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The Enduring Appeal of Moral Monsters



THE HANGMAN AND HIS WIFE: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich, by Nancy Dougherty

What is the fatal attraction they exert on us, the Nazis? We continue to read books and watch documentaries about them many decades after they coolly commenced upon exterminating the Jews — a genocide that in terms of its duration and thoroughness remains unparalleled in the bloody annals of history. (A close instance would probably be the extermination of the Armenians by the Turks during World War I, about which Hitler said, in one of his incendiary speeches: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”)

Does their enduring allure tell us something about what we fear in regard to our own capacities for malignant behavior, what Freud referred to as the “death instinct”? Or perhaps, notwithstanding Hannah Arendt’s decidedly tone-deaf line about the “banality of evil” — witness the recent release of over 70 hours of tapes Adolf Eichmann made, postwar, in which he celebrates the extermination of the Jews — it has to do with the perverse glamour of evil instead.

In my own zeal to comprehend what transpired under the Third Reich I have accumulated bookshelves’ worth of well-thumbed titles such as “How Could This Happen” and “The Nazi Conscience,” as well as accounts focusing on the Gestapo; Nazi women; Hitler’s decorator; his beloved niece Geli, whom he probably killed (although it was presented as a suicide); the philosophers who influenced him; his “pact” with Hollywood; his relationship with Eva Braun … and so on. It seems as though every year new tomes appear about high-ranking Nazis — Adolf Eichmann, Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, even a fat volume of Heinrich Himmler’s letters to his wife. And that’s to say nothing of the exhaustive canon on the Führer himself.

Now comes a new biography of Reinhard Heydrich, “The Hangman and His Wife,” by Nancy Dougherty. Not a fervent believer (he only became a member of the Nazi Party in 1931, two years after his future wife, Lina), Heydrich rapidly rose from nonideological roots to become head of the SD (the intelligence service) and the Gestapo as well as an architect of the Final Solution.

In a foreword to the book, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt essentially throws up his hands before the mystery of Heydrich’s evolution from a musically gifted, intelligent and lonely little boy into a monstrous, hyper-rational technocrat with a photographic memory and unmatched organizational abilities: “One searches in vain for a rational explanation of Heydrich’s descent into evil,” he writes. “No single biographical fragment satisfies.”

From the start, one of Heydrich’s strong suits was his striking Aryan looks. When he first met with the physically unimposing Himmler, Heydrich was immediately hired as head of SS intelligence, likely because Himmler “was strongly influenced simply by the way Heydrich would look in his new uniform.” For all their focus on Nordic physical perfection, the Nazi leaders were, frankly, a bunch of misfits and mieskeits (to use the Yiddish slang for the ugly). Himmler himself was weak-chinned and squinted from behind thick glasses; Goering was fat and jowly; Goebbels was clubfooted. Even Hitler, whose hyperbolic blue eyes made him the object of female devotion, had the unhinged appearance of a man held barely in check.

Dougherty’s particular contribution is that she has extensively interviewed the feisty and mostly unreflective widow, Lina, who generally ends her revisionist observations with a verbal shrug: “nicht wahr?” (wasn’t it so?). Lina published her self-serving memoirs, “Life With a War Criminal” (she intended the title to be ironic), in 1976 and died a little more than four decades after her husband. Dougherty herself died in 2013 before completing a final draft of her biography, which was then edited by Lehmann-Haupt, who died five years later.

There is, perhaps because of the successive deaths of both author and editor, a slightly morbid, almost futile feel to this book — as though its subject has outrun the attempt to pin him down. “The Hangman and His Wife” sums up Heydrich’s rapid-fire career and the qualities that enabled him to succeed — “his Luciferian coldness, amorality and insatiable greed for power,” as the historian Joachim Fest puts it. Because of the Semitic-sounding last name of a close relative, he was shadowed by rumors that there was Jewish blood in his family and mocked during his nine years in the navy; one former roommate attested that “everyone more or less took Heydrich for a Jew.”

This general suspicion seemed only to fuel his drive: “There is no doubt,” observes another former bunkmate of Heydrich’s, “that ambition was his characteristic peculiarity. … On all occasions, he wanted to be outstanding — in the service, in front of his superiors, with the comrades, in sportsmanship and in bars.” We learn that unlike many Nazi leaders, he “rewarded technical expertise, promoted men known for pragmatic cynicism and insisted on factual accuracy,” although he was also known for paradoxically informing underlings that “truth is for children.” By the end of Heydrich’s life he had become confident and incautious enough that, with the top down on his Mercedes convertible, he met an assassin’s grenade on May 27, 1942. He lingered for several days and was given a full-dress state funeral, which Hitler attended.

Dougherty’s account makes for absorbing reading without offering radically new insights into what made Heydrich tick. Although it presents itself as revelatory because of the interviews the author conducted with his wife, Lina Heydrich is too shrewd to be caught in anyone’s net; she is willing to admit to complexities in her marriage and has strong, sometimes witty opinions about other Nazis, but concedes nothing when it comes to the horrific vision her husband embraced.

Then again, I would suggest that even the most psychologically astute biography is not equipped to explain the guiltless machinations of ruthless despots: It can never catch the elusive, complex matrix of character and circumstance that creates a Heydrich (or a Putin, for that matter). Gitta Sereny, who wrote a book that cast doubt on the self-exculpating version of events the Nazi architect Albert Speer composed from prison, also authored a biography of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, in which she tried to understand, in a nonjudgmental fashion, what drove him. And the controversial psychotherapist Alice Miller analyzed Hitler within the context of historically abusive patterns of Germanic child-rearing, describing Hitler’s brutal treatment at the hands of his father, Alois.

Still, however comprehending and far-reaching these efforts, none of them fully suffice. Such creatures seem to exist in a space apart, infused by a cruelty that is inconvertible and feeds on itself without being entirely traceable to early experiences, painful or humiliating though they may be. In the end, the reader is left gazing at something that is ultimately inscrutable. Just as actual train wrecks tend to stop us cold because of their apparent inevitability and imperviousness to intervention, moral train wrecks seem to create a similar element of stop-time — a mixture of fascination and paralysis — with no one able to prevent the damage even as the carnage and destruction roll on.

Daphne Merkin is a cultural and literary critic. Her most recent book is a novel, “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love.”

THE HANGMAN AND HIS WIFE: The Life and Death of Reinhard Heydrich, by Nancy Dougherty | Illustrated | 656 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $40


Victor LaValle Likes to Stare Directly at His Deepest Fears



“People sometimes ask why I want to read horror at all, let alone write it,” says the horror novelist, whose new book is “Lone Women.” “So much writing glances off the hardest and worst experiences, but horror confronts the worst that happens. … A good horror novel doesn’t lie to you.”

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Hoover Biographer Wins American History Book Prize



Beverly Gage, the author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is awarded annually for the best work of American history or biography.

The first major biography of Hoover written in three decades, “G-Man” draws on a wealth of previously unseen or uncensored documents, including many obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Over 837 pages, Gage, a professor at Yale University, takes a panoramic view of Hoover’s 48 years as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, looking not just at his infamous harassment campaigns against civil rights leaders in the 1960s but also his central role in the modernization of the bureau, which often won him the admiration of liberals.

Reviewing the book last year in The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai called it a “revelatory” portrait that shows Hoover “for who he really was — less an outsider to the so-called postwar consensus than an integral part of it.”

Gage’s book, published by Viking, was also a winner of this year’s Bancroft Prize, awarded by Columbia University and considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history, as well as a bellwether of trends among academic historians.

The historical society’s prize, which will be awarded at a private event in April, rewards books that are accessible to a general audience. It often focuses on political history, and books that keep founders, presidents and other major figures, and their great deeds (or misdeeds), at the center of the story. Past winners of the prize, which comes with a cash award of $50,000, have included Alan Taylor, Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky and Gordon S. Wood.

In a news release, Agnes Hsu-Tang, the chair of the historical society’s board of trustees, said that Gage “deftly illuminates one of the most complicated personalities in modern American history through descriptive gradations of light and shadow.”

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Attempts to Ban Books Doubled in 2022



Efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year, according to a report published Thursday by the American Library Association. The organization tracked 1,269 attempts to ban books and other resources in libraries and schools, the highest number of complaints since the association began studying censorship efforts more than 20 years ago.

The analysis offers a snapshot of the spike in censorship, but most likely fails to capture the magnitude of bans. The report is compiled from book challenges that library professionals reported to the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and it also relies on information gathered from news reports.

Book removals have exploded in recent years, and have become a galvanizing issue for conservative groups and elected officials. Fights over what books belong on library shelves have caused bitter rifts on school boards and in communities, and have been amplified by social media and political campaigns.

With the increasingly organized campaigns to remove titles on certain topics, books have become a proxy in a broader culture war over issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender identity and racial inequality.

Of the 2,571 unique titles that drew complaints in 2022 — up from 1,858 books in 2021 — a vast majority were books by or about L.G.B.T.Q. people, or books by or about people of color, the association found. Many of the same books are targeted for removal in schools and libraries around the country — among them classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and newer works like Juno Dawson’s “This Book is Gay” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.”

Book bans have affected public libraries as well as schools: In 2022, some 60 percent of complaints that the association tracked were directed at books and materials in school libraries and classrooms, while around 40 percent of challenges were aimed at material in public libraries.

The development is worrisome for educators and librarians, who have increasingly come under fire for the books in their collections. Some librarians have been accused of peddling obscenity or promoting pedophilia; others have been harassed online by people calling for them to be fired or even arrested. Some libraries have been threatened with a loss of public funding over their refusal to remove books.

Efforts to remove books began to rise during the pandemic, often spreading from one community or school district to another through social media, as lists of books flagged as inappropriate circulated online. The movement has been supercharged by a network of conservative groups — including organizations like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United — that have pushed for book removals and have lobbied for new policies that change the way library collections are formed and book complaints are handled.

“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a news release about the report.

Increasingly, challenges are being filed against multiple books, whereas in the past, libraries more frequently received complaints about a single title, the group said.

Some librarians and free speech advocates are also alarmed by new legislation that aims to regulate the content of libraries, or the way librarians do their jobs. Last year, laws that impose restrictions on libraries were passed in seven states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida and Utah, according to analysis done by EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries.

Recently, Republicans in the House introduced a “Parents Bill of Rights,” proposed legislation that some educational advocacy organizations worry could lead to a rise in book bans. The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Julia Letlow, a Republican from Louisiana, requires that parents have access to “a list of the books and other reading materials available in the library of their child’s school.”

Some librarians and teachers who are concerned by the spike in book bans argue that the notion of parental rights should not enable a small group of parents to decide what books all other students and families can access.

“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore,” Caldwell-Stone said in a statement. “The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.”

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