Books

The evil that was Hitler

A writer finds no easy explanations for the Fuehrer

Brian Bethune August 23 1999
Books

The evil that was Hitler

A writer finds no easy explanations for the Fuehrer

Brian Bethune August 23 1999

The evil that was Hitler

Books

A writer finds no easy explanations for the Fuehrer

Hitler is explicable in principle, but that does not mean that he has been explained.

—Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer

More than half a century after the end of the Second World War, armies of historians, theologians and psychiatrists still argue how best to understand Adolf Hitler.

New York City writer Ron Rosenbaum could not escape that debate even when it came to picking cover art for his book, Explaining Hitler:

The Searchfor the Origins of His Evil (HarperCollins). Rosenbaum chose to use a rare baby picture, taken when the future mass murderer was a toddler. Those who look at the photo can read into it what they will—incipient evil, gende sensitivity, a damaged soul. But if Hider was a child like any other, something—some trauma from outside—made him a monster.

That’s an argument that enrages many commentators, who see it as absolving Hider from responsibility for his actions. In the end, European publishers declined to use the image, while baby AdolPs face gazes out from the North American editions of the book. “And the Israeli version,” Rosenbaum notes with a smile.

The baby-picture episode is only one example of the deep fissures in Hitler and Holocaust studies that Rosenbaum found during 10 years of original research and illuminating face-to-face discussions with the explainers. The result is an extraordinary book, sparking ideas that force readers to examine their own preconceptions about the human capacity—and responsibility—for evil. To write Explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum interviewed dozens of witnesses and scholars. He visited revisionist historian David Irving in his fortified London bunker, and attended acad-

emic symposiums where Holocaust experts viciously attacked Holocaust survivors whose opinions were politically incorrect. He even went on a surreal tour of the dictator’s home turf where he met an Austrian Fuehrer buff who, blissfully unconcerned with Hitlers crimes, kept repeating that his fellow countryman had been kind to dogs and small children. That prompts Rosenbaum to recall that eight out of 12 death camp commandants were Austrian-born. More poignantly, Rosenbaum rescues from obscurity the writings of a group of courageous Munich journalists who battled Hitler throughout his rise to power in

1933, after which most were murdered.

In the core of the book, Rosenbaum contrasts the views of the two major postwar Hitler biographers: Hugh TrevorRoper, who argued the Fuehrer was a demented but moral man, convinced of his righteousness, and Alan Bullock, who claimed he was a crafty criminal, ready to appeal to whatever prejudices would carry him to power. Rosenbaum also examines the polar opposites among Jewish scholars: Yehuda Bauer, pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust, who believes only the lack of evidence prevents a full understanding, and Emil Fackenheim, equally as prominent among Holocaust theologians, who says explanation is impossible.

After the war, Fackenheim, who had escaped from Germany to Canada in 1939, decided that even to discuss Hitler was to give him new life, and for two decades concentrated on becoming a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University ofToronto. But in 1967, in the tense days before the Six Day War, Fackenheim abruptly changed his life. He moved to Israel and began to study Hitler. His conclusion: Hitler represented a new kind of “radical” evil—“an eruption of demonism into history.” Fackenheim insists to Rosenbaum that attempts to explain Hitler break the philosopher’s famous commandment, “Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler.” Such explanations can only end with the loss of faith in a God who failed to save the death camp victims, which would be a triumph for their murderer.

Rosenbaum says his purpose in writing the book was to “cleanse the doors of perception,” to sweep away the junk answers blocking true understanding. “But even then,” he added, “I’m not sure that a bright, shining explanation will emerge through.” His housecleaning is ruthless. The 52-year-old author passionately denounces psychological explanations for Hitler’s actions. “They’re pathetic,” he exclaims, “arrogant, pre-

ordained, Hitler-validates-Freud conclusions.” Such explanations would effectively blame the death of six million Jews on the dictator’s much-rumoured single testicle, or on abuse by his father, or by his mother, or in reaction to the treatment a Jewish doctor provided his mother as she was dying of cancer in 1907. Rosenbaum’s own research shows how slender the factual basis is behind any of the psychoanalytical explanations.

Having explained the explainers, Rosenbaum is wary about declaring that any one of them possesses the whole truth. But his sympathetic imagination is clearly fired by a self-effacing American philosopher. Berel Lang, a State University of New York professor, argues that Hitler and his fellow Nazis were consciously evil. They did wrong, not thinking it the right thing to do, not despite knowing it was wrong, but because it was wrong. Lang points out how the Nazis had to dehumanize Jews by harsh treatment and incessant propaganda before they could kill them. That proves, says Lang, the Nazis were conscious of Jews’ humanity. And there the philosopher put a finger on an aspect of the Holocaust that had long troubled Rosenbaum, but which he could not define—the sheer inventiveness of Nazi evil, its gratuitous viciousness. For Rosenbaum, Lang finally and definitely explained the infamous slogan above the gates of Auschwitz— “Work will make you free.” It was a joke.

In conversation, Rosenbaum keeps returning to a talk recorded among Hider and henchmen Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler. The Fuehrer decries a “rumour” that Germany is exterminating the Jews, when all the Nazis are doing is “parking them in the marshy parts of Russia.” At that moment, Rosenbaum says, “the three main architects of the Holocaust become the first Holocaust deniers, relishing the murders that had already happened and twisting the knife in the survivors,” by obliterating history and memory with an inside joke. It is a chilling but clear revelation of a level of evil that Rosenbaum is determined to let no one forget.

Brian Bethune