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The Playwright Hitler Plagiarized

If asked, “Who was the most influential playwright in history?” for most people it’s a slam dunk. But in choosing Shakespeare they’d miss, as sometimes happens with sure slam dunks. The Bard of Avon has long been the most performed and most quoted – no contest there – yet the impact of his works on specific, grand scale, real world events is quite another thing. For that the winning grade goes to a Norwegian writer who died a century ago this past May 23.

Henrik Ibsen wrote twenty-six dramas. Their bite spared no one, neither hypocrites, nor politicians on the right or left, nor men who would hold women in what was once deemed to be their place. The playwright was progressive in his time. His work encompassed brooding psychological plays, social protests, fantasy, comedy, and theatricals on the lives of kings. Shakespeare had put history on stage with his scripts on wars past. Ibsen, it now appears, scripted a war that began a third of a century after he had left the scene.

Adolf Hitler, the man responsible for starting that war, first read Ibsen between 1908-1910, during his frustrated youthful years in Vienna. A German literary cult then current was hailing the late playwright as a “prophet.” Some of these cultists would eventually promote one play, in particular, as prophetic scripture: Ibsen’s epic about the life of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome who vainly tried to suppress Christianity when he reigned from 361-363. Emperor and Galilean called Julian’s failed quest the “third Reich” in the play’s German version. According to Hitler’s roommate of 1908, the future dictator tried then to write a play of his own about a pagan restoration. He set the action on a sacred mountain in Bavaria. Eventually Hitler would build a chateau on such a mountain, overlooking the alpine resort of Berchtesgaden. That was where Ibsen had completed writing Emperor and Galilean in 1873. In the closing scene, as Julian dies from a battlefield wound, an aide predicts, “The Third Reich will come!”

Thus it should not be too surprising to find paraphrased lines from Emperor and Galilean among transcripts of Hitler’s casual remarks from 1931 and again from 1941-1942. The paraphrases are there, again and again, with the Nazi Führer’s metaphors veering too close to those of the play to leave any doubt that he had a literary source: Ibsen’s work. Moreover, Hitler confided to Heinrich Himmler that Julian had inspired his own mission. The record of Hitler’s casual chats yields praise of Julian on three separate occasions between October 1941 and February 1942. Yet historians have failed to probe why Hitler carried on about Julian.

If limited to mere words, Hitler’s self-inculcation in Emperor and Galilean would amount to a historical footnote. But the Führer fulfilled and exceeded cultist dreams by making life imitate art. When highlighted against the background clutter of everyday events, a series of Hitler initiatives matches Julian’s actions in the play. The analogous events follow Ibsen’s scripted sequence. These likenesses to the scripted plot began with small scale events during the 1920s as Hitler struggled to gain power. The analogs then escalated in consequence once he led the German state. Hitlerian moves foreshadowed by the life of Julian in Emperor and Galilean include:

  • His youthful statement of apostasy from Christian doctrine;
  • His relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, her violent death in 1931, and the arrangements for her burial in Vienna;
  • Hitler’s unsuccessful run for the German presidency in 1932;
  • As German chancellor, his assurance of tolerance to the churches and his quick betrayal of that promise;
  • A curious mishap during the dedication of a Munich art museum, and Hitler’s speech at that event;
  • Hitler’s naming of his rebuilt Rhine defenses the limes, in the Roman way;
  • The destruction of synagogues on Kristallnacht in 1938;
  • The Nazis’ non-aggression pact with Stalin in 1939; recalling Julian’s peace with the Persian empire, and Hitler’s betrayal of that pact in 1941, shadowing Julian’s breach of his peace with Persia;
  • Hitler’s original plan to invade Russia, with a baffling northward turn of key panzer units away from Moscow, defying military logic but recalling Julian’s avoidance of the Persian capital by marching north instead;
  • Completing the sequence of analogous events was Hitler’s order to exterminate European Jews under the pretext of fighting partisans, recalling Julian’s similar threat to wipe out all Christians in the Roman empire.

Taken alone, each of these analogous moves might be deemed merely coincidental. Together they constitute a pattern made explicable by Hitler’s words paraphrasing the script. The cult over Emperor and Galilean provided a context, with at least one German literary critic writing, in 1924, that Hitler was anointed to fulfill the Ibsen script. The dots connect.

Two more Ibsen plays turn up as well in the record of what Hitler said and did. Part of Mein Kampf chapter 3 is demonstrably based on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Act IV. And at key junctures, incidents in the career of Hitler’s top construction official follow the plot of The Master Builder. To be sure, what Hitler did with the plays was no fault of the playwright. Ibsen bears no blame, but the evidence of Hitler following a set of scripts is there. Several enduring mysteries of the Nazi Third Reich are now linked and explained with reference to those Ibsen scripts.

Why has none of this been noted before? Though it has long been known that the Third Reich was led by a theatrically-obsessed maniac, researchers looked mainly to Richard Wagner’s operas as the source of inspiration. By contrast, Hitler never made a public fuss over Ibsen. Emperor and Galilean went unperformed and little studied compared to other Ibsen plays. Few historians specialized in the Nazi era would have known the play well, if at all, whereas Ibsen scholars are not usually versed in the historical minutiae of Hitler’s Reich.

If there is a practical lesson here, it is that Hitler was not the first or last lunatic to cause mayhem with reference to a script. The texts impelling today’s fanatics may likewise yield clues to why they act as they do, and what they might do next. Had analysts in Hitler’s era read Ibsen more closely, the insights gained may have spared the world a lot of pain.