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Review of Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil”

Newsday, July 19, 1998

Explaining Hitler book cover

It cannot be denied that Adolf Hitler was a very cute baby. The evidence is there for all to see in a picture first published by Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer, in his presciently titledbook, “The Hitler Nobody Knows.” In the 50-plus years since Hitler’s suicide, an army of historians, psychologists, journalists, theologians, cranks and kooks
has tried its hand at explaining how this shaggy-maned, pudding-faced little tot grew up to become one of the most horrible mass murderers in history.

The photo, which dominates the cover of Ron Rosenbaum’s “Explaining Hitler,” has a sweetly menacing quality, as it confounds the conventional wisdom about how sinister people are supposed to look. If you really want to understand the nature of absolute evil, you have to start here, it insists. Like so much else about Hitler, the picture admits many interpretations. “We could project upon that impressionable baby face the stirrings of some deep emotional disturbance in embryo,” writes Rosenbaum. “We could just as easily predict this child could turn out to be Albert Schweitzer.”

The paradoxical nature of Hitler’s evil is the central conundrum of “Explaining Hitler.” Were we in the hands of a less insightful writer, a 400-page romp through the fields of Hitler studies might be the stuff of madness, if not parody. I must confess that before reading this fascinating book, I had assumed that (much like the scholars of Roswell and Dealey Plaza) most of those who have spent their lives studying Hitler were more notable for their implicit ideological agendas than their explicit intellectual ones.

Rosenbaum admits that he originally counted himself a member of the group of Hitler explainers who believe that if they could only find the essential clue (the “lost safe-deposit box”), the mystery might be solved. Happily, he realized that the search itself was a much more engaging story, and the most successful sections of the book are those in which he wisely steps back from the fray and focuses on the explainers themselves. The result is an extremely contemporary book that uses Hitler as a way to address the most profound questions of Western philosophy. Hitler explanations, he writes, “are cultural self-portraits: the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler’s 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.”

Explaining Hitler has a ruminative, meandering structure that suits its author’s idiosyncratic literary style. Rosenbaum has one of the most interesting minds and compelling voices in contemporary journalism; he is as gifted at close readings of Shakespeare as he is at investigating urban homicide. In writing about Hitler, his playful language helps lighten the potentially deadening weight of the topic; he is serious without ever being somber.

After posing several central questions at the book’s outset – Was Hitler an aberration or merely the culmination of the dark side of European civilization? Was he merely the midwife for a country pregnant with murderous anti-Semitism or an evil genius who transformed Germany with his uniquely demonic powers? -Rosenbaum spends the bulk of the book in conversation with scholars who have spent their careers trying to answer them.

Rosenbaum has chosen his characters well; each adds a rich thread to the philosophical tapestry he weaves. They include Claude Lanzmann, the arrogant Parisian intellectual who believes that all interpretations of the Holocaust end with his film “Shoah”; Alan Bullock, the Oxford classicist turned Hitler biographer who portrays the Fuhrer as a shrewdly able politician; Lucy Dawidowicz, the literature professor turned Holocaust historian who believes that World War II was merely a cover story for Hitler’s true objective, the destruction of the Jews; David Irving, the Hitler apologist who, beyond denying that Hitler ordered the Holocaust, denies that the gas chambers ever existed, and Emil Fackenheim, the Israeli philosopher whose 614th commandment – “Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler” – becomes something of a credo for Rosenbaum.

The only sections of “Explaining Hitler” that lag are those in which Rosenbaum indulges his considerable appetite for noirish intrigue and conspiracy theory. The chapters on Hitler’s sexuality, rumors about his Jewish roots and his missing testicle, as well as the murky tale of Geli Raubal (the half-niece who killed herself with Hitler’s gun), feel strangely at odds with the cultural aims of the rest of the book – more the work of a dedicated Hitler buff than of a gifted literary journalist. Here Rosenbaum’s love of language sometimes gets the better of him, as his dramatic drum rolls frequently drown out the book’s main theme. Still, these instincts also produce some of the book’s most compelling sections, such as its portrait of the last days of the largely unknown Munich Post, the opposition paper that bravely attacked Hitler “with a combination of Washington Post-like investigative zeal and New York Post-like tabloid glee.”

Rosenbaum’s mission is to counter the trend in Holocaust studies that diminishes Hitler’s central role. “The search for the origins of the Holocaust has been shifting – not without opposition – from the search within Hitler to the fields of social forces and ideological currents into which he was born,” he writes. In pursuing this goal he is careful to maintain the delicate tension between explaining and exonerating, to balance the work of those who want to diminish Hitler’s deeds with those who turn Hitler into “a kind of graven image – a defining, if not ruling, principle of all being.” The former, Rosenbaum understands, is as dangerous as the latter.

Part of the thrill of reading “Explaining Hitler” results from the extremes Rosenbaum is willing to brave, as he forces his interlocutors to strip their cautious philosophical pronouncements down to their disturbing core. He knows full well that the shapes we project onto Hitler’s psyche are often as paradoxical and unpleasant as he was, and that even the cutest little boys sometimes grow up to be monsters.