Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum
by Ron Rosenbaum
Random House. 448 pp. $30.00
Why did Hitler murder six million of Europe’s Jews? A half-century later, we still live under the shadow of this satanic creature who reduced a civilization to ruin. Though the subject of study after study, the Nazi dictator remains somehow unfathomable: “The more I learn about Hitler, the harder I find it to explain,” writes one of his leading biographers, Alan Bullock. But as the essayist and novelist Ron Rosenbaum demonstrates in Explaining Hitler, there is always more to learn. Rosenbaum’s book is an attempt to enter into Hitler’s “inwardness,” to apprehend the motivation for a crime so horrific it will always seem beyond our grasp.
A dozen years ago, for reasons he connects to his own family history, Rosenbaum set out to make sense of the great Jewish catastrophe. Combing through untapped archives in Vienna, Munich, and Berlin, as well as the declassified files of Allied intelligence agencies, he hoped to tie up some loose biographical ends that would clarify the mystery of Hitler’s psyche. But as he carried out his probe, Rosenbaum’s focus began to shift. From a quest for what he calls an “Ultimate Explanation,” he turned to a more modest endeavor: not explaining Hitler himself, but rather “explain[ing] the explainers.” By means of this indirect approach—an examination of what leading historians, theologians, psychoanalysts, biographers, and intellectuals have had to say—we might learn “if not the truth about Hitler, then some truths,” and not only about the Nazi leader but also about our own difficulties in coming to grips with him.
Explaining Hitler bears traces of both these purposes. Much of the first half is a look at what Rosenbaum uncovered as he burrowed into the blacker spots in Hitler’s past. He is especially interested in the psychosexual aspect of his topic. Thus, he goes at length into Hitler’s amorous relationship with his niece, Geli Raubal, who shot herself to death in Hitler’s bedroom in 1931. As Rosenbaum notes, she was not the only intimate of the Nazi leader to take her own life. He cites Robert Waite’s 1977 monograph, The Psychopathic God:
The idea that Hitler had a sexual perversion particularly abhorrent to women is . . . supported by a statistic: of the seven women who, we can be reasonably sure, had intimate relations with Hitler, six committed suicide or seriously attempted to do so.
I shall return later to the question of that “sexual perversion.” The relevant point here is that, in sorting out what is known and unknown about the more sensational aspects of Hitler’s past, Rosenbaum himself came to be disturbed by the attempt to locate the origins of the European nightmare in Hitler’s psychopathology. All such efforts, he writes, end by excusing Hitler’s crimes “on grounds of what the courts call ‘diminished capacity,’ an inability to know right from wrong.”
As it turns out, even some of Hitler’s more sophisticated interpreters are guilty of a not dissimilar sin. In the second half of Explaining Hitler, we encounter a gallery of these figures. Rosenbaum has studied their words closely and, in the case of the living, has interviewed them at length, engaging them in fascinating and sometimes heated discussions of their theories.
In his best-selling Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), for example, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argued that the Final Solution was the end-product of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that propelled Germans to slaughter innocent men, women, and children without a second thought. But, Rosenbaum asks, does not this analysis, in emphasizing the all-important centrality of large social forces, make Hitler’s own role in the destruction of European Jewry “virtually irrelevant”? And if Goldhagen lifts responsibility from Hitler, does he not lift it from the “willing executioners” as well? For in Goldhagen’s analysis, the “ordinary Germans” who committed monstrous crimes become so many pawns—“victims,” in Rosenbaum’s words,
of ideological poisoning which robbed them of the power to resist, robbed them of agency, of choice, any possibility of pursuing another—any other—course than the one they’ve been driven to.
The astonishingly warm reception Goldhagen’s book enjoyed in Germany, Rosenbaum suggests, may even have something to do with the indirect absolution it seems to offer for the crime of genocide.
As Rosenbaum goes on to show, moreover, Goldhagen is hardly the only student of the Holocaust to exculpate Hitler, or the Germans, in some fashion or other. Two much more blatant and even grotesque cases are those of the revisionist historian David Irving and the literary critic George Steiner.
Irving, who lives in England (and is a non-Jew), has built a career on the proposition that Hitler neither ordered the extermination of the Jews nor even knew about it. His sources for this contention tend to be the aging survivors of Hitler’s coterie, whom he has tracked down and cultivated. As Rosenbaum has no trouble showing, Irving is a deep anti-Semite, one who refers to Jews as the “traditional enemy,” who “lectures” before neo-Nazi audiences to shouts of “Sieg Heil,” and who has taken on a self-described role as Hitler’s “ambassador to the afterlife.” Much of what he says and writes simply does not withstand critical scrutiny—which has not prevented him from exercising a malign influence as a “scholarly” witness for the innocence of the Nazi leader.
George Steiner, a British Jew of Austrian and Czech parentage and a distinguished man of letters, is a far more complicated case. In his novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1983), Steiner presents a Hitler who has survived the war, is tracked down in South America by Israeli agents, and is permitted to make a statement justifying his deeds. He does so in a lengthy and brilliant set-piece in which he asserts that the Nazi notion of a master race is nothing more than a borrowing from the Jewish conception of the chosen people; blames Judaism for provoking the Holocaust by bringing into the world a superior morality that “left man a guilty serf” and caused a festering, murderous resentment; and claims credit for saving the Jewish people because his Shoah led to the birth of the state of Israel.
Hitler’s soliloquy goes pointedly unanswered in Steiner’s novel, where it constitutes virtually its closing words. When enacted in the stage version of The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., the speech has elicited sustained applause from audiences. Steiner himself has conspicuously declined to elaborate on what he had in mind in putting this extraordinary apologia pro vita sua in the mouth of history’s monster. To Rosenbaum, however, an interviewer with a gift for shearing through mental armor, Steiner confides that the speech does not merely express the viewpoint of a fictionalized character but is intended as his own rationalization for the mass slaughter of European Jewry. “We,” says Steiner, referring to his fellow Jews,
are that which have shown mankind to be ultimately bestial. We refused Jesus, who dies hideously on the cross. And then mankind turns on us in a vulgar kind of counter-Golgotha which is Auschwitz.
The combination of self-laceration and moral megalomania in this statement leaves one reeling.
By no means are all of Hitler’s explainers as twisted as these examples might suggest. In his survey of serious and balanced scholars, Rosenbaum paints portraits in varying degrees of detail of figures like Alan Bullock, Milton Himmelfarb, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Yehuda Bauer, Christopher Browning, Berel Lang, Hyam Maccoby, and Emil Fackenheim. Arranging them along several taxonomic axes, he attempts to show the strengths and weaknesses of their individual approaches. He is generous to almost all of them, and particularly so to Lang and Himmelfarb, both of whom he credits with zeroing in on Hitler’s essential attributes. But the historian whom he regards as coming closest to a true understanding of Hitler’s motives is the late Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the author of The War Against the Jews (1975), and, like Himmelfarb, a prolific contributor to COMMENTARY.
In contrast to various historians of the “functionalist” school, according to whom Hitler was long uncertain about what to do with the Jews, and was pushed into the Final Solution largely by the press of the war, Dawidowicz mounts a convincing case that Hitler had formed annihilationist intentions as early as 1918, and then devoted his life to carrying them out. And in contrast to others, like Trevor-Roper, who have regarded Hitler as wholly evil but also wholly convinced of his own rectitude, Dawidowicz’s most original contribution, in Rosenbaum’s view, is to show a Hitler not merely evil but positively exulting in evil, a man who murdered millions with laughter in his heart. It is precisely this laughter—so freakish, so alien, so far beyond the apprehension of ordinary conscience—that makes him, writes Rosenbaum, a figure impossible to behold, and impossible fully to grasp.
All in all, Rosenbaum, an amateur historian who confesses to struggling with German and having no command of French—and, what is worse, to being a professional journalist—has succeeded in writing a highly important book. As a tour d’horizon of Holocaust scholarship, Explaining Hitler connects historical inquiry to the deepest issues of free will, personal responsibility, and evil. Still, for all its intellectual force, the book also has some curious flaws.
For one thing, there are conspicuous and inexplicable absences. Where in Rosenbaum’s book is Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister of armaments? Speer knew Hitler like few others, and lived to write a remarkable memoir, Inside the Third Reich (1970), in which he told what he had seen and heard in countless official meetings and at Hitler’s dinner table. Surely, in a survey of Hitler explainers, the case of Speer deserves more space than the few passing references it garners here. And where, too, is the distinguished German historian Joachim Fest? Anyone who has read Fest’s arresting study of the Nazi leadership, The Face of the Third Reich (1963), or his Hitler (1973)—perhaps the single best full-length biography of the man—will be disappointed not to learn what Rosenbaum makes of these outstanding works and where he would place Fest in his taxonomy of explainers.
While such genuinely important material is passed over, Rosenbaum devotes a great deal of space, as I noted earlier, to the numerous strange myths and rumors that have arisen about Hitler’s psychopathology. But if the facts behind many of these are rather difficult to pin down (to say the least), and if all tend to exonerate Hitler by pointing to one or another form of severe mental illness, what, it seems fair to ask, is the purpose of sorting them out, particularly those that are on their face utterly preposterous?
To be sure, the tale peddled by one of Hitler’s schoolboy chums—that the young Adolf had attempted to urinate into a goat’s mouth and had a portion of his penis bitten off—is irresistible. And the precise nature of Hitler’s sexual perversion is assuredly an intriguing topic. Rosenbaum suggests he engaged in undinism (known today as “water sports” or “golden showers”) and perhaps coprophilia. But, after going back and forth over all the source material, he also admits that no one can say for sure. A similar uncertainty bedevils the “perplexing problem” of whether Hitler had an undescended testicle, although Rosenbaum doubts the finding of the Soviet autopsy report, first published in 1968, which reads in part:
[T] he genital member is scorched. In the scrotum, which was singed but not preserved, only the right testicle was found.
All this, as I say, is titillating, and who can object to that? One who does, interestingly, is Claude Lanzmann, the director of the nine-and-a-half hour film Shoah and yet another of Rosenbaum’s explainers. According to Lanzmann, indeed, all inquiry into Hitler’s nature is dangerous, and should be forbidden.
One need not agree with Lanzmann’s position, and certainly not with the tyrannical way he has attempted to impose it on others, to understand that the net effect of a lengthy discussion of the Fuehrer’s anatomy and bedroom depravity, even if its purpose is to debunk falsehoods and the theories built upon them, is to foster yet another historical distortion. Cutting Hitler down to size makes it easy, once again, to underestimate him—and even more difficult than it already is to “reconcile the gravity, the catastrophic magnitude of the events with the vulgar mediocrity of the individual who initiated them” (Herbert Luethy, “The Wretched Little Demon That Was Hitler,” COMMENTARY, February 1954).
One is left by all this with a sense of how deeply the intentions with which Rosenbaum began working on his book are at odds with the intention with which he finished it. Still, it is a measure of his achievement that, even with this contradiction at its core, Explaining Hitler is a book that glistens with insight and intelligence, and shimmers with originality.