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Posted Saturday, August 29, 1998

Ron Rosenbaum's book Explaining Hitler (The Random House, 1998) has attracted nationwide media attention, for the usual reasons. Sections were originally published in The New Yorker, and he wrote favourably of David Irving on that occasion. The book contains an entire chapter on the British historian and his twenty-year research into the German leader. David Irving says: "Rosenbaum has reproduced fairly the extracts of our interview which he taped. Where he paraphrases, outside quotation marks, he is able to be less objective."

We reproduce here a number of the reviews, many of them syndicated In several newspapers across the United States.


Click the picture for extracts from the book.

Dissecting theorists on Hitler

by Larry Williams


[Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 2, 1998 and other newspapers.]

WHAT made Hitler Hitler?

What transformed a modestly talented landscape artist and obscure grumbler on the fringes of German politics into the greatest villain the world has known?

Why did Hitler hate Jews? Or did he, ally? Could his shrieking anti-Semitism have been an act, to roil the masses and propel him to power?

These are a few of the provocative questions Ron Rosenbaum raises in the introduction to "Explaining Hitler."

The author devoted more than 10 years to rummaging through archives, hunting own witnesses and interviewing scholars, not so much to get definitive answers (he realized early on that they don't exist) as to learn about the people who advocate or embrace certain theories and what motivates them.

After a turgid start, during which Rosenbaum seems intent on restating the issues as often as necessary to exhaust all possible articulations, "Explaining Hitler" blossoms into an absorbing, occasionally suspenseful and exciting, and genuinely fresh look at perhaps the most thoroughly analyzed public figure in history.

We learn of various theories about the sources of Hitler's anti-Semitism: that a Jewish doctor botched treatment of his mother; that he contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute; that he lost his true love, Geli Raubal, to the charms of a Jewish music teacher.

We witness the long-standing and probably never-to-be-resolved clash over the sincerity of Hitler's anti-Semitism. Was he, as one historian says, "convinced of his own rectitude" as he set out to exterminate the Jews? Or did he know it was evil, but do it anyway, as many believe?

 Or, taking the argument one giant step further, did Hitler do it because it was evil? That was the whole point &emdash; to do evil. philosopher Berel Lang, of West Hartford, Conn., originated this theory. Rosenbaum "evil as an art."

Lang's home is one of many visited by Rosenbaum as he plunges deep into the world of Hitler explainers, a surprisingly savage place, where scholars don't simply disagree, but try to demolish one another.

Author Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners," argues that ordinary Germans really wanted to exterminate the Jews.

In other words, the stage was set for the Holocaust. If Hitler hadn't come along, it would have been someone else giving the orders.

This theory makes Hitler seem rather ordinary, his fiendish crimes driven more by social and cultural currents than by pure evil. To many scholars, that smacks of making excuses for Hitler, and they can't abide that

Take the fascinating case of David Irving, a British historian who moved from searching for documentation that Hitler himself ordered the Holocaust to questioning whether the Holocaust even happened.

Rosenbaum believes Irving fell under Hitler's spell as he penetrated the remnants of the Führer's inner circle.

There's also the case of George Steiner. His 1982 novel, "The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.," posits that Hitler escaped to South America, has been captured by Nazi hunters and is being taker to Israel for trial. But Hitler is 90 years old and has malaria. Fearing he won't survive the trip, his captors put him "on trial" in the jungle, whereupon he delivers a diabolical defense that essentially blames the Jews.

Surprisingly the explainers who make excuses for Hitler, or blame his victims, come off better in this book than does Claude Lanzmann, maker of the incomparable Holocaust documentary "Shoah"

Lanzmann opposes even trying to understand why Hitler killed Jews. "If you start to explain and to answer the question of why, you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification," Lanzmann says.

Lanzmann has gone so far as to say "Shoah" should be the last movie about the Holocaust, He condemned "Schindler's List" with the admonition, "After 'Shoah,' certain things can no longer be done."

Lanzmann undoubtedly would include writing a book about Hitler explainers among those "certain things." Fortunately he could not stop Rosenbaum.



Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani

IF you thought the one historical figure people could reach a consensus on was Adolf Hitler, you'd be very wrong.

Given the growing relativization of history writing and the constant intramural infighting in academia, given the growing preference of scholars for seeing history as a product of abstract social forces rather than the acts of individual men, historians have left us not with one Hitler, but a multitude of Hitlers.

There's the demonic Hitler, the very embodiment of unaccommodated evil and irrational hatred, of course. But as the journalist Ron Rosenbaum points out in his fascinating new book "Explaining Hitler," there is also the smalltime con man Hitler, the statesmanlike Hitler, the gemuetlich Hitler, and the dithering, Hamlet-like Hitler, who had a hard time making up his mind whether or not to exterminate the Jews.

The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper gave us an irrational but sincere Hitler, "convinced of his own rectitude," while the Hitler biographer Alan Bullock gave us a calculating, coldblooded Hitler who came to believe his own Machiavellian act.

While Daniel Goldhagen, the author of the best-selling book "Hitler's Willing Executioners," suggests that Hitler was little more than a midwife to the war against the Jews, the writer Milton Himmelfarb takes the position of "No Hitler, no Holocaust."

What all these different Hitlers represent are different ways of looking at evil, at free will, at personal responsibility and at the workings of history, and in "Explaining Hitler," Rosenbaum not only re-examines a myriad of scholarly writings on the Nazi leader, but also attempts to explicate the explanations.

In doing so, he shows how historians, philosophers and psychologists have projected their own agendas, preconceptions and yearnings for certainty onto their portraits of Hitler, and how their portraits in turn mirror broader cultural assumptions.

Unlike many intellectual histories, "Explaining Hitler" does not confine itself to simple textual analysis, but showcases Rosenbaum's reportorial skills with acute, sometimes edgy interviews with such controversial thinkers as Claude Lanzmann, the creator of the movie "Shoah"; George Steiner, the critic and author of the much debated novel "The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H.," and the Hitler apologist David Irving.

The resulting book, portions of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is a lively, provocative work of cultural history that is as compelling as it is thoughtful, as readable as it is smart.

As Rosenbaum observes in this volume, "powerful tendencies in contemporary scholarship have cumulatively served to diminish the decisiveness and centrality of Hitler's role.''

ON one hand, many scholars have argued that larger, more profound forces of history and society are to blame for the Holocaust.

Goldhagen suggests that by the time Hitler came to power in 1933, anti-Semitism had already made Germany "pregnant with murder"; the scholar Hyam Maccoby contends that Christianity, with its anti-Semitic stereotypes, had by World War II created a craving for vengeance against Jews; and Richard Breitman, editor of "Holocaust and Genocide Studies," argues that the traumas sustained by Germany in the early years of the century forged a desperation that Hitler was able to channel against the Jews.

At the same time, hardcore Freudians and psychohistorians intent on trying to map Hitler's psyche have come up with an assortment of explanations that effectively let Hitler off the hook, using what Rosenbaum calls "the Menendez defense" to depict him, astonishingly enough, as a victim.

The famous psychoanalyst Alice Miller portrays Hitler as a victim of an abusive father; Erich Fromm shows him as the victim of an overbearing mother. Other thinkers have attributed Hitler's pathology to a "primal-scene trauma," to a missing testicle, to a sexual secret that "isolated him from the normal love of human beings," to a physical illness and to a self-hatred stemming from his suspicion that his grandmother had a Jewish lover and that he himself was "tainted" by Jewish blood.

Even more perversely, other scholars have tried to come up with a single Jew as the true source of Hitler's metamorphosis from a run-of-the-mill malcontent into an anti-Semitic monster.

Their suspects include a Jewish prostitute who might have given him syphilis, a Jewish music teacher or musician who might have been involved with Hitler's beloved half-niece Geli Raubal, and a Jewish doctor who may have bungled the treatment of Hitler's mother, who died in 1907 of breast cancer.

These theories make clear how dangerous the effort to explain Hitler can be &emdash; how it can result in a rationalization of his actions, exempting him from responsibility for his crimes.

It can also provide us with false consolation. Those theories that suggest that Hitler was a madman completely off the charts of human behavior allow us to shrug him off as a horrible anomaly, while other theories, which suggest that he was not consciously evil, enable us ignore his darkest implications about human nature.

At the same time, Rosenbaum argue, repudiating any effort to understand Hitler or the Holocaust can lead to process of mystification that effectively shields the murderers from responsibility for their crimes and thwarts all efforts to learn from the horrors of the past.

In analyzing the consequences and implications of various efforts to explain Hitler, Rosenbaum himself has made an important contribution to our understanding not just of Hitler, but of the cultural processes by which we try to come to terms with history as well.

© New York Times Service
July 6, 1998, page 70


Figuring Out the Führer

Everybody's got a theory. They can't all be right.



THE VERY TITLE OF RON Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler (444 pages. Random House, $30) will infuriate at least one of his interview subjects.

Claude Lanzmann, maker of the epic 1985 Holocaust documentary "Shoah," told him any attempt to explain Hitler was "obscene" because "you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification." Rosenbaum asked the logical question: "Is it all to be condemned - to write or even think about Hitler?" "I think it is to be condemned," Lanzmann said. "All the way." Obviously the veteran journalist Rosenbaum doesn't agree, but his smart, scrupulously reported book is all the smarter for raising the question of whether it should have been written.

The study of Hitler suffers from explanation overload; early in his research, Rosenbaum gave up on adding one more theory to the pile, deciding instead to study the explainers with their "agendas and obsessions." These people range from admirable to contemptible - like the Hitler apologist David Irving, who told Rosenbaum he's cosying up to neo-Nazis only until he can get a more respectable following as a historian. Similarly their explanations for Hitler's near extermination of European Jewry range from ingenious to gaga.

His father beat him (this from the Swiss psychologist Alice Miller). He got syphilis from a Jewish prostitute (Nazihunter Simon Wiesenthal's theory). He suspected he himself had "Jewish blood." His personality changed after a case of encephalitis. And - seriously - his penis was maimed when he tried to pee in a billy goat's mouth, though it's admittedly a stretch from there to genocide. Historian H. R. Trevor-Roper thinks Hitler was "convinced of his own rectitude." Historian Alan Bullock calls him an "actor," who sometimes believed his role. Contemporary scholar Christopher Browning sees him as Hamlet-like in his "hesitation" and "uncertainty." Rosenbaum makes many of these views sound plausible - before shooting them down. But what would any explanation really explain? History records countless abused, angry and crazy people, but only one Hitler.

Rosenbaum comes close to agreeing with the late historian Lucy Dawidowicz, whose Hitler is a laughing, double-talking schemer who'd single-mindedly planned to wipe out the Jews since 1918, and the scholar Milton Himmelfarb, who flatly calls him "evil" - as opposed to deranged or deluded. But even that forthright, unfashionable word begs the question. Was Hitler uniquely evil, beyond the human continuum? This is unacceptable to rationalists, and tough for believers in a just God. Or was he somebody we could have been had enough gone wrong? This is unacceptable to almost everybody. No wonder Lanzmann insists the only proper response is "to blind one's self to all kinds of explanation." Still, as one psychoanalyst told Rosenbaum, "You get information and unless you are a bloody idiot you work on it, and one of the fundamental intellectual processes is this question Why." There may be no explaining Hitler and the Holocaust, but just to let it ride is no option either.  

The Sunday Telegraph, July 12, 1998:


In trivial pursuit of Hitler

The Führer's personality does not in itself explain the evils of Nazism, says Richard Evans


Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, by Ron Rosenbaum

Macmillan, £25, 444 pp


THIS IS not so much a study of Hitler, as of the people who have tried to explain him, travelling around Europe and the United States, the American journalist Ron Rosenbaum interviewed "some of the world's greatest intellects" in an attempt to find out what these "brilliant and controversial explainers" think about the mind of the German dictator, and to probe some of their motives.

His encounter with Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre "one autumn evening, in front of a fireplace in an upstairs common room of the Oxford-Cambridge club", reveals that the former Regius Professor still knows how to fascinate a journalist: the encounter begins with him telling Rosenbaum how he received a death threat from the Stern Gang, an organisation of Zionist extremists, after the publication of his book The Last Days of Hitler in 1947

Soon we are transported to "the soot-begrimed, gargoyle-encrusted facade of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum', in front of which Lord Bullock, Hitler's first English-language biographer, not to be outdone by Lord Dacre, engages the author in a lengthy conversation about Hitler's alleged missing testicle.

Then, penetrating "the heavily fortified, high-tech-security-equipped entrance to David Irving's living quarters" in London, Rosenbaum glances at "a tiny toy-soldier figure of Hitler" on his desk, as Irving confesses to him that his reputation with other historians is now "down to its uppers, but hasn't yet worn through to the street".

We meet George Steiner (author of one of the minor curiosities of the literature on Hitler, a novel about his imaginary survival in Latin America), who says "if Mother Theresa were sitting here, I'd shut up" -- and who can disagree with him? -- and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, whose book Hitler's Willing Executioners branded all Germans since the Middle Ages as murderous anti-Semites.

Goldhagen, who clearly feels uncomfortable talking about Hitler rather than about the Germans, is the only interviewee to throw Rosenbaum out, and I have to say that if he'd come to talk to me, I'd have been tempted to do the same.

It's not that he's unintelligent -- far from it -- his appraisals of the interpretations advanced by his interviewees are often shrewd and perceptive, and he realises full well that their explanations tell us as much about them as they do about Hitler. Nor is it that he's intrusive, or rude --from what one can see, he approaches all his subjects with a fine degree of tact and circumspection. Nor is it that he is particularly ignorant about them -- he's read their books and comes primed with well-informed questions.

The real reason why this racily written and highly readable book is so irritating is that its author neglects the really important issues for really trivial ones. Rosenbaum bases his approach on the naive assumption that Hitler was some kind of extraordinary, evil genius who emerged unheralded on to the world historical scene and achieved and wielded power by the sheer force of his personality and nothing much else, hence all you have to do is explain him, and you've explained the whole terrible history of Nazism.

Thus Rosenbaum goes into inordinate detail about "psycho-historians" and others who have tried to show that Hitler's hatred of Jews and lust for power derived from the self-hatred he experienced in the belief that he himself was part-Jewish, or from the sexual perversions that are supposed to have lain at the heart of his private life, or from feelings of inadequacy (that supposed missing testicle again), or from any one of a number of other more or less bizarre and peculiar things.

None of this wild speculation is substantiated by a single piece of solid evidence. The only really extraordinary thing about Hitler was his undoubted talent as a rabble-rousing orator, a talent he discovered after the First World War almost by accident. For the rest, he seems to have been normal in his private life, unoriginal in his ideas, and fanatical but by no means exceptional among the ideologues of the far right in Weimar Germany in his visceral but ultimately politically motivated hatred of the Jews.

What really needs explaining is not Hitler, but the historical context which brought him to prominence and power, and convinced him ultimately of his own infallibility, here Rosenbaum falls down completely, because he hasn't read enough about that context, not to mention the fact that he is unable to speak or read German and so is ignorant of the vast mass of research carried out in Germany in recent decades. Because of this, the book ends up by getting us further away from an explanation, not closer to it.   

Richard J. Evans is Professor Elect of Modern History at Cambridge University. His latest book is 'Tales from the German Underworld' (Yale).

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