Paul Bryant's Reviews > Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil

Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
416390
's review
Dec 16, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: modern-classic, holocaust-literature, worldwar2

Everybody steals this phrase now so I'll steal it too - the subtitle of this facemelting book should have been what we talk about when we talk about Hitler. Because that's what it's about. This is a great journalisting whistle-stop world tour of Hitler scholars and Hitler theories. And oh my my, what cans, and what worms crawl out of them.
Where can we start? Well how about this - most people would see in him the absolute embodiment of as pure an evil as we have experienced in history so far, but there's a remarkable reluctance in modern scholars to agree. The scholars pose the question: did Hitler do wrong knowingly? Often historians are emphatic that Hitler was convinced he was doing GOOD (saving the world from a scourge, saving the Aryan race). Real evil was to be found in the middle managers of the Holocaust, like Eichmann, who knew they were murdering innocents, but did so for motives such as career advancement. So that's interesting - imagine the headline in the Daily Vulgarian :

Hitler Not Evil Says Historian

Moving on, this book asks of its big-name interviewees the question "Where did Hitler's pathological hatred of the Jews come from?". We get a whole pick and mix of theories, many of which are concerned with finding a handy Jew to blame. Did a Jewish prostitute give Hitler syphilis in Vienna? Well, maybe. Did Hitler believe his paternal grandmother was seduced by a Jew? Well, maybe. Was there a Jewish doctor who bungled Hitler's mother's cancer treatment and made her suffer horribly? Well, MAYBE. Then along comes Hugh Trevor-Roper to propose that Hitler had no especial hatred of the Jews, he just hyped up the whole thing to get himself a political career. Imagine that - in this theory the other Nazis just took him far too literally! He must have been appalled! (It's okay, that theory has been rubbished by everyone else who'se ever heard of it.)

The Hitler explainers are haunted by a notional lost safety-deposit box - you know, the one in which reposes the single piece of evidence which will explain everything. A document from a forgotten archive, a long lost unpublished memoir, a connection never made. Rosenbaum himself admits to "evidentiary despair" (a poignant phrase) - which means accepting the idea that the explanation will never be found. Yehuda Bauer, on the other hand, believes that Hitler and the Holocaust are explicable, but no, we haven't explained them yet.
Claude Lanzmann presents a bracing alternative to all this thrashing about. He baldly states that certain things are forbidden :

Psychohistory is a figleaf for revisionism


He goes further than just stating that to explain is the same as to understand is the same as to justify, by stating that justification is the explainers' unacknowledged intention. Lanzmann was also apoplectic about anyone publishing baby photos of Hitler (as on the front of this book). Anything which humanised him was justification according to Lanzmann.
You pays your philosophical money and you takes your philosophical choice here, but every argument, when not risible, is at once intriguing and horribly disturbing. Some readers think this is a lightweight bunch of interviews. I think this book drives the scalpel down to the bone. It's not pretty but it's essential.
44 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Explaining Hitler.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/24/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Jude (new)

Jude Ginnie - I never see ads here - just a box ABOUT google ads. first time i've felt like i missed them - love that you shared.

And Paul - this book has been randomly chosen as the occassion of my thanking you for consistent and entertaining brilliance. Your distillation, reportage and associative links to your life and ours are often a comfort in a world of so few books and so little time.


Paul Bryant Man, that's a great compliment - thanks a bunch. If I didn't have this website I would be a crazy guy rambling the streets muttering vehemently to himself and being given a wide berth by my fellow human beings.


message 3: by Jude (new)

Jude well THAT's a mercy, sighed the woman with the huge pink POTENTIAL BAGLADY button hanging in her studio.


message 4: by Melody (new) - added it

Melody I'm putting this one on my list, Paul.


Paul Bryant Let me know what you think when you get round to it.


Paul Bryant Well, the distinction is made between the doer and the deed. The deed may be evil but the doer may have delusions that they were doing good, as you say. Ergo the doer is not evil, it is argued. Someone like Josef Fritzl IS evil, in this analysis, because he knew perfectly well that he was doing evil.


message 7: by Paul (last edited Dec 20, 2009 02:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant I don't disagree with you - I always have tremendous problems with the legal definition of sanity because of that.


message 8: by Whitaker (last edited Dec 16, 2010 07:05PM) (new)

Whitaker Well, I have problems with the notion of evil as such, but never mind. I've met Claude Lanzmann. He gave a talk to my French class. He's a bit of an asshole. He was abominably rude and condescending and full of himself. As an example, one of my classmates--a sweet Australian woman--told him how much she admired him and asked if he'd ever been to Australia. He gave her a dark look, and sneered, "If you had read my memoir, you would know that I have been in Sydney many times." That's pretty much what his entire talk was like: oh I can't believe I'm stuck here with these ignoramuses who do not know me for the gift that I am. Asshole.


Paul Bryant Wow! That's exactly how he comes across in the interview. Imagine going through like and every day you're like that!


message 10: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn I wish I could print out this review: it's so excellent--deliberative and thorough--I may just copy it out in longhand. Thanks Paul.


message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Thom - thanks very much. I read this years ago, and would you believe Hitler's back right now, because I'm reading Kershaw's new one called "The End", about the last year of the war. Can't get rid of the bugger.


message 12: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn Paul wrote: "Hi Thom - thanks very much. I read this years ago, and would you believe Hitler's back right now, because I'm reading Kershaw's new one called "The End", about the last year of the war. Can't get r..."

Nor Stalin ......Nor Ayn Rand !


message 13: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Fascinating, Paul - you read the most interesting things! Your review of Lewis' book (a comment on which brought me here) was also fascinating... If I weren't totally bogged down for, like, years with books I need to review, I'd probably hie me to the library for this one...


message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant oh I would earnestly hope you could bin just one of the books-you-must-review (say the dog chewed it up) and substitute this one, it's totally great.


message 15: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Paul wrote: "oh I would earnestly hope you could bin just one of the books-you-must-review (say the dog chewed it up) and substitute this one, it's totally great."

*laugh* Well, I'll see if I can get a copy somehow someday and do so.


message 16: by Katy (new) - added it

Katy Okay, Paul; I just ordered a copy from Amazon Marketplace. Dunno when I'll get to it, but will try to do so in a reasonable timeframe :-)


message 17: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant i look forward to your review


message 18: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn Back in school in the 1950's, one routinely heard, "Hitler used the Jews as a scapegoat for growing his power base and uniting Germany in a common crusade".... Imagine my surprise upon reading Lucy Davidowitz 's The War Against the Jews, which turns the old thesis on its head. ALL that Hitler did, she argues, he did to get himself the power and the geographic scope to attempt an extermination of the Jews. Item: The death camps kept operating until the last possible minute long after defeat became inevitable. Item: Ignoring Bismarck's maxim that Germany (which borders on 9 countries) should not seek empire, Hitler increased his perimeter to the point where it could not possibly be defended. And so on.


message 19: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Thom - you probably know about the big debate between the "Intentionalists" and the pragmatists in the study of the holocaust. I'm a "crooked road to Auschwitz" pragmatist person myself. I think the physical liquidation kind of dawned on Hitler & Himmler after the point where they had conquered Poland and the Eastern Soviet territories & got control of millions more Jews. Before that they were trying to throw them out of the Reich and were coming up with ridiculous plans such as shipping them all to Madagascar (!).So then, after the Final Solution got into high gear, it became the obsession of (especially) Himmler, and when defeat became inevitable, the mentality shifted to "We may have lost this war but at least we dealt with the Jews."


message 20: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn Paul wrote: "Hi Thom - you probably know about the big debate between the "Intentionalists" and the pragmatists in the study of the holocaust. I'm a "crooked road to Auschwitz" pragmatist person myself. I think..."

I like it....That is to say, I "like" it in Facebook terms. It makes sense, especially since Hitler's obsessional insanity clearly grew, finally reaching the point where von Ribbentrop and others recognized it. BTW, are you a GRfriend of Meaghan Good ? She has read more holocaust literature than anyone I know of.


message 21: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Bryant No, I'm not. Perhaps we should compare notes.


Nandakishore Varma I've put this on my TBR. I've recently become obsessed with Hitler the man - what actually made him tick. I don't believe in absolute "good" or "evil",and I hope this book will provie me some insights.


message 23: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn Nandakishore wrote: "I've put this on my TBR. I've recently become obsessed with Hitler the man - what actually made him tick. I don't believe in absolute "good" or "evil",and I hope this book will provie me some ins..."

Power corrupts ?


message 24: by Nandakishore (last edited Apr 01, 2015 06:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Nandakishore Varma Thom wrote: "Power corrupts ?"

Not really. I have a problem with the concepts of "Good" and "Evil" as absolute.

Hitler was a human being - there must have been something inside him which made him do all these things.


message 25: by Thom (new) - rated it 4 stars

Thom Dunn Nandakishore wrote: "Thom wrote: "Power corrupts ?"

Not really. I have a problem with the concepts of "Good" and "Evil" as absolute.

Hitler was a human being - there must have been something inside him which made hi..."


Well, we know that his mania grew and grew right up to the end at which point he was completely off the wall (psychiatric term). Perhaps a physical malady....syphilis ?


back to top