Explaining Hitler

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Links between Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and the Holocaust explain why, as Ron Rosenbaum says, “an enormous amount has been written” about him “but little has been settled.” What made Hitler Hitler? Thus far, EXPLAINING HITLER: THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF HIS EVIL is the most comprehensive and provocative account of the dominant scholarly attempts to answer that question.

Rosenbaum reports the findings of the most important Hitler scholars—Alan Bullock and Hugh Trevor-Roper, Yehuda Bauer and George Steiner, Claude Lanzmann and Daniel Goldhagen, to name only a few—but how he does so makes his book much more than a summary of other people’s views. While learning much about Hitler, the reader becomes a partner in Rosenbaum’s inquiry, which entails coming to see that “explaining” Hitler may be impossible.

The author agrees with historian Yehuda Bauer. Holding that in principle Hitler can be explained, Bauer does not think it follows that Hitler has been or ever will be explained. Nevertheless, ongoing effort to explain him remains important. To stop trying would mean that, in principle, Hitler is beyond explanation, an outcome that takes him out of history and thereby promotes problematic mystification.

Rosenbaum thinks that Hitler was certainly human but not ordinary, for ordinary people do not do what Hitler did. Hitler was human, but he was also exceptional in the sense that he can rightly be called an evil man, even an evil genius. Where Hitler and the Holocaust are concerned, Rosenbaum concludes, explanatory inquiry should always resist temptations to misplace responsibility. Failure to resist “explanatory excuses” will grant Hitler “the posthumous victory of a last laugh.” Not “faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistible compulsions,” but Hitler’s choices, Rosenbaum correctly argues, must be at the center of explaining Hitler.

Sources for Further Study

American Journal of Psychiatry. CLV, December, 1998, p. 1788.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, November, 1998, p. 154.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 26, 1998, p. 7.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 17, 1998, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 19, 1998, p. 8.

Newsweek. CXXXII, July 6, 1998, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 13, 1998, p. 57.

Time. CLII, July 20, 1998, p. 64.

The Wall Street Journal. July 9, 1998, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 23, 1998, p. 7.