OTI Online
Winter 1999

Explaining Hitler
The Search for the Origins of His Evil
Reviewed by Jean Bethke Elshtain


Why does Hitler seem to elude us, to escape most attempts at explanation? And why is it important to understand Hitler? These are the questions that vex Rosenbaum, a distinguished writer and journalist, who spent a decade looking for the answers. Haunted by the disparity between a sweet baby picture of young Adolph, bright-eyed and innocent, and our collective image of the ranting architect of the Third Reich, Rosenbaum set off on a quest to explain Hitler. Or, if not that, to conduct an exhaustive survey of what might Explaining Hitlerbe called "Hitler studies" in order to determine who had come close to the mark. There is no magic explanatory bullet, he decides. But he makes several related determinations. First, one must not, as Claude Lanzmann, maker of the eight-hour film Shoah, notoriously asserts, make no attempt to explain Hitler, to account for how he came to power and how that power was used to such appalling ends. For Lanzmann, any effort to explain him ends by justifying what Hitler did. For Rosenbaum, this is a counsel of anti-intellectual despair. But Rosenbaum does worry about the nature of many attempts to explain, and this, in turn, leads to his second determination: that any and all explanations that either evade the key questions concerning "why Hitler?" or offer a form of pious and false consolation must be resisted. Any explanation that winds up excusing Hitler, permitting him to escape, or granting him "the posthumous victory of a last laugh" must be shunned. This conviction -- that Hitler must not finally win -- drove much of the post-war fervor that led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Books such as Rosenbaum's remind us that we cannot let our alertness slacken if there is truly to be no repetition of what happened fifty years ago.

The field of Hitler studies today is crowded and contentious. Reading Rosenbaum's long book, one is struck by how much time Hitler "explainers" spend attacking one another's explanations. This is no doubt inevitable, given the enormity of the task and its inherent moral pitfalls. Schools of Hitler interpretation that Rosenbaum surveys include those that favor psychological causality (a messed up childhood, unsavory early encounters with Jews or a particular Jew, and the like); others, including the distinguished historian, H. R. Trevor-Roper, that represent Hitler as a mountebank, not at all sincere, are contrasted with those that see him as a veritable paragon of sincerity in a hideous cause. Yet another school veers toward Hitler's ostensible sexual abnormalities, including destructive and deranged relationships with women. "Christian anti-semitism" is singled out by some; others (including the great political theorist, Hannah Arendt) argue that modern biological racism, of which Nazi anti-Semitism was a variant, bears little or no relation to religious anti-Semitism, which was not at all racially grounded. Some historians gesture toward a kind of perversity at the heart of the collective German soul, while others find this explanation anathema: Without Hitler, no Holocaust, they insist.

Here the ferocious debate surrounding Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners enters the picture. Goldhagen fingers a uniquely German horror that fueled what he calls "exterminationism." A small army of critics, including the distinguished historians Fritz Stern, Christopher Browing, and Raul Hilberg, whose own work on the Holocaust is considered definitive by many, take sharp exception to what they view as Goldhagen's simplistic account. Finally, there are theologians struggling with the theodicy question: If God is just, why is there so much evil? Here matters become complex indeed, with leading interpreters going so far as to saddle God with Holocaust guilt, while to others this is blasphemy.

Rosenbaum settles none of these controversies. He is more critical of some Hitler interpreters than others -- those who throw up their hands and decry any attempt at explanation (Lanzmann) as well as those who seem to exculpate Hitler in the process of explaining him (here he locates the distinguished George Steiner). By the book's end, we know a great deal more about Hitler explainers than we do about Hitler. This is perhaps inevitable, but it does incite some frustration with the manner in which Rosenbaum has parsed his topic. First, because Rosenbaum might have said more about those who, having understood Hitler, opposed him. He does mention a few intrepid reporters from the Munich Post newspaper who denounced and ridiculed Hitler, delivering up "poison-pen polemic" calling Hitler a traitor. Some of this material -- satirical, Rosenbaum insists -- makes one squirm, however, as, for example, when the authors claim Hitler is acting "like a real Jew" himself. Still, they assaulted Hitler at every turn and several, including the most outspoken among them, like editor Martin Gruber, eventually paid with their lives. Astonishingly, however, Rosenbaum makes no mention of theologian Dietrick Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, many of whose members, including Bonhoeffer, were martyred after having broken with the state church and organizing a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Second, the reader comes to the end of the book hoping for a conclusion, but there is none. One thing is clear, however, and that is just how completely we in late modernity have lost a working language of sin and evil. This isn't the main point of Rosenbaum's work, but it surfaces again and again. It is as if we find syndromes much more comforting and certainly much easier to talk about than sin. But this is worrying, because the entire medicalized discourse that now prevails among us veers away from holding people accountable, and this we most certainly are obliged to do, whether we are talking about Hitler or the Menendez brothers.

Most disquieting of all in the matter of Hitler and "his" evil is the fact that Hitler's evil looks, upon close examination, like a magnified version of the ordinary, garden variety evil that is rife in all human societies. For no society is free from spite, cruelty, destructiveness, arbitrary mistreatment, and murder. What Hitler and the movement he spearheaded succeeded in doing was to garner and to focus the human capacity for evil into a deadly manufactory whose end product was corpses. Events of the past ten years in places like Bosnia and Rwanda tell us that the vile energies devoted to the destruction of others persist. But it seems reasonable, and not naive, to hope that a Hitler could not rise to power again in a perverse imitation of what has already happened. One bit of good that came out of all the horror was the insistence that the international community has a responsibility to forestall genocide and that human rights cannot be arbitrary abridged. That this same community often fails to live up to this responsibility is no doubt true. But those who plan and carry out genocide, or attempt to, cannot do so with the impunity once attendant upon such efforts. As the twentieth century draws to a close, those who had direct experience with Nazism are fading, or have nearly faded, from the scene. Books such as Rosenbaum's remind us that we cannot let our alertness slacken if there is truly to be no repetition of what happened in central Europe a half-century ago.


Reviewer Jean Bethke Elshtain, is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. Her books include Democracy on Trial (Basic Books).


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