Asserting Hitler’s ‘improbable’ debt to the dramas of Ibsen
Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, The Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich by Steven F. Sage, Carroll & Graf, 2006, 416 pages, $27.95
Sidebar Article: Molding Adolf
What do John Wilkes Booth, John W. Hinckley Jr., Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh have in common? According to Steven F. Sage, they shared what he has called “the mimetic syndrome”; that is, they all mimicked an element of some work of art (novel, film, etc.) in a grandiose bid to alter history. For Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, it was the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, was inspired by the character of Travis Bickle from the film Taxi Driver; Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” was influenced by Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and McVeigh, who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, copied a scenario similar to the one described in The Turner Diaries by Andrew MacDonald.
Sage, who was a research fellow in 2005 at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, argues that Adolf Hitler suffered from the same syndrome and that the key to his destructive behavior can be found in three plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906): An Enemy of the People, The Master Builder, and Emperor and Galilean. According to Sage, when Hitler read Ibsen in 1908, he was swayed by a German literary cult then current that held certain Ibsen dramas to be “prophecy.” Hitler, he asserts, came to believe that Ibsen’s plays prophesied the coming of the Third Reich, and that in Emperor and Galilean’s Julian the fourth-century Roman emperor who fought to disestablish Christianity as the official religion of the empire, thus earning the sobriquet Julian the Apostate the fuehrer saw the model for his subsequent war against both Christians and Jews.
At first Sage’s argument seems stretched, if not improbable. There is no evidence, for example, that Ibsen was an anti-Semite, let alone anti-Christian, or that his plays contained covert political messages. Nevertheless, Sage, through exhaustive research, has discovered that over decades Hitler copied passages, phrases, metaphors, and themes from Ibsen’s writings and incorporated them into his speeches, his politics, and his personal life.
From The Master Builder, Sage has even identified passages that Hitler used in Mein Kampf. Sage investigated the mystery surrounding the death in 1931 of Hitler’s half-niece Geli Raubel. He discovered that the future fuehrer had followed the script found in Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean that presents as the precondition for Julian’s ascent as emperor the death of Helena, his cousin.
The author located words from Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the lead character in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, that are almost identical to phrases from Hitler’s speeches. The fuehrer, the author discovered, plagiarized Stockmann’s speech warning the local people that germs are contaminating the water, thus threatening the town’s tourist trade; in Hitler’s speeches, the germs are identified with the Jews and their threat to the health of the German nation.
Sage claims the Ibsen cult which included Dietrich Eckart, to whom Hitler dedicated Mein Kampf viewed Hitler as the anointed leader, the new Julian, who was destined to reenact Ibsen’s work upon the world stage, to destroy not only Christianity but also the Jewish foundation that it was built upon. Indeed, in casual conversations during 1941-42, Sage writes, the Nazi dictator affirmed his personal identity with Julian.
The consistent links between Ibsen’s plays and Hitler’s actions, argues the author, are more than a coincidence; they are, he attests, a set of empirical facts. As Sage writes: “A Hitler adopting the Stockmann role from An Enemy of the People becomes a physician vowing from the outset to exterminate noxious germs infesting the town. A Hitler self-cast as Julian the Apostate…becomes a ruler sworn to extirpate Christianity by its roots. Both scripts, as adapted by Hitler to the world stage, inexorably decreed a war against the Jews to override all else.”
The author concludes that historians who write about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust have too long ignored the source of Hitler’s evil obsessions. It turns out that it wasn’t his childhood (although that plays a part in Sage’s account), it wasn’t Richard Wagner, it wasn’t his failure as an artist it was Ibsen.
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