Enigma of Evil

<i> Michael Andre Bernstein is the author, most recently, of "Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero" and "Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History." He is completing a novel entitled "Progressive Lenses." He teaches English and comparative literature at UC Berkeley</i>

There are some events that permanently transform not just the political or economic circumstances of an era but the fundamental texture of the world we inhabit. Irrespective of our own origins and cultural-ethnic identifications, the nearly successful attempt by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate all of European Jewry continues to haunt our sense of what it means to be a human being. In the mere 12 years of its existence, Hitler’s vaingloriously named “Thousand Year Reich” created a decisive breach in the fabric of the modern world, and it is that breach, the awareness of some lasting, collective violation, that is perhaps the most far-reaching of the Holocaust’s enduring injuries.

There is something almost unbearable in the idea that devastation on such an unprecedented scale could have been willed into existence by any one man. We want some proportion between the horror and the individual who instigated it, but that is precisely what the enormity of the Nazi genocide has made impossible. There is an unbridgeable abyss between the suffering inflicted in the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-dominated Europe and the thought that no matter how many men and women collaborated in the Holocaust’s implementation, it was ultimately the brainchild of a single man.

Since the first reports of the extermination camps reached the outside world, no issue has raised so fierce and protracted a debate as the extent of Hitler’s role as the originator of the “project” of eradicating the Jewish people. Skepticism about the historical efficacy of any one individual is a firmly entrenched dogma in many intellectual circles, and in the case of the Holocaust, this widely held theoretical position unites with an unacknowledged but deeply rooted emotional need to find the most abstract and all-encompassing categories to account for the catastrophe. The more absolute and exhaustive the categories, the more commensurate they seem to the cataclysm they are supposed to explain. Paradoxically, it may be less grievous to see the Holocaust as the horrific but inevitable consequence of immense political and ideological forces like Pan-European anti-Semitism or the fragility of Parliamentary democracies than to agree with a polemically succinct assertion like Milton Himmelfarb’s: “No Hitler, No Holocaust.” Even people who are otherwise suspicious of historical determinism find the notion hard to resist in this context, because if Hitler’s strictly personal volition really was indispensable for the Holocaust, then the truly intolerable thought arises that something as simple as a single bullet on the battlefields of World War I, or even a fortuitous admission to Vienna’s Fine Arts Academy in 1907, might have saved Europe’s Jews from annihilation. To think that the Holocaust need not have happened, that rather than being doomed by an inevitable historical process European Jewish history might plausibly have taken a totally different direction, may be the most appalling realization of all.

The proposition “No Hitler, No Holocaust” is the logical point of departure for Ron Rosenbaum’s engrossing new study, “Explaining Hitler,” an exploration of the conflicting interpretations of Hitler’s character and mind that have been offered from the 1920s until today. Rosenbaum understands that far from answering any fundamental questions, seeing Hitler as the genocide’s indispensable begetter merely opens further layers of uncertainty. The utter incommensurability between any possible account of Hitler’s psyche and the historical consequences of his decisions discredits in advance whatever interpretation one might propose. But as soon as one attempts to gain some degree of understanding of Hitler and the Holocaust, it becomes self-defeating to categorically exclude every speculative approach. Whether the proposed explanations rely on psychological, medical or even theological assumptions and terminologies, the line between analysis and projection is often extraordinarily difficult to demarcate. Yet the need to establish such demarcations is crucial to any responsible explanation, and doing so successfully is a reliable index of the interpreter’s integrity of judgment.


Rosenbaum is a literary journalist, not a historian, but his alertness as an “educated consumer of scholarship” stands him in good stead throughout his quest. His book is as much a personal quest for insight as a comparative evaluation of what others have said about Hitler. Like many people who have spent years trying to probe Hitler’s character, Rosenbaum has himself become, in an uncanny way, Hitler-haunted, and the effects of that haunting are evident at every stage of his book’s unfolding, providing the energy for many of its shrewdest questions and for some of its least convincing claims and formulations.

A large part of the book’s fascination arises directly from Rosenbaum’s decision to forgo producing yet another conventional Hitler biography in order to focus on what could be called “the Hitler effect”: the widely divergent, often contradictory accounts we have of him, his motives, personality, beliefs and even sexuality. More meta-history than linear narrative, “Explaining Hitler” carefully looks at the ways Hitler has been portrayed by historians, psychologists, philosophers, theologians and cultural critics, always with a keen eye for the various explainers’ own latent motives and assumptions. Through interviews, archival research and extended reflections on the clashing interpretations offered by figures such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Allan Bullock, Daniel Goldhagen, Claude Lanzmann, George Steiner, Emil Fackenheim and Berel Lang, Rosenbaum sets their varying accounts into dialogue with one another, creating, in effect, a book version of a “Hitler chat room” in which contending voices are given space to express their points of view and make clear their disagreements.

What emerges almost at once is just how deep these disagreements run. It is astonishing to realize that there is virtually no consensus about even the most fundamental issues. Did Hitler fully believe his own racist doctrines, or was he an opportunist who seized on whatever ideology he thought would win him power? And if anti-Semitism was at the foundation of his worldview, when and how did these convictions crystallize? Was he a calculating mountebank or a somnambulistically gifted madman who acted on pure, improvisatory inspiration? Did he regard “the final solution” as a form of antisepsis, harsh but necessary, to preserve the Aryan race from contamination, or did he knowingly perpetrate evil on an unprecedented scale and revel in the sheer enormity and viciousness of the destruction he caused? Could there even have been, as the philosopher Lang believes, something akin to “an artistic consciousness of evil” in the ingenuity with which Jews were tormented and mocked before being murdered? In the broadest terms of all, had Hitler always plotted the complete extermination of the Jewish people and merely bided his time until it became a feasible project (the “intentionalist” view), or did the plan to commit genocide take shape only gradually and after initial hesitation (the “functionalist” interpretation)? Rosenbaum shows how differently each of these questions has been answered by some of the most knowledgeable experts. No matter what one believes personally, it is bracing to see the contrary views so forcefully defended.

But if there is so little accord about the most basic aspects of Hitler’s public decisions, it should hardly be surprising that judgments about his private life remain even more divided. Countless volumes have been devoted to conflicting descriptions of Hitler’s childhood, his relationship to his parents and his response to his mother’s agonizing death from cancer while under the care of a Jewish physician. Rosenbaum is especially good at emphasizing the intellectual and ethical nullity of explanations that claim a causal link between the Holocaust and cliched notions like “Hitler as a victim of an abusive father.” Similarly, in spite of an almost total absence of reliable evidence, Hitler’s sexuality has provided an irresistible theme for the most flamboyant speculations. Rosenbaum shows how virtually every imaginable characterization--from deformity (what Alan Bullock calls “the one-ball business”) and asexuality to some psychosexual perversion--has found passionate adherents. Rarely have the limitations of using psychoanalytic theory to understand historical figures been illustrated more powerfully than in Hitler psychobiographies. Accounts of Hitler’s psyche almost invariably reveal more about the explainer than about Hitler himself, and those who try to find a single, all-encompassing explanation, whether psychological, cultural or economic, for Hitler’s life and career usually uncover precisely the master key they set out to discover in the first place.


But the unlikelihood of ever arriving at a fully convincing portrait is no reason to give up the hard task of trying to extend our understanding. A belief like Lanzmann’s, “that all explanation is de facto exoneration,” is simply not true. On the contrary, what is required is more patient lucidity and a greater measure, rather than an abdication, of the ability to articulate fundamental distinctions. That is why Rosenbaum is surely right to insist that although historians are mostly leery of ethical and moral categories, at some point serious reflection about Hitler cannot avoid raising questions about the nature and meaning of “radical evil.” But that is also why, for all its laudable readability, Rosenbaum’s occasional lapses into a kind of breathless journalese are so grating, starting with the very subtitle of his book--"The Search for the Origins of His Evil.” As his own critique of Hitler’s psychobiographers ought to have shown him, “origins,” even if they could be pinpointed, explain far less than they seem to promise, and qualities like good or evil are rarely understandable as end products of any set of initial conditions. There was no necessary line from Braunau to the Chancellery in Berlin, or even from the street agitator of post-World War I Munich to Auschwitz and Mauthausen. What there was, though, was a life of almost unimaginable destructiveness, and it is toward understanding the ways our culture has tried for more than half a century to make sense of Hitler and what he wrought that this book makes its real contribution.