In 1952, reviewing the first edition of Alan Bullock’s biography of Hitler, the historian Lewis Namier began on a note of revulsion: “Must we talk of Hitler?” But he knew that we have no real choice in the matter: “We must, however distasteful the subject.” And nearly fifty years later, the answer remains the same.

Among recent books on the subject, Ron Rosenbaum’s stands somewhat apart. First, it is the work of a journalist, at a time when Hitler studies have become pretty much the preserve of academics. Secondly, it is concerned not so much with the story of Hitler himself, not in the first instance at least, as with “the story of the stories”—with Hitler’s interpreters, and what they have made of him. How did he come to be the thing he was? How much cold calculation went into his career, how much fanaticism? How far was his “greatness” the product of external circumstances? How can we account for his sheer evil? Looking for the answers that have been proposed to such questions, Rosenbaum has conducted a one-man trek across extensive tracts of scholarship and speculation. In the course of it, along with his forays into the archives, he has interviewed numerous specialists—historians, philosophers, theologians, miscellaneous pundits. He describes his meetings with them, expounds their views, and (since he is no mere passive recorder) debates the issues with himself.

The results of his investigation are uneven. He is a lively writer, but his liveliness sometimes propels him into specious analogies or journalese. (An unhappy instance is his description of the bank vault where Hugh Trevor-Roper fell under the spell of the forged Hitler diaries, when he was invited to examine them, as “Trevor-Roper’s own bunker.”) He also has a way of presenting himself as though he were engaged in an adventure story, a comic-book quest for the buried clue which will explain everything; and though there may well be a touch of deliberate parody at such moments, it doesn’t make them seem any less out of key with the matter in hand.

Above all, on the debit side, his choice of both themes and interviewees is lopsided. He devotes too much time to the wilder excesses of psychohistory, and to the many claims, none of them supported by evidence, that Hitler’s anti-Semitism had its source in his ill-fated dealings with this or that individual Jew (some say a prostitute, some say the family doctor) or in an urge to dissociate himself as drastically as possible from his supposed Jewish ancestry. Conversely, the book largely ignores a number of major aspects of Hitler’s career—his performance as a military commander, for instance—and it doesn’t include a sufficiently wide sampling of mainstream historians. The most obvious gap is that there aren’t any Germans among the writers and scholars Rosenbaum sought out: his enquiry would certainly have been better balanced and more illuminating for the presence of someone like Joachim Fest.

Yet the weaknesses of Explaining Hitler are easily outweighed by its virtues. It is both thoughtful and deeply felt, and in some ways its personal, freewheeling qualities enable Rosenbaum to get closer to the demonic element in Hitler than he would have done if he had been a professional historian. Not that the best historians don’t allow for that element. There is something particularly impressive, in this respect, in Rosenbaum’s account of how Alan Bullock gradually came to revise his initial view of Hitler as essentially another politician, a cynical manipulator: the most common-sensical of Hitler’s biographers ends up invoking Nietzsche (“Men believe in the truth of all that is seen to be strongly believed…”). And in the massive new biography which seems set to replace Bullock, Ian Kershaw constantly keeps in sight the impact of Hitler the man himself, with his corrosive personal qualities, as opposed to Hitler the supposed creature of impersonal forces, the mere epiphenomenon of political and economic history.* Yet neither Kershaw nor Bullock quite conveys—as Rosenbaum intermittently does—the sense of the uncanny which Hitler’s personality gives off, the limitlessly bad vibes. Their professional discipline won’t allow them to: they are too levelheaded.

There is a freshness in Rosenbaum’s approach, too, which can lend pungency to what might otherwise have seemed routine perceptions. Hitler may have been described times beyond number as a criminal, for instance, but the word takes on new resonance as you read Rosenbaum’s account of the campaign waged against him in the 1920s by a Munich paper, the Münchener Post (a campaign for which the Nazis exacted savage revenge once they came to power). To sample the Post’s exposés—and it was on to Hitler from the very outset of his political career—is to realize how un-Wagnerian and nontitanic he and his associates seemed to their early opponents, how mired they were in the dirtiest forms of criminality: murder, for a start, along with what Rosenbaum calls their “signature crimes” of counterfeiting and blackmail. Indeed, immersion in the files of the Post tempts Rosenbaum to conclude (rather in the manner of Brecht’s Arturo Ui) that Hitler was a gangster first and an ideologue second, that he simply dressed up his criminal instincts in ideological garb. I don’t think that this represents his settled opinion—it is inconsistent with things he says elsewhere in the book—but it is a forceful reminder of one aspect of Nazism which should never be played down.


A little gangster, a beer-hall agitator, and before that, in his Vienna years, a flophouse dropout… Yet this was the man who rose to be master of Germany, and to plunge the world into war. Even in a century of convulsions, his story surely remains the most extraordinary. However familiar it is, there are still times when it can seem like something which could never really have happened—a bad dream.

It was in Hitler’s interest, of course, and a key part of his appeal, to depict himself as a man of destiny. (Mein Kampf is heavy with invocations of Fate.) Historians, on the other hand, are hardly likely to buy into such a notion. His career was only made possible, they insist, first by World War I and then by the Great Depression. He could never have come to power without the support of his friends, the mistakes of his enemies, and the maneuverings of those who thought they could make use of him. And all of this is unarguable, up to a point. The actor needed an audience, and financial backers. The opportunist would have got nowhere if there hadn’t been opportunities for him to seize.

Yet one can easily make too little of Hitler’s personal qualities as well as too much. In assessing the difference he made, one is forced to play the game of alternative history; but in this particular case the alternatives deserve more serious consideration than in most. Suppose Hitler had been killed during the failed 1923 Munich putsch, for example (as he very nearly was). It is quite possible that a nationalistic and militarist government would still have come to power in Germany ten years later, but it is far from certain that it would have been positively Nazi in character.

Nowhere were Hitler’s political skills and his self-belief more in evidence than in his success in stamping his authority on the radical right in the lean years after 1923, and preventing it from fragmenting. Could anyone else have done the job? Gregor Strasser, perhaps, or one of the minor völkisch leaders who flit through the pages of Hitler’s biographies? We shall never know, but it doesn’t seem very likely. And supposing he had met his end sometime during the 1930s. Can we really feel sure that everything would have gone on in the same way under his successor, or even that his satraps would have been able to agree on a successor? Commentators nowadays often describe him as a “weak” dictator; they marvel at his indolence once he was in power, and at the number of decisions he left to others. But this is to take altogether too rational a view of an irrational situation. However much time he frittered away by normal standards, he performed two essential services for his regime twenty-four hours a day: he provided it with an emotional focus, and he held it together.

Rosenbaum is too sensible to suppose that explaining Hitler is the same thing as explaining Nazism, and it is entirely legitimate for him to confine himself to his chosen territory. Within that territory, he concentrates, understandably, on the most intimate and deep-rooted aspects of Hitler’s personality, on his inner life rather than his day-to-day actions. Three themes preoccupy him in particular—the attempt to make sense of Hitler psychologically, the attempt to make sense of him morally, and the attempt to trace the course of his ideas as they developed and hardened.

Rosenbaum’s dealings with psychobiography are quite often amusing (he is a connoisseur of oddities) but not especially profitable, partly because psychobiography hasn’t proved very profitable itself. It can in fact be rather more rewarding than he suggests: he finds space, if only to demolish them, for the absurd theories of Alice Miller and Erich Fromm, (respectively demonizing Hitler’s father and Hitler’s mother), but fails to mention the psychoanalytically slanted pages devoted to Hitler in Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, which must surely be the best of their kind. And I can’t help thinking he is a little too pat in his dismissal of what he calls “the Party of Perversion”—those commentators who have claimed that Hitler entertained and possibly acted out abnormal bedroom fantasies, “golden showers” and the like. You don’t have to be a psychobiographer to feel that there was something murky about his sexuality. Still, even if the School of Perversion could be shown to be right beyond the shadow of a doubt, what would it prove? Lots of men have indulged without undue fuss in the practices which get attributed to Hitler in hushed tones; very few of them (as far as one knows) have shown any inclination to behave like Hitler in other respects. And by the same token, would we have to conclude that he was somehow more “normal” if he had been happily married—like Himmler, for example?


In the end, the gulf between his personal hang-ups and the amount of misery he brought into the world is simply too vast to bridge. Yet if you step back to consider Nazism as a whole, there is a certain symbolic rightness in all the speculations about sexual neurosis. Nazi atrocities were characterized to an unprecedented degree by sadism (as opposed to simple brutality or even blood lust). Sustained, institutionalized torture was as much a Nazi goal as murder; not for nothing have Nazi uniforms and emblems been incorporated into the world of pornography, and it is tempting to feel that in spirit, at least, that is where the Führer himself belongs.

It would be pointless to mount a com-parable defense of the subdepartment of psychobiography which seeks to trace Hitler’s anti-Semitism to a “Jewish” source—either a Jewish forebear, or an unfortunate social contact. At best such attempts are naive; all too often they are indirect versions of “blame the victim” (there has to be a Jew at the bottom of the Holocaust). Rosenbaum will have none of them. But he doesn’t merely brush them aside, and by the time he is done with them, they yield him at least one remarkable story—of the kind, as they say, that you couldn’t invent.

The Hitler family doctor during the years when he was growing up in Linz was a Jew, Eduard Bloch. This is a dramatic enough fact in itself, and coupled with the fact that Bloch attended Hitler’s mother, Klara, during her final illness, it has given rise to some particularly energetic flights of conjecture. Klara, to whom her son was devoted, died of breast cancer when he was eighteen: she suffered great pain, made worse by the application of iodoform-soaked gauze. It has been suggested that Bloch bungled the treatment, or that even if he didn’t Hitler assumed he had; either way, it is argued, Hitler was left traumatized, with a festering resentment against “the Jew.” As against this theory, there are two undoubted facts. Hitler expressed warm gratitude to Bloch at the time (and made him a present of one of his watercolors); more telling still, after the Nazi takeover of Austria, in 1938, he gave him special permission to leave the country, enabling him to emigrate to America. Needless to say, for those who subscribe to the theory this simply means that Hitler’s hatred of Bloch was buried deep in his unconscious—and all the more virulent in consequence. Most of us, however, would probably prefer to reserve judgment.

The story doesn’t end there. After arriving in America, Bloch made his home in the Bronx; it was there, in 1942, that he received a visit from Walter Langer, who was conducting a secret study of Hitler’s personality for the OSS, and one of Langer’s assistants, a refugee from Vienna called Gertrud Kurth. Some half a century later Rosenbaum was given an account of the meeting by Kurth, who was then aged ninety-two (but as she told him, “the noodle is still working”).

One rumor that Langer and Kurth hoped to clear up when they saw Bloch was what Alan Bullock refers to elsewhere in the book as “the one-ball business”—the persistent legend, popular enough to be celebrated in a British soldiers’ song, that Hitler lacked a testicle. Was it true, they asked him? And there in the Bronx, in the middle of the war, they came as close as anyone could to getting a definitive answer. No, Bloch had examined Hitler during his adolescence, and there were no genital abnormalities of any kind. Everything was fine.

It was a historic moment of sorts, but it was another remark of Bloch’s that made the deepest impression on Kurth. At the end of the interview, as she and Langer were taking their leave, he went out of his way to tell them what “a nice pleasant youth” Hitler had been. They waited until they had got out into the street. Then they laughed and laughed, “bitter laughter”; and no doubt that was the most appropriate way to react in 1942—either that, or anger. But at this distance in time there is pathos in the scene as well, all the more since Kurth herself never doubted the accuracy of Bloch’s recollection.

The doctor had clearly seen the young Hitler at his best. Other accounts, such as they are, paint a less rosy picture. They suggest that he could be difficult—that he was often moody, willful, short-tempered. But at the same time nothing very terrible is known about him, nothing that could be made to look particularly ominous without the wisdom of hindsight. If he tormented other children, or tortured small animals, or committed serious delinquencies, the record is silent.

As Rosenbaum says, this has always been “the crux of the problem for Hitler explainers.” How and why did the relatively harmless-seeming youth turn into the most fearsome of mass murderers? How long had the poison been brewing? And related to those ultimately unanswerable questions is the broader problem, far more amenable to rational debate, of Hitler’s political development. How did his world view evolve? How far can we single out a turning point?

If we were to believe Hitler himself, there was one crucial experience: the vision which came to him when he was in an army hospital at Pasewalk in Pomerania in November 1918, recovering from the effects of mustard gas. Overwhelmed by the news of Germany’s defeat, he went through a devastating nervous crisis, from which he emerged convinced that it was his mission to save the country from those who had betrayed her—above all, it now suddenly seemed clear to him, the Jews. Naturally this account provokes skepticism. It was in the interests of his legend for him to maximize the drama of whatever happened at Pasewalk, to present it as a quasi-religious conversion; most historians, on the other hand, take the view that the ground was well prepared. In particular, they find it almost inconceivable that he hadn’t been affected at the time by the anti-Semitic influences to which he had been exposed in pre-1914 Vienna. Still, something must have jelled at Pasewalk. The public disaster of November 1918 seems to have hit him harder than any of the purely personal disasters he had suffered up to then, even when he was at his lowest ebb in Vienna, living rough. It was to remain central to his political thinking.

Would he have found his way into politics whatever happened? Quite possibly; but within less than a year of Pasewalk he had an undoubted stroke of luck. The “Information Department” of the German army, which had been set up to counteract Communist propaganda, sent him on a training course for instructors. While taking part in it, he quickly revealed his skill as an agitator; then, in September 1919, he joined the German Workers’ Party, a small far-right group which was soon to add “National Socialist” to its name. Within a short while he had established himself as its star speaker, and by April 1920 he was assuring an audience that “we will carry on the struggle until the last Jew is removed from the German Reich.”

Other key elements of Nazi ideology—the Führer-principle, the need for Lebensraum—were gradually slotted into place in the course of the 1920s, but the Nazi capacity for genocide was implicit in Hitler’s speeches from the beginning. This doesn’t necessar-ily mean that he had already planned the Holocaust, in clear, unambiguous terms. We are dealing with mindsets rather than blueprints, with half-formulated intentions, and possibilities which the potential perpetrator can’t quite admit to himself, and which he knows he mustn’t admit to other people. Whether or not the Hitler of 1920 foresaw how far events would carry him we can only guess. The important thing is that it was in the direction he wanted to go. From the outset his career in politics was also a career in evil.

No other major historical figure gives off quite such an aura of evil. The word attaches itself to him, where for another despot “wicked” or “cruel” might do. And it isn’t only a question of numbers, of the statistics of murder. Stalin was responsible for more deaths, quite possibly Mao too, but if we are trying to assess extremes of evil, there is still an indefinable quality about Hitler that gives him the edge. Toward the end of his book Rosenbaum quotes from a conversation he had with Robert Conquest. Conquest is the last historian likely to underrate the malign effects of Stalinism, but he nonetheless conceded, Rosenbaum writes, that if he were forced to compare the two men, “he’d have to say, however hesitantly and subjectively, that Hitler’s degree of evil ‘just feels worse’ than Stalin’s.”

Many of Rosenbaum’s interlocutors reflect on the problem of evil; most of those who do have interesting things to say. The philosopher Berel Lang, for instance, enlarges with considerable subtlety on his thesis that, far from being convinced of their own rectitude, Hitler and his associates knew what they were doing was monstrous, and gloried in the fact—that they were “artists in evil,” proud of their originality. The theologian Emil Fackenheim posits what Rosenbaum calls “a radical disjuncture between human nature and Hitler nature,” a disjuncture which only God can understand. For the historian Yehuda Bauer, on the other hand, Hitler’s murderousness, however extreme, was “unfortunately not abnormal” in human history—and God doesn’t come into it. A nonbeliever, Bauer is moved at one point to restate an ancient argument against religion in a pithy new form: “There is no way that there can be an all-powerful and just God. He can either be all-powerful or just. Because if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan. If he’s just, he’s a nebbish.”

Yet as Rosenbaum points out, Bauer doesn’t hesitate to invoke the idea of evil in connection with Hitler, even though it is a theologically charged concept which he might normally have been expected to avoid. And in this he is surely representative. Most humanists are reluctant to fall back on a word which has so many obscurantist possibilities. Confronted with Hitler, however, most of them are ready to make an exception; and while they may simply be intending to signal the depth of their detestation, their use of the term also implies that there is a point beyond which the “enlightened” explanations of bad behavior—social, psychological, historical—no longer seem adequate. Trying to account for Hitler, we sooner or later enter the realm of the unaccountable.

Most of the explainers in Explaining Hitler acknowledge as much. There are limits to what they can hope to achieve. For Trevor-Roper, Hitler remains “a frightening mystery.” For Emil Fackenheim, “the closer one gets to explicability the more one realizes nothing can make Hitler explicable.” But that doesn’t mean that they think the search for explanations might as well be abandoned. Far from it: whatever can be reclaimed from the darkness ought to be.

There is one dissenting voice. For Claude Lanzmann, who made the movie Shoah, attempting to explain Hitler and the Holocaust is not only futile but a form of sacrilege, and one which he and his disciples have made it their business to denounce as harshly as possible. Rosenbaum gives a graphic account of the hostility with which he was received when he went to see Lanzmann in Paris. He also cites examples of the savage treatment doled out by the Lanzmannites to those who are deemed to have violated the great taboo (which he sums up as “Thou shalt not ask why”)—in particular Lanzmann’s attack on a fellow participant, Louis Micheels, during a symposium at Yale in 1990. Micheels’s only “offense” was to have become interested in a documentary about an infamous Nazi doctor which had been made by a pair of Dutch Jewish filmmakers, and to have felt that the moral issues it raised were worth discussing.

Even if Lanzmann disagreed, one would have thought that Micheels was entitled to a certain amount of consideration on account of his age (he was in his seventies) and still more his past history (he had survived two years in Auschwitz). But when it came to it, Lanzmann suddenly sabotaged the whole evening by heaping the most violent abuse on the film—he alleged that it whitewashed the Nazis—and on anyone who thought that it was a fit subject for discussion. In effect, as Rosenbaum says, he was accusing Micheels of the grossest moral obtuseness.

Lanzmann emerges from the book as a self-aggrandizing bully. (The contrast with Micheels, whom Rosenbaum also went to see, could hardly be greater.) Looking back, you realize that there was a faint foreshadowing of this in Shoah, in the hectoring tone he adopts in some of his personal interventions. Still, Shoah remains a brilliant achievement, in a class by itself among movies about the Holocaust; and after reading Explaining Hitler, you are left with yet another mystery which defies explanation: How could the man who made such a masterpiece turn out to be quite such a pain in the neck?

You can catch the flavor of an individual personality in all Rosenbaum’s encounters, but it is only in a few of them that you are made more aware of the man or woman being questioned than of the arguments being advanced. Lanzmann is the most obvious example (if we set aside the interview with David Irving, which has its own ugly fascination), but there are some fine displays of prima donnaishness elsewhere. From George Steiner, for instance, as he expounds the arguments about the Holocaust which he originally put into the mouth of Hitler in his novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (He seems to think that the Jews provoked it: it was all the result of Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx preaching a superior morality which everyone else resented.) Or from Daniel Goldhagen, who broke off his interview when the questions started hotting up, offering as his excuse the fact that he had only just realized that he shouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place without consulting his publisher.

Scenes like these add undoubted color, but after a while you are glad to get back to the less self-involved figures, and to the main matter in hand. So, you feel, is Rosenbaum himself. For all his fondness for a good story, it is the arguments of his interviewees that engage him, rather than their personal quirks; and indeed, the explainer to whom he ends up feeling closest is someone who wasn’t there to be interviewed by the time he would have wanted to—the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, who died in 1990.

There is a broad division among historians of Nazism between “intentionalists” and “functionalists”—between those for whom Hitler consciously planned the Final Solution and those for whom he stumbled into it, helped along by events and the decisions or solicitations of subordinates of whom he wasn’t in full control. Naturally there are intermediate positions in the argument; and on the spectrum which runs from “strong” intentionalism to “strong” functionalism, Dawidowicz stood at the intentionalist extreme. In her book The War Against the Jews (1975) she argued forcefully that Hitler conceived a mission to destroy the Jews—destroy them physically—as early as 1918, and that this more than anything else was what animated him thereafter. The book is a potent one: along with formidable scholarship, it offers deep emotional gratification, a sense of justice being done. Perhaps for that very reason one should be a little wary of it. But I still think that Rosenbaum is right to respond to it as sympathetically as he does. Reading the functionalists, as they shift responsibility onto “the system,” one is reminded of Baudelaire’s observation that the Devil’s cleverest trick is to persuade men that he doesn’t exist. Dawidowicz suffered from no such misconception. She wasn’t going to allow Hitler to disappear into the crowd.

If you accept her thesis, it follows that he must have been a master of concealment, or at any rate semi-concealment. His apparent hesitations over implementing all-out genocide were so many feints; the vagueness of his threats was purposeful. There were of course good political reasons for him to disguise what he was cooking up: most people would look no further for an explanation. But Rosenbaum, building on a hint in one of Dawidowicz’s footnotes, sees something else as well—a secret glee, “the laughter of someone who knows what he is doing and relishes it to the bone, relishes the coded way he speaks of it, relishes the fact that the relish of the joke is only shared by an esoteric few.”

Hitler himself, if we are to believe what he said in public, seems to have been haunted by the conviction that the Jews were laughing at him. In three major speeches—in January 1939, January 1941, and September 1942—he portrayed himself as the object of their ceaseless derision: three years into the war, he could still conjure up a picture of them laughing away (those of them who hadn’t yet learned their mistake), though he promised that it wouldn’t be for much longer. One’s first reaction to this is that it indicates how deep his delusions of persecution ran, even at the height of his power. Somewhere inside him he must have found the idea of being ridiculed strictly unbearable. But Rosenbaum argues, convincingly, that the “laughing Jew” fantasy was also a form of displacement. In reality it was Hitler who was having the fun, indulging in an obscene merriment which he felt compelled to project onto his victims. The image of a “laughing Hitler” is almost the last one that Rosenbaum leaves us with.

And why not? Somebody could write a book entitled The Humor of the Holocaust. There is abundant evidence, from the camps and elsewhere, that for those who perpetrated it, it was a source of the keenest amusement—a big joke in itself, and an opportunity to play endless smaller jokes. (Rosenbaum might have mentioned the case of Eichmann, who once told a companion that the thought that he had helped to dispatch five million people would enable him to “leap into his grave laughing.”)

Explaining Hitler presents us with a conspectus rather than a thesis. Rosenbaum gives his historians and other witnesses a fair hearing. He finds something of value in almost all of them; he doesn’t attempt to resolve the differences among them. But by the end of the book, he has begun to show an unmistakable preference—for the notion of Hitler as an evil genius, a prime mover, an exception who lies beyond the normal range of human experience. His reading of Lucy Dawidowicz is reinforced by a meeting with one of the most invigorating of his interviewees, Milton Himmelfarb. Fifteen years ago Himmelfarb published an essay with a title that sums up one view of the matter as succinctly as anyone could—“No Hitler, No Holocaust”; and that, finally, is the view that Rosenbaum finds most persuasive. His Hitler is a hate-driven figure who had a plan and followed it through.

It wasn’t his only plan. One of the book’s limitations, though an understandable one, is that it concentrates too exclusively on the Holocaust. In his drive toward world domination, Hitler was responsible for an incalculable amount of other suffering as well. Still, no one is likely to dispute that the Holocaust represents his evil in its purest form. To borrow Rosenbaum’s phrase, it was his supreme signature crime.

Yet even if we settle for the “evil genius” view, we end up as we began, with a sense of utter disparity. The idea that one man would have destroyed so much remains no less hard to endure; and the man in question, whatever dark powers we attribute to him, remains in some respects the same drab and limited figure that he has always seemed—“a little man.”

The only thing that diminishes the mystery, even if it can’t dispel it, is to move back to the broader historical context. “No Hitler, No Holocaust” is a truth which needs to be supplemented. No willing collaborators or allies or enthusiastic dupes, and no Holocaust either. For Hitler was not just evil in himself, but the instigator of evil in others—and of evil initiatives, not merely of deeds carried out in obedience to his commands. Perhaps Louis Micheels exaggerated a little when he told Rosenbaum that before Auschwitz, we didn’t know how bad human nature could be. Perhaps, given the evidence already available, we half-guessed. But it was Auschwitz that made the knowledge inescapable. And it is for this reason, no less than on account of the mundane realities of political history, that Hitler can’t profitably be thought of in isolation—not for very long, at least. Even intentionalists, if they want to explain him, have to look far beyond the man himself.

This Issue

December 17, 1998