New College of the Humanities

The Hidden Hitler

Richard Bessel | Published in History Today

The Hidden Hitler

by Lothar Machtan (Translated by John Brownjohn)

Perseus Press   £19.99 viii + 434pp  ISBN 1-903985-01-3

Opening his biography of Adolf Hitler nearly three decades ago, Joachim Fest observed: ‘Hardly any other prominent figure in history so covered his tracks, as far as his personal life was concerned.’ With his new book on The Hidden Hitler, Lothar Machtan offers a fascinating picture of what the Nazi dictator may have been trying to hide: a history of homosexual relationships beginning during his spell as a young man in Vienna, extending through his wartime military service, and continuing into his early postwar years in Munich. What is more, Machtan suggests that important aspects of Hitler’s behaviour as party leader and as head of government may have been responses to attempts at blackmail, to threats to expose his sexual past.

The most striking instance where this may have been the case was the bloody purge conducted by the Nazi dictator in the summer of 1934, which claimed the lives of his erstwhile comrades Ernst Röhm, Edmund Heines and Gregor Strasser, as well as former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher and a host of others.

One could be forgiven for dismissing these suggestions as sensationalist, suited to a tabloid press concerned more with profiting from stories of sexual deviance than with maintaining historical accuracy. When the person in the spotlight is Hitler, the temptation to exploit such revelations is particularly great; probably no other historical figure continues to provoke such widespread and obsessive popular interest. Perhaps this is why serious, reputable historians seem to have shied away from exploring in great detail Hitler’s sex life, and particularly from exploring the possibility of his homosexuality. Serious historians have tended to focus on Hitler’s political power, his ‘charismatic’ rule, his position in the government structures of the Third Reich, his responsibility for war and genocide. Investigation of Hitler’s homosexuality would appear to be the sort of thing of interest to tabloid newspapers, not to the historical profession.

There also may be an understandable reluctance to emphasise Hitler’s allegedly deviant sexuality for fear of appearing homophobic. After all, there seem few more damning observations about any personality trait than to associate it with the Nazi dictator – someone who could give vegetarians, teetotallers and dog-lovers a bad name. In sum, the suggestion that Hitler was a homosexual may not, at first glance, appear to have much in common with responsible history.

Such a conclusion would be a mistake. Obviously, any investigation of Hitler’s sex life and its consequences must be somewhat speculative. The fact that the Nazi leader was so keen to cover his tracks when it came to his personal life makes the search for evidence about his rather strange sex life a difficult quest. Nevertheless, Lothar Machtan carefully sifts a great deal of documentation, from internal correspondence and legal records to memoirs and interviews, and establishes that there is a serious case to be made that Adolf Hitler was a homosexual and that this matters when trying to understand his behaviour as a political leader. By piecing together many and various bits of evidence about Hitler’s male friendships during the first three decades of his life, information about the homosexual scene in the cities where he lived, and correspondence which strongly suggests possible blackmail attempts over Hitler’s sex life, Machtan offers important new insights into the Nazi dictator’s life.

Hitherto, historians (myself included) have tended to attribute the slaughter of the SA leadership to a mounting conflict between the storm troopers’ organisation and the army over the future shape of Germany’s armed forces, and to the insistence by Ernst Röhm that he and his ‘revolutionary’ organisation play a prominent role in the new Nazi state. We knew that Röhm was a homosexual; the storm troopers’ ‘Chief of Staff’ made no secret of that. We also knew that only after the murders did Hitler publicly round on Röhm for having ‘broken all rules of decency’, something which appears not to have bothered the ‘Führer’ much before June 30th, 1934. We tended to attribute the additional murders, beyond the circle of the SA leadership around Röhm, from that of former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher to former head of the Bavarian government Gustav von Kahr and former Nazi Party organisational leader Gregor Strasser, to the settling of old scores; Hitler took advantage of the purge to do away with a number of unwelcome people who had crossed him politically in the past. Machtan suggests another dimension: that much of this bloodshed was designed to silence, permanently, people who knew too much about Hitler’s sexual past. It is a dimension which sheds new light on a turning point in the history of Nazi Germany, and it should be considered seriously.

Professor Richard Bessel, Department of History,  University of York

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