Reflections on the Lessons of History: Author’s Second Novel on Hitler Published

Livingston High School graduate Alan A. Winter has been a novelist for 20 years, and Sins of the Fathers, the second in a two-part series of historical novels on the rise of Adolph Hitler, has now been published. Co-written with Herbert Jay Stern, the novel continues where the first, Wolf, left off.

Wolf followed Hitler’s rise to power after World War I, as seen through the eyes of a fictional protagonist, an amnesiac soldier named Friedrich Richard.As the war is winding down, Richard meets Hitler (also known as “Wolf”) in a mental hospital, where the latter is being treated for hysterical blindness. The two men form a bond, but Friedrich is witness as his friend begins evolving into a monster. Sins of the Fathers, based on historical facts, is set between 1934 and 1938, as some German military leaders, civil servants, and religious leaders try to convince England’s government to help them stop Hitler, whom they know is the greatest threat to world peace.

Winter began his writing career in 1985. His first novel, Someone Else’s Son, was “a sweet, touching story about babies switched at birth,” he explains. He also wrote thrillers, including Snowflakes in the Sahara, Savior’s Day, and Island Bluffs. But historical novels are an easy fit for him, as he himself witnessed history as it happened during the turbulent

He spent his early years in Newark, and attended his freshman year of high school at Weequahic, alma mater of iconic New Jersey author Philip Roth. His family moved to Livingston in 1962, and he graduated from Livingston High School in 1965. He attended Rutgers, where he earned a history degree with honors in 1969. “It was an exciting time,” he recalls. “During my four years of high school, America experienced the assassination of a beloved president, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and social unrest. We experienced the march on Washington during which Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the transition from advisors to combatants in Vietnam, the race to put a man on the moon, and so much more.”

A Successful Collaboration

For the last six years, Winter has worked with Herbert J. Stern, a former federal judge and now local litigating attorney, in writing the Hitler series. They decided to examine how Hitler came to power and how, as Winter puts it, “Nazism took hold in a vulnerable Germany to the point that its de facto state religion.”

Wolf begins in the waning days of the Great War in October/November 1918 and ends when German president Paul von Hindenburg passes away and Hitler abolishes the office of president to declare himself dictator – the Führer,” Winter explains.

Sins of the Fathers, he says, “picks up in August 1934 as Hitler and the Nazis pass law after law to disenfranchise the Jews to drive them out of Germany. Sins delves into the refugee crisis that spread across Europe and mirrors events of
today, and ends with Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Hitler and the Nazis’ Germany turn violent. But the backbone of Sins is the little-known, true story of how the German military leaders planned to overthrow Hitler and his heinous regime in September of 1938.”

How did it all come about? “I have known Herb Stern for more than 40 years,” recounts Winter. “We had both published, but in different genres. I wanted to write a story about a lawyer and ran the idea past Herb. He dismissed my idea out of hand and said the two of us should collaborate on a book about Adolf Hitler. I looked at him in amazement and asked, ‘What could we possibly contribute that is not already known about Hitler?’” His short answer: “You would be surprised.” And Winter was. “From that point on, we met weekly for dinner to discuss our research in to what hurdles our protagonist needed to face, and how to resolve them,”he says.“The more we researched, the more we uncovered material that modern-day historians tended to ignore or minimize the importance of. In some instances,
they perpetuated myths that were simply wrong. We followed references, read memoirs, interviews, did deep dives into archives, and uncovered out-of-print volumes by noted historians and journalists that were no longer cited in current works about Hitler and the Nazis, but told Hitler’s story from a different, more humanized perspective.”

Shattering Myths

“Our inspiration to write these books was based on a simple premise: if it was worth writing about Hitler and the Nazis, then it should be right,” says Winter. “Myths should be shattered; facts and descriptions should be accurate. Too much of what has been published through the years skirts or ignores seminal events that happened, so that parts of the story have become distorted to the point of no longer being true. We needed to correct the record.”

A pivotal example centers on the controversy whether Adolf Hitler was in a mental institution at the end of World War I, notes Winter. The research he and Stern turned up showed that Hitler had, in fact, been diagnosed with hysterical
blindness and was being treated by a psychiatrist, not an ophthalmologist. “This is not a trivial matter,” says Winter. “Hitler was psychotic. Without copies of Hitler’s medical records, there was no way to prove this – most historians discount this – until we came across a reference from a 1952 biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris, head of
Germany’s spy agency, had a copy of Hitler’s medical records that were being saved for the day Hitler went on trial for the crimes he committed. This, by the way, was in 1938, when the German military officers planned an elaborate coup d’état to overthrow Hitler and his regime. Our job was to make more people aware of this story.”

To do so, the two writers needed to insert a “mole” into Hitler’s inner circle. “Our main character, Friedrich Richard, was a tabula rasa. He befriends the only person who speaks to him in the hospital, the blind Adolf Hitler. Friedrich becomes the eyes and ears of the reader, giving a ringside view of Hitler the man and how he manipulated those around him to do his bidding. Fiction allowed us to tell these truths, and in a suspenseful way.”

A Humanized Portrait

One of the things the authors were striving for, says Winter, was to produce, not a portrait of a monster, but a portrait of a human being who was a monster. “Think of images of Hitler, from the days of Charlie Chaplin to the present,” Winter explains. “Hitler has often been characterized as cartoon-like. He has been described as sexually inadequate, anti-social, and ‘unable to forge genuine friendships.’ This evaluation is meant to comfort us. His leading, present-day biographer has termed Hitler ‘an unperson.’ But these depictions of Hitler and the Nazis – however emotionally
satisfying – are a disservice. They narcotize us into believing we can prevent future disasters by keeping ‘unpersons’ out of political office. Nothing could be further from the truth… and that is why we chose to write these books.” What historians have been afraid to deal with, Winter believes, “is that Hitler was every bit human. He loved, laughed, and told jokes. He wrote poetry; painted; studied architecture; and was familiar with all Wagnerian librettos. He was loyal to
his numerous friends and lovers. And yet, he did not hesitate to obliterate an entire people. To portray him any other way but as human is to allow us to possibly fail to identify the next mass murderer who is ready to commit genocide.”

What is the take-away for modern readers? “It would be trite to say that the importance of Wolf and Sins of the Fathers is to remind readers that ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,’” says Winter. “What is important is to pull back that curtain that has hidden Hitler’s secrets for so long and to expose the step-by-step way he and the Nazis disenfranchised the Jews and other minorities from Germany, without fear of censorship or offending readers… We wrote Wolf and Sins not to glorify Hitler and the Nazis, but to explain they were human, warts and all.”

And, most importantly, says Winter, “is the question, ‘How does the indifference of ‘neutrality’ relate to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust? When ordinary people can perpetrate barbarities as the rest of us stand silent witness, only to claim, later, that we did not know it would come to that?’”

Winter concludes his reflections with a quote from the late Desmond Tutu: “‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ In addition to the caution one must exercise when reading history, that is the great lesson from our books.” Wolf and Sins of the Fathers are available from Amazon and other sellers; visit www.simonandschuster. com to learn more. For those interested, Winter and Stern posted their research for Wolf online ( Skyhorse, their publisher, included their research notes for Sins of the Fathers in the book.