More than 50 years after Hitler’s death, there’s no consensus among the many Holocaust scholars about the nature of his evil, his motivations, his self-awareness, his hiddenness. As journalist Ron Rosenbaum points out in his new book Explaining Hitler (Random House), there are many competing visions and passionate, bitter disputes. In fact, the scholars portray many Hitlers: the psychologically damaged son, the German shaped by forces of history, the Hamlet-like leader who couldn’t make up his mind, among others — “Hitlers who might not recognize each other well enough to say ‘Heil’ if they came face to face in Hell,” Rosenbaum writes.
It’s not just the scholars who disagree. On many recent radio call-in shows, the author has encountered individuals who have their own explanations of Hitler’s behavior. “People feel compelled to have a theory about Hitler,” Rosenbaum says in an interview last week at the Yale Club. “In some ways it’s maybe more comforting to have a bad explanation than no explanation at all.”
Rosenbaum’s book is a study of the explainers, written with scholarly thoroughness and the lively prose of a cultural journalist. “I’d argue that Hitler explanations … are cultural self-portraits; the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler’s psyche are often cultural self-portraits in the negative. What we talk about when we talk about Hitler is also who we are and who we are not,” he writes.
Growing up in Bay Shore, L.I., in ’50s and ’60s, the Holocaust was an “abstract fact” for Rosenbaum. He remembers being aware of the 6 Million who were murdered, but there were no Holocaust survivors among his family and friends, and none living in his town. It was much later that Hitler would become an obsession.
Among the factors that sparked his interest — why he “plunged into the abyss” — were his father’s casual mention at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1982 of a relative who died in the Holocaust; it was the first time Rosenbaum learned of their family connection. Soon after, he engaged in conversation with a group of Jewish militants who proposed assassinating Nazi war criminals. He disagreed, but one of their questions — whether, if he was living in Weimar Germany, he would have thought it was legitimate to kill Hitler — stayed with him. He was also struck by reading Milton Himmelfarb’s essay in Commentary, “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” and sought to answer for himself questions about who Hitler was and why he did what he did.
Known as a journalist who turns subjects inside out, Rosenbaum writes the weekly “The Edgy Enthusiast” column in The New York Observer, where he voices his sometimes quirky obsessions. The author of a novel and three collections of essays who now also writes for The New York Times Magazine and Esquire and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Rosenbaum began researching this topic with the aim of writing a novel about Jews who planned to assassinate Hitler in the 1920s, but became fascinated with the issues and shifted to non-fiction.
In doing research, Rosenbaum traveled to Germany, Austria, England, France and Israel to visit archives and to meet with the leading explainers, including British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, biographer Alan Bullock, scholar Daniel Goldhagen whose book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” was greeted critically in the scholarly community, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, revisionist David Irving, scholar Christopher Browning, theologian Emil Fackenheim and Hebrew University professor Yehuda Bauer, a founder of the discipline of Holocaust studies.
Trevor-Roper presents a sincere Hitler convinced of his righteousness in carrying out the Final Solution, acting for the good of Germany. Bullock claims he was manipulative and cold-blooded. Some put the blame on situations in Hitler’s life, others point to circumstances in Germany and say that if there had been no Hitler, the society would have produced someone else to execute the Final Solution. Himmelfarb believes the opposite.
Psychoanalytic thinkers point to his family and their bad parenting, what Rosenbaum refers to as “the Menendez defense of Hitler.” Others identify Jews in his life who may have inspired his boundless hatred: Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal theorizes that it was the effect of an attack of syphilis, caught from a Jewish prostitute.
Bauer tells the author that “Hitler is not inexplicable. But the fact that something is explicable does not mean that it has been explained.” For Fackenheim, Hitler is beyond explanation; no explanation could explain the enormity of his crimes. Lanzmann feels adamantly that Hitler can’t be understood, for understanding might imply forgiveness.
Once involved in the maze of explanations and decades-long arguments among scholars, he refocuses his goal, from trying to uncover a single answer to trying to understand the personal agendas as well as the interpretations of the explainers. His ability to see many sides of the argument at once gives this provocative work a Talmudic-like quality.
When asked if there’s one view closest to his own, the journalist long used to asking the questions doesn’t answer directly, but says that he felt it was particularly important to restore the vision of the late historian Lucy Davidowicz, whose 1975 book “The War Against the Jews” is often ignored. In contrast to Browning who sees Hitler as wavering in his decision-making — “the nebbish Hitler,” as Rosenbaum describes — Davidowicz claimed that Hitler made his decision about the Final Solution as far back as November 1918, while recuperating in a military hospital, and that he never changed his mind.
Has Rosenbaum’s outlook changed after spending more than 10 years working on this book? “You can’t help taking a darker view of human nature if you spend a lot of time focusing on nightmarish events. On the other hand, I didn’t have much of a Pollyanish, bright view of human nature before either.”
As to whether his Jewish identity has been affected by his work on this project, he says, “I felt myself more and more feeling a kind of identification with the Jewish people for their persistence, their struggle, what they’ve endured and that they survived. I probably have come to more of a sense of being part of this amazing people.”
Rosenbaum, now in his early 50s, says that he’s long been drawn to Jewish thinkers, writers, and visionaries, and he’s also drawn to “this great Jewish impulse to question the world, to look at the world as a text to be unrolled, examined and explicated.” For many years, he’s been “obsessed” with figures like Spinoza, Kafka and Singer. “What’s developed in the course of writing this is maybe a sense of tragic solidarity with what my people have gone through. It’s not that I have suffered. I have come to feel that all of the victims and survivors are part of my extended family.”
Underlying the many questions about Hitler is the debate over his exceptionalism, whether Hitler is on a “continuum” with other mass murderers, on the extreme end of a spectrum of human nature shared by all members of society. Rosenbaum ponders whether there’s a potential Hitler within all people, or whether he’s “off the grid,” beyond any continuum.
For his next book, he’s considering a further exploration of the exceptionalism question, with regard to the genius of William Shakespeare, a writer Rosenbaum has been reading and rereading since his days as an English major at Yale. “Is he just a great writer, on the same continuum as others, or does his work transcend the work of other writers?” Rosenbaum asks. “If I’m going to spend another 10 years on something, I won’t be locked up in a room with Hitler. It will be with someone who’s given the world great pleasure.”