Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book 9: Explaining Hitler

Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

Shortly after The Reader came out last year, I found an article by Rosenbaum arguing that the film tried to excuse the German people from their responsibility and knowledge of the Holocaust and that for this reason, it should not win an Oscar. While I don't think I agreed with every single one of his arguments, I thought it raised a few good points, enough to make me interested in buying his book, Explaining Hitler. Which then proceeded to sit on my nightstand for a few months.

I finally remembered it was there and added it to my to read pile so when it came time to choose my next book to read, I decided maybe now was a good time to see what he had to say.

While the title suggests that Rosenbaum might try to explain Hitler, this is definitley not his intent, and I already knew that when I bought the book. Rather, he is exploring the different explanations people have tried to make to understand Hitler, and analyze what that says about the people explaining and basically us. What is scarier - a Hitler that is outside of explanation, an abnomaly, outside of regular humanity, or someone that was very much human? Since Rosenbaum has a degree in English and isn't a historian per se, it makes sense that he would take this approach, even though as he says in the introduction, he had started with rather different intents.

Through the book, Rosenbaum explores some of the more common explanations and arguments offered concerning Hitler and the Holocaust, and uses interviews he conducted with some of the most famous and important Hitler historians. Some of the ways people try to explain Hitler's actions verge on the comical and ridiculous. Many of them involve sexual hangups - Hitler hated Jews because one of them may have seduced his grandmother (I'm sure many people have heard things along the lines of Hitler being part Jewish but the thing is, there is no proof - no one knows who his grandfather was), maybe a Jewish prostitute gave him syphilis, a Jew wanted to marry his niece that he was in love . . . Various explanations that either show him as a depraved human being or someone whose hatred started in some way that would almost be seen as rational. Of course as Rosenbaum points out, that would be a lot to put on one person (such as saying that Hitler hated Jews due to the doctor that couldn't cure his mother's breast cancer). Others blame Christianity, which certainly has a history of anti-Semitism while others try to blame German culture.

Then there are the people that say that Hitler cannot be explained. One film maker, the director of Shoah states that there is no why, and people should stop trying to explain (in fact, he sounds like an egomaniac since Rosenbaum quotes him as saying that certain things can't be done after Shoah, in other words, his film should be the final word on the Holocaust). In fact, two of the chapters that were most intriguing to me involved this director, and a visit he had made to panel discussion with a Holocaust survivor during which he verbally attacked the survivor for asking the question why.

People are still undecided on how much to blame Hitler and how much to blame history or the Germans. Was Hitler just there at the wrong/right time, and it would have happened no matter what? Was Hitler the driving force? Obviously, it couldn't have happened without Germany's cooperation, but can we say it was historical forces? Some say, "No Hitler, No Holocaust" while others believe it would have happened anyway, disliking the "Great Man" approach to history. When one person argues that Germany was ripe and incredibly anti-Semitic at the time, others argue that if anything, people would have expected it to happen in France rather than Germany if asked before 1933, given examples such as the Dreyfus affair.

One other thing that Rosenbaum did that I liked a lot is he actually had a few chapters on the years before 1933. While much of it has been forgotten by history, even before Hitler took power there were journalists printing articles trying to explain Hitler and show Germany and the world that he would lead to destruction. They protrayed him as a criminal and blackmailer but unfortunately they could not convince enough people beforehand. It definitely takes away the excuse that people couldn't have known ahead of time - Hitler was a street thug and Germans and politicians gave him power.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about the topic. I don't think we know enough about Hitler to explain his actions since as Rosenbaum demonstrates too much has been either hidden or lost to say exactly when he decided what he was going to do (and he also covered his tracks pretty well - never giving written orders for certain things) - so while Hitler might be "explainable" and by explainable, he was able to justify his actions to himself using incredibly messed up logic, I don't think it's possible for anyone else to know. I also don't think the Holocaust would have happened without him in a position of leadership, but this of course by no means excuses the German people from what happened. They participated, they let it happen; if they had protested or refused to act, it wouldn't have happened. Hitler was only one man and it may have been his ideas that drove the whole thing but he needed people to enforce them for his plans to happen.

Obviously this wasn't the first genocide in history of humankind (I think I need to start reading happier books) nor the last, but it is the most well-known for many reasons, including the numbers killed in the amount of time, and the bureaucracy behind it all, the set up of labor and death camps. As a result, it is one that people are still trying to explain and grasp. In comparison, while American Holocaust was illuminating about the near annihilation of the American Indians (what is the correct term to use now, is it American Indians or Native Americans - it seems like Native Americans has fallen slightly out of favor lately or am I wrong?), there didn't seem to be much question of why or how, nor was there one particular person associated with it above all others. The Holocaust and Hitler, however, still have not been explained to people's satisfaction.

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