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Sunday, November 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Half-Niece Who Captured Hitler's Fancy

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "Hitler's Niece" by Ron Hansen HarperCollins, $25 -------------------------------

"Hitler's Niece" is based on a few crumbs of historical fact. Adolf Hitler did have a half-niece with whom he was in love, and she died under mysterious circumstances in Hitler's Munich flat in September 1931, shortly before the Nazis took power. From these few crumbs, novelist Ron Hansen has constructed an entire meal that is satisfying in every way.

Geli Raubal is Hitler's niece, and she is pretty and in her late teens when, post-Beer Hall Putsch, the Nazis become the right-wing bullies of the Weimar Republic.

Bankrolled by wealthy Germans, Hitler rents and eventually buys a home in Obersalzberg, and he hires his half-sister, Angela, as housekeeper. Angela's daughter, Geli, comes along for the ride.

When Geli begins college, Hitler bankrolls that, along with an apartment in Munich. This is more than a half-uncle's innocent largesse, however. We already sense Hitler's perverse interest in her.

What's fascinating is the subtle dance of attraction and repulsion that Geli feels for her half-uncle. He is famous by this point, and popular with many of her fellow students. She enjoys this reflected limelight. But does she enjoy Hitler? In other words, is she interested in Hitler himself, or only in his interest in her? Does she enjoy the power he gives her? There's a complexity of emotion here that feels right.

Hansen's also smart to make Geli so smart. In the company of Nazis, she's always sharp-tongued. Goering, for example, makes a pathetic pass at her and then collapses onto his ottoman in self-pity:

"And you don't find me at all attractive?" he muttered.

"You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?"

"I'm such a fool!" he said. "A Hanswurst! A clown!"

"Am I expected to disagree?"

It doesn't matter that we know the ending. Geli loses her life; OK. We keep reading to find out whether she loses her soul, too.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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