Book review: ‘Wolf’ is the pre–World War II historical thriller you didn’t know you needed right now

March 31, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

A novel about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power doesn’t sound like the ideal diversion we’re all craving to escape cabin fever.

But Wolf (Skyhorse) is that rare blend that puts the reader in the limos and back rooms with the gang of diabolical villains who conned the German masses and changed the arc of history, while providing a detailed, factually meticulous account of the 15 years of tumult leading to the birth of the Third Reich.

Wolf could be considered a “forensic thriller.” While working through its 549 pages, this Fortune writer, cooped up in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, found himself both learning lots of new things about the stricken German spirit and economy of the 1920s and early 1930s, and itching to discover where the next twist would take a cast of characters brought fully to life, including brave and lovable madams, dance hall impresarios, police chiefs, and actresses who refused to compromise their humanity—and suffered dearly for it. (Ed. note: Light spoilers ahead.)

As its historical notes reveal, Wolf is steeped in original research. Its coauthor (along with Alan A. Winter), Herbert J. Stern, put his fabled investigative skills to work on the project. Stern is the former prosecutor who handled the Malcolm X murder case, and famously jailed America’s most corrupt politicians as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney in the late 1960s. The authors’ digging reveals a picture of Hitler that’s far different from the figure portrayed by historians, that of a cultural vulgarian who was incapable of genuine friendship, feared women, and recoiled from sex.

In Wolf, Hitler emerges as a bohemian libertine, a compulsive seducer––targeting mainly teenage girls––who manipulated women and craved their intimacy. Among his passions were a love for the music of Richard Wagner and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Hitler remained loyal to many old comrades, even those who crossed him. Most of all, Stern and Winter present a brilliant political schemer who constantly shifted his positions to appeal to Catholics, industrialists, and other groups essential to his rise to power. What we view in Wolf is a savage in sheep’s clothing who did everything necessary to win election after election, then exploited those victories to establish absolute power and destroy democracy, thus making him unstoppable.

“Wolf: A Novel”
Courtesy of Skyhorse

Only six of the sundry characters in the novel are fictional. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, a soldier who’s severely wounded in World War I, and loses his memory. He’s sent to a psychiatric military hospital called Pasewalk near the Polish border. There, a sympathetic doctor seeks to protect the amnesiac from being sent back to the front. So he gives the soldier the name of a patient who recently committed suicide, had no family, and whose death, the doctor says, wasn’t reported to the authorities. Our no-name soldier Friedrich Richard, is a 6-foot-7 bruiser who still retains his old instincts, a knack for busting jaws, skill in playing classical piano, and steadfast loyalty to folks who help him that will include endangered Jewish friends, including the Berlin police chief whom he helps escape from Prague, avoiding execution.

At Pasewalk, Richard befriends a patient with whom he shares a psychiatrist. The patient suffers from hysterical blindness. He calls himself “Wolf,” the nickname given him by fellow soldiers, and as the authors show in their notes, Hitler used in writing love letters to his young paramours. Richard describes the titular Wolf as “thin and pasty-faced…by turns tolerant then needy, and yet warm when I least expected it.” Richard feeds the blinded soldier and guides him on walks through the hospital. Wolf starts regaining his vision. Then, upon hearing news of Germany’s surrender, he unleashes a torrent of rage that blinds him again. It is only when Wolf sees well enough to leave the hospital and rejoin his regiment that he tells Richard his real name: Adolf Hitler.

Richard eventually becomes Hitler’s bodyguard. At rallies, Wolf’s fiery speeches entrance young women who crave his attention. Hitler’s favorites are girls from 17 to 19, and he conducts many secret affairs. “He manufactured the public image of a celibate devoted only to the Fatherland. To promote that image, Wolf often cast a girlfriend aside for the slightest breach of confidence,” says Richard.

But just as Wolf’s political fortunes rose, a looming scandal threatens to destroy him. A woman appalled by Hitler’s affairs pens eight letters to a by-the-book judge who prepares to indict the DAP leader for having sex with underage girls, including his niece Geli Raubal, who is named in the letter. By now, Richard is Hitler’s fixer––a kind of 1920s Ray Donovan. He sweet-talks one of Hitler’s teenage lovers into writing a letter stating that she and Hitler shared only a close friendship. Soon, Hitler has three affairs going at once, including his first liaisons with Eva Braun, and a continuing fling with his niece Geli. When Geli learns that Wolf is seeing Eva, she commits suicide, sending Hitler into a near-suicidal depression that reflects his what the authors characterize as his genuine devotion to Geli. As usual, Richard comforts Hitler through his isolation and mourning.

Wolf bristles with suspense in the final section, recounting the machinations that in less than two years elevate Hitler from leader of the No. 2 party in the Reichstag to absolute power. On Aug. 19, 1934, 95% of Germans vote, and 90% cast their ballots in support of the measure that makes Adolf Hitler “the Führer” and dictator for life.

A sequel is being written now by Stern and Winter. Look for another great read that combines compelling history and the adventures of an action hero––think Charles Bronson in Death Wish—lusting for revenge.

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