RON ROSENBAUM’S 1998 book, Explaining Hitler, is a critique of “Hitler studies,” the term coined by Don DeLillo, and it remains for me a key experience in my life-long reading about the Third Reich. In the book Rosenbaum assessed the most common and uncommon “theories” about what made Hitler Hitler — from the misleadingly simple (he had one-testicle, a Jewish grandfather, a sordid love affair with his half-niece, etc.) to the intellectually complex (George Steiner’s “three-fold blackmail of transcendence,” Claude Lanzmann’s assault on explanation itself) — and found that virtually every historian, philosopher and psychologist who had written about Hitler had projected his or her own preconceptions about the nature of evil onto the story, a story no single interpretation could possibly contain. As historian Raul Hilberg (The Destruction of the European Jews) knew, sometimes gazing at the accumulated facts is more eloquent than any single line of inquiry into “why” can ever be.
And yet we can never stop asking why. Rosenbaum found a morally pitch-perfect way to address our craving for answers without pretending to have an answer. David Remnick called Explaining Hitler: “A remarkable journey by one of the most original journalists and writers of our time.” You can read Michiko Kakutani’s original New York Times review here.
When Rosenbaum offered to send us his new Afterword to an updated edition of Explaining Hitler that DaCapo (a division of the Perseus Book Group) will bring out this summer, my answer to him was three words: “Dear god yes.” Here, appearing for the first time, is Ron Rosenbaum’s characteristically brilliant response to all the important updates that have occurred in Hitler studies in the past 15 years. — Laurie Winer
Why Hitler Lost the War. Or Did He?
Have we come any closer now to explaining Hitler?
The debates over the “true nature” of Hitler and Hitler’s crimes may never come to rest. They haven’t in the 15 years since Explaining Hitler was first published. But if I had to choose the most significant — and dramatic — recent contribution to the most central debate, it would be an essay on Hitler’s war aims by Sir Richard Evans, author of The Third Reich at War, who has become one of the most authoritative sources on the subject.
Published in the December 5, 2013, issue of the New York Review of Books, Evans’s essay reasons its way back from Hitler’s conduct of the war, and the German military defeat, to say something important about who Hitler was. Something that had been, in essence, argued by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lucy Dawidowicz, as I note in my book. But Evans sharpens the point and reminds us of what I think some historians and intellectuals have lost sight of.
Evans’s essay is entitled “What the War Was Really About” and you could think of it as Evans’s Hitler explanation. One that puts him at one side of what has been perhaps the longest-running schism in “Hitler studies” as Don DeLillo called the field — the schism between the “intentionalist” and the “functionalist” schools of explaining Hitler and the Holocaust.
Ostensibly it’s a review of a book by Yale’s Paul Kennedy — one that claims the key to the Allied victory had less to do with some flaw within Hitler, in the Nazis, or in their war plans, than with Allied superiority in technology (Kennedy’s title: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War). Evans offers respect to many of Kennedy’s observations but advances a very different thesis, one that takes us to the very cutting edge, the state of the art of the argumentation about Hitler.
Evans goes beyond the Kennedy thesis to look at other, rival, explanations for Hitler’s military defeat, and in so doing reveals just how unresolved so much about the interpretation of Hitler and the Holocaust still is. Was it the Allies’ superiority in economic resources that gave them victory? Evans joins Kennedy in rejecting “the crude economic determinism” of that claim. Was it the Allies’ remarkable success in cracking the German military codes with the now famous “Enigma” machine? Again, that played a part, Evans believes, but code-breaking has been given a glamorous triumphalist history which, he points out, ignores Allied intelligence failures and German intelligence successes. Was it the Allies’ weapons and technological superiority, as Kennedy suggests? “In the end this made little difference,” Evans asserts. “German science and technology were second to none in their capacity to innovate.”
Then what was it? Evans points to one factor more than any other: the often misunderstood nature of Hitler’s war aims. He states his conclusion with finality: For Hitler this was not an ordinary war, “This was a racial war in which the extermination of six million European Jews, not dealt with at all in Kennedy’s book because it did not seem to belong to the normal arsenal of military strategy, was a paramount war aim. ”
“A racial war”: In other words, what the late Lucy Dawidowicz called “the war against the Jews” (in her book of that title) was of greater importance to Hitler than the war against the Allies. That was “what the war was really about.” And that, according to Evans, more than anything was why Germany lost the war.
The most cited instance of the practical effect of this assessment of Hitler’s mind-set was Hitler’s continued refusal to allow redeployment (to resupply his crumbling front lines) of the trains crammed full of Jews rolling ceaselessly, relentlessly, to the death camps. (An affirmation of the remarkably prescient insight of the late historian Raul Hilberg: that so much of the truth of what went on in those years can be found in the railway schedules.)
For Hitler, it was not a matter of making the trains run on time so much as making the trains never stop running to Auschwitz and Treblinka. One relatively new aspect of Holocaust study is a focus on what happened when the trains finally did stop running, because the Russians were about to overrun the mainly Polish-based camps. The full story, much of which was new to me, can be found in Daniel Blatman’s 2011 work, The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide (Harvard University Press).
When the camps were disbanded, the large SS and native Polish and Ukrainian guard troops feeding the gas chambers were not redeployed to stave off the Russians. Instead they were ordered to take all the living and half-dead captives on the road in what became the final phase of the Final Solution: the Death Marches. Hundreds of thousands of closely-guarded prisoners were mercilessly beaten or shot when they couldn’t keep up, starved to death while being harried along icy roads to . . . where? There was no sanctuary left safe for killing, but the killing had to continue at all costs, a horror at least as unfathomable as the camps themselves. The Death March commanders didn’t have to “follow orders. ” They had incorporated Hitlerism so deeply, they wanted to follow orders. As Evans argues, killing Jews was more important than military objectives. These commanders risked their own lives to continue the murder.
What’s worse, Blatman reports, is that it was not just military men but civilians along the way who gleefully took part in murdering the half-dead Jews. For those, like me, who thought it impossible to be further shocked by Hitler’s willing accomplices, reading about the Death Marches introduced a new level of horror.
It is a testament to how deeply dyed the souls of the killers were. Hitler was possessed, some might say, but he was also the cause of possession in others. It seems to me a remarkable vindication of what Trevor-Roper argued in the immediate aftermath of the war when he described Hitler as more than anything a messianic “true believer” in his anti-Semitism. A position at first countered by Alan Bullock and others (such as A.J.P. Taylor), who tried to see him as more a cynical “mountebank,” an actor, a charlatan, even a “realist politician” who merely used his Jew-hatred opportunistically for popular support.Anothermajor schism for some time, although Bullock conceded to me that he had eventually come round to a version of Trevor-Roper’s position: Hitler was an actor who came to be possessed by his own act to the point of self-destruction. Bullock also adduced a connection between Hitler’s messianic vision of himself as racial savior and the loss of the war. Hitler’s suicidal prohibition against even a tactical retreat, such as the one that might have saved his Sixth Army from capture at Stalingrad, was — Bullock believed — a self-inflicted defeat entirely due to his delusion of a messianic destiny that would not be denied, a delusion that could not countenance even the idea of a minor tactical retreat. He fell under his own spell.
Yet astonishingly there are those such as Kennedy who somehow think the Jew-hatred — the continent-wide messianic project of extermination “not dealt with at all in Kennedy’s book” — was irrelevant to Hitler’s conduct of the war.
There is one respect in which I would take Evans’s characterization further, as Lucy Dawidowicz does in Chapter 20 of my book: Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)
Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.
Reading Evans’s essay, I couldn’t help recall a watershed moment for me in writing this book, the one that made me realize how the attempt to explain Hitler involves the attempt to explain evil itself.
It was in the midst of my conversation with Trevor-Roper at the Oxford and Cambridge Club. Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler has remained a landmark early study of the man. It was a retrospective view built upon the physical evidence and the eyewitness testimonies to Hitler’s “spell” — what fatal magnetism kept so many down in the doomed bunker to the bitter end? In the process of interviewing the survivors (scouring the bunker and Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the defeat), Trevor-Roper conjured up a vision of a strange mesmeric talent and a single unshakable mission. He found, among other papers, Hitler’s final testament, which he described as a defining document. It called on the German people to never cease fighting “the eternal poisoners of the world,” the Jews, thus defining himself with his last words as a man who held one mission above all else.
In any case, I decided to ask Trevor-Roper what I feared might seem a simplistic question but turned out to be a gateway to the entire realm of the philosophy of evil and the subdiscipline of theology known as theodicy. “Do you think Hitler knew,” I asked Trevor-Roper, “that he was doing wrong when he committed his crimes?”
“Absolutely not,” Trevor-Roper said with asperity. “He was convinced of his own rectitude.” The logic of this, traceable back to Socrates, is that evil is impossible because those who commit evil acts always believe they are doing good, however mistaken they might be. Only in literature, in Iago (“motiveless malignancy”—Coleridge) or Richard III, do we find those who commit evil for the pleasure of it, for the hell of it. Many of my encounters in the book are taken up with the ramifications of this question. Since writing the book, I’ve come to believe more strongly that evil is not a concept to be dispensed with, but that what we call evil inheres in ideas, in ideologies that motivate the commission of evil acts, under the guise of providing for the collective good. The real question is, what heightens susceptibility to evil ideas? More on this, but first:
What We Can Learn from the Downfall Parodies
One critic described Explaining Hitler as, in part, about “the cultural processes by which we try to come to terms with history.” How have we succeeded and failed since Explaining Hitler was published? How has the image of Hitler (and our perception of the reality) evolved? Forgive me, but I must begin with what can only be called a meme.
I’m speaking of what may be the single most replicated moving image of “Adolf Hitler” on the planet. For the past five years, for better or worse, it has been the most frequent way that Adolf Hitler has been brought back to life in the new century: as a YouTube parody meme, the one based on a four-minute clip from the German film Downfall, featuring Bruno Ganz as Hitler delivering a raving, demented, and deluded rant to subordinates in the Berlin bunker when he finally realizes all hope for military survival is lost.
If you’re not among the millions or so viewers of one of the scores of variations of this meme, the parody aspect comes from the fake subtitles superimposed onto the clips (which are intermittently taken down). The new subtitles have Hitler raging, not about the crumbling of the Russian front, but about, shall we say, lesser things. Things of more contemporary and trivial relevance. To cite a few examples, there are parodies with titles like “Hitler Rants About New PlayStation 4 Defects,” “Hitler Rants About Being Taken by a Nigerian E-mail Scam,” and “Hitler Rants About Kanye West Interrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA Acceptance Speech.” There’s even a meta-parody of Hitler ranting about the Downfall parodies.
The demonic reduced to the trivial. But the genius of the parodies is that they trivialize the trivialization. For their effect they depend on Hitler occupying a preeminent place in the hierarchy of evil, and in some peculiar but effective way they restore “the real Hitler” to a place beyond capture by pop culture or web snark. (Even Bruno Ganz has praised their “creativity.”)
“The Real Hitler.” Of course, that is the problem. That is the question without a satisfying answer. Something we may not fully know but something upon which we project our worst conception of humanity. Even if we know not the explanation, we know there is something there that has to be contended with, incorporated into our view of history and human nature. But at a perhaps irrecoverable distance from ourselves. In its place, the place of a purported “real Hitler,” we project upon him, as in a Rorschach, “a cultural self-portrait in the negative,” I’d called it. Everything we are not.
The YouTube parodies have lasted decades in Internet time. The fact that they are so robust may be less an example of processing than of our culture’s continuing inability to “process” Adolf Hitler. Just the fact that we can try to contain him by caricaturing him and caricaturing the caricature demonstrates a desire to distance ourselves from facing whoever the “real” Hitler might be by capturing him at his most caricaturable, his least “normal.” Least like us.
Which, in a way, is a good thing. That Hitler still resists “processing,” resists being made a simplistic exemplar of some system, whether psychological, sociological, ideological, or epidemiological (the post-encephalitic syndrome). That he has not been successfully subject to reductionism, the real target of my skeptical analysis of Hitler explanations.
The recent (non-parodic) history of Hitler explanations has been mixed. Evans’s essay, which restores to primacy a way of looking at Hitler that has been obscured of late, is important. As far as learning more about Hitler himself, his “thought world,” there have been valuable, massive biographical/historical studies, all worthy, by Ian Kershaw, Saul Friedländer, and Evans himself, all of which add depth of detail but, as they often admit, leave a black hole in the center, a Hitler-shaped shadow.
There are a few works I’d like to single out among those I’ve read (by no means a comprehensive survey). Timothy Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library, an especially thoughtful study, adds to the familiar list of books such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew and its source, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, another title whose prominence I’d missed: Racial Typology of the German People by Hans F.K. Günther, known as “Racial Günther” for his fanatical views on racial purity. In an admiring review of Ryback, Jacob Heilbrunn cites this as “the one book among Hitler’s extant prison readings that left a noticeable intellectual footprint in ‘Mein Kampf’.”
Add to this one unexpected, almost forgotten work. I’d been asked to write an introduction to a fiftieth-anniversary edition of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a longtime bestseller first published in 1961, a book that had shaped my and subsequent generations’ picture of Hitler and the war for some time thereafter. I don’t think I would have reread it if I hadn’t been asked by its publishers to contribute an introduction, but I found myself impressed with Shirer’s reporter’s eye. For Hitler. For the still inexplicable power of the “spell.”
Shirer, who had been stationed in Berlin during Hitler’s rise, also had a take on Eichmann before he became Eichmann, the icon of evil, and of controversy over evil. Shirer’s book had been completed before Eichmann’s capture, when he was known to Shirer as Karl Eichmann — his rarely used first name. Shirer had his number in a way Hannah Arendt never would. He found the key damning document — the testimony of a fellow officer who quoted the Chief Operating Officer of the Final Solution toward the end of the war. Here was Eichmann not experiencing any regret or any of the misattributed “banality.” Instead, with a vengefully triumphant snarl (he knows who’s really won the war), Eichmann declared “he would leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” O happy Eichmann.
This, of course, is not the Eichmann of Hannah Arendt (“the world’s worst court reporter,” as I’ve described her), who credulously bought into his “poor schlub,” pen pusher trial defense — just following orders, moving things along deep within the bureaucracy, “nothing against the Jew” facade. Just doing a job, according to Arendt, equally credulous about her feverishly devoted “ex-Nazi” lover Heidegger, for whom she used her influence to help in his sham postwar “de-Nazification. ”
Subsequent definitive discrediting of the “banality of evil “ cliché by David Cesarani’s Becoming Eichmann — among others — and by Bernard Wasserstein’s revelations in the Times Literary Supplement on how often Hannah Arendt depended on overtly anti-Semitic sources in her work should have put to bed that antiquated and meretricious “banality of evil” phrase. (Although it does deepen the mystery of how someone as brilliant as Arendt undeniably was could have been so willingly misled.) Not that banality doesn’t exist, it just didn’t exist in any respect in Eichmann’s case.
But the larger lesson of Shirer’s prescience here is that somehow those who were eyewitnesses, those who were ear witnesses as well (like George Steiner, who tells me in my Chapter 17 that he was so transfixed just from hearing Hitler’s voice on the radio in 1930s Vienna, that he knew); they all somehow knew something beyond the ken of those who experienced it secondhand.
There is a phrase I neglected to use in the first edition: Führerkontakt. The transformative personal charisma that turned Hitler’s rival, Berlin-based Goebbels, into a gibbering sycophant in a single meeting, according to Goebbels’s own diary. Führerkontakt that had mind-scrambling effect on august German General Staff strategists and radiated out from the inner circle to all those tens of thousands in Sportzplatz- and Nuremberg-style rallies within the sound of his voice, the access to his appearances in real time. Different, almost incomprehensible, to those of us consigned to a remote viewing.
This is one reason why I found the first-person perspective of the courageous Cassandra-like reporters of the anti-Hitler Munich Post (to whom I pay my respects in the “Poison Kitchen” chapter) so invaluable. Sifting through the crumbling original issues of the paper I found in the basement of a Munich archive, seeing the rise of Hitler through their eyes, I felt an almost palpable sense of that spell. I still feel not enough recognition has come to their efforts to investigate and publish the truth about Hitler, particularly from the world of journalism where there are few greater models of heroism. I still recall the chill I felt when I came across their September 9, 1931 issue that published excerpts from a secret Nazi Party document that first used the word for “Final Solution”: Endlösung.The fact that few of their German readers seemed to realize its full implication does not excuse ignoring their achievement. That has begun to change — one of the things I’m most proud of about this book. Indeed, a former mayor of Munich did his Ph.D. thesis on the Post journalists, and at least one entire book (albeit in Portuguese) has been inspired by my account. Yes, Woodward and Bernstein took on Nixon, but those reporters took on Adolf Hitler and the entire Nazi Party.
Distance has somewhat obscured the immediacy of such first-hand, first-person witnesses and allowed the advocates for the “functionalist” school to give organizational charts and bureaucratic struggle more prominence in “explaining” the Holocaust. It was really about economics and logistics, the functionalists say: the Reich could get double value out of the Jews if they first “concentrated” them, then worked them to death or near death and finally extracted the gold from the teeth of their corpses after murdering those left alive. Which may have been true but it ignores the exterminationist intent behind it all, the motive, Hitler’s obsession with the racial war. Functionalism, going strong when I first wrote this book, has been cast into the dustbin of history along with “the banality of evil.”
Moving beyond Hitler, there are concentric circles of controversies about the consequences of Hitlerism and how to put the Holocaust in perspective. Consider for instance two books that deal not with what happened but with how to integrate — or separate — two overlapping mass murders. Hitler’s murders of the Jews and Stalin’s murders of just about everyone.
Two of the most interesting writers on these questions, Alvin Rosenfeld and Timothy Snyder, have differing, though not necessarily contradictory, ways of talking about the Holocaust, its centrality, and its uniqueness.
Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands expands the timeline of what is conventionally known as the Holocaust years, usually thought of as 1939 to 1945.
Snyder contends that the time span should be extended back to the early-‘30s, and defined more geographically than ethnically. Which means including what is now regarded as Stalin’s deliberate mass starvation of the Ukrainian peasant populace (the “kulaks”) beginning in 1931. A series of decrees caused mass death in the millions and even cannibalism among the desperate, decrees most historians have come to characterize as deliberate attempts to murder the “bourgeois” peasant farmers of the Ukraine. The Ukrainian atrocity has become a major subject of historical study and has been given by some its own Holocaust-related name: “the Holodomor.” The darkness of the crime still shadows that bloody land.
Synder places this slaughter on the continuum of subsequent Stalinist mass-murder frenzies including the Great Purges of the mid-’30s, which cost millions their lives in summary executions and gulag privations. And then the meshing of two mass-murdering nations in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which led to the almost immediate murder of tens of thousands of Poles and the beginning of the murder of millions of Jews.
It is hard not to read Snyder’s work without trying to deny that human nature could give rise to such insane, relentless slaughter. But one can’t.
It is true that Snyder’s conflation of the Holodomor, the Purges, and the murder of the Poles tends to make the Holocaust of the Jews part of a continuum rather than a stand-alone horror. It raises profound questions about how we establish a hierarchy of evil acts. Is an order about agricultural administration that seems to deliberately seek starvation the same as rounding up, shooting, and gassing Jews in a hands-on way?
Alvin Rosenfeld has some concerns about this. Not about Snyder’s work specifically, but about whether the Holocaust should be conflated with other mass murders. And about the denatured domestication of the Holocaust, in the way its memory is transmitted. In his dramatically titled but always incisive work The End of the Holocaust, Rosenfeld takes on what might be called the ahistorical cultural assimilation of the Holocaust into the anodyne language of “man’s inhumanity to man,” “intolerance,” and the like. Formulations that manage to elide the rather significant and distinct aspect of Hitler’s extermination: anti-Semitism.
I’ve called this sense of the dilution of the particular meaning of the Holocaust a kind of Faustian bargain, in which Jews trade an inclusive “universalizing” of the Holocaust for incorporation into a generic “mass murder” category, which can denature the savage, bloody actuality of the ancient hatred behind it.
Rosenfeld is not afraid to contend with the fact that, as he writes, “with new atrocities filling the news each day and only so much sympathy to go around, there are people who simply do not want to hear any more about the Jews and their sorrows. There are other dead to be buried, they say.” The sad, deplorable, but, he says, “unavoidable” consequence of what may be the necessary limits of human sympathy is that “the more successfully [the Holocaust] enters the cultural mainstream, the more commonplace it becomes. A less taxing version of a tragic history begins to emerge, still full of suffering, to be sure, but a suffering relieved of many of its weightiest moral and intellectual demands and, consequently, easier to be … normalized.”
What are those weighty moral and intellectual demands? For one thing, I think the Holocaust demands of us that we not lose sight of the fact that it was not just another tragedy in war-torn Europe amidst clashing nationalisms. At the heart of Rosenfeld’s argument is the thesis that anti-Semitism has a two-millennium-long history (at least), one that has produced a continuous slaughter of Jews transnationally, and Hitler’s holocaust should be seen in that light, as not an aberration but a culmination of a disease of Western civilization that transcends ordinary violence. And that the Holocaust portended not an end but a beginning.
Rosenfeld quotes Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Holocaust survivor and novelist: “Before Auschwitz,” Kertész writes, “Auschwitz was unimaginable. That is no longer so today. Because Auschwitz in fact occurred, it has now been established in our imaginations as a firm possibility. What we are able to imagine, especially because it once was, can be again. ”
That chilling last sentence tempts me into a discussion of the contentious “second Holocaust” controversy, one I stirred up when I wrote an essay essentially saying what Kertész was saying: No matter how many times and how many Jews (and non-Jews) aver “never again,” it can happen again. The only thing that has changed is that now we know that it can happen at all.
But when I wrote the words “second Holocaust” (a phrase I found in Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock), some were horrified that anyone could imagine — even utter — such a phrase. “Ethnic panic,” shrieked Leon Wieseltier, who seems to regard himself as the Holocaust discourse police. Wieseltier evinced a fear of facing the possibility, of even uttering the phrase, a fear I characterized as “second Holocaust denial. ”
In fact Rosenfeld, a far more learned figure on the subject, devotes the final section of his book to taking up and elaborating upon the necessity of confronting the potential for a second Holocaust. As has the Israeli historian Benny Morris, who mordantly observed that “this time” a second holocaust would be much easier to accomplish: A single thermonuclear weapon could kill six million Israeli Jews in six seconds with a strike on Tel Aviv, rather than the six years it took Hitler.
One recurrent question raised by both the Snyder and Rosenfeld books is the one of comparative evil. Hitler vs. Stalin: It’s not a competition, but it can be a way for us to evaluate what we think is worst about what human beings are capable of. What we talk about when we talk about evil. Do we measure it by body count? A case could be made that Stalin’s death toll (and indeed Mao Zedong’s) is greater than Hitler’s (unless we add to Hitler’s ledger the 50 million deaths from the war he started in 1939). Or do we also have to factor in the question of deliberation, intent, of “agency”? Hitler’s murder of the Jews could be said to be more direct (machine-gunning and gassing, the Death Marches), while Stalin’s engineered starvation of the Ukraine (like Mao’s massive famines during “The Great Leap Forward”) was more a remote-control manipulation (and denial) of resources that caused a populace to shrivel and die (amidst the horror of cannibalism) with much less hands-on killing. Hands-off killing can be just as bad or worse. But, as one of the first great writers in English to document Stalin’s crimes, Robert Conquest, who had exposed the massive death tolls from Stalin’s purges and starvations, said to me, “Hitler’s just feels worse.” After reading Snyder’s Bloodlands, one acolyte of Conquest said to me that it still “feels” a little worse, but by a little less.
I’ve tended to believe that it doesn’t diminish Hitler’s evil or the horror of the Holocaust to acknowledge crimes of equal magnitude but of different methods. Indeed I believe that if we err we should err on the side of seeking commonality with victims of other genocidal horrors, mass murders, and the like (Rwanda, Native Americans, slavery, etc.) rather than seek to find differences that separate us from their suffering.
I would reject, however, one argument put forward in the comparative-evil discourse by apologists such as the postmodern Marxist-sophist Slovoi Žižek. He has argued that Soviet crimes are less deplorable than Hitler’s because they sprang from communism’s “good intentions” gone awry, while Hitler’s were merely from racism. Alas, Hitler, too, saw himself as someone with “good intentions,” someone “convinced of his own rectitude” as Trevor-Roper put it. He saw himself as a savior of the human race from a plague, a disease. The Jews were “a bacillus” and he was a heroic Dr. Pasteur. Himmler called the SS exterminationists not an army of racist genocidal murderers but “courageous” for having to do the “hard task” of eliminating the infection. Žižek’s arguments are an attempt to rationalize mass murder, an inadvertent side effect of dialectical progress.
If the question of comparative evil is a worthy if perhaps unresolvable one, the search for the origin of Hitler’s evil, as adumbrated in the subtitle of my book, has not turned up much that can be called illuminating since Explaining Hitler’s publication. In fact, I’ve felt as though I’ve had to play a kind of “whack-a-mole” with old discredited Hitler theories that kept resurfacing.
For a time after this book’s publication it seemed like I’d become the designated default debunker for various documentaries on cable channels about “new” Hitler theories. Yes, I spoke about the questions I thought important on the BookTV channel, on Charlie Rose, on NPR, and in a Peter Jennings documentary on the twentieth century that I remember as particularly well done.
But every year or so, one of the Hitler myths would crop up and I’d go on a cable doc to discredit it: the “Jewish blood Hitler,” the “gay Hitler,” the “one-testicle Hitler,” or the “survival in Argentina myth” — the evergreen tale that took new life from some declassified FBI documents from the late ’40s, which seemed to take seriously an “eyewitness” who thought he’d seen Hitler and Eva Braun holed up in a hotel in Argentina. (As I’ve written, some of these tales, like the “survival myth,” are of emblematic or anthropological value: Hitler has survived in some respects, but as a dark presence in some southern hemisphere of our brain.)
Someone has to do it. But I do draw the line. As I was writing this Afterword I was contacted by a French documentarian who said he was preparing a Hitler film that he said would examine, “with great prudence,” the myth that as a youth Hitler had spent a year in Liverpool, England, with his half-sister, a myth based on a fabrication by Hitler’s “black sheep” half-nephew William Patrick Hitler. One that had been utterly discredited. I sought to explain to the French documentarian that this would be like examining “with great prudence” the belief the earth was flat.
Perhaps the most poignant consequence of a misreading (or myth-reading) of an aspect of my book was the case of Norman Mailer and Geli Raubal. According to Mailer’s biographer, J. Michael Lennon, “Rosenbaum’s book turned Mailer’s head.” He quotes Mailer as saying that “long after the details had faded from my mind the feeling of the book remained.” Until then “I was absolutely intrigued with the idea of Montaigne as a Jungian.”
I suppose it’s possible to say that I should feel some satisfaction in sparing us Mailer’s unlikely attempt to prove Montaigne was a Jungian. But here is where the story gets poignant. Mailer decided on the basis of reading Explaining Hitler that he would focus on the murky Geli Raubal relationship (about which, I should reiterate, I concluded there was unlikely to have been a sexual relationship nor did Hitler murder or have her murdered, though he may have driven her to suicide). Nonetheless, this was going to be the core of a vast three-novel Mailer trilogy, the first of which, The Castle in the Forest, he completed before his death, the second of which he was working on when he died. As it happened, Mailer and I had shared an editor at Random House, David Ebershoff, who was up in Provincetown when Mailer passed away, and he told me he’d discovered, on Mailer’s writing desk the day he died, an open copy of Explaining Hitler next to Mailer’s reading glasses. Sad.
The Baby Picture
If most explanation attempts were unsatisfying, incomplete, or reductive, it can be said they were often worth examining for the fears they projected and reflected: what they told us about ourselves and our culture.
And all were really seeking an explanation for the Baby Picture.
I’ll never forget Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, the nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary, shouting at me, accusatorially, in his Parisian flat: “There is even a baby picture of Hitler!” Virtually aghast at the very idea that there could be such a picture, because it would insidiously ensnare people into the evil enterprise of trying to explain why — why that innocent infant evolved into a genocidal monster.
Lanzmann rejected any such “understanding,” preferring a Hitler who sprang full-blown like a demon in our midst. Almost like Macduff, not “of woman born,” Hitler not of human formed. A hostility to the baby picture, almost disclaiming the picture’s right to exist because of its misleading potential. All of which led, after the French publication of the book, to my clash with Lanzmann, which the Parisian magazine Le Figaro called “L’Affair Rosenbaum. ”
Of course, it is true, many explanations become exculpations, but I would suggest that does not deny, prima facie, the validity of the search to know more than we do. Or entail forgiveness — on the grounds that “to understand all is to forgive all” — no matter how much we know. Maybe we will never know all, never know enough, but it won’t necessarily be because we’re dealing with a supernatural creature beyond human explanation. It may be because human nature has more profound depths than we imagined. Or it may be that we lack some crucial piece of his personal history.
But something or some things made Hitler want to do what he did. It wasn’t a concatenation of impersonal, external forces, a kind of collective determinism. It required his impassioned personal desire for extermination, even at the potential cost of defeat for Germany. It required him to choose evil. It required free will.
It required Hitler to make a continuous series of choices, the ultimate source of which may always be shrouded in mystery. We will likely never know, for instance — barring some discovery in a “lost safe-deposit box” — what went on between Hitler and the alleged hypnotist, Dr. Forster, said to have treated him at the time of the World War I German surrender and instilled in him a will to avenge the (baseless) “stab-in-the-back” myth of German defeat. We have only Ernst Weiss’s fascinating novelistic speculation (The Eyewitness) to go on, and it can’t be counted as proof, although it may be the unsolved Hitler mystery I’d most like an answer to. In fact, we lack proof, and the most salient clues might be lost in the mists of history. We just may never know with certainty what made Hitler Hitler. And worse, we may never know why we don’t know: whether it’s because of a missing piece of biographical evidence, or an inability to evaluate the evidence we have. It’s beyond frustrating not knowing whether we might.
Alas, we must be content with what Keats called “negative capability” — the ability to live with uncertainties without an “irritable” reaching for certainty. That word “irritable”: such a stroke of genius in characterizing the doggedness that most single-minded explainers display in defense of their certainties.
One regret I have about the original edition: I did not deal with the deeply misguided regard for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, perhaps the most fraudulent aspect of the conventional wisdom about what might be called “Hitler culture.”
Chaplin’s meretricious and in fact genuinely, historically damaging The Great Dictator is a film I’d seen long before focusing on this book and had taken for granted the conventional wisdom and knee-jerk approbation. And forgotten it. But its “courage” is one of those myths that really needs re-examining because it persists to this day. The myth that The Great Dictator was a bold challenge to Hitler or that it somehow damaged his cause. Quite the opposite.
It may be too late, but I feel an obligation to set the record straight. I’m recalling now how shocked I was when, after being invited to “present” a showing of it at the Harvard Film Archives, I actually watched it for the first time in years.
It was shocking on two levels. First, the fact that in his alleged anti-Hitler satire, who does Chaplin blame for the hostility his Hitler character has for the Jews? Jewish bankers! Jewish bankers turned down the Great Dictator and it’s all about getting even with those Jews. The Jews’ misfortune was their own fault, in effect. That’s the explanation Chaplin’s film left in its audience’s mind — probably the first impression much of America had. In addition, the impression that Hitler was a harmless joke, nothing to worry about. That’s what he told America at that crucial moment in October 1940 when the film was released. People seem to forget this when they get all misty-eyed about how great The Great Dictator is.
It’s fascinating that the film-buff community is so blinkered by apolitical estheticism they never speak of this when heaping unwarranted praise on this mendacious film. Or do they just not want us to notice the “Jewish banker” moment so we can appreciate the great genius without reservation?
But the real damage of this alleged satire was done at the time of its release, in its successful trivialization of Hitler. Chaplin trivialized his “Great Dictator” by “revealing” what a sentimental, foolish softy he was, gracefully juggling a globe balloon as if his desire to rule the world were a beautiful delusion. Nothing to be seriously alarmed by. Not a threat that required resistance. Just the Little Tramp being a little bit mean to the Jews.
The film was released at a time when the appeasers and America Firsters, many of them anti-Semitic and pro-fascist, were trying to keep the United States out of the struggle against Hitler. Another fact overlooked by the Chaplin groupies: The film won an award from the right-wing, racist, pro-appeasement Daughters of the American Revolution, because of Chaplin’s mistakenly celebrated “pro-peace” speech, a speech, which was really at that time, in that context, an argument not for peace but instead for not fighting Hitler. It called on the soldiers and workers of the world not to take up arms against anyone (including Hitler), which was why it was also celebrated by the Communist Party, then promoting the odious Hitler-Stalin pact, which also argued against the anti-fascist struggle (until the Soviet Union was attacked, of course). Hitler was murdering people, and Chaplin was telling the world not to resist, the Stalinist line at the time: he was not a serious threat.
Godwin’s Law and “Feel-Good” Holocaust Stories
One of the fascinating things I discovered in the course of writing this book was the reluctance of scholars and savants to use the word “evil” in regard to Hitler. Some years after writing the book and studying the question of evil, on a fellowship at Cambridge where I got to converse with scientists and theologians on this tormentingly complex matter, I ended up writing a long essay I called “Rescuing Evil.” It was an attempt to find a rationale for rescuing the idea of freely chosen “wickedness” (the technical philosophical term) from the determinists and materialists who would instead explain away evil as the purely neurochemical, physiological product of the brain.
“Neuromitigation,” the great contrarian writer and physician Raymond Tallis called it in an essay in the London Times Literary Supplement, and alas that is the way “scientific” studies of evildoers are heading. Blame it all on a brain defect. Neuroscientists would have a field day with their fMRI machines and Hitler’s brain. Sooner or later they’d claim to find some fragment of gray matter responsible for it all. Instead, we have a gray area, a fog, a Night and Fog, to cite Alain Resnais’s groundbreaking Holocaust movie, that we may never penetrate, and physics alone may never explain.
Does Hitler’s apparently unequalled evil — his purported “exceptionalism” — entail certain linguistic obligations? That is the question raised by Godwin’s Law, whose Internet ubiquity I was not aware of when writing the initial edition.
Godwin’s Law is something that’s come into prominence with debate about the devolution of discourse on websites. For those unfamiliar, Godwin’s Law has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary, but here, since it is an Internet phenomenon, is a somewhat more expansive (and net-native) Wikipedia entry: “Godwin’s Law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies) is an assertion made by Mike Godwin in 1990 that has become an Internet adage. It states: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’”
I’m sure you’ve seen examples of such comparisons: bans on high-fructose sodas are “just like Nazi Germany,” so-and-so politician “adopts Hitler’s technique of the big lie.” As I write, a bill has been introduced into the Israeli Knesset, of all places, to ban the use of the words “Hitler,” “Nazi,” or their variants as disparagement because they denature the reality. While I can see the logic of the proponents — that the usage has trivialized the originals — I just find it wrong in most cases to ban speech of any kind.
No Hitler analogies then? Yes, they can trivialize, but on the other hand, a blanket, ironclad rule denying the use of Hitler or Nazi analogies removes them from significance in contemporary discourse entirely. It consigns Hitler to the YouTube parody realm and virtually sacralizes Hitler analogies by prohibiting them, just like Claude Lanzmann prohibiting Hitler explanations. Yes, such comparisons are most often hyperbole, but their value is that they at least acknowledge that there may in fact be some ultima Thule, some distant but real mark of the existence of ultimate evil. A dark pole star.
Godwin’s Law may suggest that no comparison to Hitler or Nazis is ever valid, which removes them from referentiality entirely. Removes them from having any validity as comparison, when for instance in fact the reason the world does have caesium atomic clocks (or however they keep Greenwich Mean Time now) attests to the value of having some absolute standards by which we can measure things.
Another way of dematerializing Hitler’s crime, another development, another means of “cultural processing” I had not anticipated when I wrote this book, is the rapid growth of what might be called the “Feel-Good Holocaust Genre.” These are films (and books) that may not have you leaving the movie theater humming the tunes, so to speak, but which “lift the spirit,” demonstrate the noble side of human nature in the face of evil. Do we need these demonstrations if they end up giving us the message that Hitler shouldn’t disturb our faith in human nature? That Holocaust stories should somehow make us think better of our fellow human beings? Hitler should disturb our faith in human nature. If he doesn’t, he’s not Hitler, or you’ve erased and effaced him and made his holocaust serve as a convenient excuse for your self-congratulatory, self-serving “humanity. ”
The shock of the moral and historical idiocy of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful “heartwarming” Holocaust fantasy still remains with me. (I wrote an essay about Chaplin and Benigni, whose triumphalist clowning at the Oscars, dancing not just on the chairs but, metaphorically, on the graves of the dead, I still find disgusting beyond belief. I called it “The Arrogance of Clowns.”) It was probably Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that opened the floodgates for teary, uplifting Holocaust tales. As someone put it, Spielberg made a movie about one Christian saving 400 Jews instead of a movie about a continent full of Christians killing six million. Not that the Schindler story shouldn’t be told, but that one, the one that climaxed with a teary, colorful celebration of the Schindler survivors in the land of Israel, was given preeminence. A happy ending to a Holocaust movie!
Afterward, the cheap and tawdry feel-good Holocaust books and movies came surging in like a flood. Some were complete fabrications (Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years). Some, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, trivialized the reality of the death camps to create a “Holocaust Lite,” a Child’s Garden of Death Camps.
And then, to cap it off, there was the pop-sophistry of Malcolm Gladwell’s uplifting Holocaust story. The world’s leading purveyor of oversimplifications about human nature offers us, in David and Goliath, a supposedly heartwarming story of poor villagers who protected some Jews during the war. Gladwell’s lesson: “It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish. ”
You know what we need reminding of, Malcolm Gladwell? Setting aside the ahistorical generalizations about who did and didn’t do what for the Jews under what circumstances. What we need to be reminded of, what the French finally needed to remind themselves of, is how most of them happily collaborated with the Nazis in serving up the Davids to the German Goliath. That this fact is more important than some spurious lesson about “the limits of evil” you toss in as if we know what “the limits of evil” are.
The Holocaust wasn’t It’s a Wonderful Life, an event to be exploited for heartwarming anecdotes. Life was not beautiful and human nature, if anything, exceeded all imaginable expectations of evil’s limitlessness. The lesson of the Holocaust should be to question whether there are any limits to human evil.
In this connection, I would like to add a corrective, or rather an extension, of a remarkable defining statement about the Holocaust by the German writer W. G. Sebald. He’s most well known for his book about the firebombing of Dresden — someone I had thought was part of the exculpatory “moral equivalence” tendency in postwar German culture. But then I came upon that remarkable statement. When asked whether it was possible to think too much upon the Holocaust, Sebald said, “No serious person thinks of anything else.” A line meant to shock, yet shock value is not always valueless. It was a kind of hyperbole, of course. We all think about lunch and dinner, too, but it’s clearly meant to signify that this was an overwhelming change in how we should think about human nature, a change whose nature and extent need careful if not constant consideration from those who take the nature of human nature seriously. To which I would add: No serious person takes these pathetic little reassurances about human nature (such as Gladwell’s) seriously. They are the consolations of fools, and those who peddle them should be ashamed of themselves.
The Rise and Rise of Holocaust Denial
But the appeal of these false hopes for human nature cannot be denied. All these moments of micro-compassion, these stories, might be true locally, but they are false globally; they are the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.
Which brings us to the subject of Holocaust denial and the ongoing argument about the history of evil.
The continued rise of Holocaust denial: that may well be the most remarkable Hitler-related development since the first publication of this book. And not just the massive Internet-bred tidal wave of toxic filth that washes up on websites worldwide along with instant access to Mein Kampf (17 million copies printed by some estimates — even before Internet distribution) or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Judging from Google hits and chat room stats, there are more people who believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion than ever.
When the first edition of Explaining Hitler came out, Holocaust denial was mainly the province of skinhead neo-Nazis, addled pseudo-intellectuals, and one individual whose anti-Semitic pseudo-history one can observe in my David Irving chapter. (In April 2000, a British judge issued a ruling in a libel trial involving the courageous writer Deborah Lipstadt which said Irving was “an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”) But now Holocaust denial has not only the allegiance of the addled and Machiavellian anti-Semites but a vast new audience who have endowed it with a geopolitical rationale. An ideological agenda for anti-Semitic anti-Zionism: The Jews invented the Holocaust in order to guilt-trip the world into giving them sovereignty over Israel. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) to discover how prevalent some variety of this narrative has become among those who want to de-legitimize and ultimately erase the state of Israel (and usually “remove” its Jews, as well).
An entire nation, Iran, has seen its leadership endorse this version of Holocaust denial. Even, notoriously, sponsoring a worldwide conference of Holocaust-denying “scholars” to substantiate this fabrication. A nation which denies that the original Holocaust happened but nonetheless has leaders who have endorsed the idea of perpetrating another one. As early as 1999, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, announced that he did not fear a nuclear exchange with the state of Israel, because, although Iranians might lose millions of lives, there would be millions left alive and a billion and half Muslims in the world, but in Israel, there would be “nothing left on the ground.” Something that’s useful to remind those who quibble that a later Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, who expressed his fervent hope that Israel would be “wiped off the map,” merely meant that the state, the regime, the lines on the map would be erased. It was just a metaphor.
Hitler lives in threats to repeat his crime.
And it is worth remembering, as well, when there is talk about how the new “moderate” Iranian leader, Hassan Rouhani, has backed off the official state stance of Holocaust denial. No, rather he has said that he would just “leave it to the historians” (“let the historians reflect”) as to how many, if any, Jews had been killed by Hitler. This “not taking a position,” applying the much-derided “he said/she said” doctrine to the question of the Holocaust’s facticity, is one of the subtle new guises Holocaust denial has taken.
Meanwhile, if you want the final word on the matter, the true position of the state from the mouth of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the one who truly rules Iran, there’s a sickening statement posted on his English-language website as I write that denounces “the myth of the massacre of the Jews known as the Holocaust. ” Case closed.
But more subtle and more insidious versions of Holocaust denial have continued to emerge in the decade or so since this book was first published. I’d like to talk about the varieties of Holocaust denial by expanding upon the discussion I had in the book about “the history of evil” with philosopher Berel Lang.
Lang is one of the most brilliant and courageous thinkers I encountered in writing this book. Emeritus Chairman of the Philosophy Department at New York State University’s Albany campus, he is an exacting writer who tangles with the most complex and perplexing questions. I was fortunate to come upon a brief essay he wrote on the question of whether there could be “a history of evil,” which means: did evil evolve? Beginning with the supposed first murder, Cain and Abel, and reaching an end point in Hitler. Is it possible to imagine an evil greater, more malignant than Hitler’s? How does one measure evil? By quantity — body count? By intent? Is there an algorithm? The technical philosophical term for the absolute endpoint of evil is “malignant wickedness,” which means the conscious desire to do evil knowing that it’s evil. Not even with Trevor-Roper’s conviction of rectitude.
Can we envision a qualitative point beyond that, beyond Hitler, or merely a quantitative one?
In my conversation with Lang, I had suggested Holocaust denial might be considered a further step in the evolution of evil because it owned the evil of the Holocaust — amongst themselves, most deniers know it’s a cruel anti-Semitic game — yet demonstrated that it was possible to torment the souls of the dead beyond the grave. Holocaust denial not only robbed the graves of their bodies but condemned those who had been murdered to characterization as liars and fabricators, twisted the knife into their already violated souls.
Lang had countered by saying he thought he’d come upon a subtler, more insidious sort of Holocaust denial: “Holocaust indifference.” It was a phrase he used when writing about the postwar career of Martin Heidegger, once a world-renowned philosopher for his almost incomprehensible, some said incoherent, meditations on Being, Time, and human identity. Heidegger had also shown himself an eagerly sycophantic Nazi follower once Hitler came to power, getting himself appointed rector of the University of Freiburg where he gave pro-Hitler lectures wearing a Nazi uniform, denounced Jews, and got the Jews on the faculty fired forthwith. New revelations from the previously unpublished diaries of Heidegger show him to be a venomous anti-Semite.
After the war, after exploiting his prewar love connection with Hannah Arendt (as credulous and deceived about Heidegger, it seems, as she was about Eichmann) to obtain de-Nazification, he settled into a quiet, bucolic existence, occasionally issuing polemics mainly about the evils of industrialized agriculture. Sounding, as some have mocked him, like a locavore avant la lettre. Industrialized agriculture was evil. Nothing about industrialized murder or what it might have meant for the World Spirit. It might as well not have happened, but he’s okay that it did. Holocaust indifference.
Indeed, as Lang found to his incredulity, not once did this man who pronounced on history and human nature with such sweeping majesty find it in him to utter or indite a single word about the murder of 6 million Jews in which he shared complicity with all others who wore the Nazi uniform and saluted (and enabled) Hitler. Holocaust indifference! Worse than denial because the knowledge is there and yet it doesn’t make a difference.
I found myself thinking of another variation on this, which I call “Holocaust inconsequentialism.” It was Cynthia Ozick who called my attention to the phenomenon. Five years after the publication of Explaining Hitler I published a 600-page compilation of essays on contemporary anti-Semitism (Those Who Forget the Past) to which Ozick contributed a stunningly powerful afterword, in the course of which she singled out for particular scorn a remark made by Ian Buruma, the Dutch journalist.
In writing about the 1981 Israeli raid on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, Buruma, in a caustic aside, called it shameful and unnecessary that Menachem Begin, the prime minister who ordered the raid, had alluded to the Holocaust as one of his justifications for preventing the development of weaponizable nuclear fuel at the reactor. What Begin had said at the time was that in making a terribly difficult decision he knew would be (initially) condemned by most of the world, but he was thinking about the million and a half children murdered in the Holocaust. And how much it weighed on his mind that a single Iraqi nuclear weapon derived from Osirak fuel enrichment (the whole purpose of the plant) would put an entire new generation of Israeli children and citizens in peril of a Second Holocaust. Was it shameful, as Buruma contended? No, it was Buruma, Ozick argued, who exhibited a shamefully “obstinate indifference to the moral realities of human behavior and motivation.”
Holocaust indifference. For some reason, Buruma felt the need to scold Begin. For what? For acting on the basis of history, a history that made Begin’s forebodings more, rather than less, likely, as Kertész pointed out. That something so incomprehensible and unimaginable had actually happened once meant it was no longer unimaginable that it could happen again.
Buruma was shaming Begin for the crime of making a historical analogy. “Is the imagination’s capacity to connect worthy of such scorn?” Ozick wrote.
Thus the more inclusive category of “Holocaust inconsequentialism.” The Holocaust happened in history but for one reason or another one is not allowed to use or allude to its facticity in making judgments about how to act in the future (Godwin’s Law of Geopolitics?). No denial it existed, just denial it should have any consequences. One can see Holocaust inconsequentialism even — or especially — in those like Claude Lanzmann who attempt to sacralize the Holocaust, to privatize it for their own personal construal, and to denounce anyone who deviates from his approach.
And it is here we come to what I believe is the most urgent mission of this Afterword: to set the record straight on Lanzmann’s blatant misinterpretation of one of the great writers on the Holocaust, Primo Levi.
It wasn’t my idea of a Parisian affair, but that was the banner headline — “L’AFFAIR ROSENBAUM” — across two facing pages of an issue of the Parisian glossy news magazine Le Figaro that appeared shortly after the French publication of this book. A debate on facing pages between me and Claude Lanzmann over the issue of Hitler explanation, the legitimacy of which (as you can see in chapters six and seven of my book) Lanzmann has declared himself Final Arbiter and Lord High Executioner of all others. A debate that came down to my exposure of his misreading of the words of Primo Levi. If I risk repetition, so be it, for all I know some may only read this Afterword and Primo Levi deserves justice.
Levi, you probably know, was an Auschwitz survivor, one of the most highly regarded writers and thinkers about the Holocaust. At issue were the chilling words Levi heard harshly thrown in his face on his first day in Auschwitz, the words Lanzmann utterly misread to support his war against the question “Why?”
I have made it my task, in homage to Levi (such a more complex and interesting thinker than Lanzmann), to distinguish what Levi was actually trying to say on this crucial question from Lanzmann’s opportunistic obfuscation, since Lanzmann’s misrepresentation of Levi is still quoted as if it were gospel. And he conspicuously avoided the challenge I made to the reading in his contribution to Figaro’s “L’Affair Rosenbaum.” So let me briefly compress the way Lanzmann distorts the Primo Levi aphorism. It is no small point; it is at the heart of the debate of the question of explanation, the very epistemology of it.
In his book, If This Is a Man, Levi tells the story of his first day at Auschwitz. No food or water for days. Freezing cold, but dying of thirst, he opened a window in his confinement hut to break off an icicle outside for water. An SS Camp guard shouted at him to stop. Verboten!
To which Levi had the temerity to ask “Why?”
In response to which, Levi writes, the SS guard harshly told him, “Hier ist kein Warum” (“Here there is no why”). Which Levi takes as meaning “Here — in the Auschwitz/death camp world, a world ruled by SS mass murderers — there is no why, no asking questions.” Because any question was a challenge to authority. The power of the guard is absolute — one could be executed simply for asking why a guard asks one to do something.
And so yes, in the death camps there was no “Why,” no one was permitted to ask for explanation. But Levi did not wish to deny “Why” to everyone outside of Auschwitz. Not to himself or others. He devoted the rest of his life and his eloquent words to seeking an answer to the question “Why” and if he did not find one (there is a dispute about whether he died from an accidental fall or killed himself), it is tragic to see a central tenet of his thought misrepresented.
But Lanzmann, either out of obtuseness or opportunism, misuses Levi’s quote to indict all explanation — all attempts to ask “Why” — even by Jews, even by Auschwitz survivors. Indeed I describe in chapter 15 how he uses it as a verbal club to personally denounce and cruelly insult an actual Auschwitz survivor in a public forum — for wishing to explore the question. In Le Figaro I once again taxed him with the misappropriation of an SS death camp guard’s words to assail Jews who ask “Why” as well as appropriating the moral authority of Primo Levi to do so. And then demanding that we follow his command, the Lanzmann variation of the SS command as if it were a Commandment writ on a stone tablet: No “Why,” Now and Forever.
Instead, he bloviates with immense self-sacralizing self-importance: “The Holocaust is first of all unique in that it constructs a circle of flames around itself,” he has said, “the limit not to be broken because a certain absolute horror is not transmittable.” Because the horror is not utterly and totally transmittable, we must not attempt to transmit anything about it! We must be content just to know it exists. But how do we know it exists if it is not “transmittable”? By watching Shoah, Lanzmann’s film! Seriously! That seems to be the only permissible way. By putting a circle of flame around the “untransmittable,” Lanzmann succeeds in doing what the inconsequentialists and the deniers also do — removing the Holocaust from history, from a search for origins, from the scrutiny of, and effect upon, subsequent history.
It’s madness. But Lanzmann exploits the unexamined moral seriousness he ascribes to himself —
and has had ascribed to him — for having made a nine-and-a-half-hour film about the Holocaust. Intellectually he has little more going for him than that epic running time, a length that people have unfortunately mistaken for wisdom. It’s a disgrace that he is allowed to get away with his high-flown sophistry to silence all others on the subject.
Someone needs to speak up for the traduced spirit of Primo Levi. If not now, when?
The Degenerate Artist
I’d like to add a final thought that came to me only recently about the nature of Hitler’s evil, whether it can even be called evil, and whether we believe evil exists. A question that is intimately bound up in the question of whether we believe free will exists. The specific impetus for this final thought, not a final solution but a possible one, was the discovery in Munich in early November 2013 of a huge collection of stolen or “appropriated” art that had been hidden in a house by a Nazi specialist in “degenerate art. ”
You’re probably familiar with the story. Most of the pieces seemed to have come from the notorious 1937 exhibit entitled “Degenerate Art,” curated to prove to the German people the dangers of Jewish-inspired modernism. It was a treasure trove of work by artists now recognized as some of the greatest of the twentieth century. Picasso, Renoir, Munch, Chagall, and the like, the kind of art Hitler hated. Apparently some 1,500 pieces of this now priceless treasury were found hidden in the Munich home of a man named Gurlitt, who had gathered them and supported himself by periodically selling them.
The whole affair made me think about the relationship between Hitler and art and evil again. The problem with calling Hitler evil is the problem of consciousness and free will. The trend of late has been to deny free will’s ability to choose evil. (Denial again!) Evil choices and evil acts are now said to be the product of a defect to be found in the DSM-V or locatable on an fMRI scan. The product of determinism, not choice. No blame entails because no responsibility. I had advanced a notion in the book that one of the most heuristic ways of looking at Hitler was to see him as he saw himself from the very beginning in Vienna: as an artist. A failed artist, but one who was then able to put himself in a position where he could create a kind of art of evil.
“Art of evil” in this context is not an empty phrase. In one sense, he was using genocidal means to re-sculpt the human genome by carving off entire chunks (Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs). Ascribing to Hitler an artistic consciousness is important in the discourse about the very possibility of evil. Especially in an age when neuroscience is replacing evil with neural-defect diagnoses like psychopath and sociopath, which see evil as the result of brain defect or malformation. With free will considered an illusion, there is no evil because there is no choice, only determinism. Artistic consciousness may be the last validation of free will, its last refuge from determinism. It is hard to ascribe every efflorescence of artistic consciousness, every brush stroke or musical note or poetic image, to some materialist, physiologicallydetermined, or behaviorist syndrome in the brain.
The “Degenerate Art” collection reminded me of something Berel Lang had said about the connection between the artistic consciousness and the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, he began by quoting Primo Levi: “Primo Levi used the phrase ‘needless violence’ to describe the death camp experience. It’s the element of gratuitousness but it’s more than gratuitousness. There seems to be this imaginative protraction, elaboration one finds best exemplified in art forms and which in art we usually take to be indicative of a consciousness, an artistic consciousness. ”
I thought of the sign on the gate above the entrance to Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei. A deliberate work of (demonic ironic) artistry. My response then was to think that the notion of an art of evil implies a knowing, conscious choice to turn evil into art. Not convinced of one’s rectitude but of one’s evildoing. And so it came to me, something I hadn’t thought of before. Perhaps one illuminating way to characterize Hitler’s evil is to think of him in his own terms, to use his own rubric against him: Adolf Hitler: “Degenerate Artist.” A degenerate artist of evil.
Noted without comment:
On April 13, 2014, a long-time Ku Klux Klan hate monger shot three dead at a Jewish Center complex in Kansas City on the eve of Passover. From The New York Times story the following day: “[the suspect] Mr. Miller was taken into custody on Sunday afternoon at a local elementary school near Village Shalom, the police said. In video taken by KMBC, a local television station, the suspect yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ while sitting in a police car.”
Ron Rosenbaum's most recent books are The Shakespeare Wars and How the End Begins (on nuclear war). His essays and journalism from The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, The New Yorker and The New York Observer, among other places, can be found collected in The Secret Parts of Fortune, also on Byliner.com, Slate, Smithsonian and elsewhere.