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Explaining the Hitler Explainers

I just finished reading Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum [the baby picture of Hitler to the right was used in the cover art of the paperback edition I own]. I found it an interesting though not a light read. Not really heavy either. I thought it was going to be a book explaining Hitler — and I certainly learned a lot about him — but it's more a book about Hitler explainers (and, in one case, a non-explainer or anti-explainer).

I discovered that my thinking about Hitler — what little of it I've done — has been rather superficial. The quandry, it seems to me, is that to the extent we explain Hitler, we open the possibility of letting him off the hook, at least to some extent. Most people don't want to let him entirely off the hook; I certainly don't. Is letting him off the hook the same as forgiving him? Despite my natural impulse to assert that everyone deserves forgiveness, I hesitate when it comes to Hitler (and Stalin, too). But how much off the hook is okay? Was it his childhood and upbringing? Was it his alleged physical deformity? His alleged Jewish ancestry? Was it genetic? Was the Shoah inherent in the German nation and Hitler only the — my goodness, I hate using this word, even in quotes — "right" person at the "right" time? But the only way to explain him besides saying he was off the scale of "normal" human evil is to try to explain him in terms that derive from our own experience of the evil within "normal" human beings. Some say this is not appropriate. Again, my natural impulse is to assert that Hitler was the extreme end of a spectrum of good and evil, that "there but for the grace of God go I." Again, though, I hesitate when it comes to Hitler (and Stalin). The enormity of what these two men did so overwhelms me that I have trouble getting started on questions like this. And if Hitler (and perhaps Stalin) was off the human scale, was a true aberration, might there have been others of whom I'm not aware or less aware? What about Goebbels, Göring, Heydrich, Himmler (Beria) and others?

Rosenbaum ends with a thought about how we might legitimately feel about Hitler.

A less inflammatory word than "hatred" might be "resistance." It's the word Emil Fackenheim [the preeminent theologian of the Holocaust] used when he described the "double move" one must make in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also to resist explanation.

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist the misleading exculpatory corollaries of explanation. To resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler's choice to do what he did less unbearble, less hateful to contemplate, by shifting responsibility from him to faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistable compulsions that gave him no choice or made his choice irrelevant. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of a last laugh.

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