Synopses & Reviews
When Hitler's war ended in 1945, the war over Hitler who he really was, what gave birth to his unique evil had just begun. Hitler did not escape the bunker in Berlin but, half a century later, he has managed to escape explanation in ways both frightening and profound. Explaining Hitler is an extraordinary quest, an expedition into the war zone of Hitler theories. This is a passionate, enthralling book that illuminates what Hitler explainers tell us about Hitler, about the explainers, and about ourselves.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index.
About the Author
Ron Rosenbaum grew up on Long Island, New York. A graduate of Yale with a degree in English literature, he left Yale Graduate School to write full-time. His essays and journalism have appeared in Harper's
, the New Republic
, Vanity Fair
, and the New Yorker
; he's done eight cover stories for the New York Times Magazine
. He is the author of four previous books, including one novel and three collections of his essays and journalism, most recently Travels with Dr Death and Other Unusual Investigations
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and historian Thomas Powers called him "one of the few distinctive voices of modern American literary journalism." His work has been characterized by the essayist Phillip Lopate as combining "the skills of a terrific investigative reporter and an accomplished literary stylist with an idiosyncratic streak all his own."
More than ten years ago, he began investigating certain unresolved controversies among Hitler biographers, and ultimately embarked on an odyssey that took him from Vienna and Munich to London, Paris, and Jerusalem. The book that emerged combines original research and dramatic face-to-face encounters with historians, philosophers, psychologists, and theologians as they attempt to account for the elusive figure of Adolf Hitler and the meanings projected upon him by his explainers.
Currently Ron Rosenbaum writes for the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Observer, and teaches a course on literary journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of journalism.
Table of Contents
Introduction (The Baby Pictures and the Abyss)
Part One. The Beginning of the Beginning
Chapter 1. The Mysterious Stranger, the Serving Girl, and the Family Romance of the Hitler Explainers
Chapter 2. The Hitler Family Film Noir
Chapter 3. The Poison Kitchen: The Forgotten First Explainers
Part Two. Two Postwar Visions: Sincerity and Its Counterfeit
Chapter 4. H.R. Trevor-Roper: The Professor and the Mountebank
Chapter 5. Alan Bullock: Rethinking Hitlers Thought Process
Part Three. Geli Raubal and Hitler's Sexual Secret
Chapter 6. Was Hitler Unnatural?
Chapter 7. Hitler's Songbird and the Suicide Register
Chapter 8. The Dark Matter: The Sexual Fantasy of the Hitler Explainers
Part Four. Hatred: Complex and Primitive
Chapter 9. Fritz Gerlich and the Trial of Hitlers Nose
Chapter 10. The Shadow Hitler, His Primitive Hatred, and the Strange Bond
Part Five. The Art of Evil and the Future of It
Chapter 11. To the Gestapo Cottage; or, A Night Close to the Fuhrer
Chapter 12. David Irving: The Big Oops
Part Six. The War over the Question Why
Chapter 13. A Tale of Three Kafkas: A Cautionary Parable
Chapter 14. Claude Lanzmann and the War Against the Question Why
Chapter 15. Dr. Louis Micheels: There Must Be a Why
Part Seven. Blame and Origins
Chapter 16. Emil Fackenheim and Yehuda Bauer: The Temptation to Blame God
Chapter 17. George Steiner: Singling out the Jewish Invention of Conscience
Chapter 18. Singling out Christianity: The Passion Play of Hyam Maccoby
Chapter 19. Daniel Goldhagen: Blaming Germans
Chapter 20. Lucy Dawidowicz: Blaming Adolf Hitler
Reading Group Guide
" These people must not know where I come from, " Adolf Hitler once purportedly said. " Nobody must know who I am." This disquietingly prophetic imperative has been borne out by half a century of ardent, contentious and often contradictory inquiry into the origins of Hitler's singular, unsurpassable evil. In Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum undertakes an exhaustive study of the myriad scholarship and conjecture of the many historians, psychologists, and others who have tried to solve the puzzle of what made Hitler Hitler.
Rosenbaum acknowledges early on that a consensus can never be reached about why Hitler orchestrated the Holocaust (or even, in the minds of some scholars, if he did) because key historical evidence is either missing, was destroyed, or never existed. Nonetheless, he seeks " if not the truth about Hitler, then some truths about what we talk about when we talk about Hitler. What it tells us about Hitler, what it tells us about ourselves."
The catalog of Hitler theories leads Rosenbaum to those like Hugh Trevor-Roper, who feel the Fuehrer was convinced of his own rectitude in the mission to exterminate the Jews, and to others like Alan Bullock, who feel he was an accomplished actor and a schemer who responded to and manipulated European anti-Semitism for political gain.
Rosenbaum wades through long-debated speculations of the origins of Hitler's anti-Semitism, including the notion that Hitler had a Jewish grandfather or that he held an irrational, if monumental grudge against all Jews because of some transgression, real or imagined, in his youth. He also examines the work of those who seek a psychosexual explanation forHitler's evil in an abused childhood, or in shadowy rumors of some sexual dysfunction or aberration. Rosenbaum looks at theories that view Hitler as a blackmailing hood, resurrecting the mostly forgotten history of a courageous band of Munich-based journalists, the " Poison Kitchen, " who tried to expose Hitler's venal intentions and scandalous involvement before he rose to power in the early 1930s.
In face-to-face interviews he tries to ferret out the true beliefs of controversial Hitler interpreters, including those of George Steiner, whose fictional The Portage to San Crisobal of A.H., seems to place the onus of the Final Solution on the Jews themselves; Daniel Goldhagen, who controversially views Hitler as merely a midwife in the birth of long gestating German anti-Semitism; and Holocaust denier David Irving, who refutes everything. Struck by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann's edict that we must never ask why because any attempt to explain Hitler, to some degree, exonerates his actions, Rosenbaum turns to Israeli theologian Emil Fackenheim who has decreed the 614th commandment: Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler.
From Fackenheim, Rosenbaum ultimately extrapolates what he comes to see as the best mandate we can adopt when trying to explain Hitler: " Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist...the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler's choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate....To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of the last laugh."
Topics for Discussion
1. Is Claude Lanzmann, whose film Shoah is considered by many to be the greatest documentation of the Holocaust, correct when he claims that any attempt to explain Hitler is obscene, because it in some way endeavors to absolve Hitler of his monumental guilt?
2. If Hitler's radical evil was an exception beyond the basic level of human malignancy is there any hope of making sense of his actions?
3. If we demonize Hitler do we distance him, in a falsely comforting way, from ourselves and the continuum of human good and evil?
4. If interpreters downplay Hitler's personal role in the Holocaust blaming the entire German population, for example, or a relatively small group of anti-Semitic zealots and bureaucrats are they granting him " the posthumous victory of the last laugh?"
5. What do the many conflicting interpretations of the historical evidence about Hitler tell us about the inherent nature and reliability of all historical assessment?
6. Although Rosenbaum concedes that we can never reach consensus about Hitler, in what ways does Explaining Hitler succeed in elucidating Hitler's evil?