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Explaining Hitler: It can't be done
Over the years I have read many attempts to explain Hitler, and all of them fail. Although some of these biographies fail on their own, being badly researched and badly conceived, others fail only because the questions I really want answered are not such as can be contained in a biographical narrative, because they are not questions about the individual man Hitler, his development and his particularity, but about us, human beings, as revealed, deformed, and refracted through Hitler. We approach the single human being Hitler and expect that in coming to understand him we will understand the horrors that are now, because of his actions and the actions of his adherents, inextricably bound to his person, the crimes which cannot be considered separate from him and his will.
Historians and other scholars may debate whether the Holocaust would have happened without him. Some argue that the event, given the conditions of Germany and Europe at the time, the social and economic forces at work, the cultural matrix of post-World War I Germany, was inevitable: if not Hitler, some other man very much the same, and with the same result. However, the fact remains that it was not another man very much the same that rose to power in Germany and, acting through cronies who devoted themselves to realizing his will, both explicitly expressed and less explicitly suggested, resulting, in the end, in a genocidal plan unique in its scale, murdered millions. It was Adolf Hitler, an Austrian outsider, possessing few attributes one would readily identify as key to political success. It was just this man, and no other.
I am not fond of the inevitability hypothesis. It eliminates humans from history, replacing them with their institutions and the forces engendered by those institutions. It makes the institutions more alive than the people who create and deploy them. As it claims to complicate the historical narrative, it in fact simplifies it by removing the arbitrary, the chance, the range of possible behaviors within the systems represented. Eliminating the human element, it is unable to account for human behavior against the institutions and forces to which it gives independent life. It has no explanation for Kurt Gerstein, for example, or for other Germans who did not participate in the crimes of the Third Reich. It has no explanation for Polish anti-Semites who, despite their personal antipathy for the Jews in Poland, did not find the Nazi solution to the 'Jewish problem' acceptable and fought to save Polish Jews from death, risking their own lives as they did so. It is capable of revealing institutional inertial, the drive institutions maintain after their creation in a particular direction, but not of adequately evaluating behavior within the institutions, of revealing the realm of choice that remains within the operating institution and therefore of revealing the range of complicity participating members.
Of course, there is a fatal flaw in looking to Hitler alone to explain the Holocaust. He was a single man, although the Third Reich is unimaginable without him, and, indeed, without him would have been something very different. Ian Kershaw's 2 volume biography of Hitler is most revealing regarding the nature of the Reich as a political entity centered on the Fuhrer's troubled and troublesome persona. However, despite his centrality, he was only one man, and moreover a man who did not himself kill the Jews, build the camps, or march into Russia. Other men and women did that for him, and they did so with various degrees of belief and enthusiasm. Without followers, willing as J. Goldhagen would have them or merely opportunistic, there would have been no Holocaust; Hitler's dreams of a Jew-free Europe, a Jew-free Germany, would have been no more than the coffee-shop vitriol one may hear bandied about today in our own country, not largely regarding Jews, but regarding Muslims, if others had not been willing to act towards its fulfillment. Yes, the Holocaust was founded upon Hitler's vision, but it was a vision shared by other Europeans of his time, built upon a history of anti-Semitism and a current of fear and instability. The great man theory of history which would make Hitler alone responsible for the Holocaust is also fatally flawed, making all his accomplices less responsible in the process and ignoring the contributions of social and economic forces to his success and his racist doctrines.
For me, the Holocaust is a moment of revelation, a moment when humans were brought face to face with their own nature at both of its possible extremes. The human capacity for vice and for virtue were both revealed unadulterated. The Holocaust calls into question what we human beings are at our core; it forces us to face what lies beneath our comfortable personas, our unthreatened sense of self. What would I have done? We hope we would have behaved well, that we would not have been Nazis or opportunists or collaborators or paralyzed by fear or by moral blindness. We all hope we would have been heroes. We all hope that, despite the complexities of mere survival, despite the demands of our little lives in our little circles of friends and family, we would have recognized the greater evil, the greater good, and would have acted as we think the German people should have acted. Few of us would have been heroic. The very nature of heroism makes it a minority achievement. But we all hope. We all like to think the angel of our nature would conquer the demon. We all want to believe that human beings are, at base, good, virtuous, and brave. We all want history to be wrong, wrong about us as human beings. To save humankind, we concentrate on Hitler as an anomalous man, as separate from the rest of the species, uniquely evil, uniquely deformed, uniquely perverse, and in order to maintain this redemption of the rest of us, we must ignore or minimize the participation of a wide segment of the German and European population in his crimes. Perhaps this need to redeem mankind played an important role in the post-war redemption of the Germans, yoked to Cold War political pragmatism.
Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler is not a biography of Hitler. Instead, it is an examination of those who have attempted to explain Hitler, his biographers and post-mortem psychoanalysts. He writes that explanations of Hitler "are cultural self-portraits; the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler's psyche are often cultural self-portraits in the negative. What we talk about when we talk about Hitler is also who we are and who we are not". It is a book that in discussing the various Hitler's created by various addresses of the man, his life and his crimes reveals the insufficiency of biography as an explanatory tool in the face of the Holocaust. The magnitude of the evil done by Hitler and in his name overwhelm the person, regardless of his centrality to the event.
Take the explanations you have heard of Hitler's personality--of what made him the man he was; look at them closely. Do they sufficiently explain his crimes, his actions, what followed from his leadership? If he was an abused child, and there is no evidence establishing that he was, only our readiness to identify childhood trauma and experiences with adult dysfunction--but, if he was, does this explain Auschwitz? or the Einsatzgruppen? or an obsession with Jews as the cause of Germany's problems? If he was sexually perverse or dysfunctional, what would this have to do with Bergen-Belsen? If he believed his claims about the Jews to be true, does this mitigate his crimes? Does it make the Holocaust less evil if it is the result of faith? Does it make the Holocaust more evil if it is the result of political opportunism? If he feared that he himself had Jewish ancestors--a fear other Nazis did have--does such a fear explain the murder of over 6 million Jews as proxies for a mysterious grandfather, or his own internal possible 'Jewishness'? Nothing holds up. Nothing is sufficient. Everything fails. The cause, whatever that cause is supposed to be, is petty in comparison to its result, and its pettiness, the smallness of the purported genesis, renders it unbelievable and unsatisfying, leaving us again with the facts of history and no ease, no comfort. The question remains unsettled. The history, the facts, therefore, because the why remains unanswered and perhaps unanswerable, remains alive, pertinent, demanding further response.
There was nothing inevitable about Hitler. History appears inevitable by a trick of perspective, by the knowledge we have now of the results. It has happened; therefore, it had to happen just that way, committed by just those people, with just those results. Alternatives disappear in the singular realized fact. However, the alternatives were there. There were options, discarded, ignored, or insufficiently explored. We exist within a particular time, a particular place, and are conditioned, limited, and unavoidably ignorant in our responses to our time and place. However, the conditions, limitations, and ignorance do not leave us with a single answer, a single possible response, but with a restricted field of possible responses, possible answers to our immediate questions and difficulties, both as individuals and as communities. The conditions of Germany after World War I, especially in the early thirties, socially, economically, and politically, made Hitler and the Nazi party possible answers to Germany's questions and difficulties; they did not make him and the party the only possible response. There is a difference, a significant difference, between limited options and no option at all.
Rosenbaum reviews attempts to explain Hitler, attempts to explain mankind to mankind, attempts to redeem humans as a whole from the evil of a single man. One of his most important contributions to the ongoing discussion of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party, however, has nothing to do with historians or scholarship, but with the journalists of the Munich Post, the 'Poison Kitchen' that opposed Hitler and 'the Hitler party' through the twenties until its destruction after his appointment as chancellor. These men addressed Hitler and the danger he posed to Germany and to the Jews of Germany before the party had national power, before the Fuhrer stood above the crowd, receiving the adulation of millions. They fought a Hitler and knew a Hitler who was not the Pied Piper of the German nation, but a crook, a swindler, a blackmailer, and an extortionist, building his power in a corrupt Bavaria that ignored right-wing violence and murder based on intimidation, crime, and manipulation. They fought a hood, and they thought that they could win. They thought that revelation alone was enough. They thought that telling the story of what he was and what he did, of murder and scandal and evil intents, was enough. They were wrong. They saw, they reported, they shouted and they screamed. But the Nazis won. They did not win because no one saw what they really were or what they desired. They won despite being seen. Truth can be defeated by lies, by corruption, by malice, and by fear. It was.
Simple causes, simple answers, simple remedies. Simplicity is appealing. If the answers are simple, if the causes are readily identifiable and reducible to single elements, then the solution is ready, lacking only the will to see it through. Simple remedies, simple solutions, are illusions, however, for given all the interconnected, mutually impacting elements that produce a society, a culture, a moment in historical time, nothing is simple. Historians who would concentrate only on Hitler are wrong. He was not the cause of the Holocaust, he alone was not responsible for all that was done in his name and at that time in Germany and outside of it. Historians who would eliminate Hitler from the historical picture are wrong. He was necessary to the direction and pace of events in Germany and outside of it. Those who would make Germany a special case, separate from the rest of Europe in every way so that the Holocaust is solely a German problem, a German phenomenon, and the rest of Europe, and the world, were innocent of all connection to it, are wrong. Germany was not a cultural, political, or economic isolate. Those who would disperse responsibility too widely, so that everyone is guilty, and so no one is responsible, are wrong. Whatever contributions to the outcome other nations and other cultural factors made, the fact remains that the concentration camps, the death camps, the Einsatzgruppen, and the whole murderous plan were produced by and for Germans. It is only in ignorance, as we deny the full range of factors involved in history and in our present lives, that the simple cause, the simple remedy, can be maintained, and it is often maintained to the detriment of other humans, those we identify as the cause of our trouble, and whose elimination, physically, socially, politically, or economically, will therefore bring us peace, order, and renewal.