‘A Nice Pleasant Youth’

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…

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