Explaining Hitler is the title of a book by Ron Rosenbaum. The cover of it shows a picture of Adolph Hitler as a two year old. It’s a reminder that he was once as innocent as any other baby. Why did he grow up to be one of the most monstrous murderers of the 20th century (though Stalin and Mao arguably killed more)? Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written trying to explain why he hated so bitterly and turned to genocide as the way to right what he believed to be wrongs. There are all kinds of different views on the matter. Some deny the Holocaust, some deny that Hitler caused it, others try to apportion the blame. The book tries to take an objective look at the variety of views, none of which has been accepted as definitive. Probably none can be.
Hitler was strange. Pretty much everyone agrees on that. His strangeness may have been part of his appeal, which seems to have been pretty overwhelming, not only during his lifetime, but still. Why else would so many people continue to write about him and argue about the validity of their views? Why else would some continue to idolize him?
Part of his strangeness is his background. His paternal grandmother had a baby at age 42 without any husband, and she didn’t volunteer a name for the father. She was a maid, and rumor had it she’d worked for a Jewish family and been impregnated by the son of her employer (who would have been twenty or more years younger). But there wasn’t any such Jewish family in the area. Jews had been forbidden to live in that part of Austria, though some traders may have traveled there.
Some years later she married a man named Hiedler. He might have been the father of her baby, whom she named Alois. Alois eventually changed his name from Schiklgruber to Hitler (a slight spelling change from Hiedler), but waited until he was forty to do so. Why wait so long, and why change it at all?
Maybe he thought Hitler sounded better, and didn’t suggest the isolated area around Döllersheim in eastern Austria that he came from, which seems to have been inhabited by the Austrian equivalent of poor white trash. Interestingly, after Hitler united Austria and Germany the area of Döllersheim was used for artillery practice, effectively destroying the church in which the birth of Hitler’s father was registered. We don’t know if Hitler personally ordered this, but he may have. Hitler is also quoted as saying to a nephew who was trying to get money from him after he attained power in Germany that, “No one can know where I come from”. What was he trying to hide? Possible Jewish blood? Or something else?
Another aspect of his strangeness was that just as his paternal grandmother had supposedly worked as a maid, his mother (who was related to his father) had served his father as a maid while Alois’ first wife was dying, and had become sexually involved with him then, marrying him several years later. She supposedly always called him “Uncle”.
Adolph Hitler became sexually involved with his own niece, who was working for him as a maid, making it three generations of that pattern. After he became prosperous in the mid-1920s he hired his half-sister and niece to keep his Munich apartment clean. After he acquired the Berghof on a nearby mountain he had his half-sister stay there while his niece stayed with him in Munich. It was potentially catastrophic when she was discovered shot to death in her room in the apartment. No one knows exactly what happened. Hitler may have shot her, he may have told someone else to do it, or she may have shot herself. But her body having been found in his apartment made sexual and murder scandal quite likely. The incident was successfully covered up, but just why the young woman died has been a matter of debate since.
We know that Hitler was jealous of her, didn’t like her going out, and that they’d argued about her desire to go to Vienna. Whether that was enough to prompt the death is debatable. One suggestion that later emerged was that Hitler practiced a sexual perversion in which he had Geli squat naked above him and urinate (or possibly defecate). We don’t know if that is true either, and Rosenbaum sees the suggestion as a way of seeing Hitler as so completely strange that he was unrelated to ordinary people. None of us could possibly have done what he did because we ordinary people aren’t perverted. The allegation rests on the word of Otto Strasser, whose brother had been murdered by Hitler, so there’s reason for doubt. Whether or not the alleged perversion affected Geli so strongly that she committed suicide, most of the other women he got involved with attempted suicide. Because of him? Or because he was attracted to women prone to suicide attempts?
Psychohistorian Robert Waite sees Hitler’s relationship with his niece, as well as his having only one testicle (“Hitler had only one left ball…”), as basis for diagnosing him as a borderline personality, the sort of person who does dangerous and dramatic things. The diagnosis may or may not have been accurate, but Waite thinks the missing testicle is very significant, and we don’t know if it’s true. One doctor who examined him said he was normal in that respect.
It’s true that, as Waite pointed out, Hitler didn’t always seem to want to win the war he later started: he could have destroyed the British army at Dunkirk, but halted his troops for two or three days instead. And after Pearl Harbor he declared war on the United States, committing himself to a two-front war that he had vowed to avoid and excusing Franklin Roosevelt from having to persuade the USA to go to war against Germany. Not only that, but he rerouted trains that should have taken supplies to the Eastern Front to deliver Jews to the death camps instead.That’s not enough to make Hitler a madman, exactly, though. Hubris may be enough to explain that and his behavior when the Russians began getting the better of his troops, and he refused to let them retreat.
But questions remain, and are hard to answer. Was Hitler sincere in his desire to kill the Jews, or was he just an opportunist? Did he believe killing them was right to do? If he did, why is he quoted in the book recording his table talk during the war as commenting (to Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler) on the “rumors” about exterminating the Jews, when they were “merely parking them in swamps”, though they deserved to be exterminated?
And whether he was sincere or not, what caused him to want to do that? Was it simply that Jews (and others) cost too much to feed? Did he do it because he was a sexual pervert? Or was it (as has been suggested) that a billy goat took a bite out of his penis? That a Jewish doctor took care of his mother during her fatal illness? Or that he caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute?
Let’s consider some of the different interpretations of what he did.
Perhaps the earliest attempt to understand Hitler was by reporters of the Munich Post, which early decided he was bad news and tracked his behavior and that of his party members. Not just the street violence by the SA, Hitler’s private army, which often enough resulted in injuries and deaths, but the question of Hitler’s ability to live a comfortable lifestyle without visible means of support, and the sexual improprieties of some of his followers, including Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, who was notoriously homosexual.
They also covered the death of Geli Rabaul and the political murders the Nazis began committing in the last two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. As determined as they were, and as assiduously as they documented Hitler’s crimes, not enough people paid attention. Once he achieved power the paper was shut down and any of the reporters who were unable to leave the country in time were sent to concentration camps or murdered.
Fritz Gerlich was another journalist who did the same. He had been a rightwing nationalist like Hitler, and might have supported him, but when Hitler asked him for support, he asked Hitler to promise not to mistreat von Kahr, the politician he supported and not to try a putsch. Hitler promised, then did attempt a putsch (sudden revolution) and arrested von Kahr during the course of it. Gerlich could never trust Hitler again. He started his own paper, but he and the Munich Post both denounced Hitler as a counterfeiter who lied about what he wanted, who he was, and especially about the myth that Germany had only lost the First World War because it was stabbed in the back by politicians and financiers, which meant JEWISH politicians and financiers. This was more comfortable to believe than that Germany had lost the war.
Gerlich in particular was able to get under Hitler’s skin. In a piece he published in 1932 he analyzed Hitler’s nose according to the racial characteristics that Hitler endorsed, saying that it wasn’t a Nordic nose, but looked much more Mongolian, and Mongolian mixed with other races. This was a way of pointing out that Hitler looked very little like his supposed blonde- haired blue eyed Aryan ideal.
The racist stereotypes that Hitler supported also stated that real Aryans loved freedom and thought for themselves. This obviously contradicted what the Nazis were advocating, that Germans selflessly dedicate themselves to following their Fuhrer’s direction, and Gerlich commented that this too was, according to racist views, much more Mongolian than Aryan.
Just two years later a book was published in Germany lauding Genghis Khan for being willing to commit mass murder in building a state, the largest continental empire ever known. Hitler may or may not have read this book, but he absorbed the ideas from somewhere, because he gave his SS troops a pep talk just before the invasion of Poland, urging them to kill without mercy in order to secure the “living room” (lebensraum) that Germany needed. He told them to be like the Mongols because Stalin’s Mongols would have no mercy on them if they lost. Gerlich was somehow able to intuit what Hitler was thinking, and he was soon killed by the Nazis for his insight.
The problem with any one interpretation of Hitler is that there is almost always evidence to contradict it. During World War II the Allies compiled as much information about him as they could, and one part of it purports to be information proving Hitler never had sex, while another part says he had too much of it. Both can’t be true–maybe neither are.
Rosenbaum says there are a number of legends of evidence hidden, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes known to one person who died or was killed before being able to tell it. One is the story that Fritz Gerlich managed to publish a pamphlet accusing Hitler of murdering Geli Rabaul. If it ever existed, it hasn’t come to light. Another says that the doctor who treated Hitler for hysterical blindness at Pasewalk at the very end of World War I deposited his case history in a bank in Switzerland, but entrusted no one with the information of how to retrieve it. Did this happen? Is the information still there?
Rosenbaum also mentions a story in the Hearst newspapers using Alois Hitler Jr as a source. In it, Alois says he’s the son of a cousin of Hitler’s father, when actually he’s Hitler’s older half-brother of the same father. Rosenbaum points to this as the kind of petty criminal outlook characterizing the Hitler family. Hitler was always very concerned about his image, and protecting it. We’re unlikely to find any more previously unknown evidence, and it’s questionable that any one thing could explain his actions anyway.
Since the war there have been further interpretations made. One interpreter, David Irving, lived in England during the war, and didn’t find information given by the Allies persuasive. He came to believe that, because no order signed by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust had been found, that it had all been the work of his underlings–until he came across papers written by Adolph Eichmann after the war referring to that order being received by Himmler. Rosenbaum reports that Irving says he thought, “Oops, how do I explain THIS away?”
He managed to find a way. He managed to meet a number of old Nazis, whom he respected for their intelligence and accomplishments, and their views of Hitler influenced him.
Perhaps the most important of these was Christa Schroeder, who had been Hitler’s secretary. Rosenbaum recounts a story he says rang true to him that Schroeder told Irving.
During the Night of Long Knives in 1934 Hitler purged the Nazi party, primarily of Ernst Röhm, who may have wanted authority over the German army, or parts of it, and whom the army cordially detested. Hitler also had other enemies and dissidents murdered at the time.
Christa Schroeder accompanied him to the SA barracks in Bavaria, where he arrested Röhm and other SA leaders. Afterwards they flew back to Berlin, where Schroeder got something to eat, and Hitler disappeared. When she saw him again he told her he had just had a shower and was now as clean (probably meaning as innocent) as a baby.
Franz Kafka, the famous writer, has often been credited with predicting the sinister bureaucracy the Nazis employed, writing stories like “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial. Perhaps amusingly, an American GI in 1946 visited Hitler’s Munich apartment in which Geli Rabaul had died, and found a lawyer named Kafka living there.
But there are deeper connections than that. Dr. Eduard Bloch, who cared for Hitler’s mother during her terminal illness of breast cancer, used iodoform to pack her wound. Rudolph Binion argued that Bloch had used too much iodoform, causing Klara Hitler great pain without any good effect. Hitler later compared the Jews to “abscesses” on the body of the nation, which played into his fantasy of himself as “Dr. Hitler” purifying the German people.
Of course this is another one- explanation theory, which makes it dubious, as does Hitler’s documented gratitude to Dr. Bloch. But yet another Kafka enters the story, a nephew of Dr. Bloch, who deeply loved and respected him, and resented Binion’s theory, saying there’s no way any one Jew was responsible for the Holocaust. He, another respected scholar, followed Binion around and heckled him wherever he spoke, and said he would never stop.
Claud Lanzmann, who created the 9 1/2 hour documentary Shoah. took a different approach, from a concentration camp guard who reportedly told a prisoner, “There is no why here.” His rationale seems to have been that trying to understand such horror inevitably leads one to excusing it, which is at least a questionable idea, and which led Lanzmann to attack anyone who disobeyed that commandment and others, even survivors of the death camps. While there is some virtue in denying that understanding all inevitably means forgiving all, Lanzmann himself apparently behaved as tyrannically as the Nazis in denying others the right to their opinions.
One of the people he attacked was Dr. Louis Micheels, himself a survivor of the camps, who insisted, there MUST be a why. He and his fiance had been sent to the camps, where they were separated. Both survived, but didn’t marry each other. They stayed in touch, though, and in the 80s she appeared in a Dutch documentary about the period. Also appearing was a Dr. Munch, who had refused to be a “selector” choosing which Jews would immediately perish when they arrived at the camp (Auschwitz, in this case). He was the only one of the Nazi doctors to be acquitted in a war crimes trial, at least partly because many survivors were grateful to him, even though he hadn’t resisted the brutal system in other ways. Though Micheels thought the film was flawed, he also thought it raised important questions, and invited Lanzmann to see and discuss it. Lanzmann accepted the invitation, then denounced the movie and Micheels for “revisionism”, which apparently means Micheels was trying to excuse the Nazi crimes. Rather unlikely for an Auschwitz survivor.
One possibly valid question is how the Jews could still believe in God after the Holocaust. If the Jews were still the Chosen People, how could God have refrained from intervening. Dr. Yehuda Bauer says that God can’t possibly be all-powerful and just too; if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan; if he’s just, he must want to intervene, but not be powerful enough to make a difference. Of course there are still Jewish believers, whether or not they’ve thought the issue through as thoroughly as Bauer. Or are we (the whole world, rather than just the Jewish world) supposed to take the Holocaust as a moral lesson for which we should be grateful? Thus, the question is less whether God is dead than whether he has responsibility for, or complicity in, Hitler’s “radical evil”, a more satisfying formulation than his being, or the Holocaust’s being, the product of blind forces no human can withstand. As one commentator put it,, “No Hitler, no Holocaust.” That does seem to be valid.
Emil Fackenheim was struck by the idea expressed by some people he met that we all have a “Hitler within”, an idea he strongly disagreed with. He saw Hitler’s evil as so radical that it couldn’t be found in ordinary human nature. For this reason, he didn’t speak about Hitler or the Nazis for twenty years, until the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab States. He feared a second Holocaust, and decided he must say SOMETHING. He decided he needed to add to the 613 rules of worship and behavior of Orthodox Judaism, so he added: “Jews are forbidden to allow posthumous victories to Hitler.”
He, like Lanzmann, saw a danger in explanations of Hitler. Too much empathy could lead to excusing him. So he recommended use of empathy to understand Hitler, but a resistance to any temptation to explain away his evil. So not allowing Hitler posthumous victories means not only opposing anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, but not refusing to believe in God anymore because of the Holocaust, when one could hardly be blamed for believing that God had failed to hold up his end of the bargain.
George Steiner, the novelist, wrote a novel entitled, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. This has Hitler escaping Germany to South America, being tracked down and forced to defend himself at a trial conducted in the wild. According to Rosenbaum, even some of Steiner’s supporters believe that he let A.H. get away from him, and Steiner had to wonder himself after seeing his character in a dramatization of his novel, and hearing him applauded.
Steiner said that he had already known he had to be careful with the Hitler character, and had vowed not to let his work be translated into Hebrew or German. The Word is very powerful, and can be very destructive. One of Steiner’s earliest memories was of the voice of Hitler on the radio, and of having to flee. His family made it safely to America (on the last ship from Genoa), and as he grew up his father’s dream for him was to return to Europe because if he didn’t, Hitler would have won a victory. Europe would be Judenrein (Jew-free). His father felt the same as Fackenheim.
Steiner became fascinated with Hitler. He knew Hitler and the philosopher Wittgenstein had both gone to secondary school in Linz, and must have at least seen each other in passing, as there was only two year’s difference in their ages. He thought that when Hitler was in Vienna he must also have passed people like Freud and Mahler on the street, and asked that as many photos of the period as possible be searched to see if they could be found together. He mentions that Karl Kraus, a very popular literary satirist in Vienna in 1909 said, “Soon in Europe they will make gloves of human skin.” He sees Franz Kafka too as having either conjured up the concentration camp world, or intuited its coming. The fascination of the best and worst aspects of European civilization existing together, some of them in the same city where they could potentially interact as individuals, and be inseparable. The highest and lowest intermingled.
There’s a photo of Hitler in 1919 standing on a street corner in pouring rain, unnoticed by anyone. As each year progresses he’s noticed by more and more people, which Steiner ascribes to the power of his words, which he compares to Martin Luther’s. This was the proximate inspiration of the novel, part of which wrote itself as he sat down to it.
The climax of the novel is when Hitler is being tried in the jungle when the people who tracked him down are unable to bring him back to civilization. At the end of the trial he speaks, saying that his mission had been to eradicate the people who had brought the idea of conscience into the world which, and whose religion had engendered Christianity and Islam, which had crippled the world with unnecessary suffering. A kind of reprise to Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The idea that the religious ideas of the Jews had asked too much of humanity, and had a malignant effect on them. He compares what the Nazis did to what had been done earlier by the Belgians in the Congo, the concentration camps invented in the Boer war in South Africa, and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. “We were not the worst,” he says. He adds that in a sense he is savior of the Jews because his war on them made it possible to return to Palestine and found the state of Israel.
Did Steiner somehow reveal Hitler’s actual thoughts? Are the thoughts and words attributed to him in the novel so potent that they can convert others into anti-Semitism and what goes with it? Steiner didn’t think so. He thought they were questions that needed to be answered, perhaps first and foremost by Jews. Rosenbaum asked him if the Jews shouldn’t have conceptualized self-transcendence. Should they have apologized for it?
Steiner answers, no. That they would have done better to demand it more of themselves than of other people (which certainly applies to Christians and others as well), but that it would indeed be a very good thing if humans learned to love each other as themselves. Some do, some have, but these are rare. And humans hate being told they must be better. They are likely to hate anyone who tells them that, especially if the teller isn’t clearly better themselves.
This seems a sophisticated way of blaming the victim. However, Steiner goes even further. He believes the Jews as victims were the occasion for lowering the bar of humanity, showing just how bestial humans could be, and that the difference between the Holocaust and previous massacres was ontological: Jews were murdered not because of what they had done, but because they existed. Those who performed this obscenity became worse than beasts. In his willingness to look at the implications of the Hitler of his novel, and what his Hitler says, Steiner is playing with fire, says Rosenbaum. The obscenity that was applied to the Jews can also be applied to any other group.
Other voices shift the blame elsewhere. Daniel Goldhagen blames the German people as a whole for accepting the propaganda of the anti-Semitic press of the late 19th and early 20th century, and being all to willing to murder Jews when they were asked to. This assertion is answered by George Steiner, who says that the Germans may have been the LEAST anti-Semitic of the European countries. Had the Holocaust started in France, he says, it could have been much worse. Also worse seem to have been Austria and eastern European countries. It’s possible to see the passivity with which the Jews refused to fight back in Germany as a love for the country that had allowed them to assimilate and achieve. Anti-Semitic as it may have been, it was better than other countries. All of which is not to absolve Germans or anyone else of the Holocaust.
Hyum Maccoby blames Christianity, and with some reason. Blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus begins in the New Testament and continues for almost 2,000 years. Once Christians achieved political power in the 4th century CE they began persecuting other Christians for heresy, pagans, and (of course) Jews. Persecution was relatively mild at first, but one landmark of change was at the beginning of the First Crusade when the collected crusaders decided to massacre the local Jews.
From then on persecution became more severe. Jews were expelled from England. They were forcibly converted in Spain, children being kidnapped from their parents to be brought up Christian, parents sometime killing their children to prevent it. Eventually some willingly converted, but then practiced rituals of Judaism at home. When this was discovered it set off the Spanish Inquisition in a burst of paranoia, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain too, where they had lived peaceably with Christians and Muslims for much of the previous 700 years. The next step was putting them in ghettos. Some eventually left the ghettos and tried to assimilate, but were still resented. Hitler, at least in some respects, was the culmination of all this history.
And the ostensible cause is darkly ironic. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, the appointed sacrifice, then blame the Jews for doing the dirty work from which we all supposedly benefit. On top of that, the more you hate Jews the more you are saved yourself because you can’t be implicated in the crime of killing Jesus. Just as hating Jews means you couldn’t possibly be one.
Rosenbaum recalls medieval “debates” in which a Christian would debate a Jew as to which religion has the truth. Of course the debates were fixed. Christians had to win. The best Jews could do was try to maintain their dignity in a discussion they had no interest in.
Maccoby sees St Paul as perhaps the originator of Christian anti-Semitism since he purged early Christianity of Jewish law, converting gentiles and telling them they didn’t need to be circumcised or follow the dietary laws. When the gospels were written (somewhat later than Paul’s epistles to the churches he founded) the story of Judas became prominent as the archetype of betrayal, and considered by many to be the archetypal Jew. What many fail to consider is that Jesus must have been a singularly poor judge of character to make Judas a disciple in the first place, if Judas actually was as portrayed. But this portrayal of Judas and the Jews for 1800 years made the Holocaust possible. Maccoby thinks Christianity would be (and would have been) better served by concentrating on Jesus’s life rather than his death.
There’s yet another interpretation of Hitler and what he did, a “mystical” one. In The Spear of Destiny Trevor Ravenscroft said that Hitler, during his sojourn in Vienna as a young man, had found ways to expand his consciousness and had found a spear which had belonged to one of the Holy Roman emperors in a museum, where he was observed by another young man, a student of the occultist Rudolf Steiner, who saw how much he coveted the spear.
Ravenscroft’s thesis, which I don’t assert the truth of, but which fascinated me when I encountered his book more than forty years ago, was that the spear was the one which had been thrust into the side of Jesus when he was on the cross. Jesus’s blood had made the spear a formidable magical implement, so that anyone who possessed the spear would make history on the world stage.
One possessor of the spear was the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal in the Roman empire, giving it political power which eventually made it the national religion and banished paganism. Another was Frederick Barbarossa, one of the outstanding Holy Roman emperors. Hitler wanted it too. But in his process of expanding his consciousness he took mescaline, which Ravenscroft interpreted as black magic, especially when used for the purpose of accumulating political power. In doing so he allowed the spirit of the AntiChrist to possess him, which seems a cogent explanation of his behavior–if you can believe in the AntiChrist. It’s not hard to think of his behavior as figuratively demonic, though I think Ravenscroft belives it to be LITERALLY so. I neither include nor exclude this possibility.
The final view the book deals with is that of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who doesn’t see Hitler as ever being hesitant about the Holocaust, but cunningly making it seem as if he was. She sees him as an actor, but not as an actor who is merely an opportunist, but an actor who creates a persona that affords him deniability. She sees him doing this through “esoteric” language that his inner circle would understand, but others would not. He is a criminal not only in small ways, but on a grand scale, and protects himself with a counterfeit persona which seems still to convince some today.
She comes to this conclusion from what he says in Mein Kampf about being in the sanitarium in Pasewalk, where he was treated after being gassed and apparently suffering a case of hysterical blindness, perhaps brought on by the news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies after a naval rebellion and a revolution had forced the abdication of the emperor. She quotes him as saying, “There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard either-or.”
This is when Dawidowicz believes he made the decision, though she adds that he may have made it as late as 1924 when he was writing Mein Kampf. She also thinks he decided to conceal his ambition from all but his inner circle. Extermination on such a scale isn’t a goal to advertise. If she’s correct, he concealed his goal very well. Most historians think he gradually became more radical in what he was willing to do as he acquired more power, so that he didn’t REALLY decide on extermination until 1941 when that became more convenient than continuing to feed them. That’s probably a good model for the murders committed by Stalin and Mao: they were willing to commit them, but murder wasn’t their goal from the beginning.
Hitler did make remarks about hanging Jews from every lamp post, or that having gassed thousands of them in 1918 might have prevented German defeat, but most people didn’t take that too seriously. Dawidowicz points out that just after the war Hitler was still attached to the military, who liked what he was saying, but didn’t want him speaking too plainly. So he used code words: “usurers”, “profiteers’, “exploiters”, all descriptions that had been applied to the Jews before.
As Rosenbaum says, Dawidowicz doesn’t have solid proof that Hitler had decided what he was going to do so early, but neither can anyone else prove that he hadn’t. Hitler is quoted in a speech from 1937 to a Nazi party group in which he says that everyone knows their goal, but that he will do whatever he can to maneuver the enemy into a corner from which he can’t fight back.
She gives several indications of how he concealed his direction of events. He gave no order for Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in 1938, but when Himmler tried to get Goebbels to stop instigating the violence, Hitler prevented him.
In January 1939 Hitler made a speech saying that if the Jews started a war it would be their destruction. In September 1939 he spoke declaring war on Poland. This speech stands out because it was one in which he never mentioned Jews. But no less than four times in the next three years he referred to the September speech as the one in which he had threatened the Jews. Dawidowicz takes this as meaning that extermination was the REAL reason for starting the war, and that Hitler “slipped” in thinking he had threatened the Jews in September rather than January.
And she says the threat is also linked with laughter. In several speeches Hitler says the Jews have laughed at him, but that they are laughing no longer. It’s pretty hard to imagine Jews laughing at him in the late 1930s, let alone the 40s. The laughter is really Hitler’s. The extermination of Jewish laughter is the extermination of Jews.
Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed that Hitler was “convinced of his own rectitude”. That he was doing something right and appropriate, but that doesn’t fit this kind of laughter. This laughter is, as Rosenbaum puts it, from someone who RELISHES what he’s doing, and the illicit nature of it. While he liked to picture himself as Dr. Hitler destroying a life-threatening infection, he was enjoying what he did in a way that actual doctors don’t. Killing bacteria isn’t something they take personally. Killing Jews was something Hitler DID take personally.
According to Milton Himmelfarb, abstract historic forces didn’t compel Hitler to kill Jews: he did it because he wanted to, and perhaps he saw what he did as an ironic form of art, like the motto at the entrance to the death camps: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes freedom. A last good joke on the Jews before they died. Perhaps, Rosenbaum suggests, it’s easier for us to believe that Hitler was some kind of freak, insane or perverted, an opportunist who believed in nothing, and only killed Jews because it was convenient. Instead, this picture is of Hitler who knows his own malignance and delights in it.
Emil Fackenheim called Hitler “an eruption of demonism into history”. That could be seen as justifying the idea that he was possessed by the spirit of the Antichrist. Doesn’t that explain his actions as well as anything? Of course there have been mass murderers in the past, and Stalin was already responsible for the death of millions by the time Hitler came to power. Can we explain either of them by any abuse they suffered as children? Or did they simply have a predilection for evil and a genius for getting into position to exercise it?
But it does seem better to say Hitler was as consciously evil as it’s possible for a human to be, and not liberate his memory from responsibility for what he did and caused. That would be, as Fackenheim said, allowing Hitler a posthumous victory.