Because of its centennial, World War I was very much in communal consciousness last year. Images of remembrance filled the news cycle: Bright red poppies, each one memorializing the loss of a Commonwealth soldier, flowed out in a blood jet at the Tower of London. The French soldier’s room, preserved by his parents the day he left it nearly 100 years ago, forever frozen in history. It’s easy to forget just how many lost their lives as a result of this war, especially for Americans, whose casualties were small by comparison. The generation of European men who fought in World War I was nearly completely wiped out.
Many historical accounts have been published about Hitler’s rise to power as it directly correlates to Germany’s hardships following World War I. But Richard Hughes’s novel The Fox in the Attic is perhaps one of the only novels that seamlessly blends fiction with history in what can only be described as one of the most terrifyingly intimate descriptions of the rise of Nazism.
Published in 1961, The Fox in the Attic tells the story of Augustine, a young Welshman who is suspected of murdering a little girl he found drowned in the marsh. The year is 1923. Unwilling to wait for the jury’s decision, he flees to Bavaria to visit his German cousins. There he meets the brothers Otto and Walther, the family patriarchs and veterans of World War I, and Walther’s children, Franz, a vehement supporter of “new Germany,” and his sister, the blind and fanatically religious Mitzi.
The novel gets off to a rather erratic start, but when Augustine makes the decision to go to Germany, Hughes embarks on a fascinating 10-page review of World War I, seamlessly blending history and fiction.
“Boys of Augustine’s age had been children when the war began and as children do they accepted the world into which they had been born, knowing no other... it hardly entered their comprehension that one day the war would end,” Hughes explains. “Merely they knew they were unlikely to live much beyond the age of 19; and they accepted this as the natural order of things.” When the war ends, the divide between those who saw action and those who did not is very wide. “An invisible gulf was fixed... Friendship could not quite bridge it.” And the one thing both sides agreed upon was “never until the end of Time could there be another war.”
In Germany, of course, it’s a very different story.
The second book of the novel, The White Crow, opens with Otto working in his office and trying to ignore the pain in his phantom leg that he lost during the war. “In England the ending of the war had come like waking from a bad dream: in defeated Germany, as the signal for deeper levels of nightmare.” Otto remembers German soldiers returning from the front. “If there was any expression at all on any of these wooden military faces it was a potential hatred: a hatred that had found no real object yet to fasten on, but only because nothing in the somersaulted world seemed real.”
The German relatives are in a castle at Lorienberg, removed from the flurry of activity in Munich. While visiting the family doctor, Augustine and his cousins hear the first of Hitler, though there’s some confusion about his first name.
“Rheinhold was there and he saw everything!”
“You muddle everything, Uli! It’s all that Hitler! I keep telling you!”
“... and Otto Hitler too.”
“Adolf...” his brother corrected him.
“And Egon Hitler himself?”
Franz asks if Otto knew Hitler during the war. “I can’t really tell you that much. He did what he was told... Damned unpopular with the men too: such a silent, killjoy sort of cove. No normal interests—he couldn’t even join the others in a good grumble!”
Though the fictive part of the book goes on, with Augustine falling in love with his blind cousin, the most fascinating parts of the novel are those that deal directly with actual events, namely the Munich Putsch and Hitler’s escape to Uffing. With a dislocated shoulder, Hitler flees Munich to the home of his friend Putzi. Miserable and suffering from exhaustion, he hides in Putzi’s attic, dreaming of suicide. “The sounds from downstairs woke in Hitler his obsessional fear of water, but he could not escape for the barrage of perpetual pain whined low overhead like the English shells and pinned him down.”
Richard Hughes, who had made a name for himself with his 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica, intended The Fox in the Attic to be the first installment in a trilogy of books on Hitler’s rise to power which he titled The Human Predicament. The Fox in the Attic was published to critical acclaim, but as Hughes himself admits in his notes at the front of the novel, writing was an agonizing process for him, and the second volume, The Wooden Shepherdess, did not appear until 1973. When it did, the reviews were less than enthusiastic. Hughes only finished 12 chapters of the third installment before he died in 1976.
Though Hughes approaches the circumstances surrounding the war like a historian, the portrait of Hitler he creates as a novelist reflects the frustrating randomness of time and history. As Hitler sweats in his hiding place in Uffing, Putzi’s wife Helene takes his gun away from him, afraid he’ll hurt himself. When the soldiers finally discover him, to lock him up in jail (where he would spend one year writing Mein Kampf) Hitler wishes he could’ve gone out in a hail of gunfire. “Damn that woman for taking his gun!” he thinks. “Even in that he had failed.” And so history, as we know it, continues. If only she had let him hang on to that pistol...