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F E B R U A R Y  1 9 9 9

A Cataclysm of Thought
by Lawrence L. Langer

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

The Search for the Origins of His Evil

by Ron Rosenbaum.
Random House, 448 pages, $30.00.

Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet

by Fritz Redlich, M.D.
Oxford University Press,
466 pages, $35.00.

THE tangled skein of Nazi Germany's murder of European Jewry continues to unravel in our imagination, even as we seek to weave its unruly strands into a tapestry of understanding. The magnitude of the crime, the tenacity of its architects, the cruelty of the criminals who carried it out, the cooperation of collaborators, foreign and domestic, during various steps in the killing process -- all these have spurred countless inquiries into the motives and methods of those involved. But more than fifty years after his death, more than sixty after his accession to power, more than a century after his birth, Adolf Hitler continues to intrigue the popular mind and the scholarly community as the sinister fabricator of the Holocaust. However contrary to reason and logic, to say nothing of the complexity of historical forces, the notion that finding the sources of Hitler's anti-Semitism will somehow enable us to trace a clear path to its disastrous results continues to bewitch us.
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  • More on books in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

    From the archives:

  • "Hitler's Capital," by James S. Plaut (October, 1946)
    "Personal resentment toward the cosmopolitan milieu of Vienna, which symbolized the unhappy struggle of his formative years, burned as strongly within the Führer as the sentimental hankering after the places of his boyhood. He was determined that Linz should supplant Vienna as the Austrian capital."

    Related links:

  • "The Rise of Adolf Hitler"
    A comprehensive narrative of Hitler's life, divided chronologically into twenty-four sections. Posted by The History Place, a Web site "dedicated to students, educators, and all who enjoy history."

  • Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler is a picaresque excursion through the landscape of theories about Hitler's criminality and especially his hatred of Jews. A journalist and novelist by profession, Rosenbaum adapts the strategies of both disciplines to assess the findings of those who have committed themselves to one or another side of the debate about Hitler's rationale for the "Final Solution." He roams the intellectual countryside in pursuit of Hitler's authentic identity, meeting along the way a cast of characters including historians, theologians, psychologists, filmmakers, critics, and some cranks, all of whom have different ideas about the nature and origin of the evil -- if it was conscious evil -- that led to the destruction of European Jewry. Unlike true picaresque narratives, however, Rosenbaum's opus does not end with the exposure of a rogue, the revelation of hitherto unknown or suppressed familial ties, or the solving of textual enigmas. Owing to disagreement among the authorities Rosenbaum interviews, the question of Adolf Hitler's motives is no more settled at the end than it was at the beginning.

    Given the distinction of some of these interviewees, who include H. R. Trevor-Roper, Alan Bullock, Yehuda Bauer, Emil Fackenheim, Claude Lanzmann, and George Steiner, we should not be surprised to find no shared vision. In addition to his interviews, Rosenbaum did research for more than a decade to prepare for his critical survey. One of his most important archival excavations was copies from the 1920s and early 1930s of the Munich Post, whose reporters carried on an aggressive anti-Hitler campaign during the years before Hitler came to power. Rosenbaum includes the little-known exploits of the opposition journalist Fritz Gerlich, who after Hitler's appointment as Chancellor was arrested and shipped to Dachau, where he was later murdered. His bloodied glasses were sent to his widow in lieu of a death notice. Rosenbaum's discussion of Gerlich and the Munich Post articles offers us a fresh glimpse of the public opposition that was mounted in some quarters against the vulgar and brutal insurgency of Hitler and his cronies. Gerlich's fate also gives us a vivid sense of the danger of such opposition once the enemy became "ruthless power" and not just some rabble-rousing political crusade.

    Americans in particular -- though many modern Europeans are not exempt -- have rarely understood the operation of ruthless power, and perhaps that is a major reason why Hitler's personality continues to fascinate students of the period. When American colonists rebelled against the authority of King George, they were objecting to the tyranny of his tax policies and similar excesses. Hitler, however, used his power to mold the lives and decree the deaths of others. Rosenbaum's mental expedition through the beliefs of Hitler interpreters is designed to illuminate the circumstances in Hitler's life that transformed mere political ambition into a desire to exterminate Jews and others he judged unfit to live in his Thousand-Year Reich.

    WHAT was the catalyst that changed an impoverished veteran of the First World War, an aspiring but failed artist, into a champion of mass murder? Was it an externalized self-hatred inspired by the illegitimacy of his father, allegedly born of an illicit union between Hitler's grandmother Maria Schicklgruber and the young son of the Jewish household where she was employed? Was it his anger at the Jewish doctor Eduard Bloch, who treated Hitler's mother for breast cancer and, according to some reports, increased her suffering through his incompetence? Was it some sexual perversity that reached a crisis in his relationship with Geli Raubal, the daughter of his half-sister Angela, whose mysterious suicide (some say murder) removed a moderating influence on his nature and enabled the seeds of his inhumanity to sprout? The list of possibilities is long, and Rosenbaum treats some with the derision they deserve. Of others he is merely skeptical, unwilling to concede that particular physical or psychological traumas are sufficient to explain Hitler's genocidal program.

    Rosenbaum finds more challenging the various responses to his inquiry into the nature (rather than the causes) of Hitler's evil, and here the interpretations of interviewees are equally varied. Trevor-Roper asserts that Hitler was not consciously evil, because he was "convinced of his own rectitude." From the Führer's point of view, Trevor-Roper contends, killing the Jews and ridding the world of their menace was a benevolent act, to be applauded, not censured -- hence those "guilty" of it should feel not remorse but the moral comfort of having carried out a good deed. This is not so glib as it sounds; there may be no other explanation for the ease with which Hitler found, among the rank and file of the SS and the Wehrmacht, subordinates to execute his lethal plans. Yehuda Bauer does not deny that Hitler was evil and knew it, but insists that the evidence is still too thin to reconstruct his motives. Emil Fackenheim, in contrast, argues that Hitler introduced into our universe of understanding a radical evil hitherto unknown in modern society, absolute and without parallel. It did not result from "principle" but existed for its own sake, and was expounded and realized with the same satisfaction that an actor might savor from a performance well done -- Hitler as Iago, one might say.

    Few biographers and historians take such literary analogies seriously. I find this unfortunate, because there are moments in Rosenbaum's narrative when such a detour might have added something to our grasp of a figure as enigmatic as Hitler. Rosenbaum has an undergraduate degree in English literature from Yale; he left graduate school at Yale to pursue a career as a writer. His early training leaks into his text through a few allusions to Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, and through a mention of Thomas Mann and one of Claggart in Melville's Billy Budd. But Rosenbaum avoids any hint of the possibility that analyzing certain literary prototypes might open avenues of insight into his subject.

    For example, he cites but does not expand on the historian Gordon Craig's observation that Thomas Mann "was one of the first to recognize that at the heart of Hitler's appeal to the German people was his presentation of himself as a mythmaking artist rather than as a politician." Those who read Mann's story "Mario and the Magician" when it was published, in 1929, could not know how shrewdly Mann had foreshadowed the power of an unprincipled performer to mesmerize large audiences, to induce decent people to enact or applaud behavior they would not ordinarily embrace. Mann's conjurer protagonist delights in humiliating his victims as if he is driven by some hidden rancor; he receives pleasure from watching others squirm. His "art" is built on a contest of wills; his triumph is the point and the pinnacle of his routine. But in the story's shocking climax Mann reveals a truth that the world would discover only gradually, in later years. His conclusion suggests how much latent violence is implicit in the appeal of such a figure, whose evil can be stopped only by a decisive countermeasure equally pitiless and harsh.

    The culminating pistol shot in Mann's story remained a prophecy unfulfilled. The final attempt to kill Hitler, by the July 20 plotters, failed, and the result was one of Hitler's last personal authorizations of mass murder, admittedly on a minor scale. Among those executed in the wake of the plot, some (on Hitler's orders) were strangled slowly with thin rope rather than hanged in the customary way, which usually brings instantaneous death. Hitler had the executions filmed; afterward he enjoyed watching them in the privacy of his personal theater. Mann's vision of the insolent temper of a mountebank performer who delights in his power over others finds support from several of Rosenbaum's interviewees, who liken Hitler's ability to manipulate his audiences to the practice of a sinister art. But not even Thomas Mann could have predicted the tyrant's gloating over the dying agony of his "actor" victims in an "entertainment" that reversed the usual artistic agenda by changing mimesis into reality.


    The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    Lawrence L. Langer is the author of many books, including Holocaust Testimonies (1991), Admitting the Holocaust (1995), and Preempting the Holocaust (1998).

    Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Satan's Biographers; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 98-104.

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