Indeed, those who take this position come close to portraying Hitler as the genocidal equivalent of a suicide bomber. His apparent decision, in 1944, to withdraw troops and trains from the besieged Eastern front in order to expedite the transport of Jews to the death camps is the act most often cited to support this vision of a self-destructive "idealist" Hitler. This is a Hitler who would choose to lose the war, see the destruction of Germany—in effect, blow himself up and end as a martyr in order to maximize the mass murder of the true enemy, the Jews.
The problems implicit in applying Trevor-Roper's true-believer vision of evildoers to the current crisis are dramatized in a report in the Guardian of October 16, 2001, by Jeanette Winterson (cited in The New Republic's "Idiocy Watch"), who wrote,
My friend Ruth Rendell was in conversation at the Cheltenham Literary Festival ... Someone asked a question about pure evil, citing the terrorist attacks on America ... Rendell replied that we could not categorize such attacks as evil, since they were carried out from the highest motives and in the name of freedom. The audience hated this reply—there was a collective and audible shudder. Yet who reading bin Laden's speeches can doubt it? There is no cynicism in the man.
And not long afterward I came upon these words from Stanley Fish, postmodern prof par excellence: "The moral vision of Hitler is a moral vision," he told Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel in a discussion about Hitler and bin Laden. "We have to distinguish between moralities we approve and moralities we despise." In other words, the true-believer rationale can lead to an indiscriminate relativism.
Such remarks illustrate two kinds of problems, evidentiary and moral, raised by Trevor-Roper's view. Assume for the moment that Hitler and bin Laden were indeed convinced of their own rectitude in committing mass murder. This view is unsatisfying to many, because it suggests a lesser degree of culpability, a lesser degree of evil, than if Hitler and bin Laden had been convinced of their criminality. This is a problem that has vexed philosophers since Socrates first insisted (in the Protagoras) that people do wrong only if they are deluded into thinking they are doing right or if they are rendered incapable, by reason of ignorance or mental defect, of knowing right from wrong (the "moral imbecility" of the psychotic killer).
Assigning different degrees of evil to different quantities and qualities of murder may seem at first to be an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin matter, but it is something we the people routinely engage in when, as juries, we decide the difference between first- and second-degree murder, between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, very often according to calculations of mindset. In that light I once, perhaps unfairly, characterized Trevor-Roper's view of a Hitler convinced of his own rectitude as "the Menendez brothers defense of Hitler." The brothers, you'll recall, blew away their parents with shotguns before going on a spree with the inheritance, and then claimed in court that they shouldn't be convicted of first-degree murder, because they were sincerely, if mistakenly, convinced that their parents were planning to kill them. They had acted in self-defense. Analogously, in Trevor-Roper's view, Hitler was sincerely, if mistakenly, convinced that the Jews were out to destroy the master race and thus must be eliminated for the good of humanity. And Osama bin Laden was sincerely, if mistakenly, convinced that he had to murder innocents to defend Islam.