- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

By Andrew Nagorski
Simon & Schuster, $25, 269 pages

There are two kinds of historical novels. One category is the novel which follows history just as it happened and involves real live characters and fictional protagonists. Herman Wouk's two great novels of World War II, "Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" fit that category.
Then there's the counter-factual historical novel based on the old Italian "what-if" maxim, "Si non e vero, e ben trovato," which means "even if it isn't true, it could have been." Andrew Nagorski, an award-winning editor of Newsweek with long overseas experience especially in Germany, has written "Last Stop Vienna," a fascinating "counter-factual" historical novel about Adolf Hitler. The adjective "fascinating" is much overused but not in this case.
Imagine if Hitler had been killed in 1931, the year of his counter-factual death in Mr. Nagorski's audacious novel instead of killing himself as he did in 1945 in his Berlin bunker. One might agree with the title of Milton Himmelfarb's famous essay, "No Hitler, no Holocaust."
And probably no World War II either.
The man who pulls the trigger in Mr. Nagorski's novel is the fictional Karl Naumann, a Berlin teenager in 1918 whose father and brother were killed on the battlefront in World War I.
Naumann, who is the narrator, joins up with the Free Corps, a gang of returning German soldiers who are determined to prevent a communist takeover of defeated Germany and for whom the Weimar Republic represents betrayal. He finds a mentor in Otto Strasser, a decorated war veteran and onetime socialist activist, who has joined a new movement in Bavaria.
Strasser sends Naumann off to Munich where a National Socialist (Nazi, for short) party is being born. Naumann becomes a Storm Trooper serving Hitler's burgeoning movement.
In time, he falls in love with a young nurse, whom he marries. She disapproves of his political activity and he begins to look elsewhere and eventually becomes enamored of Hitler's niece.
Mr. Nagorski has read through memoirs, newspaper reports of the 1918-1931 period and paid first hand visits to places where Hitler lived and agitated and where Hitler's real-life niece, Geli Raubal, died under mysterious circumstances in Hitler's apartment, allegedly a suicide.
The story is narrated with great skill, so that the reader accepts the possibility that the events Mr. Nagorski depicts and the conversations he reports could have happened.
Strasser and his brother Gregor joined the Nazi movement because they were socialists, men of the left, who opposed Hitler's wealthy supporters.
They made the mistake of thinking, as did many others, that they could control Hitler as he whipped up the German people with his frenzied oratory in his quest for total power.
The Strasser brothers saw what to them was the real Hitler when he forbade Nazi party members from supporting strikes that had broken out in Saxony, or when he announced his opposition to the demand by the Strassers for nationalization of major enterprises like Krupp.
For a first-time novelist, Mr. Nagorski has made a successful debut.
The dialogue of historical characters rings true. Some of the events are historical and others he describes could well have happened as he narrates them. Lest Hitler's secret vice become known, supposedly asking his niece to urinate on him as he lay prone on the floor, he had her murdered. When Hitler came to the cemetery to lay flowers in her grave, there was her avenger, Karl Naumann, who fired two fatal shots into Hitler. The rest, of course, is not history.
Now if we could only get someone like the great historian of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest, to write a "what if" novel say, if Alexander Kerensky had shot Lenin in 1917…

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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