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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1788-1789.
View Author and Article Information
Houston, Tex.

by Ron Rosenbaum. New York, Random House, 1998, 448 pp., $30.00.

In fomenting the murder of tens of millions of his fellows, Adolf Hitler helped define the twentieth century and secured his place as its consensus arch-fiend. During his chancellorship of Germany in the 1930s to his death in 1945, the ferocious and urgent cruelty with which he prosecuted his publicly proclaimed goals of world domination and eradication of the Jews (and other untermensch) precipitated World War II. The explanations for, and attempts to understand how, a small-town, essentially uneducated Austrian boy grew up to become a monster of such fiendish ambition, charisma, and unbending will are almost as numerous as the people he killed and the plethora of literature on the matter. Despite the multifarious approaches (psychological, psychoanalytic, philosophical, political, theological, and genealogical, to name a few) and intensity of the scrutiny given to Hitler’s developmental history and life processes, he remains (to borrow from Winston Churchill) a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma, largely due to his own deliberate and extensive efforts to obscure his origins.

Ron Rosenbaum, journalist, author, and part-time college professor, develops his conceit: using the journalist’s scalpel to dissect Hitler’s explainers (some of them, anyway), their times, and their motives, he suggests that their own biases may have affected their exegeses. Rosenbaum is the committed investigator, pursuing the targets of his interest: places, people, theories, and archives; probing, seeking, reading, interviewing, as he maps "the labyrinthine thickets of Hitler explanations." Rosenbaum’s approach, especially to the people he interviewed, is respectful but thorough, as he questions, refutes, and substantiates. The result is a rewarding odyssey through time, history, and geography with enriching explorations of psychological, political, economic, and other considerations woven into a compelling and edifying narrative.

Rosenbaum’s 35-page introduction, "The Baby Pictures and the Abyss," is a cursory consideration of an astonishing "list" of topics and subjects that came to his attention during the many years of his research, some of which he treats in detail in the seven parts (and 20 chapters) that make up the body of the work. Here and in later chapters Rosenbaum honors courageous persecuted and martyred Germans, especially journalists and editors such as Fritz Gerlich (chapter 9), of the Munich Post, who attempted to tell the world about "the strange figure who had arisen from the Munich streets" ("the First Explainers") but who paid with their careers and their lives and are now completely forgotten.

Chapter 1 begins, "I was ready to give up and turn back." He is not confessing to feelings incurred during his long, almost impossible task, but has been caught in an autumnal snowstorm (reminiscent of the winter storm that stopped the Panzers near Moscow in 1941) in "a backwoods quarter of Austria" as he visits the site (and myths) of the village of Döllersheim, Hitler’s reputed ancestral home. The Döller­sheimers were forcibly deported and the village destroyed shortly after German annexation of Austria to "erase all traces of certain irregular and disreputable Hitler family events" and in response to his "near apoplectic rages" over repeated visits there by prewar journalists and investigators. Little more than anecdote, myth, fantasy, and hearsay remain. This erasure typifies the extent and viciousness of measures taken by Hitler to hide his past, and the pitifully scant remaining clues are symbolic of the often vaporous trail remaining for anyone tracing the monster’s evolution. Chapter 2 continues in the same venue as Rosenbaum visits the myths and fantasies of Hitler’s genealogy ("Was Hitler a Jew?") and how the place and its geography, the people, and their history have contributed to the distortions surrounding the "Mysterious Stranger" that Hitler always was.

Chapter 3, "The Poison Kitchen: The Forgotten First Explainers" is a moving homage to the "heroic but doomed reporters" of the Munich Post who saw clearly and reported faithfully the rising fortunes of the "political criminal" in their midst. Their efforts earned them the focused hatred of Nazi officials, the derisive appellation used in the chapter title, and, ultimately, their persecution and death at the hands of Nazi thugs. Rosenbaum reviews their published revelations of Hitler’s and the Nazi Party’s lies and criminality, hoping "to challenge contemporary German journalists to do justice to the men of the Poison Kitchen…who brought so much honor to their profession" by restoring their work to print again. He ends with a plea to restore their street address as a memorial and shrine to their heroism.

A substructure of the opus revolves about broader theories of Hitler’s makeup: i.e., normality (Is there a little bit of Hitler in all of us?) versus the unnatural (Was he sexually perverted or crippled?) versus the unprecedented evil (Was he a manifestation of a cosmic malevolent force?) versus the committed, true believer (He was attempting to better mankind by eradicating its unfit elements and the "Jewish virus"). Rosenbaum approaches explainers of whatever stripe from the strength of a very informed position. For each of the chapters there are interviews and conversations with a sobering variety of published interpreters of the Hitler phenomenon: the flip-flopping Hugh Trevor-Roper, an unrepentant Hitler apologist, Holocaust-denier David Irving, Berel Lang, Yehuda Bauer, Milton Himmelfarb, and others—many notable and some more ordinary people who may have been witness to important events. Many of these writers will be familiar to anyone who has followed these matters in depth over the postwar years.

In chapter 8, Rosenbaum examines the "hidden variables theories"—mainly psychoanalytic—which focus on Hitler’s sexuality. He is mostly dismissive of the contributions of psychoanalysts and "a whole school that came to be known as psychohistorians" because of the assumptive bases of their commentaries and conclusions. In chapter 11, Rosenbaum’s guide during an exploratory visit to Hitler’s mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg, "Herr H., …a forty-five year old Viennese," a collector and purveyor of Hitleriana, and a "relativist" (Stalin was worse, "he invented mass murder and concentration camps") is no intellectual match for the author. His sometime pointed discussions with Herr H. lead easily into examination of the "revisionist" opinions that make up the body of this chapter. Daniel Goldhagen, who is sympathetically portrayed as having been savaged by Jewish (and German) scholars/critics for his Hitler’s Willing Executioners (R2915512CHDDIJHF), but facing questions and information refuting some of his theses, did not complete the interview with Rosenbaum, invoking a possible conflict of publishing interest.

It is not clear (nor is it necessary to know) throughout all this which of the explanations, if any, Rosenbaum subscribes to, but at the end, in a discussion with Milton Himmelfarb, he admits that "I might argue that if I’m an exceptionalist, it’s more by default than a metaphysical conviction that Hitler could never be explained by rational means," adding that "he [Hitler] is exceptional, in the sense that, as of now, he has not been pinned to anyone’s grid." The more history-minded readership will be familiar with many of the people, theories, and discussions encountered here, but Rosenbaum’s cumulative journalism, the depth and breadth of his revelations, and his masterly presentation of the material will engage and inform the most mature professional historian.

Hitler is, indeed, the century’s arch-fiend; no explanation has altered that position. As our murder-replete century approaches its close, it is interesting to speculate whether or not, as next century’s historians compare the unprecedented mega-horror inflicted by Lenin (R2915512CHDDGCDG), Stalin (R2915512CHDDGCCG), and Mao Tse Tung (R2915512CHDBGDDF) that is only now being revealed, Hitler’s station at the apex of this despicable pantheon will survive. Whether such attractively presented scholarship and knowledge will aid in precluding the rise of the next monster politician is, of course, yet to be seen.

Goldhagen DJ: Hitler"s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1996
Volkogonov D: Lenin. New York, Free Press, 1994
Volkogonov D: Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1991
Becker J: Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. New York, Free Press, 1996


Goldhagen DJ: Hitler"s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1996
Volkogonov D: Lenin. New York, Free Press, 1994
Volkogonov D: Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1991
Becker J: Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. New York, Free Press, 1996

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