I've just re-read a portion of Ron Rosenbaum's excellent book Explaining Hitler, which deals with the efforts of various historians to attempt to explain the origin of Hitler's evil (with varying degrees of success). Personally, I was stumped. I've read a fair deal about WWII in general and certain battles in particular, and I've slowly assembled a picture of Hitler.

  • He was a poor warlord with a nasty habit of allowing political factors to constrain the Wehrmacht (ie. his unwillingness to pursue total war until it was far too late, among other things), not to mention an unhealthy fascination with micromanagement.
  • He is reported to have the ability to "mesmerize" crowds and individuals (although it could be argued that people who actively or passively supported him simply like to tell themselves that rather than facing the alternative).
  • He was a fairly good politician, at least up to a point. The incorporation of Austria, Sudetenland etc. was brilliantly handled and designed to reassure France and Britain that Germany harboured no hostile intentions, that all they wanted was what was rightfully theirs, although the weakness of his opposition must not be forgotten. He failed to foresee the reaction the invasion of Poland would receive, though, and this, coupled with later mistakes, would lead to his downfall.

Then, I arrive at the somewhat more controversial issue: Hitler's antisemitism. Indeed, it is the Holocaust which I feel set Hitler apart from many the other dictators, living and dead. He was among those who used his position to commit murder by proxy. He built a machine with the purpose of perpetrating genocide, and he came very close to completely succeeding.

Of course, some might say, Hitler was a rabid antisemite and xenophobe, many will no doubt say. He hated the Jews to the point where he killed six million of them, and only his death prevented him from his ambition of wiping out every last one. He was the embodiment of the ultimate in antisemitism, an avatar of hate and pure evil.

Tell that to Alan Bullock.

Alan Bullock is now dead, but in 1952, his book Hitler: A Study In Tyranny was published. In it, Bullock argues that Hitler was, in fact, a charlatan, one who faked his antisemitism. Later, though, he came to the conclusion that Hitler was somewhat more complex: He started out as an impostor, yet wound up starting to believe his own rhetoric, in effect creating a self-reinforcing process of faith. Hugh Trevor-Roper goes further. He argues that Hitler was convinced that the civilized world was threated by a vast Zionistic conspiracy, and that only drastic measures could save the noble aryan race. In short, Hitler acted out of a wish to do good. His actions were unarguably evil, but they were made in good faith. This begs the question of whether or not it is possible to call Hitler evil if he was convinced he was doing good. His acts were certainly evil and destructive, but is it possible to fault him for it if he didn't know any better? Or was Hitler responsible for failing to reach the correct conclusions.

The problem with the case above is that they remove the blame from Hitler. If he was a true believer, then can he be blamed for following his own conscience?

Socrates claimed that it is an impossibility to do something that is bad/evil/destructive if one is aware of the negative nature of such an action. If someone does, say, kill somebody (a virtually universal definition of an undesirable action), then it has to be done in the belief that it could be morally justified. If we do assume that the theory is true, then we must also assume that Hitler was sincere in his conviction that the world would be better off without the Jews. His acts would be evil, yet the motivation behind the acts would be, terribly enough, good.

But can Hitler's acts and Hitler as a person be separated? Is it possible to say that the man was fundamentally good while his actions were fundamentally evil, and leave it at that? Some might argue that Hitler should be blamed for failing to reach the correct conclusion. That would depend on the factors that contributed to this failure. If Hitler was the victim of forces outside his control, can he be said to be an innocent victim of circumstances?

If Hitler was an amoral person, in the sense that he didn't have any sense of morality at all, then that would explain how he could order the murder of others without a shadow of remorse and provide an escape from the sincere Hitler. An amoral Hitler, coupled with the antisemitism which permeated much of Europe at the time, would go a long way towards explaining the Holocaust. Yet it is evident that Hitler had some morals. He expected the officers of the Sixth Army to commit suicide as a gesture of loyalty rather than be captured by the Soviets. He also ranted at length about the purpose of the family and the role of women. His ideological stances here were derived from moral values he held.

Of course, Bullock and those who share his view do not have a monopoly on Hitler. On the other end of the spectrum lies the camp composed of those who consider Hitler a charlatan without much in the way of convictions, a cynical opportunist who ruthlessly exploited issues in order to gain power for himself.

This point of view is entirely valid and supported by respected historians (as is Bullock's theory, of course). However, if Hitler merely used antisemitism as a handy way of gaining public support, then why did he go to such lengths to exterminate the Jews? Why waste such an amount of resources and manpower on the annihilation of six million people?

One theory states that the pressure to do so came from below. Faced with the concept of segregating the Jews in Germany and those from the occupied territories, bureaucrats petitioned the Nazi leaders to simply do away with them. More committed antisemites such as Heinrich Himmler was taken with the idea, and thus the death camps came into being. A variant assumes that Hitler himself didn't really want to kill the Jews, but his subordinates insisted that they should, and he reluctantly gave in. Yet this fails to account for how Hitler, when the eastern front was close to disintegration, deliberately allocated trains away from the army and to the concentration camps instead. How could he have done that if he didn't consider the destruction of the Jewish people as his highest priority?

Of course, Hitler didn't bring anything new into Germany by playing on the widespread dislike of Jews. Europe was plenty antisemitic, and had been so a long time before Hitler made a name for himself. In a sense, Hitler largely removed antisemitism from Europe by associating it with something everybody hated: Nazism.

In fact, there is a faction which believe that Hitler was the culmination of historical forces. That if Hitler had not appeared, then somebody like him would have risen from obscurity and proceeded to plunge Europe into darkness. Yet such an explanation removes some of the burden of guilt from Hitler, and reduces him to a figure moved inexorably towards mass murder by the hands of fate. It doesn't explain how Hitler reached the point where he became responsible for the Holocaust.

The roots of Hitler's evil has been traced to a myriad of different incidents, some of them of dubious origins. Hitler's alleged sexual perversions and lack of a complete set of testicles has been cited. Parts of his penis had been bitten off by a goat. His mother is said to have died from maltreatment by a Jewish doctor. He suffered from syphilis contracted from a Jewish prostitute. He suspected that he had some Jewish blood flowing in his veins, and wanted to suppress his "inner Jew" by killing the outer ones. All of these explanations have been seriously considered by prominent historians, yet they are all to one extent or another unsubstantiated. After so long time, and the death of so many people who might have shed some light on these rumours and theories, Hitler explainers have been reduced to relying on uncertain sources. It might be impossible to find accurate and trustworthy information now.

Personally, I feel that the sincere Hitler who murdered for the greater good is more likely than the alternatives, yet it doesn't explain the fact that the Holocaust and the concentration camps were carefully hidden from the public. Would Hitler not proudly proclaim that he was ridding the world of the Jewish virus? And why did it take so long before the Holocaust truly started? It was not until 1941 that the mass killings began. Why not start at the earliest opportunity? Did he perhaps feel that there were other priorities? And why didn't he freely admit, or even boast, of his achievement if he was convinced they were so great? Is Hitler's failure to mention the concentration camps even once a symptom of shame or embarrassment, or merely an acknowledgement of the possibility that the Germans might not accept such measures?

Who knows.

And that is the problem. While I am sure that Hitler could be explained if only all the available data was collected, too much has been lost by now. Nevertheless, the importance of finding the why of Hitler, the why of the Holocaust, cannot be underestimated, if only to prevent something like it from ever happening again.

I do not in any way condone genocide, the Holocaust or the very existence of Nazism. I'm sure this is obvious, but misunderstandings abound when people talk about things like the Holocaust

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