Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origin of His Evil
By Ron Rosenbaum
Random House; 448 pages; $30
Finally, a laugh-out-loud-funny book on Adolf Hitler! This useless blurb is only half in jest. Books about Hitler tend to be draped in solemnity--writers make us aware that they are taking on the evil of the century. But it's difficult at this stage of the game to take a bold moral stance against Der Führer. Ron Rosenbaum, in Explaining Hitler, writes in quite a different tone--with a mix of amused detachment and mildly off-kilter enthusiasm. It's the same desktop-detective approach that Rosenbaum brings to his triumphantly idiosyncratic weekly column for the New York Observer, as he burrows through such issues as the meaning of Bob Dylan's latest lyrics or the inexplicable popularity of Seinfeld. He asks--as Seinfeld might--what was the deal with Hitler? What was he thinking?
The book begins with Hitler's baby pictures, which are on the cover. With a not quite solemn air, Rosenbaum raises the Problem of the Baby Pictures--the conundrum of Hitler's humanity, his rosy-cheeked normalcy when he was young--and then quotes the film director Claude Lanzmann, who calls the baby pictures an "obscenity." Here I laughed for the first time. Baby pictures of Hitler are eerie, but they're not obscene. Lanzmann's Klaus Kinskiesque outburst is the first instance of a Hitler effect on contemporary writers: the tilt toward the absurd. Explaining Hitler is a half-comic, half-terrifying account of the trouble that this man still causes in the mind.
At first, Rosenbaum threatens to present his own startling solution to the mystery of Hitler. He describes his research expeditions to Munich and rural Austria, his quixotic searches for long lost documents pertaining to Hitler's ancestry and psychology. In his last book, Travels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual Observations, he had taken up the rumor that Hitler was one-quarter Jewish. Here he goes into other shadowy corners of the biography--the 1931 suicide of Hitler's half-niece Geli Raubal; rumors about irregularities in Hitler's sexuality and physiognomy (what Hitler biographer Alan Bullock calls the "one-ball business"); the endlessly debatable question of when exactly Hitler made up his mind to launch the Final Solution; and, thorniest of all, the question of his sincerity, the degree to which he believed what he said and believed in what he did. It soon becomes apparent that Rosenbaum does not wish to answer these questions. He is interested in how other people answer them. At some point his search became, to quote from his previous book, "an investigation of the investigation." The world of Hitler Studies--as Don DeLillo called it in White Noise--is going to be treated as a subculture, not unlike the world of JFK conspiracy buffs that Rosenbaum has been chronicling since the '70s.
Even people who follow the literature on Hitler may be taken aback at the mass of absurdity patiently evaluated here. It has been variously supposed that Hitler did what he did because of 1) psychological problems arising from the aforementioned single testicle; 2) physical or sexual abuse by his father; 3) "epidemic encephalitis" contracted in the trenches of World War I; and 4) unforeseen aftereffects of a hypnosis session that restored his eyesight after he was wounded in a gas attack in 1918. There is a range of theories involving fatal encounters with Jews, among them 1) a Jewish doctor who incompetently caused the death of his mother during cancer treatment; 2) a Jewish music teacher who seduced his half-niece and somehow incited her suicide; and 3) a Jewish prostitute who gave Hitler syphilis (this is a pet notion of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal). The most insidious blame-the-Jews concept locates Hitler's anti-Semitism in his own putative Jewish ancestry (for which no reliable evidence exists). Unfortunately, Explaining Hitler seems to have gone to the printers too late to take account of a loony new book by the Australian amateur historian Kimberley Cornish, in which the blame for Hitler and the Holocaust falls squarely on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who went to school with Hitler for a year. (Click to read about it.)
Alot of the dark humor of the book comes from Rosenbaum's straight-faced attempts to lay out the rival theories of Hitler Studies one by one. He has a way of coming up with a quick summary of complex proposals that clarifies and nullifies them in one stroke. For example, he examines the widely accepted notion that Hitler "radicalized" his ideas over the course of his career. He started off as an ordinary right-wing politician and then became extreme. The fact that this "radicalization" is seen to have taken place at many different points of his career--after the suicide of Raubal, after the allegedly "spontaneous" violence of Kristallnacht, after the almost supernatural ease of the first victories on the Western front, after the first defeats in the Soviet invasion--is testimony to its weakness. But Rosenbaum deflates it completely by cataloging it under the rubric "No More Mr. Nice Guy." He similarly disposes of those who try to find psychosexual explanations for Hitler's actions by dividing them up into a "Party of Perversion" and a "Party of Asexuality."
The book ceases to be funny--and becomes scary--when Rosenbaum observes his subjects mimicking their subject. Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, comes off as a petty totalitarian. Rosenbaum recounts an event at Yale in 1990, at which Lanzmann accused a 73-year-old Auschwitz survivor of participating in revisionist propaganda. The survivor, Louis Micheels, had taken an interest in a Dutch film that explored the ambiguous attitudes of one Auschwitz doctor who had worked behind the scenes to save the lives of some inmates. Micheels invited Lanzmann to a discussion of the film. Lanzmann arrived, "forbade" the film to be shown (his own word), called it an "obscenity" (because it showed more Nazi baby pictures!), and implied that Micheels wished to rehabilitate his torturers. Rosenbaum himself approached Lanzmann, was abused over minor procedural matters, and was told that the investigation of the Holocaust had become superfluous because "it has been done. I did it." (Click for more examples of Hitler historians behaving strangely.)
D espite Rosenbaum's skepticism about definitive explanations, a "Rosenbaum Hitler" does emerge: a man bent on a Holocaust from the outset, a man aware of the enormity of what he intended, a man who consciously disguised his responsibility and, finally, a man who thrilled to the deceptions he devised. This is more or less the picture advanced by the scholar Lucy Dawidowicz in her controversial book The War Against the Jews (1975). Most historians--particularly those enamored of what Rosenbaum calls the "great and grave abstraction," the systemic rather than biographical explanation of the Holocaust--have resisted Dawidowicz's thesis that Hitler conceived of the physical annihilation of the Jews early in his political career, between the years 1919 and 1924. Hitler's anti-Semitic speeches from that period are among the most violent of his life. On several occasions he explicitly described the killing of large numbers of Jews, and his speeches put the basic jargon of "removal," annihilation," and "destruction" in place. Dawidowicz also marshals an astonishing sequence of quotations from Hitler's speeches in the period 1939-43, in which he maps in coded terms the progress of the Holocaust: Each time he makes reference to "the laughter of the Jews," and each time he observes that more and more Jews have stopped laughing. Rosenbaum makes even more of these viscerally chilling sentences, which are buried in a footnote in Dawidowicz's book. He sees a simple transference in their imagery: Hitler is laughing at the Jews, not vice versa.
I am a little uneasy with the "laughing Hitler." It comes too close to the purely satanic Hitler that one finds in theologically flavored theories. The image of laughing Jews may signal something deep about Hitler's mindset, but it may also simply illustrate his insane consistency, his brutal economy of language. He wrote in Mein Kampf that one attracts attention by saying the same thing over and over and over again. This is the methodology not of the pliable politician but of the monomaniacal artist. The baroque rhetorical tricks buried in Hitler's most heinous utterances help us make the most difficult of biographical connections--the one between the mature Hitler and the young one. What happened to the earnest, apolitical, cultural youth described by his boyhood friend August Kubizek--the one who went to the opera every other night and filled his days sketching and writing? Why and how did hatred swamp him? We have to face the possibility that his love of art and his hatred of humanity were inextricably related. Rosenbaum does pursue this theme--Hitler as a self-styled genius who painted not on canvases but on others' minds--but in the end he favors the more recondite picture of Hitler as diabolical comedian.
After reading Rosenbaum, I went back to Thomas Mann's 1938 Esquire essay, "This Man Is My Brother," the most convincing picture of Hitlerism as an "artist-phenomenon":
Mortifyingly enough, it is all there: the difficulty, the laziness, the pathetic formlessness in youth, the round peg in the square hole, the "whatever do you want?" The lazy, vegetating existence in the depths of a moral and mental bohemia; the fundamental arrogance which thinks itself too good for any sensible and honorable activity, on the ground of its vague intuition that it is reserved for something else--as yet quite indefinite, but something which, if it could be named, would be greeted with roars of laughter.
The comedic quirk of Mann's essay--written at a time when laughing back at Hitler still counted for something--is that Hitler is never named. He is simply "he." It's as if Mann made him up. In fact, he did: "Gladius Dei," an early story, tells of a strange young man raging in disgust and envy at pornographic art in a gallery window and resolving to bring down a fiery sword on a rotten world.
If you missed the links in the article, click to read about an amateur historian's account of Wittgenstein's influence on Hitler and to read about the strange world of Hitler Studies.