Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 90 (February1999): 56-59.
The Hitler of History. By John Lukacs. Knopf. 279 pp. $26.
Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. By Ron Rosenbaum. Random House. 427 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Walter Sundberg
In September 1948, Irving Kristol surveyed the current literature on Hitler and the Nazis in the pages of Commentary. He called this material, which even in those early years amounted to an impressive pile of memoirs, essays, and journal articles, "autopsies" of the defeated regime.
Despite the bulk of information at his disposal, the young author was left in a quandary as to what it all meant. This was because in his view, "We are still imbued with the rationalist political theory of the eighteenth century, which ascribed to each government its ‘reason’ and ‘purpose.’" This model, he noted, does not work with Hitler and his thugs. Theirs was a regime of "freebooters" who took advantage of whatever ideas, circumstances, or political opportunities were available to pursue their quest for personal power. Adolf Hitler was the pirate king; Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, and Bormann his cutthroat courtiers. Neither socialist nor capitalist, Nazi theory "was a grab–bag of everything that sounded useful." Vulgar and crude, motivated by visceral hatred yet capable of discerning the general will, these brutal manipulators brought one of the most profound cultures the world has ever known to a state of abject obedience. The consequence of this obedience was that Germany ignited total warfare among Western nations, killed millions of innocent citizens, and engineered the systematic destruction of European Jewry.
One would expect, even hope, that only monsters inspired by the devil could wreak such havoc. Ironically, the Nazis appeared in their personal lives to be small, petty, and, in the way of the petite bourgeoisie, sentimental in their tastes and attachments. Each of the Nazi leaders displayed psychological imbalances to be sure. But these did not divorce them from the human family. At the end we are left, said Kristol, with a mystery: "The Nazis are human: that is what the psychiartists tell us. . . . But the Nazis are also nonhuman: that is what we, their wounded fellow–creatures, have to tell the psychiatrists and ourselves, as we point to the incredible horrors they so calmly worked on the body and soul of mankind."
Since 1948, the bibliography of Hitler and Nazism has grown to epic proportions. The unholy mystery that Kristol named a half century ago has neither changed nor disappeared. How do we assess all of this spilled ink? Has it brought us closer to the mystery or kept us away? The value of these finely written and thoroughly researched books by John Lukacs and Ron Rosenbaum is that they have waded through the spilled ink to provide what are, in effect, intelligent annotated bibliographies. To their credit, both men know that, despite the voluminous research, the mysterious evil that was Hitler eludes our grasp. This fact of research has moral significance: it means that we cannot and dare not put Hitler behind us.
John Lukacs, a native of Hungary, now retired from the peripatetic life of visiting professor, provides in The Hitler of History an objective, scholarly account of the subject. To ascertain the historical Hitler requires a cool–eyed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Hitler as a political leader and a recognition of the cultural and social facts that place the Nazi movement in context.
Hitler was an extraordinarily talented political leader who won the allegiance of the German people by forming a strategic alliance with the conservative middle class and playing on the fears and prejudices of common people. But he was also a revolutionary and visionary (not a reactionary) who sought successfully to regiment the mind and will of the whole society to serve the glory of German nationalism. Hitler’s driving purpose was hatred of what he thought were the enemies of Germany, especially the Jews. He was an evil man. But Lukacs, unlike many in the scholarship he surveys, refuses to see Hitler as an irrational fanatic, even in his last days. Personally, Hitler appeared, at least in his public persona, disciplined, hardworking, and plain. Whatever crimes he committed, Hitler had the support of the German Volk. This fact, however uncomfortable it might be for contemporary Germans, must never be forgotten.
In this regard, Lukacs has little sympathy for conservative historians, notably Ernst Nolte, who see in Nazism a precursor of the Western defense against Soviet communism. He refuses to relativize the criminal behavior of the Nazi regime by comparing it to Communist atrocities. But Lukacs is willing to acknowledge the conservative argument, made most forcefully by Joachim Fest, that if Hitler had died before the war, he would be remembered, despite his early excesses, as a great German leader.
As to the matter of Hitler’s unholy mystery, Lukacs’ insights are especially intriguing. Barely a month after Hitler’s suicide, Pope Pius XII, speaking before the College of Cardinals, called Hitler a "satanic apparition." Lukacs is suspicious of this "demonization" because he believes it might serve the purpose of turning Hitler into a supernatural evil power or metaphysical construct of negative forces that lessens the historical responsibility of man. Lukacs quotes approvingly the response made to the Pope by the Austrian Catholic historian Friedrich Heer: "The Pope overlooks entirely that this ‘satanic apparition’ was a very concrete human incarnation who, before all in the Munich so loved by the Pope but also elsewhere, was promoted and helped into power by very responsible and notable men."
Despite his argument against defining Hitler as an evil emissary from the spirit world, Lukacs cannot resist his own theological speculation. He muses in a footnote that perhaps the New Testament prediction of the Antichrist might be a fitting category: "The Antichrist will not be horrid and devilish, incarnating some kind of frightful monster—hence recognizable immediately. He will not seem to be anti–Christian. He will be smiling, generous, popular, an idol, adored by masses of people because of the sunny prosperity he seems to have brought, a false father (or husband) to his people. Save for a small minority, Christians will believe in him and follow him." Across the centuries, the notion of the Antichrist has been misused and abused by theologians and historians. Lukacs is that rare counterexample who reveals the appropriate usage and explanatory power of this ancient biblical symbol.
Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist and novelist, provides a more personal and existential account of Hitler scholarship. Many prominent intellectuals have attempted to explain the horrible enigma that is Hitler. Rosenbaum seeks to explain these explainers. He investigates not only Hitler, but the meanings we give to Hitler. Modeling his work on Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), which demonstrated that modern biographies of Jesus teach more about modernity than they do about the Jesus of history, Rosenbaum explores what scholarship on Hitler reveals about us.
Looking Hitler in the face confirms us in the fact that we live in a therapeutic age that has devised a host of flexible canons to gauge our misdeeds. It is not surprising that these canons have been applied to Hitler. Analysts have blamed his father or his mother, or both, for his psychosis. Others, relying on the dubious report of a Russian autopsy of Hitler’s charred remains, have claimed that malformed genitals are a key to the man. Scholars are reasonably sure that Hilter engaged in sexual relations with at least seven women. We know that six of these women committed suicide or at least tried to; perhaps this intriguing fact is the center of the mystery. Rosenbaum explores this psychological labyrinth with the typical gusto of a contemporary journalist; lest one have any doubt as to his interest in these matters, a picture of Hitler as a baby adorns the dust jacket. But in the end, Rosenbaum is not satisfied with psychosexual explanations. Given the immensity of the moral questions Hitler raises as a public, historical figure, his meaning and responsibility cannot be reduced to the subjective vagaries of individual psychosis.
We also live in an historicist age that subsumes individual actions of historical agents within impersonal social and cultural forces. This too has been a hallmark of opinions on Hitler. Rosenbaum mentions in passing the example of Bill Clinton. At the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1993, Clinton observed that the German "culture which produced Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven, then brought forth Hitler and Himmler." In Rosenbaum’s view, this gets Hitler off the hook by making him "the pawn of larger, purportedly ‘deeper,’ and more profound forces of history and society that made the Holocaust ‘inevitable.’" Paradoxically, this makes Hitler less than he is by reducing his personal responsibility and more than he is by elevating him to the level of being a conduit of a nation’s destiny.
In the end, Rosenbaum can hardly bear to tolerate this type of approach. He sees it at work in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) in which the controlling "historical force" is Western anti–Semitism. Anti–Semitism supposedly produced Hitler as a catalyst to carry out its will and seduced average Germans by making them victims of its "ideological poisoning." Rosenbaum believes that this theory makes it too easy for Germans to discount personal responsibility.
In Rosenbaum’s view, the most egregious example of this kind of historicist argument is George Steiner. In his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. (1981), Steiner provides Hitler with a Hegelian–Freudian apology for his actions. Since it was the Jews who brought mature morality into the world—that is, the modern conscience or superego as we know it—it is not surprising that man, now feeling guilty for his desires and instincts, reacts in resentment. In the novel, Hitler claims that he is the agent of this resentment. But he does not stop there. Hitler also claims that because he failed, Israel was born. Hence, in the cunning of history, Hitler is a savior of the Jews; without him, they would not have returned to the Promised Land. Rosenbaum wants nothing to do with this historical, quasi–theological rationalization, even if it is offered in the flexible form of novelistic imagination. He judges Steiner harshly as someone engaging in an impious exercise of intellectual fancy, an irresponsible playing around with ideas.
Rosenbaum ends his book with an appreciative account of Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews (1975). Dawidowicz argues that Hitler formed his hatred of the Jews as early as 1918 and spent his life living it out. Hitler’s evil policies were intentional. Whatever else went on in the complexities of interwar Germany, one fact is sure: Hitler is guilty of premeditated, first–degree murder. This fact does not ultimately explain Hitler as an historical force. It is not an answer to the millions who died and suffered. It does not account for the unholy mystery that is the power of evil in the world, a power that can take unexpected forms in human history and find a home even in the hearts of the good. But it does call forth an existential response. If one hates evil, one must hate Hitler.
Rosenbaum ends the book with a story about the great political philosopher Leo Strauss as told to him by Milton Himmelfarb. A friend of Strauss had been invited after the war to visit Martin Heidegger, German philosopher and unrepentant Nazi collaborator. Strauss said to his friend, "Don’t go!" He had no more to say than that. He recoiled from anything that had to do with the Nazis. Strauss was a great philosopher, who understood the political world and the world of ideas. But he was also a Jew who knew who his enemy was. Rosenbaum interprets the anecdote this way: "[I]t is, in fact, the culmination of a truer sophistication to be able to hate Hitler, a sophistication that doesn’t fall prey to the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation as exculpation, of explanation as abstraction away from Hitler’s personal agency. Hatred as not that which one starts with, rather as something one ends up with; the product of a deeper understanding."
Walter Sundberg is Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.