At first, it all looks simple enough. On April 30, 1970, a man walks into the office of the Public Prosecutor of Bavaria, announces that he is Adolf Hitler and offers to supply proof of this extraordinary claim. It is the 25th anniversary of Hitler's supposed death in a bunker in Berlin.
The most efficient way to handle it would be simply to verify the man's claim and then take him off somewhere to be unobtrusively shot. But Hitler (for it is indeed he) has chosen his man carefully; Prosecutor Hans Kleemann is a conscientious civil servant who takes his duty seriously. Once the prisoner is taken, the only real possibility is an enormous international trial, to be held at the United Nations with judges from the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Israel and England. And a public trial of Adolf Hitler, a generation after the war he started, raises innumerable possibilities, almost all unpleasant.
After a slam-bang opening, which portrays masterfully the final, mad Goetterdaemmerung in the bunker and Hitler's escape, there follows a slow middle section in which the fallen dictator establishes a new identity, Philippe van Rjndt explores these disturbing possibilities very thoroughly. The title of his novel is quite accurate, though the actual trial occupies a bit less than half its length; but an even more appropriate title might have been: "J'Accuse."
The accusations against Hitler are almost perfunctory -- a few episodes summoned up and documented to prove what everyone knows already: that this man was responsible for more crime and violence, more human suffering, than anyone else in history. At the end, when Hitler is executed by a lone Israeli paratrooper on a small, abandoned Pacific island, the reader feels that the punishment is fully justified but that it hardly solves the basic problems raised in the novel. The evil this man has done lives after him.
It lives not only in the neo-Nazis who are planning and organizing for a Fourth Reich, not only in the African, Arab and Latin American countries where Hitler receives strong support, but even among the victorious allies who may have dreamed in the 1940s that they could eliminate evil by eliminating this man: the Russians who have preserved so much of the Hitler spirit and style, the Americans who ended the war in an atomic holocaust and adopted a major part of Hitler's espionage apparatus for their own use in the Cold War.
In one of the book's most thought-provoking scences, two Russian observers are discussing the trial, and particularly the defense by attorney Helmut Toller, whom Hitler has designated his heir-apparent. "The comments from the West were to be expected," says one. "Most of the delegates felt that Kleemann had scored hard and well. They did not, however, discount Toller's defense completely. No one can rule without guilt: that was the main thrust of Toller's argument, and its impact wasn't lost."
There is a happy ending, of course -- if the execution of a human being can ever fit that description. But it is a close call; there are legal, political and psychological mine fields to be traversed before justice can be done, and in their traversal the author examines many faces of evil, always pretending to be something else: the necessities of war, political realism, preservation of ethnic identity; business as usual: even law, in the preservation of its forms and processes. There is a certain aptness, perhaps, in having a Russian reflect that it is impossible to rule without guilt, but the author's message is clear: Hitler stands out because he was more thorough, more ruthless, and for a while, more spectacularly successful than most. But there are many potential Hitlers who lack only his luck and resources.
For much of its length, the book seems to be building an indictment against all of humankind. A climax of sorts is reached during the trial when the burghers of the small Bavarian town where Hitler has lived for a quarter-century present a petition called "The Voice of the Little People" which calls him "an exemplary citizen of our community."
"We join him in his brave and lonely crusade," says the "Voice of the Little People." The statement is "signed by every citizen" of the town, says the major proudly, and it dismisses Hitler's crimes as "oversights... in the war years." Apparently, it is also impossible to be ruled without guilt. At the last minute, goodness rears its head, tells the court about the smuggled gold with which Hitler eased his way into the town's affection, and reveals that the petition was not, in fact, unanimous, but dissenters "will be branded traitors in our own home."
A small voice for goodness, for reason; but it is placed strategically at the climax of the novel, and one can conclude that van Rjndt's view of mankind is not totally negative. The indictment is nonetheless powerful and thought-provoking. With the aid of hostory and an intricate imagination, the author has found in Hitler a powerful image of evil, monstrous in itself and -- even more chilling -- acting as a catalyst for the evil in others.