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Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

history/psychology, Harper Perennial,  (paperback), 1998, 490 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

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Is the deceased soul of Der Fuehrer sitting in some Valkyrie heaven and laughing at us more mortals, who still, fifty years after the end of World War II, try to comprehend the enormity of his evil and the twisted motivations behind it?  Put another way, are attempts to explain Hitler mere cop outs, creating insidious parallels that place him wrongfully within the mainstream continuum of human history?  These are the base questions that Ron Rosenbaum addresses in his Roshomon-like book, which does not examine Hitler and his history directly, but instead compares and contrasts the varied and sundry explanations that have been offered by contemporary historical analysts.  So the focus becomes not the nature of Hitler's evil, but the possibly subversive impulse to explain every human action, no matter how barbaric or seemingly inexplicable that action might be.

Rosenbaum presents the reader with twenty chapters, each an independently-standing essay on that particular Hitler explainer.  One of his early chapters deals with a forgotten subject, the internal criticism and lampooning of Hitler during the Twenties and Thirties by the German Left.  Most of these critics ended up victims, but Rosenbaum proves through citation of comtemporary sources, that some Germans were not fooled by Hitler's charisma, and were even aware, and vocally critical of, his
scapegoating of the Jews.

Shortly after the war's end, some distinguished British scholars chimed in.  A.J.P. Taylor argued that Hitler's policies were squarely within the tradition of European statesmen, perhaps a little more fanatical, but in pursuit of traditional goals: power, expansion of territory, and access to foreign markets.  Hugh Trevor-Roper weighed in with the argument that Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.  He may have done bad things, but he believed a better good would emerge.  Another Oxford don, Alan Bullock, firmly rejected this formulation, portraying a Hitler that knew what he was doing, but was too drunk with power to stop.

Rosenbaum then describes a group of scholars who seek to explain Hitler through discovery of his sexual inadequacy.  Mostly Freudians, their explanations are constructed with rampant historical speculations based on flimsy and unrecoverable evidence, and fail to convince.  These people practice what Bullock derisively calls the "one-ball business."  Even less persuasive are the Holocaust deniers, most prominent of which is David Irving, who seems to revel in his contrariness and has allied himself with
Neo-Nazi movements in Germany and the USA.

Way more intriguing and thought-provoking is the state of Hitler scholarship within the Jewish academic community.  Claude Lanzmann, director of the Holocaust witness documentary Shoah, takes the extreme position "Thou shalt not ask why."  Inspired by a Primo Levi story in which a concentration camp guard says "There is no why here," Lanzmann believes that asking the question is an obscenity and has even shouted down Holocaust survivors at screenings of Shoah who dared to bring up their own experiences in the death camps.  At the other extreme is the case of George Steiner, an Oxford literature professor who dared ask the question, How could the Germans have listened to Beethoven or Bach in the evening and still report for duty in the death camps the next day?  Steiner challenged the notion that high culture is a humanizing force, a very uncomfortable notion for the culture vultures out there.  But it is what Steiner did next that drew the wrath of many fellow Jews.  He wrote a novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H., in which a fictionalized Hitler escapes to South America and is captured, put on trial, and forced to explain himself.  The fictional Fuehrer explains himself too well, placing the blame on the Jewish invention of conscience, so much so that many readers felt Steiner was saying things about Hitler that he himself believed.  Steiner's moral standing to comment was diminished, just as with the case of David irving.

The last three Hitler explainers represent a new wave of scholarship that has arisen in the last decade or so.  Daniel Goldhagen argues in Hitler's Willing Executioners that obsessing on Hitler's motives or psychology is misguided.  It was not Hitler's willingness to impose the Final Solution that matters, but the German people's willingness to go along with it.  In a different society, Goldhagen implies, Hitler would have been as marginalized a character as George Lincoln Rockwell was in America.  Christopher Browning, another recent scholar, argues for a Hamlet-like Hitler, one who reluctantly made a series of incremental decisions that ultimately added up, almost without intention, to the Holocaust.  This notion of Hitler as ditherer, as someone who had no clear vision of what he wanted to do, can be offered because there is lack of documentation proving that he authorized multiple evil deeds.  But that image is refuted convincingly by Lucy Dawidowicz, who convicts Hitler with his own laughter.  She finds many examples where Hitler and his close cronies shared coded jokes about the fate of the Jews.  And she finds in Mein Kampf some indications that, as early as 1918, Hitler had a final solution in mind.

Would so many people care about Hitler and his motives if he were head of Uganda or Cambodia instead of Germany?  I think not, because in our Euro-centric racism, we expect horrors to emerge from hearts of darkness everywhere.  But it is particularly upsetting when one of the most culturally sophisticated countries in the world exhibits a barbarism that the culture masks, and it upsets our carefully nurtured myths of the civilizing influence of Christianity to realize that Hitler was a practicing
Christian, a putative believer in the Ten Commandments, and simultaneously an architect of genocide.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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