Book review: Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil
Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum. Highly recommended.
Explaining Hitler is a misleading title, for the focus is primarily on the Jewish academic community’s attempts to explain Hitler — to put it in grossly oversimplified terms, this is somewhat like the prey explaining the motivations of the predator. The result is that, while Hitler remains a mystery, the academic and personal biases of the explainers are revealed. To each person’s theories and comments Rosenbaum adds his own analysis, finding the flaws with precision.
Hitler explanation ranges from the deeply personal (abusive father, infection by a Jewish prostitute, mother’s painful death under the care of a Jewish physician) to the inevitable influence of historical forces (post-war inflation, depression). Rosenbaum discusses the personal in depth, including Hitler’s rumored Jewish ancestor and bizarre relationship with his half-niece Geli Raubal, the convolutions each theory takes, and the lack of facts or reliable information to support any of them. For example, Rosenbaum astutely points out the only real “proof” of the abusive father is Hitler’s own assertion and sarcastically suggests that there is reason not to trust Hitler’s word. One argument that immediately comes to mind that Rosenbaum only briefly alludes to later is that millions of people have abusive fathers, bad experiences with individual members of ethnic and other groups, and so forth, yet do not turn into war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions. In short, these theories might explain Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but not the results.
What is disturbing about so many of these explanations (some of which are advocated by such noted people as Simon Wiesenthal, who favors the Jewish prostitute theory), and more sophisticated ones that appear later in the book, such as George Steiner’s, is their insistence that a Jew or a group of Jews is responsible. In these theories, a Jewish ancestor, a Jewish prostitute, an Eastern Jew with a different appearance, or the Jewish “blackmail of transcendence” and “addiction to the ideal” is responsible for Hitler — implying Hitler is not responsible at all. Although the egotistical and monomaniacal Claude Lanzmann, maker of the documentary Shoah, is too self-centered and angry to clearly articulate the basis for his belief that Hitler explanation is inherently “obscene,” it could be because so much “explanation” has found a way to point a finger at the Jews, directly or indirectly, while minimizing Hitler. Perhaps for that reason, Lanzmann is interested only in how the Holocaust was accomplished, not with the motivations of Hitler or his followers. The major flaw is that Lanzmann has missed the point by dictating that his rule of “There is no why” must apply to all other individuals — and the irony of that.
As Rosenbaum repeatedly points out, no explanations for Hitler are acceptable that excuse him — that look to a bad experience with a Jew rather than to, for example, the influence of anti-Semitism surrounding him in Austria and Germany. Again, however, it can be said that anti-Semitic influence has surrounded many people (as Rosenbaum notes, pre-war France was more anti-Semitic than either Austria or Germany) who have not killed, let alone killed millions.
Rosenbaum’s approach is excellent, pairing individuals with complementary or opposing viewpoints, e.g., Lanzmann and Dr. Micheels, the theologian Emil Fackenheim and the atheist historian Yehuda Bauer in “The Temptation to Blame God.” Even revisionist David Irving is given a chapter. Rosenbaum saves what seems to be his preference for the last chapter — Lucy Dawidowicz’s belief that Hitler decided on The Final Solution as early as 1918, based on what he said and did not say over time, and on the “laughter” that is transferred from the Jewish victims to the Nazi victors. While this does not explain the origins of Hitler’s evil, it pinpoints the time frame and removes the notion that he was ambivalent or experienced a sense of moral ambiguity. Dawidowicz’s Hitler knows early on what he wants to do and lets insiders in on the “joke” he finds it to be. Presented in this way, Dawidowicz does seem to have come closest to the truth about Hitler. After all, how can one capable of ambivalence ultimately kill millions?
To me, one critical question is not why or how any one man became evil or chose an evil course of action, for the explanation could simply be that the capacity for evil in an individual may be higher than most of us are capable of realising or accepting. That is, everyday evil like John Wayne Gacy’s is accomplished in isolation and is therefore limited in scope. The intent and the desired scope given opportunity remain unknowns. The more frightening question is why and how so many chose to follow Hitler. I do not necessarily mean the German people, per se, but the thousands of bureaucrats, managers, and soldiers who physically carried out The Final Solution, knowing exactly what this entailed and what it signified. Hitler seized the opportunity offered by the political and social situation to institutionalize his personal evil. A single man may envision and desire genocide, but it takes followers and believers to carry it out. Explaining Hitler (or Stalin or Genghis Khan) is not enough to explain the scope of this particular human evil. Without followers, there are no leaders. And without followers, millions of Jews (and Cambodians and Indians and so forth) could not have died. The evil that is so hard to face goes well beyond Hitler to a place that no one could truly wish to discover.
18 January 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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