The artist of death

In 'Explaining Hitler,' Ron Rosenbaum brilliantly explores the unfathomable origins of history's greatest evil.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

He is a satanic cartoon,
the nightmare we cannot awake from and the clichi we erect against
the void he made. He is the black hole in the middle of our blasted century, a figure so weighted down with the allegorical trappings of Evil that his reality seems ungraspable. Adolf Hitler stands at the limit of so many kinds of human understanding -- moral, political, psychological, perhaps even metaphysical -- that he is forever escaping into the gilded glare of the absolute, like the hideous negative of one of those inscrutable saints in Byzantine portraits.

"These people must not know where I come from," Hitler said when he learned of an early investigation into his murky origins. "Nobody must know who I am."

For half a century, historians have been trying to learn who he was --and there is still no consensus. In "Explaining Hitler," Ron Rosenbaum tries to approach him indirectly, by interrogating the ways that other scholars and journalists have tried to explain Hitler. He hopes to discover, he says, "if not the truth about Hitler, then some truths about what we talk about when we talk about Hitler. What it tells us about Hitler, what it tells us about ourselves."

Few contemporary writers are better equipped to pull off this tricky double task. Rosenbaum, who writes a column of sui generis criticism for the New York Observer and teaches literary journalism at Columbia University, is
a rare triple threat: He is a first-rate thinker, a fine reporter and a
superb writer. He is also, as this volume proves, in control of a massive
body of scholarly work on Hitler. "What I've attempted in this book is to
approach not all but certain aspects of Hitler scholarship with the eye of
an educated consumer," he writes modestly. In fact, Rosenbaum's ambition
-- and achievement -- is considerably larger than that. "Explaining Hitler"
is more than a shopper's guide to Hitler Studies. He
doesn't offer, or claim to offer, a unified vision of the obscure Austrian
corporal who authored the Holocaust and was personally responsible for the
deaths of 40 million people. But Rosenbaum clears away -- or at least makes
problematic -- a lot of widely held myths, gives clear and logical accounts
of the major controversies in the field and, at crucial moments, delivers
his own lucid opinions. The portrait that results is in some ways the
intellectual equivalent of a cubist painting: It doesn't always look like
the Hitler you think you know, but it gives you the tools to see him in a
new, deeper way.

Rather than merely synthesizing the views of
Hitler scholars, Rosenbaum interrogates those scholars (and is sometimes
kicked out of interviews with them for his trouble), sets them rhetorically
against each other, meditates on the psychological needs their views might
fulfill. From his strangely truncated interview with the battle-scarred
Daniel Goldhagen, author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners," to his
challenging conversation with George Steiner, author of a provocative --
some believe obscenely provocative -- novel about Hitler; from a
sleepless night spent in the "Gestapo Cottage" near Hitler's mountain
retreat to a close encounter with the strange, convoluted mind of
revisionist historian David Irving, Rosenbaum turns his quest into an
engrossing moral, intellectual and personal odyssey.

What really makes "Explaining Hitler" a page-turner is, paradoxically,
the very thing that is most problematic about its method: its founding
assumption that Hitler is a vast enigma, a White Whale-like mystery to be
forever searched for. This assumption creates intellectual and literary
suspense -- when will the hidden truth about Hitler, what Rosenbaum calls
the "lost safe-deposit box," be found? -- but it also, inadvertently, tilts
the book toward so-called Hitler Exceptionalism, the belief that Hitler
was not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from all
other human beings.

But if Rosenbaum, in the end, reluctantly sides with the Hitler
exceptionalists, to his credit he resists mystifying his subject. And if at
times one wishes he had pursued only his ambitious original aim of
providing "some answer to the question 'What made Hitler Hitler?'"
and had not wandered into the fascinating but endless thickets of secondary
historiographical interpretation, he pulls off his audacious double mission
with energy and a powerful shaping intelligence. Personal without being
self-indulgent, erudite without being pedantic, written with passion and a
moral engagement worthy of its momentous subject, "Explaining Hitler" is an
exemplary work of intellectual journalism, an idiosyncratic classic.

Rosenbaum opens his book with a vivid and haunting scene: his search for
the ur-mystery of Hitler, his family origins. "I was ready to give up and go
back," he writes. "A surprise mid-autumn thunderstorm had blown out of
Russia and was blanketing Central Europe, making the relatively primitive
back roads of this backwoods quarter of Austria increasingly impassable."
Rosenbaum and his guide are searching for a ghost town named
Dvllersheim -- Hitler's ancestral village, which was "literally
blasted off the map and out of existence sometime after Hitler annexed
Austria. An effort -- some partisans in the controversy contend -- to erase
all traces of certain irregular and disreputable Hitler family events that
took place there."

Rosenbaum's attempt to find the ruined village, in a blasted landscape
still filled with unexploded shells, opens into and metaphorically reflects
the attempts by decades of Hitler scholars to unearth those "irregular and
disreputable family events." The crux of those irregularities concerns the
mysterious identity of Hitler's grandfather, whose name was left off the
baptismal certificate of Hitler's father, Alois Schicklgruber -- a gap that
has given rise to what Rosenbaum calls the "family romance of the Hitler
explainers," the legend that some mysterious stranger, perhaps a Jew, was
Hitler's real grandfather.

The most intriguing evidence for the idea that Hitler had Jewish
ancestry comes from Hitler's personal attorney, Hans Frank, who claimed, in
a memoir he wrote while awaiting execution at Nuremberg, that while
investigating a blackmail threat from one of Hitler's black-sheep relatives
he discovered that a Jewish family for whom Hitler's grandmother once
worked had paid her child-support money for her son. Hitler's father, then,
had presumably been fathered by the Jewish family's 19-year-old son --
making Hitler himself one-quarter Jewish.

"It's astonishing how much mischief this one story has caused since it
came to light in 1953 ... how many years of research, years of debate have
been devoted to untangling the ambiguities embedded in it," writes
decades, one of the two great temptations of Hitler explanation lore [the other having to do with Hitler's affair with his niece Geli Raubal and his alleged sexual perversities], tempting because it offers
the gratification of a totalizing, single-pointed explanation of Hitler's
psychology." The totalizing explanation is simple: Hitler, whether he
believed he had Jewish blood or only feared that he might, sought to "prove
his purity, his freedom from infirmity, by the unrelenting, uncompromising
ferocity of his war against the Jews, exterminating the doubts about the
Jew within himself by murdering all the Jews within his reach."

Rosenbaum, who describes himself as having "a predisposition to
Empsonian ambiguity and uncertainty rather than the certainties of theory,"
is suspicious, here and throughout "Explaining Hitler," of one-bullet
Hitler theories like Frank's Jewish-grandfather story -- or like the
psychosexual theories about Hitler's alleged abnormalities. For many
explainers, Rosenbaum observes, "the longing to find a sexual explanation
is almost sexual in its intensity." Various writers have asserted that
Hitler was homosexual, impotent, syphilitic, that he had a missing
testicle or a freakishly underdeveloped or mutilated penis (one bizarre story
asserts that Hitler suffered a disfiguring bite while attempting to urinate
in the mouth of a goat) and that he engaged in perverted excretory or
urinary sexual practices.

Without entirely ruling any of these out (the
last two theories seem particularly persistent), Rosenbaum cites Hitler's
affair with a young woman named Mimi Reiter, which was apparently
successfully consummated. As for the persistent rumors about Geli Raubal, Hitler's niece and by all
accounts the great love of his life, who was found shot, an apparent
suicide, in his bedroom in 1931, Rosenbaum declines to join those who
assert that she killed herself because she couldn't take her uncle's kinky
excretory voyeurism anymore, or who posit a correlation between her death
and Hitler's subsequent bloodthirstiness. "To deny or doubt that there was
some shameful sexual secret at the core of Hitler's psyche does not
diminish the mystery of Hitler's soul," Rosenbaum writes.

In fact, one of his motivations for writing the book, he says, was the
"remarkable confidence, despite the shakiness of the evidence, of so many
schools of explanation." (He hints that anti-Semitism may help explain why
there are so many Hitler-explanation stories that involve Jews, whether
they appear as ancestors, lovers or doctors: Somehow, a Jew must be to
blame.) He is particularly hard on psychoanalysts who are prone to push-button causation theories. For example,
he derides renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller's breezy assertion
that Hitler's evil was caused by the beatings he was given by his father,
and holds up for special ridicule her statement, in response to those who
questioned Alois Hitler's brutality, "As if anyone were more qualified to
judge the situation than Adolf Hitler himself." ("Yes, and who more
deserves our trust and confidence?" he dryly responds.)

Nonetheless, Rosenbaum does find something significant in attorney Frank's tale.
It reveals, he argues, not the familiar "demonic, Wagnerian mass-mesmerist"
Hitler driven to genocide by psychological self-hatred, but a more sordid,
familiar, criminal type -- what he calls "the film noir Hitler, the
Munich-demimonde Hitler, one whose relentlessly seedy, small-time character
has been forgotten if not erased." The real significance of the Frank
story is that it's a blackmail story -- in fact, two blackmail stories.
Rosenbaum makes much of the fact that when Hitler heard Frank's report, he
blandly asserted that not only had the Jewish family's son not impregnated
his grandmother, but that his grandparents had in fact blackmailed the
Jewish family by threatening to say that he had! "Consider the
kind of Hitler who emerges from the Hans Frank story," Rosenbaum
writes. "This is a Hitler steeped in the nuances of small-time sleaze, a
Hitler who can think both like a blackmailer and like a blackmailer's
victim ... Hitler as sleazy con man, small-time crook."

Rosenbaum's embrace of the two-bit-punk Hitler reflects his desire,
throughout the book, to knock Hitler off his demonic pedestal, to present
him as evil with a small "e." This realistic, demythologizing impulse,
however, later runs head on into a fact so monstrous, so seemingly
ungraspable that all "realism," all of the orthodox tools of psychology,
appear completely useless: the Holocaust. Dazed by the horrific magnitude
of what Hitler did, Rosenbaum never entirely succeeds in integrating his
vision of an all-too-human Hitler with the unprecedented mass murderer.

This disorientation is understandable. But might it not at least be
argued that the man who ordered the murder of 6 million Jews was still
nothing but a spiteful grifter -- that his psychology was not essentially
different from that of a thousand other sociopathic murderers? And if German anti-Semitism was as deep-seated and far-reaching as Daniel Goldhagen and others have argued, it becomes possible to imagine that Hitler was not that different, in his ideology and even perhaps in his visceral attitude toward Jews, from many Germans. Rosenbaum's resurrection of the currently unfashionable "Great Man" theory of history is commendable and largely justified, but one of its consequences is that he scants historical context.

The only thing that made Hitler different from your garden-variety anti-Semitic criminal, by this argument, was that he had acquired
absolute control over an enormous killing machine. This argument, which terrifyingly posits a total lack of correlation
between the magnitude of an intention and the magnitude of a deed, may be
too horrific for Rosenbaum to contemplate. The idea that the man who killed
a million babies might be identical, in moral imagination, will and
consciousness of what he had done, to a punk who bludgeoned a drunk to
death in an alley is horrible, absurd -- yet is it really inconceivable?
The varieties of criminal pathology are endless.

Moreover, the supposed epic ambiguity of Hitler, the failure of experts
to agree on much of anything about him, may not be as significant as it
appears. After all, all murder is enigmatic. The closer you look at almost
any intelligent, cold-blooded murderer, the more complex and enigmatic he
will appear. If you were to send a team of world-class historians,
psychologists and philosophers into a maximum-security jail and order them
to study a given killer for four decades, it seems possible, even likely,
that they would come back with a portrait as multifaceted, contradictory
and enigmatic as the one that historians have drawn of Hitler. This is not
to argue that this hideously reductive theory is the truth about Hitler, or
even particularly interesting. But Rosenbaum's failure even to consider it
suggests the seductive power of the massive question marks that generations
of scholars have erected, like a row of inscrutable totems.

In any case, Rosenbaum's thought-provoking vision of the grifter Hitler
of the '20s leads into what may be his book's most original -- and, for a
journalist, certainly its most inspiring -- contribution: his tribute to
the courageous, long-forgotten German journalists who desperately tried to
alert the world to the terrible menace in Munich -- and often paid for
their efforts with their lives. In particular, he salutes the reporters
and editors of Hitler's bjte noire, the Munich Post (which Hitler called the
Poison Kitchen), and the doomed crusade of an unfathomable editor named
Fritz Gerlich, whose savagely Swiftian attacks on Hitler were stopped only
when storm troopers smashed into his newspaper office, destroyed his last
edition and dragged him off to Dachau, where he was murdered. (One of the
most haunting tales in the book concerns Gerlich's steel-rimmed spectacles,
which "had become a kind of signature image for the combative newspaper man
among those who knew him in Munich." Rosenbaum describes how Nazi thugs
notified Gerlich's wife of her husband's death by sending her his famous
spectacles "all spattered with blood.")

Rosenbaum justly calls the story of these "first explainers" "one of the
great unreported dramas in the history of journalism." If "Explaining
Hitler" achieved nothing else, its rescuing of these extraordinary men and
women from oblivion would earn it a place in Hitler scholarship. In his
characteristically terse, muscular prose (Rosenbaum is the master of the
staccato sentence fragment, which he throws after the preceding sentence
like a fast right hand after a jab), he ends his chapter with an appeal for
German journalists "to do justice to the men of the Poison Kitchen, men who
brought so much honor to the profession with their courage and
investigative zeal." He closes: "And one more thing I believe ought to be
restored: their street address. Number 19 Altheimer Eck should become a
memorial and shrine to the Poison Kitchen."

Sequestered in the basement of Munich's Monacensia Library, Rosenbaum
stared at the headlines that day after day rang out like warning bells from the Munich
Post's front pages. "19 Shot in Terrible
Political Bloodbath." "Nazi Party Hands Dripping With Blood." "Germany
Today: No Day Without Death." The act of reading the paper, Rosenbaum
writes, was nightmarish: "There was something about communing with the
actual crumbling copies of the newspaper ... issues in which Hitler was a
living figure stalking the pages, that served to give me a painfully
immediate intimation of the maddeningly unbearable Cassandra-like
frustration the Munich Post journalists must have felt. They were the first
to sense the dimensions of Hitler's potential for evil -- and to see the
way the world ignored the desperate warnings in their work."

The significance of the Post reporters' coverage of Hitler, for
Rosenbaum, is that they saw him, first and foremost, as a "political
criminal," not an ideologue. "The emphasis on the down and dirty
criminality of the Hitler Party [which the Post insisted on calling the
Nazis] is a signature of the Munich Post writers' vision: They were, in
effect, enlightened police reporters covering a homicide story in the guise
of a political one," Rosenbaum writes. "And, in fact, after immersing
myself in their reportage on Hitler and the Hitler Party, I came to see
that 'political criminal' was not an empty epithet but a carefully
considered encapsulation of a larger vision: that Hitler's evil was not
generated from some malevolent higher abstraction or belief, from an
ideology that descended into criminality to achieve its aims; rather, his
evil arose from his criminality and only garbed itself in ideological

Rosenbaum thus argues that the early Hitler was a political criminal, a
murderous grifter. He was possessed by a primitive hatred of the Jews, but
he didn't work out a self-justifying ideology until later. Yet Rosenbaum
also seems to entertain Lucy Dawidowicz's radical theory that the idea of
the Final Solution came to Hitler as early as 1918 (a much earlier date
than most historians are willing to posit) and that he never wavered from
it. Could Hitler have consciously planned the extermination of European
Jewry based only on primitive hatred, without ideology? The idea seems
problematic. Whatever the case, Rosenbaum clearly thinks that the cheap-punk Hitler evolved after he took power, turning in some complex fashion
into the ideological monster.

But did Hitler really believe in his own ideology? The question of which
came first, ideology or criminality, is central to Rosenbaum's book. And it
is closely related to an even more primal question: Did Hitler do evil
knowing it was evil, like Iago or Milton's Satan, or did he think that what
he was doing was "right"? Indeed, do the categories of "evil" and "right"
even apply to Hitler's thought-world -- or was he a "moral cretin"? In
search of answers to these irreducible ethical questions -- which, as
Rosenbaum points out, have been debated by philosophers since at least the
time of Plato, who argued in the "Protagoras" that no man consciously does
wrong -- Rosenbaum visits two of the towering figures in Hitler
explanation, eminent British historians Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan
Bullock, authors respectively of "Last Days of Hitler" and "Hitler: A Study
in Tyranny."

On the question of conscious evil, Trevor-Roper has no doubt: "Hitler
was convinced of his own rectitude." Much of "Explaining Hitler" can be
seen as Rosenbaum's attempt to refute this argument and replace it with a
vision of a Hitler who did evil knowing it was evil. Since one of
Rosenbaum's guiding theses is that in cases where decisive evidence is
lacking, historians, including himself, tend to come up with interpretations
that reflect who they are, it is no criticism to say that Rosenbaum's
rejection of Trevor-Roper's interpretation seems to be based on moral
grounds as much as on the evidence. For if Hitler really believed he was
doing the right thing, then in some sense he would be less guilty -- and
this is something that Rosenbaum cannot tolerate. He offers the example of
the grotesque first Menendez murder trial, in which the brothers were initially
acquitted because they supposedly "believed" that their parents
were going to kill them. "By that logic, if Hitler had survived to be put
on trial for murder in California, say, he might theoretically have been
able to argue that he was 'honestly convinced' the Jews were trying to
destroy him," Rosenbaum writes.

Rosenbaum suggests that Trevor-Roper has his own understandable reasons
for needing to believe in Hitler's sincerity. "Hitler explanations offer
contradictory comforts. For [theologian] Emil Fackenheim, it is
important to believe that Hitler was insincere and opportunistic precisely
because he doesn't want to exempt Hitler from the gravest degree of
responsibility, from conscious, premeditated knowing evil. Perhaps for
Trevor-Roper, that degree of knowing evil, evil without the fig leaf of
rectitude, is inconceivable or unbearable to contemplate."

The argument Rosenbaum makes against Trevor-Roper is powerful, if not
entirely decisive. He points out that in the "Table Talk" transcripts, records
of Hitler's late-night ramblings, the F|hrer tells SS chief Heinrich Himmler and his top accomplice, Reinhard
Heydrich, an obvious and chilling lie, denying that he was killing Jews when
in fact all three men knew that the Final Solution was in full swing. "One
can imagine the glances that Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich must have
exchanged during the orchestration of this elaborate charade for the
stenographer, perhaps even the silent laughter." For Rosenbaum, "This is
not the language of a man 'convinced of his own rectitude' in exterminating
Jews. This is the language of a man so convinced of his own criminality
that he must deny that the crime is happening."

Yet, as Rosenbaum himself acknowledges later, "There's nothing intrinsic
in the fact of concealment to make it a necessary conclusion that
concealment came from shame as opposed to, let's say, 'idealistic'
prudence." Hitler, by this logic, might have been aware that the world
didn't think slaughtering the Jews was a good thing, even though in his
heart he knew it was -- a variant of the "the masses are not yet ready to
understand our (Cultural Revolution, Armenian genocide, Rwandan butchery,
American slavery, Bosnian atrocities, etc.)" line -- and therefore
concealed it.

Rosenbaum's encounter with Bullock deepens the argument -- and
reveals that Bullock had changed his mind in a fascinating way about
Hitler. In his still-standard 1952 biography, "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,"
Bullock had argued that Hitler was a mere mountebank, an adventurer devoid
of conviction, interested in power for its own sake. It was a pragmatic,
deflating vision of Hitler that stood at the opposite pole from
Trevor-Roper's messianic, almost possessed F|hrer. (So powerful was
Trevor-Roper's portrait that some thought it glorified Hitler: The Zionist
terror group the Stern Gang actually issued the historian a death threat.)
Now, however, Bullock had come to see Hitler as "double-minded" -- not just
as a cynical actor, but as "the great actor who believed in the
part." He cites a passage from Nietzsche: "In the very act of
deception ... they are overcome by their belief in themselves, and it
is this belief which then speaks so persuasively." In a dark dialectic,
calculation becomes sincerity -- but cynicism comes first.

Like Bullock, Rosenbaum thinks that Hitler masked his real feelings,
perhaps even transformed them so that they were palatable to him. But
rather than seeing cynicism transformed into sincerity, he sees primitive
hatred transformed into, or masked by, ironic knowingness -- a mask
revealed by "the way he would come to make artful little knowing
jests about it, virtually chuckle over the magnitude of his hatred."
This "mirthful knowingness," for Rosenbaum, is the true signature of
Hitler's unfathomable evil, his ticket to the lowest circle of hell.

Rosenbaum's encounter with one of the most thought-provoking figures in
the book, philosopher Berel Lang, takes the analysis still further. For Lang,
"Hitler and his cronies raised the consciousness of evil to a veritable
art: created ... the art of evil." Lang believes that it was "the role of
the imagination in the elaboration of their acts," the "sense of irony"
manifest in things like the sign "Arbeit macht Frie" ("Work Will Make You Free") over the gate to Auschwitz -- "it's like a joke, it is a joke" -- that
indicate "an artistic consciousness" in evil. Which is to say that Hitler
and his cronies did what they did not in spite of the fact that they knew
it was wrong, but because they knew it was wrong.

If there is one image of Hitler that Rosenbaum wants to leave us with,
it is the image of him laughing -- or perhaps smiling silently -- at the
thought of his victims. In a brilliant excursus on the late Lucy
Dawidowicz, he invokes three remarkable passages she cites in which Hitler
repeatedly refers to the "laughter" of the Jews. "Of those who laughed
then, countless ones no longer laugh today,"
Hitler said, "and those who still laugh now will perhaps in a while also no
longer do so." Rosenbaum comments that this speech "is a confirmation of
Berel Lang's thesis that it is in the savoring of the slaughter as an
aesthetic experience, in the perpetrator's relishing its piquant artful
ironies, that the highest degree of conscious evil discloses itself." If in
"Explaining Hitler" Rosenbaum at some level is putting Hitler on trial, it
is a powerful closing argument for total moral condemnation.

But should one even attempt to explain Hitler? In one of the most
shocking chapters in the book, Rosenbaum confronts someone who not only
believes that all Holocaust explanation is "obscenity as such," but who
imperiously censors those who venture such explanations. If there is an
intellectual villain here, it is Claude Lanzmann, director of the acclaimed
nine-hour documentary "Shoah." Rosenbaum approaches Lanzmann respectfully,
only to be treated with a high-handed disdain that approaches intellectual
fascism. As Rosenbaum portrays him, Lanzmann, egged on by his Lacanian
acolytes -- lickspittles is more like it -- clearly regards himself as the
sole keeper of the sacred flame, and has ruled from on high that all
attempts at explanation of a horror so absolute as the Holocaust are
morally obscene, since they might somehow exculpate or lead to
understanding of the perpetrators.

One might accept or at least understand this stark taboo in the abstract. But Rosenbaum recounts a damning scene in which Lanzmann, who is not a Holocaust survivor, publicly humiliates and browbeats an actual Holocaust survivor, Dr. Louis Micheels. There could be no more devastating portrait of hubris, abstract rage and Parisian intellectual arrogance.

As he abruptly terminates his interview with Rosenbaum, Lanzmann
instructs him to read an essay he had written called "Hier Ist Kein Warum"
("Here There Is No Why"). The title is taken from a line in Primo Levi's
memoir, "Survival in Auschwitz." On his first day in camp, Levi, tormented
by thirst, tries to break off an icicle hanging outside the window. The
guard brutally snatches it way from him. "'Warum?' I asked him in my
poor German. 'Hier ist kein warum' (there is no why here), he
replied, pushing me inside with a shove."

Rosenbaum writes that he is still astonished that Lanzmann could have
put this line to the use that he did. And he gives Micheels, a humble and
soft-spoken man, the last word.

The world of Auschwitz, Micheels tells Rosenbaum, "was inhabited by
creatures that had little if anything in common with what we consider human
beings ... In that world, I agree, 'ist kein warum.' However, in the
civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned,
there should be -- da sollte ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter
how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth
is most important, could be lost again."

"'Da sollte ein warum sein,'" Rosenbaum translates. "There must be a
why." His own book, which unblinkingly confronts the hardest of the hard
questions our century has faced, is an important part of the answer that
will never be given, yet that we must try to give.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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