The Search for the Origins of His Evil
By Ron Rosenbaum
‘Explaining Hitler’ was one of those books that I knew I had to read as soon as I heard that it existed. I thought that it would be right up my alley, and I was right.
Like so many historically-minded people, I’m a little obsessed with the fact of Nazis.
[I will allow myself a little self-serving quotation here: “When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, [W.G.] Sebald said, ‘No serious person thinks of anything else.'” (p. 412) I totally agree.]
Even if you take, as I do, a dark view of humankind, the Nazis are an outlier on the Evil Scale. Anyone trying to get their arms around humanity’s capabilities must fit Nazis into their theory, must take account of the ability of an entire nation to rise up in a seizure of controlled, insane, determined violence.
Hitler himself must be part of that equation, whether you consider him the author of all the evil or a historical coincidence (‘if it had not been him, it would have been someone else’). So people who are, as I am, interested in evil, or in the wickedness of human nature, end up reading a lot about Hitler.
But ‘Explaining Hitler‘ isn’t really about Hitler.
Rather, it is a history of Hitler theories. It’s a long, ambivalent interrogation of our relationship with Hitler. It’s about what Hitler represents, the various psychoanalytical and historical models that we have used to understand him, and about how those theories reflect back on us.
It’s about why we need to explain Hitler. It’s about why he, in particular, has obsessed us for so long, what it would mean to really understand him. It’s about whether evil exists, and, if it does, what that means about the world. It’s about what price we pay for thinking about Hitler too hard, and what price we might pay for not thinking about him enough.
It is exactly my kind of book.
To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s take a brief whirl through the table of contents:
‘Part 1: The Beginning of the Beginning’ is about the myths and origin stories about Hitler’s early life, the little that is known about his family, and about how the newspapers in Germany at the time of his rise understood him.
‘Part 2: Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit’ features the work of two post-war Hitler scholars, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock, and their debate about whether or not Hitler was ‘sincere’ in his anti-semitism, or whether he was merely a cynical and opportunistic politician playing on the anti-Semitism of the country he was hoping to rule.
‘Part 3: Geli Raubal and Hitler’s “Sexual Secret”‘ is about all the weird theories around Hitler’s sex life: whether he had one, whether it was abnormal, and whether those facts had anything to do with his political identity.
‘Part 4: Hatred: Complex and Primitive’ discusses whether Hitler was secretly Jewish, and whether or not that might be the source of his virulent anti-Semitism.
‘Part 5: The Art of Evil and the Future of It’ is about what happens when Hitler scholars try too hard to get into the Hitler headspace, and about the most famous Holocaust denier (or ‘Revisionist’), David Irving.
‘Part 6: The War Over the Question Why’ criticizes the position taken by some Holocaust chroniclers, most notably Claude Lanzmann, that to even seek to understand Hitler is “obscene”, because an explanation would inevitably, to some degree, exculpate him, and because to understand is, perhaps, to empathize.
‘Part 7: Blame and Origins’ covers the work of several scholars of Hitler and the Holocaust, namely Emil Fackenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Hyam Maccoby, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy Dawidowicz, on questions like: Would an omnipotent and just God allow the Holocaust to happen? Why, of all the nations in Europe, did Germany fall prey to a Hitler? When exactly did Hitler decide to exterminate the Jewish race in Europe?
‘Explaining Hitler‘ is, essentially, a long existential query, and it reads like one. I found it mesmerizing, but then, I would. Rosenbaum interviews scholars, visits historic sites, pores over archives. He asks complicated, devastating questions, and he records the answers of the men and women he’s interviewing, even when they are belligerent, or rude, or contradictory, or unconvincing. He does not shy away from the global, or the grandiose. It is clear, by the end, that most questions about Hitler are, ultimately, unanswerable, that the best we can do is be honest with ourselves about the dark potential of mankind.
“In declaring so offhandedly “the fact” that Hitler was a “person like you and me,” Bullock places himself squarely on the side of a great schism among Hitler explainers: those who speak of Hitler as “one of us,”, of a “Hitler within” all of us, of a potential for Hitlerian evil in all human nature, in our nature – and those who maintain one of several varieties of Hitlerian exceptionalism. Exceptionalist arguments range from the belief that the magnitude of Hitler’s evil (however that magnitude is measured) surpasses that of previous malefactors of history to the most sophisticated theses of those like the philosopher Berel Lang who argue that it is the quality of Hitler’s intentionality, not the quantity of bodies, that makes the Nazi genocide a new chapter in a “history of evil”. Beyond that are the more metaphysical and theological arguments of Emil Fackenheim, who rejects the idea of a Hitler “within us,” who argues instead that Hitler is beyond the continuum, off the grid, not explicable by reference to any previous version of human nature. Rather, he represents some kind of “radical evil”, even an “eruption of demonism” into history, one so unprecedented it must cause us to reconsider our conception of God’s relationship to man.” (p. 85)
“Fackenheim’s notion of “posthumous victory” suggests that, much as we would like to understand Hitler, it is important to realize that we should in some sense also still be at war with him. And there might be some value to continuing to resist, even to hate, the enemy. Is hatred of Hitler still a legitimate response, or is it the kind of crude, debased emotional reaction that explanation and understanding should ideally lead us upwards from? Is it bizarre, out-of-bounds, a sign of an unevolved sensibility, for a civilized, educated citizen of the post-Holocaust world to hate Adolf Hitler? Put another way: Would it be a bizarre moral failure not to hate Hitler?” (p. 390)
If these are not the sorts of questions that get you going, if you don’t like moral dilemmas strung out over hundreds of pages, dense, insoluble ethical and historical riddles which force you to choose between a rock and a hard place, then ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is not the book for you.
But these are exactly the sorts of questions that get me going. I love thinking about stuff like this, I do so voluntarily, in my free time, and so ‘Explaining Hitler‘ is like four hundred pages of exactly the kind of conversation I use to alienate people at parties!
What is evil? Are people evil, or just actions? Can we use a term like ‘evil’ when we’re talking about something merely human, and not actually Satanic? Was Hitler evil? Does it matter? Was the entire Nazi leadership evil? At what level does the evil stop: Nazi leadership, the S.S., the army, complacent civilians? Can a whole nation be evil? How about a species?
Who bears responsibility for the Holocaust? What if you found out that Hitler had a brain tumor from 1918 on – would that make him less evil? It certainly wouldn’t make the Holocaust less terrible, so how could it make him less evil?
Is it wrong to even ask these questions? By seeking to understand Hitler, do we risk empathizing with him? Or, on the other hand, do we have a responsibility to understand him, in order to make sure we spot the next Hitler before he kills millions of people?
I will also say this: I’ve read a lot of W.W. II history, and several Hitler biographies, and I encountered a bunch of stuff in ‘Explaining Hitler‘ that I hadn’t seen before. Some of the theories of Hitler get very granular, and I learned things I hadn’t known about his rise, his life, and the post-Holocaust scholarship about him.
But, mostly, to me, ‘Explaining Hitler‘ was a long series of compelling questions, premises and thought-experiments about what is, for my money, one of the most interesting relationships of the 20th century: our relationship with Hitler. There is no use pretending that we don’t have one – he is our go-to example of Badness, on the tip of our tongues even now, omnipresent in Godwin’s Law and political punditry and meme culture. Hitler is important to us, not simply because of the enormities that he orchestrated, but because he represents the farthest-out version of ourselves, the most extreme human potential in Category: Evil. We need to see the worst that we might be, and I think that we need to understand that worst.