Magazine article The Spectator

Fatal Attraction

Magazine article The Spectator

Fatal Attraction

Article excerpt

When Prince Harry stirred up a fuss by wearing Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party he found a gallant defender in Paul Johnson who wrote that 'in treating Nazi insignia as a party joke' the young prince 'reflects the instincts of his generation'. 'The Nazis, ' he added, 'do have an undoubted fascination for many young people', because of their style, not their ideology. 'Hitler still exerts some of the dread appeal he exercised in his lifetime . . . A lot of his appeal, I suspect, is visual.

Hitler was a kind of artist' who 'put his artistic and inventive instincts to work'.

This is surely undeniable, and Johnson is by no means the first to remark it. Thomas Mann was there before him. In 1938, by then exiled from Germany, he wrote an essay entitled 'Brother Hitler'. 'The fellow is a catastrophe; that is no reason to find him uninteresting as character and destiny, ' he loftily declared. But what sort of interest?

The essay's title is significant. Mann, the great novelist, the correct bourgeois family man, pillar of public rectitude, recognises his kinship with the catastrophic fellow, with 'this unqualified, impossible man . . . this rejected Bohemian artist'.

Rejected indeed, failing even to gain admittance to the Vienna Academy of Arts, getting no further than peddling his little postcards round the coffee houses. In contrast, Mann's success came early; he was only 25 when Buddenbrooks was published. And yet in his eyes they are brothers. He himself was not only the respectable son of the Lübeck patriciate; he was also the artist whose inclination was towards homoeroticism which he associated with aesthetics and death. 'That all artistic genius inclines in that direction, tends towards the abyss is all too certain, ' he wrote.

There was an element in him which identified with the Bohemian failure. Why not?

The finest novel is an imperfect realisation of what the author envisaged. He saw in Hitler the type of the unsuccessful artist, the layabout -- what, had the wheel turned differently, he might have been himself: 'basically arrogant, with his basically I'm-toogood-for-that rejection of any rational and reputable activity.' And what was the basis of this? Why, the artist's assumption that he was reserved for something special, 'entirely indefinable'. …

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