Taking Up a Challenge: Wolf by Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter
WRITTEN BY MYFANWY COOK
In writing their novel Wolf (Skyhorse, 2020), Herbert J. Stern and Alan A. Winter were faced with two major hurdles. The first was maximizing and sharing their writing skills. The second was depicting highly controversial characters from relatively recent history.
Stern is a former US Attorney and US District Court Judge, who has also served as a judge of the United States Court of Berlin, while Winter combines periodontistry with novel writing. “We met over forty years ago and over time, we became friends. As each of us worked on our own books, we would share manuscripts with each other and ask for comments.” Winter explains: “Eventually Herb suggested we write a book together. Herb had been doing research into Hitler’s life and had uncovered information he believed was largely ignored by historians. He wanted to write a novel that would begin when Hitler was hospitalized for hysterical blindness at the end of World War I. Herb’s idea was for a fictional character to befriend Hitler at the hospital through whom Hitler’s personal life as he rose to power from 1918 to 1934 would be told. We researched and wrote our novel, meeting almost weekly for the next three years.”
“It was always a collaboration in every sense of the word. In the end, our research led us to paths we hadn’t known existed, but made our story richer and more accurate.”
From the outset they identified three critical points. Firstly, they note, “We had to start when Hitler was blinded in a gas attack in the last days of World War I. The hospital had to be understaffed and overflowing with patients. It was logical (to us) that Hitler would need a fellow patient to help him navigate the daily routines. So, believing such a man could exist, we created our fictional character, Friedrich, who forged a bond with Hitler. As a character, Friedrich was strengthened by having amnesia … a tabula rasa. As such, he allowed us to follow all that happened to Hitler in those early years from the time the Nazi Party was formed until the day he became dictator of Germany.”
Secondly, because they wanted to be as accurate as possible, they realized that the story had to be chronological. Thirdly, they explain, “because we knew the direction the story had to take, we did not stop to outline it or even write a synopsis of where it would lead. We had history as our template.”
When researching, they “did not automatically accept footnotes,” but they “verified them by going to original sources.” As research progressed, the authors say, “We ran into difficulties when the original sources were in German. Since neither of us read German, we hired a translator, Alan Wallis. This proved invaluable.” They also found primary sources in interviews by the noted historian, John W. Toland and in post-WWII interviews conducted by Michael Musmanno, who they authors say “sought out everyone he could find who had worked directly with Hitler.”
Before commencing writing, they hadn’t envisaged any major obstacle to co-writing a novel. One thing they hadn’t anticipated: “Our notions of an historical novel were different. Our writing styles are different, and we had differences of opinion about how much exposition should be part of the story.”
They addressed this challenge for historical character by, they note, “using their original words. We described their physicality as best we could. We did not give them attributes they didn’t have or take away those they did have. We are particularly proud that when we needed a new character to help move the story forward, we didn’t just make one up out of convenience but searched the historical record for persons from that same place and time who would enhance our story. Aside from Bernhard Weiss, two other notable characters were portrayed in the book as they were in real life: Kitty Schmidt, who ran the most famous bordello in Berlin, and Lilian Harvey, who was not only Germany’s favourite film star, but all of Europe’s. Both will reprise their roles in the next book, as will the Jewish gangster, Longie Zwillman, who was very real.”
They discovered, the authors note, “that Hitler went to great lengths to conceal his mental illness and the fact that he preyed on teenaged girls. Not only did he succeed in erecting a curtain that shielded the German people from these aspects of his life, but historians, to this very day, have failed to lift that curtain to reveal what was behind it. We felt it was time to tear down that curtain.”
They suggest that readers might “look at biographies of Hitler and see if there is mention of him being in a mental ward at the end of the Great War. Some might go so far as to say he had been exposed to a gas attack and was temporarily blinded, but they stop there. None mention the doctor who treated Hitler. Certainly, there is no mention of an eye doctor in any biography treating Hitler. Nor do any mention that a psychiatrist treated him.”1
Winter points out, “Two men did find out: Professor Rudolph Binion of Tufts and John W. Toland. Both made their discoveries and worked together in the early 1970s. Rather than tell these truths, most Hitler biographers have been content to repeat Hitler’s own description of his blindness as reported in his autobiography, Mein Kampf. A careful reading of Hitler’s own words reveal that his blindness was mental, not organic. We felt strongly that rather than censor history, it should be presented it happened.”
The authors believe that “another reason for exploring this period in Hitler’s life was that he has been described in various ways as a subhuman, un-human, asocial, a black hole, incapable of having a friend or being in a meaningful relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth. We wrote Wolf to make certain that the world would know that the embodiment of evil can be wrapped in a man who loves women, is loyal to his friends, and is admired by many.”
1. http://www.notesonwolf.com | Stern and Winter’s 115 pages of historical notes explaining what they have uncovered.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: MYFANWY COOK is a prize-winning short fiction writer. She is also HNR New Voices Editor and author of Historical Fiction Writing: A Practical Guide and Tool-kit and Creative Writing Cocktails.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 92 (May 2020)