Thomas Snégaroff novels the eventful life of Ernst Hanfstaengl, confidant of the Nazi leader who ended up telling his secrets to the president of the United States
He was in places where decisions were made that changed the course of history before and after World War II. He played the piano for Hitler and shared many of his secrets, which he would eventually reveal to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But even so, the figure of Ernst Hanfstaengl (Munich, 1887-1975) remained in the shadows. The French journalist and historian Thomas Snégaroff (48 years old) illuminates it now by fictionalizing his eventful life in 'Putzi. Hitler's confidant' (Seix Barral), tracing, incidentally, a fresco of the Europe of those years.
Considered by some "a traitor" and by others an "craftsman of evil", Hanfstaengl was a two-meter tall man. But, paradoxically, his nickname, Putzi, means 'little man', 'little' or 'pretty' in Bavarian. The son of a German father and an American mother, he studied at Harvard, ran the art business of his wealthy family in bohemian New York, and was the lover of the writer Djuna Barnes.
Back in Germany, he was very close to Hitler from the origin of the Nazi movement in the 1920s in Munich. Disgraced three decades later, he had the ability to go over to the opposite side, cross the Atlantic again and become an informer for the US president.
“It will never be clear if he was a villain or a hero. He went down in the history of Nazism as an enigma, although we know what role he played in Hitler's rise to power in the Weimar Republic," says Snégaroff, who found the "chameleon" character, a friend of Hearts, Thomas Mann or Chaplin, by documenting Nazism in the United States and the Fascist International. He was "fascinated" to find out "that he had whispered into both Hitler's and Roosevelt's ears."
Financed 'Mein Kamf'
Putzi saw in Hitler "an agent of reconciliation between his two worlds," according to the French writer. At the onset of Nazism, he "provided Hitler with money and connections with very important financial networks that made it possible to turn the Nazi party magazine into a war machine thanks to propaganda."
After the failed 'putsch' orchestrated in a Munich beer hall in 1923, Putzi comforted Hitler in his darkest hours. He visited him in prison, provided him with books by American authors and financed the publication of 'Mein Kampf'. He composed the anthem of the brown shirts and the Nazi youth, was their head of propaganda and is credited with the paternity of the 'Sieg Heil' salute. "Helene, Putzi's wife, prevented Hitler from committing suicide by shooting himself by convincing him that the world depended on him," explains Snégaroff.
But rather than ideology, the deep connection that Putzi established with Hilter was cemented in the music of Richard Wagner that Hanfstaengl, an accomplished pianist, performed at home when the future genocide visited him. "Wagner was a great ideologue of Aryan supremacism and anti-Semitism, and Putzi provided Hitler with an ideological link," the journalist highlights.
Putzi's proximity to Hitler caused other Nazi leaders such as Joseph Goebbels to "perceive him as a rival and contemptuously call him a buffoon." Goebbels tried to eliminate him and caused Putzi to fall from grace and leave Germany in 1937.
Escape from the USA
He fled to the US and ended up collaborating with Roosevelt. “Hanfstaengl did not have a defined ideology, but the link with Hitler was very strong. So much so, that even in exile, he waits for an affectionate word from the Nazi dictator to return to the side of whom he always considered a great leader », Snégaroff highlights. "He was the only person who personally worked for Hitler and whispered in his ear, but he would also whisper in Roosevelt's ear, telling him what he knew of the Nazi leader," he reiterates. Intimacies like that Hitler was asexual, that he liked to attract women but was disgusted by contact with the female body.
“His complicity with Roosevelt seemed to put him on the good side of history and saved him during denazification, even though the opposite could have happened,” says Snégaroff. "He was neither an agent of evil nor a clown," says the French writer, who is inclined to define the controversial Putzi as a "shadow ideologue, a skillful puppeteer who pulled the strings that tied the Führer while he could ».
Specialized in issues related to the United States, a biographer of Kennedy and Clinton, Snégaroff opted for the novel to avoid the rigidity of an essay. «The novelist likes coincidences and chance more, which becomes his great treasure. As Walter Benjamin said, in the novel you see the hand of the craftsman, and I needed to novelize to tell this story, because in Hanfstaengl's career there are threads that a historian would not have been able to follow to the end », he justifies himself.