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Enigma of Evil

EXPLAINING HITLER: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.\o7 By Ron Rosenbaum (Random House: 396 pp., $30)\f7

July 26, 1998|MICHAEL ANDRE BERNSTEIN | Michael Andre Bernstein is the author, most recently, of "Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero" and "Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History." He is completing a novel entitled "Progressive Lenses." He teaches English and comparative literature at UC Berkeley

There are some events that permanently transform not just the political or economic circumstances of an era but the fundamental texture of the world we inhabit. Irrespective of our own origins and cultural-ethnic identifications, the nearly successful attempt by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate all of European Jewry continues to haunt our sense of what it means to be a human being. In the mere 12 years of its existence, Hitler's vaingloriously named "Thousand Year Reich" created a decisive breach in the fabric of the modern world, and it is that breach, the awareness of some lasting, collective violation, that is perhaps the most far-reaching of the Holocaust's enduring injuries.

There is something almost unbearable in the idea that devastation on such an unprecedented scale could have been willed into existence by any one man. We want some proportion between the horror and the individual who instigated it, but that is precisely what the enormity of the Nazi genocide has made impossible. There is an unbridgeable abyss between the suffering inflicted in the death camps and ghettos of Nazi-dominated Europe and the thought that no matter how many men and women collaborated in the Holocaust's implementation, it was ultimately the brainchild of a single man.

Since the first reports of the extermination camps reached the outside world, no issue has raised so fierce and protracted a debate as the extent of Hitler's role as the originator of the "project" of eradicating the Jewish people. Skepticism about the historical efficacy of any one individual is a firmly entrenched dogma in many intellectual circles, and in the case of the Holocaust, this widely held theoretical position unites with an unacknowledged but deeply rooted emotional need to find the most abstract and all-encompassing categories to account for the catastrophe. The more absolute and exhaustive the categories, the more commensurate they seem to the cataclysm they are supposed to explain. Paradoxically, it may be less grievous to see the Holocaust as the horrific but inevitable consequence of immense political and ideological forces like Pan-European anti-Semitism or the fragility of Parliamentary democracies than to agree with a polemically succinct assertion like Milton Himmelfarb's: "No Hitler, No Holocaust." Even people who are otherwise suspicious of historical determinism find the notion hard to resist in this context, because if Hitler's strictly personal volition really was indispensable for the Holocaust, then the truly intolerable thought arises that something as simple as a single bullet on the battlefields of World War I, or even a fortuitous admission to Vienna's Fine Arts Academy in 1907, might have saved Europe's Jews from annihilation. To think that the Holocaust need not have happened, that rather than being doomed by an inevitable historical process European Jewish history might plausibly have taken a totally different direction, may be the most appalling realization of all.

The proposition "No Hitler, No Holocaust" is the logical point of departure for Ron Rosenbaum's engrossing new study, "Explaining Hitler," an exploration of the conflicting interpretations of Hitler's character and mind that have been offered from the 1920s until today. Rosenbaum understands that far from answering any fundamental questions, seeing Hitler as the genocide's indispensable begetter merely opens further layers of uncertainty. The utter incommensurability between any possible account of Hitler's psyche and the historical consequences of his decisions discredits in advance whatever interpretation one might propose. But as soon as one attempts to gain some degree of understanding of Hitler and the Holocaust, it becomes self-defeating to categorically exclude every speculative approach. Whether the proposed explanations rely on psychological, medical or even theological assumptions and terminologies, the line between analysis and projection is often extraordinarily difficult to demarcate. Yet the need to establish such demarcations is crucial to any responsible explanation, and doing so successfully is a reliable index of the interpreter's integrity of judgment.

Rosenbaum is a literary journalist, not a historian, but his alertness as an "educated consumer of scholarship" stands him in good stead throughout his quest. His book is as much a personal quest for insight as a comparative evaluation of what others have said about Hitler. Like many people who have spent years trying to probe Hitler's character, Rosenbaum has himself become, in an uncanny way, Hitler-haunted, and the effects of that haunting are evident at every stage of his book's unfolding, providing the energy for many of its shrewdest questions and for some of its least convincing claims and formulations.

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