pattern made explicable by Hitler’s words paraphrasing the script. The cult over Emperor and Galilean provided a context, with at least one German literary critic writing, in 1924, that Hitler was anointed to fulfill the Ibsen script. The dots connect. But wait, there’s more…two more Ibsen plays turn up, as well, in the record of what Hitler said and did; part of Mein Kampf, Chapter 3, is demonstrably based on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Act IV; and at key junctures incidents in the career of Hitler’s top construction official follow the plot of The Master Builder. To be sure, what Hitler did with the plays was no fault of the playwright; Ibsen bears no blame for the crimes committed by his (evidently) most ardent admirer. But the evidence of Hitler following a set of scripts is there, with several enduring mysteries of the Nazi Third Reich are now linked and explained with reference to those Ibsen scripts.

Why has none of this been noted before? Though it has long been known that the Third Reich was led by a theatrically-obsessed maniac, researchers looked mainly to Richard Wagner’s operas as the source of inspiration. By contrast, Hitler never made a public fuss over Ibsen. Emperor and Galilean went unperformed and little studied compared to other Ibsen plays. Few historians specialized in the Nazi era would have known the play well, if at all, whereas Ibsen scholars are not usually versed in the historical minutiae of Hitler’s Reich. If there is a practical lesson here, it is that Hitler was not the first or last lunatic to cause mayhem with reference to a script. The texts impelling today’s fanatics may likewise yield clues to why they act as they do, and what they might do next. Had analysts in Hitler’s era read Ibsen more closely, the insights gained may have spared the world a lot of pain.

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