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.

Explaining Hitler

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A writer named Milton Himmelfarb plays an important cameo role in Ron Rosenbaum’s remarkable book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. In March, 1984, Himmelfarb published “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” an essay in which he contended that the decision to annihilate European Jewry was Adolf Hitler’s alone, a view that has not been shared by every Holocaust scholar. Far from being impelled by historical, political, or cultural forces to murder the European Jews, Himmelfarb continued, Hitler wanted and chose to annihilate them.

More than anything else, links between Hitler (1889-1945) and the Holocaust explain why, as Rosenbaum says, “an enormous amount has been written” about him “but little has been settled.” Persuaded by much of Himmelfarb’s position, Rosenbaum keeps returning to it but also understands that, while Himmelfarb’s position may explain a good deal about the Holocaust, it does not explain Hitler—at least not completely. How badly did Hitler want to destroy the Jews? When did he decide to do so? Even more basically, what made Hitler? Scholars have answered such questions differently, which makes the real Hitler elusive and the puzzles about him persistent.

Those questions and the diverse, even contradictory, responses to them persist partly because a photograph of Hitler was taken when he was probably less than two years old. Years later it was included in a Nazi book called The Hitler Nobody Knows (1932). In that context and others, Rosenbaum notes, the baby picture was used to build a wholesome image of Hitler, a tactic that helped to mask Hitler’s identity in ways that still haunt us. The same baby picture also appears on the title page of Rosenbaum’s book, which thus far is the most comprehensive and provocative account of the dominant attempts to “explain” Hitler. The title page design centers baby Hitler’s eyes. Unavoidably drawn to them, the reader can also see the words Explaining Hitler and the book’s subtitle, The Search for the Origins of His Evil.

As Rosenbaum understands, his title and Hitler’s baby picture collide. Somehow the infant in the photo became Nazi Germany’s führer. That normal-looking child became the leader of a regime that unleashed not only World War II but also an unprecedented genocidal attack on the Jewish people and millions of other defenseless people who were caught in the Holocaust (or Shoah, as it is called in Hebrew), which is arguably the quintessential evil of all human history. Hitler’s baby picture raises a thousand questions that words must try to answer but perhaps never can. Starting his book with that tension-filled juxtaposition, Rosenbaum ends on a related point more than four hundred pages later. His concluding acknowledgments express special gratitude to the scholars and writers who granted him interviews. Rosenbaum honors their courageous and dedicated pursuit of what he knowingly calls “the impossible challenge of explaining Hitler.”

A seasoned scholar-journalist who has turned his disciplined and determined research into grippingly crafted, page-turning prose, Rosenbaum showed his own courage and dedication in writing this book, which was more than ten years in the making. He tracked down people who knew Hitler and got that dwindling number to share what they remembered. He traveled to obscure archives and located long- forgotten files that shed new light on Hitler research. He journeyed to remote Austrian sites in search of details about Hitler’s ancestry and youth. All the while, he read voraciously and interviewed dozens of the most influential biographers, historians, philosophers, and theologians who have faced the challenge of bridging the abyss between baby Adolf and Auschwitz Hitler.

Rosenbaum reports the findings of those interpreters, but how he does so makes his book much more than a summary of other people’s views. Rosenbaum’s meetings with the Hitler scholars are charged with his penetrating questions, his insightful observations that complicate matters for all the writers he encounters, and his skeptical refusal to be overly impressed by the authority of any of the experts he meets. More specifically, Rosenbaum became intrigued by what he identifies as the “wishes and longings, the subtexts and agendas of Hitler explanations.” When it comes to explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum asks, what do people want and why? How are the sometimes radical differences in interpretation best understood? What would it mean if Hitler could be explained definitively—or if he cannot? Such questions concentrated Rosenbaum’s attention as he met the major Hitler interpreters and then as he reflected deeply about what his investigations revealed. Thus, as the reader travels with him, Rosenbaum shows the strengths and weaknesses in the various Hitler “explanations.” He finds the right questions to ask each text he studies, every scholar he meets, and even any insight that more or less persuades him. While learning much about Hitler and the scholarship about him, the reader becomes a...

(The entire section is 2092 words.)