Why we cannot explain the evils of Adolf Hitler It is not enough simply to say Hitler was a spectacular anomaly and leave it at that.

October 29, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Don't judge a book by its cover. But begin judging Ron Rosenbaum's book by its brilliant dust jacket, which features an old, grainy black-and-white photograph of a cherubic infant, less than a year old, dressed in a white gown with a ruffled collar, staring at the camera with wide, dark eyes, his delicate lips slightly parted, a look of mild curiosity on his round face. How did this small bundle of potentialities become Adolf Hitler?

In "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil," Mr. Rosenbaum, a novelist and literary journalist, takes readers on a mind-bending tour of "the garden of forking paths" in "the trackless realm of Hitler's inwardness." Mr. Rosenbaum tells an astonishing story of the lengths to which people have gone to explain Hitler without coming to terms with the stark fact that evil is a capacity of human nature.

Mr. Rosenbaum asks: Was Hitler "some ultimate, perhaps never-before-seen extension of that capacity"? Was he on the extreme end of the spectrum of human types that includes Gandhi, or was he "off the grid, beyond the continuum, in a category of his own"?

Nature or nurture?

Why did Hitler kill the Jews? Because he wanted to. But was he capable of choosing what he wanted? Or was he merely a cultural product, soft wax on which the hard edges of "society" left a lasting impress? We are all, to some extent, such wax. Hence the current preoccupation of our politics with the condition of the culture. But clearly Hitler was unusual, and surely he was not just unusually susceptible to this or that prompting by "society."

It is not enough simply to say Hitler was a spectacular anomaly and leave it at that. However, what fascinates and at times horrifies Mr. Rosenbaum is the tendency of explanation to evolve into extenuation and exculpation. Furthermore, many explanations of Hitler raise the tormenting possibility that Hitler's career could have been prevented by some timely therapeutic intervention.

Mr. Rosenbaum's exploration of the Hitler explanation industry is a product of exhaustive historical research and meticulous contemporary reporting. But more than an intellectual tour de force, it is a practical primer on thinking about the largest political problems and perennially pertinent historical judgments. Those are judgments about free will and historical determinism, about whether supposed great men are starters of events or themselves mere social products and symptoms, and about the putative history-making role of impersonal ideological or anthropological forces.

Some instinct for proportionality causes people to seek large causes for large events. People rightly recoil from the idea that the Holocaust was produced by a figure of burlesque -- a Chaplinesque corporal. Yet intellectual fashion disparages as unsophisticated the idea that an individual can be large enough to violently shake history.

Hence the multiplication of explanations of what Mr. Rosenbaum calls the "transformation from baby picture to baby killer." Too often the explanations amount to what courts call a "diminished capacity" defense. Such explanations arise from the simple-minded scientism of the semi-educated, the belief that somehow everything explains everything.

The explanations seek to reduce Hitler to, for example, a mere catalyst of pre-existing "eliminationist anti-Semitism" in a Germany "pregnant with murder." (Never mind that anti-Semitic literature in Russia, Poland, Romania and France was at times more virulent than that in Germany.) Or to present Hitler as unhinged by this or that formative experience, such as his mother's horrific suffering from primitive, turn-of-the-century cancer treatment administered by a Jewish doctor.

Or perhaps he was deranged because of his -- if this is true -- absent left testicle. Or by the unassuageable dread that his father was born from the illegitimate union of his grandmother and a Jew. Or because he caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute.

There is an unending process of discovering reasons why Hitler could not help himself. Perhaps people cannot bear the thought that Hitler was being himself.

No explanation for evil

Scholarship about the Nazi era has revealed the special horror of banal atrocities, those committed by "ordinary men" -- by, that is, people without even the excuse of ideological intoxication. But more horrible -- Mr. Rosenbaum's research suggests that it is, for most people, unendurable -- is the possibility that Hitler was simply extraordinarily evil and that evil cannot be explained.

That this is so unsettling speaks volumes, Mr. Rosenbaum says, about our age. It is an age of "epistemological optimism, a faith in an explicable world." By showing how Hitler refutes that facile faith, Mr. Rosenbaum's book should teach caution to a chastened age.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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