In a recent book of poems about the Holocaust, William Heyen recalls that his German parents took him to the Volksfest on Long Island every summer just after World War II. He remembers his delight at the stands of smoked eel and loaves of dark bread, and the nostalgic talk about the North Sea, the Rhine, the Black Forest. He also remembers that
all those years
there was one word I never heard,
one name never mentioned.
The name of course was Adolf Hitler.
My experience was the opposite. As a Jewish child growing up in Los Angeles, I, too, went to family and ethnic picnics after the war, but there the name, the word, was more than mentioned; it served as a common obscenity, a mysterious fragment of ongoing lamentations over the Jewish condition. To any mention of the world war (the phrase remains resonant, terrifying), the response was simple: "The Germans are monsters, devils." The current events of my childhood were so thoroughly steeped in the language of folklore that no explanation since of history's dynamics as a political science has seemed credible.
What form could my education take, then, but a gradual coming to terms with those monsters in my imagination? I gravitated toward literature as a discipline that could help to account for the mythic presences of my early childhood, Hitler above all. At the same time, a majority of the American public voted for the devil theory of history by nominating Stalin, with his successors and imitators, to the role formerly occupied by Hitler. Children since the 1950s have overheard something like the conversations I remember, have drunk deep from popular culture diabolizing the Soviet enemies of humanity.
Mine has been the generation charged with the responsibility of understanding Hitler, and God knows we have tried. On the one hand is the argument that if we imagine the Nazis as not human, as devils, then we are guilty of their worst crime, the denial of humanity to the Jews. The first writers on Nazism insisted, in psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson's words, that "it is our task to recognize that the black miracle of Nazism was only the German version . . . of a universal contemporary potential." The humanizing of Hitler has led to what Saul Friedlander calls a new discourse about Nazism, characterized by "the more and more frequent display of a Hitler who is Everyman."
On the other hand, if Hitler and the Nazis are conceived of as ordinary, the authentic historical measure of their evil will be diminished and falsified.
It may comfort us temporarily to cut Hitler down to size. We may find ourselves poking fun, as Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks have done, at his goofy gestures and delusions of grandeur; nevertheless, tens of millions died on his commands. As Alvin Rosenfeld has argued in his book, "Imagining Hitler," writers and filmmakers have consistently distorted the known personality of Hitler to produce a more attractive figure. At the same time, the merchandising of Nazi mementos and imagery, often for erotic stimulation, has become a flourishing business worldwide. All of this has contributed to a renewed cult of the charismatic Fuehrer, one with dangerous implications. Resurgent anti-Semitism and hostility to the state of Israel are the most obvious effects of the indulgence in what Susan Sontag sarcastically calls "Fascinating Fascism."
Unfortunately, the question "How shall we understand Hitler?" cannot easily be separated from another question, "How shall we use Hitler?"
On the political right there has been a deliberate use of World War II and the Holocaust to frighten the public into support for militant anti-Soviet policy. On the assumption that Hitlerism is now and forever something foreign, scenes (usually Russo-European) of totalitarian persecution, invading shock troops, mass imprisonment and mass executions are featured continually in some elite journals of opinion and the popular media as prophecies of the likely effects of detente.
A different use is suggested by Mother Teresa's comment after being asked when she began her work of relief and care for abandoned children: "On the day I discovered I had a Hitler inside me." By this logic, one makes the generous recognition that Nazism is an everlasting temptation of every soul or psyche, but defeats its power by activities on behalf of the general welfare.