Satan's Biographers

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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.

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.

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HITLER'S destructive plans may have been unprecedented, but his ressentiment, his vindictive spite (never limited to Jews) against those who threatened his prestige, was not. Here is where the literary imagination helps us to comprehend the type, if not the particular man. The most celebrated -- some would say notorious -- creative portrayal of Adolf Hitler is in George Steiner's novella The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. (1982). Rosenbaum interviews Steiner, but seems not much interested in exploring any overlap between literary and historical representation, or what the two might contribute to each other in their separate efforts to link the human with the cruel. Steiner's Hitler supplies a passionate self-justification, tracing much of the inspiration for his deeds back to the Jews themselves. Numerous commentators have blamed Steiner for the "success" of his attempt to put persuasive words in the mouth of his protagonist. Many were shocked and dismayed (Steiner included) when at performances of the dramatized version of the novella audiences applauded at the end of Hitler's long monologue, as if they were responding favorably to his appeal rather than to the talent of the actor portraying him. A sympathetic critic might interpret this as a tribute to Steiner's art rather than to a lapse of taste or vision; hundreds who heard Hitler have testified to the hypnotic power of his voice. One early adherent reported,

"I do not know how to describe the emotion that swept over me as I heard this man. His words were like a scourge. When he spoke of the disgrace of Germany, I felt ready to spring on the enemy. His appeal to German manhood was like a call to arms, the gospel he preached the sacred truth.... I forgot everything but the man. Then glancing around, I saw this magnetism was holding these thousands as one."

Steiner's artistic version of this kind of monologue re-created Hitler's effect, causing a moral confusion in some readers and hearers that duplicates the vulnerability of the human imagination in Hitler's audiences.

Steiner's Hitler is only the most recent in a long line of literary monologists whose cunning rhetoric, under the guise of political or moral virtue, has culminated in disaster. Milton's Satan rebels from "a sense of injured merit," establishing a psychological kinship with the underappreciated Hitler that careful students of the two cannot fail to observe. Satan's power of persuasion causes a third of the heavenly host to rise up with him in a futile endeavor to overthrow God; after the revolt fails, Satan continues his mastery of his followers' wills through language rather than deeds in the hell to which they are consigned. The shrewd combination of deception and self-deception in Satan's soliloquies rewards patient analysis, because it sheds much light on how a talented spokesman, however perverse his cause, can sway large audiences ready to be mesmerized by his words. The emergence of Satan as a leader of masses eager to obey is an early prototype of the "Führer Principle." Driven by hatred, vowing vengeance against a world that has wronged him, resolved to find an outlet for his resentment and his wrath, Satan reaches a crucial instant that Hitler theorists search for in vain. This is the moment when he redefines the moral universe from his self-centered point of view by declaring, "Evil be thou my Good," and makes the destruction of innocent victims -- Adam and Eve -- the goal of his campaign. To fulfill his thwarted nature the fabled Adversary invents his own adversaries. It is a pattern familiar to students of Hitler's career.

OF COURSE, there is a limit to the resemblance between a literary character and a historical figure. There were plenty of political models, among them Frederick the Great, to inflame Hitler's ambition. Moreover, God played a role in Satan's fate that is not apparent in Hitler's career, though Hitler often described himself as an instrument of Providence. But the need for antagonists deserving of destruction is a persuasive tie between Hitler and Satan. This need joins Hitler to two other despotic archetypes, this time from nineteenth-century literature: Captain Ahab, in Melville's Moby-Dick; and Ivan Karamazov, in Dostoevski's The Brothers Karamazov. Both Ahab and Ivan feel hampered by a lack of completeness, by their inability to achieve a liberating perfection that seems analogous to Hitler's ideal of racial purity. Like Satan and Hitler, both are masters of the monologue, designed to capture audiences by undermining their will. Ahab's demonic blood ritual to bind his crew to a monomaniacal pursuit of the White Whale is not far distant from the torchlight parades and mammoth Nuremberg rallies that galvanized Hitler's followers to swear oaths of eternal loyalty. Similarly, Ivan Karamazov's legend of "The Grand Inquisitor" dramatically anticipates a society like the Third Reich, in which a ruthless and power-hungry leader burns his opponents under the guise of concern for the welfare of his morally mutilated people.

Like Hitler, Ivan Karamazov kills no one; he has an admiring lackey to execute his murderous impulses. The major weapon of each is his voice, whose hypnotic sway seems to give weaker wills the courage to enact otherwise inconceivable deeds. But the two are united by something more: each has a plan that is ostensibly designed to create a more perfect world but really rooted in a need to win favor, to control, to elevate the self. Hitler was both victim and exponent of a principle of hierarchy that has dominated Western religious thought for millennia, though he twisted it to his own purposes. Such a principle sows the seeds of psychological discontent in a Hitler and his literary prototypes even as it espouses a system for achieving and maintaining order and harmony in the universe. Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich was born of the desire to establish an alternate model of hierarchy; all such models eschew mutuality and promote some form of humility (often miscast as humiliation) as a necessary ingredient of their stability. Such schemes are a breeding ground for ressentiment, which can be appeased most easily by seizing for oneself the task of deciding and enforcing their rules. Hitler and Ivan's Grand Inquisitor both gain their "eminence" by relieving their subjects of moral responsibility and offering in its place the "ideal happiness" of a society purged of contaminating or dissident members.

Dostoevski knew that such fantasies were built on a pedestal of death. He also recognized that societies like the one proposed by the Grand Inquisitor thrive on violence, consuming more and more victims in their alleged pursuit of purity and perfection. Many of Dostoevski's readers still find Ivan Karamazov's indictment of God for allowing the suffering of little children a compelling argument, forgetting that Ivan is an atheist who has never seen (to say nothing of helped) any suffering children but has collected his accounts of their misery from literary sources. Ivan is a deft vocal performer, and I suspect that his influence on Steiner's portrayal of Hitler is as strong as that of the historical Hitler himself. Artists like Milton, Melville, and Dostoevski provide considerable insight into the psychology of vengeance and the rhetoric that supports it. They add much to our understanding of what drove Hitler and how he gained the allegiance of tens if not hundreds of thousands in carrying out his program of destruction.

Hitler's greatest crime was the murder of European Jewry. But by focusing so consistently on the Holocaust, Rosenbaum shrinks the margins of the pedestal of death on which Hitler raised his monument to a Thousand-Year Reich. Readers of Rosenbaum's volume are not asked to dwell on a number of other statistics: that during the 1930s Hitler ordered the sterilization of more than 300,000 of his own people; that during his twelve-year reign at least 30,000 citizens of the Third Reich received death sentences from military and civilian courts, for "crimes" ranging from "undermining the war effort" to desertion; that 70,000 to 100,000 Germans and Austrians (very few of them Jews) were killed by the so-called euthanasia program, initiated by an order bearing Hitler's signature and continuing, despite an "official" suspension, with increasing secrecy throughout the war; that thousands of Polish intellectuals and priests were murdered well before decisions were made about the Final Solution; that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the strategically unnecessary terror-bombing of undefended cities such as Rotterdam and Belgrade; that reprisal atrocities of unimaginable cruelty occurred, with some of the victims burned to death, at places now known only to specialists -- Lidice, in Czechoslovakia; Oradour-sur-Glane, in France; Kalavrita, in Greece; and the Ardeatine caves, outside Rome. This is the "short list," most of it simply ignored by Rosenbaum. It does not include the millions of Soviet prisoners of war who perished in open pens from starvation, exposure, or disease. Trying to explain Hitler without enumerating the murderous acts of his regime creates what Rosenbaum fears most but does not himself completely avoid describing: a detached figure who presided over the ruin of civilization at a distance -- a man like the rest of us but more ruthless, readier to decree the deaths of others without pangs of conscience or fear of retribution.

INFORMED readers will view Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler as only an interim report. The Hitler industry is far from finished. Unavailable to Rosenbaum during his research was Fritz Redlich's Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, which tries to turn an abstraction into a personality by analyzing in comprehensive detail the medical and psychological records, insofar as they exist, of Adolf Hitler. Redlich calls his work a "pathography" -- "the study of the life and character of an individual, as influenced by disease." A neurologist and a psychiatrist by training, Redlich is certainly qualified to undertake such an investigation. But his conclusions are hardly startling. For example, observers and commentators have long suspected that toward the end of his life Hitler suffered from the early stages of Parkinson's disease. Moreover, Redlich's diagnosis of giant cell arteritis, based on notes about Hitler's complaints entered in the diary of Theodor Morell, his personal physician, will seem significant chiefly to the medically curious. Redlich also finds evidence supporting some kind of genital deformation in Hitler, possibly a lesion, which could have led to a sense of sexual inadequacy. In later life this might have been translated into a lethal contempt for those he considered inferior. (Redlich is modest in his claims, refusing to conceal the role of speculation in his analysis.)

Redlich's survey of Hitler's life and political aims, drawn from innumerable scholarly sources, is a useful if somewhat lengthy compendium that may be of value to readers disinclined or unable to turn to these sources, many of which are in German. But this material, which precedes the medical and psychological diagnoses, takes up half the text. It contains little that is new, making one wonder what it adds to our understanding of the period or the man. One more rehearsal of the Reichstag fire, the Munich Agreement, Kristallnacht, and the invasion of Poland seems hardly necessary in a scrutiny of the medical and psychological roots of Hitler's murderous ways.

Redlich's most important comments come in his closing pages, when with admirable candor he admits the limitations of his approach. Although he has offered persuasive arguments against some of the outlandish conjectures of others, and even against some more-reasonable psychiatric hypotheses, including "antisocial personality disorder," he endorses as probably true the psychohistorian Robert Waite's argument that a passage in Mein Kampf is a screen memory for a "primal scene" that Hitler witnessed as a child. But even if Waite is correct, why this intimate sexual moment between his parents should have remained imprinted on the psyche of the adult to nurture his murderous impulses, when so many other children manage to sublimate similar moments, remains a mystery. To his credit, Redlich avoids the arrogance of certainty that one finds in some clinicians who turn their talents to the assessment of historical figures. But his main conclusion -- that Hitler was a destructive prophet who suffered from paranoid delusions -- is no more satisfactory than the theories of the experts in Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler. It does little to help the mind trace the twisted journey from such a diagnosis to the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the killing pits of Babi Yar. More provocative is Redlich's brief effort to find in Nazi ideology a bond between salvation and ruin -- similar, as he concedes, to Saul Friedländer's recent conception of a "redemptive antisemitism." Usurping Christian discourse provided Hitler with an acceptable goal for unacceptable means, just as the mortal soul in fear of death finds consolation in the promise of transfiguration. The echo of the Satanic formulation in Paradise Lost -- "Evil be thou my Good" -- here resounds with a singular clarity.

Redlich mentions Carl Jung's comment that Hitler was "the loudspeaker that magnified the inaudible whispers of the German soul." But, like Rosenbaum, he devotes little space to verbalizing or even heeding these whispers, and this draws our attention to a vital missing factor in both volumes under review. Hitler (like Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich) was not literally a mass murderer but only the authorizer of atrocities that indelibly stained the perimeters of German consciousness. Even if a direct connection could be definitively proved between Hitler's health or character and the crimes later carried out in his name, we would gain only a tiny grain of understanding of the disasters he inspired. Efforts to explain Hitler deflect our attention from addressing the problem of what Daniel Goldhagen has called his "willing executioners" -- those men and women, German and non-German, who without protest shot, starved, beat, tortured, bombed, gassed, or injected to death millions of victims across Europe. It also diverts our attention from the precise nature of the crimes, what Primo Levi called the needless cruelty of the killings, which many commentators assume is too well known to require rehearsal. The "how" of the killings is as crucial as the "why," and the abundance of the killers who were so easily recruited is as enigmatic as the question of what drove Hitler to recruit them.

REDLICH'S clinical discussion of Hitler's physical and mental maladies, fascinating as it may be for specialists, only highlights the more broadly challenging strategy of Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler. By juxtaposing contradictory portraits of Nazi Germany's leader, Rosenbaum leaves us with the difficult task of choosing the most persuasive among them. Just as Redlich favors certain diagnoses over others, so Rosenbaum has his preferred interpretations. Rosenbaum finds compelling Lucy Dawidowicz's argument, in The War Against the Jews (1975), that Hitler knew what he was doing from the beginning -- that the plan to destroy the Jews was always the main incentive of his political career. But Rosenbaum has his aversions, too, chief among them being Christopher Browning's view that a hesitant Hitler postponed his decision to "finalize" the Final Solution until mid- or late September -- possibly even early October -- of 1941, a date later than any suggested by other Holocaust historians. Using material unavailable to Lucy Dawidowicz, Browning suggests that Hitler was "aware of the enormity of what he was doing," and thus vacillated before resolving to exterminate every last Jew within his power. Instead of countering this controversial position with his own historical data, Rosenbaum chooses to ridicule it. He distorts Browning's reasoning by speaking of Browning's "Hamlet" Hitler (though many Shakespeare scholars have long since discarded the idea of a Hamlet who is wavering by nature), his "nebbish" Hitler, and his "dithering" Hitler. Browning is too distinguished a Holocaust scholar to have his hypothesis dismissed with such shallow derision. Rosenbaum might have queried Browning on what seems to me to be his hairsplitting distinction between the "vague" orders to the Einsatzgruppen in June of 1941 for the mass murder of Jews in Russia and the supposedly firm decision the following September for the annihilation of Jews everywhere in Europe. Furthermore, the first experimental gassings with Zyklon B took place in Auschwitz on September 3, 1941, weeks before Browning's preferred date, using Soviet prisoners of war and Polish inmates as "test" victims. But we can hardly be expected to believe that the Germans were planning gas chambers in order to exterminate Russians and Poles.

Browning's arguments should have been met with the same kind of serious analysis that Rosenbaum awards to most of his other Hitler theorists. Because he prefers Dawidowicz's portrait of a uniformly decisive Hitler, Rosenbaum slights some questionable inferences required to keep her evidence intact. But in so doing he may merely be evincing a common human penchant: we choose the Hitler most consistent with what we need to believe.

My feeling is that between the conception and the execution of mass murder falls the shadow of the dying. Hence no account of the terrible time we call the Holocaust even approaches completion unless it joins their agony to the story of those who killed them and why. This approach also protects us against a danger that Rosenbaum raises near the end of his book: that "explaining" Hitler might somehow prompt us to exculpate him or find his acts "less hateful to contemplate." No one confronted with the hideous details of German atrocities could possibly consider forgiving or forgetting. Because the history of the Third Reich includes the transgressions of innumerable criminals other than the man who first imagined their crimes, I think it would be a mistake to allow the portrait gallery of Holocaust studies to be dominated by representations of the single figure of Adolf Hitler.

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

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Satan's Biographers; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 98-104.