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47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hitler and the historians, May 29, 2005
This review is from: Explaining Hitler (Paperback)
Rosenbaum opened this thoughtful and literate review of the supposed "explanations" for Hitler with a gripping account of a winter journey to Hitler's birthplace in the Austrian hinterland, to glean what can be gleaned from the - largely obliterated - traces of his family and early life. There is effective use of the dangerous iciness of the mountain roads as a metaphor for some of the people and places he encountered there: cold to the bone, dangerous, and frozen in time.

That set-piece opening led to a consideration of some of the "explanations" of Hitler's madness and evil: that Hitler had been abused as a child, that he was genitally deformed, or even that he was born normal but traumatised when his genitals were mutilated by - of all things - a goat. These and some of the other speculations that have been offered - that Hitler was homosexual, that he had caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute, that he was brainwashed into megalomania by a doctor experimenting with new psychological techniques, and so on - led Rosenbaum to a fascinating discussion of what is involved in even attempting to "explain Hitler".

Rosenbaum noted that many of the attempts at explaining Hitler tend, deliberately or not, to reduce the focus on his evil. To understand is to forgive, at least a little, and risks reducing Hitler to a victim, whether of other people or of circumstances. Worse, many of the proffered explanations put the blame on Jews, for example Weisenthal's notion of the (probably imaginary) Jewish prostitute who gave Hitler the clap.

Rosenbaum then examined some of the people who have made a career, or a business, of "explaining Hitler", beginning with engaging portraits of the old school historians Trevor-Roper and Bullock, two wise and wily old dons from an intellectual and academic world that has since largely - regrettably - vanished. This was followed by portraits of Claude Lanzmann, who came to feel he owned the Holocaust, and of David Irving, who tried to minimise it and deny Hitler's guilt, whose treatment is less affectionate. For these sections alone, and for the fascinating material on those journalists, Hitler's contemporaries, who tried to warn Germany and the world what Hitler was, and paid for their courage with their lives, this book deserves classic status.

But the book loses momentum and coherence somewhere past the half-way point. The editing is partly at fault, but worse, Rosenbaum's critical reasoning and crap-detecting seem to flag. He settles, finally, for Lucy Davidowicz's idea that Hitler had planned the Holocaust as early as 1918, based on isolated lines from Hitler speeches, such as, "they [the Jews] are not laughing now." It was a pity to see Rosenbaum apply critical reading for most of the book only to let his guard down completely for something as flimsy as this. The words Davidowicz cited do not say what she claims they say.

Previously Rosenbaum had challenged people who backed their claims with rhetoric rather than evidence, insisting on precision on what words were said, what they meant, who said them, and when. Davidowicz's claims are not only contradicted by almost all recent work on the Holocaust (as an atrocity that evolved over time and took its final form after the war had commenced), they are not even supported by her own citations. And Davidowicz's "explanation" would explain nothing even if it were true. She offered a fanciful and unconvincing answer to the question "when?", but the real question is not "when" but "why?"

However Rosenbaum's earlier chapters more than justify buying and keeping this book. The most reasonable conclusion, taking Rosenbaum into account, is that we will never know the cause of Hitler's madness and evil, but this is not the real issue. Ultimately Hitler was a squalid psychopath, in the same broad category as, say, Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer. He was intelligent, with the ability to charm and impress people when he needed, and murderously mad. Any alternative-history version of Hitler's life would probably have finished with him as a mass murderer: but he should have been another lone killer with a grisly basement and victims numbering in the tens, or fewer, not a head of state with victims in the tens of millions.

So although "why?" is the right question, we should perhaps not direct it at Hitler, but at the forces that put him in a position of power. That means looking at the political, military and business figures, who were basically sane, and evil only on a normal human scale, who actually did the deals that made Hitler the German Chancellor against the wishes of the majority of the German electorate. And even after Hitler was in power, there was a long period after it was quite clear - "crystal" clear - what he was, when it was still possible to remove him, had the will been there.

That group, who nurtured a rootless psychopath and put him into power for their own varied purposes, and who kept him there until he destroyed them too: perhaps it's the people like Papen, Hugenberg, Hindenberg and others, who have not yet received their share of historical scrutiny, or of humanity's hatred, ridicule and contempt. I suspect that this group is the best place to look for meaningful answers, not only to the question, "how?", but also to that most anguished of questions: "why?"

(People sometimes defame democracy by claiming that Hitler came to power by democratic means. In fact the Nazis never won an election, and had lost ground in the election before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Hitler was installed into power in a betrayal of the voters, and thereafter there were no elections.)

Though "Explaining Hitler" ends disappointingly, it still offers some fascinating portraits of heroes and villains, historians and pseudo-historians, and a great deal of interesting and insightful writing. Though I don't always agree with his conclusions, it is never less than a pleasure to read Rosenbaum thinking aloud. Strongly recommended.

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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 15, 2009 9:59:21 AM PDT
S. Spilka says:
Excellent review. I want to make just one point. I don't think that Rosenbaum presented Hitler's laughter as hard evidence, but as an appropriate, poetic coda to his work. And it is well known that Germans (SS and others) often laughed at their victims as they were kicking, or killing them. You can see it in many pictures. We know it. They were all laughing as they destroyed the Jews, which supports the view that Hitler was thoroughly evil and enjoyed being thoroughly evil.

Posted on May 11, 2010 11:12:31 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 11, 2010 11:14:31 PM PDT
Fabert says:
I was a bit surprised that you gave this book five stars. I too would definitely recommend it, but I also think it has some rather grave flaws. All too often, I think there's a rather flippant, superficial quality to Rosenbaum's speculations; and it's apparent that he has had to fit all the different authors he covers into the molds of his own interpretation. And you're spot-on in your critique of Rosenbaum's own attempt at an explanation towards the end. All this talk about Hitler's laughter came across as rather trite and meaningless to me.

Rosenbaum's one reference to Wagner, incidentally, is inaccurate, as I'm sure you noticed.

Still, your review is eminently informative, as always. Indeed, it is because I'm familiar with many of your other reviews that I found the rating you had given this book surprising. I almost always find myself agreeing with you: but in this case, not completely. Even so: many of your reviews I've reread several times, and I'm very thankful that you should have taken the time to write them.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 21, 2011 11:55:15 PM PST
Laon says:
Hi Fabert,
Thanks for your kind words, and you do have valid point about this book.
(And yes, I did notice and roll my eyes at the silly-ignorant Wagner reference, but I let it pass because it was so peripheral.)

But I thought that the valuable stuff here outweighed the faults. I learned a lot from the chapter about the unsung German journalists who opposed and exposed Hitler and paid for it. I enjoyed the time spent with Trevor-Roper and Bullock, and the not terribly kind treatment of Lanzman, among many other chapters. There was so much that was good here, and not found elsewhere, that it got five stars.

In my system, I guess I give five stars when I think there's enough cumulative goodness to make it worth going out of your way to get it. To me it doesn't mean that the item is flawless. (Speaking of which I've been meaning to write a five-star review for Beecham's Il Seraglio. Terribly flawed, but then there's Gottlob Frick.)

Anyway, there's my system. I agree this book is flawed, but it's also very good. Thanks very much, though, for your kind comment.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 30, 2013 1:54:06 PM PDT
Hitler was so abused as a child that his neurons were permanently displaced. No excuse, but nothing comes from nothing.

Posted on Nov 11, 2013 12:44:22 PM PST
I was curious as to whether you had ever read John Lukacs' book, The Hitler of History and if you had any thoughts about it. (I found Lukacs' Five Days in London: May 1940 to be absorbing and edifying, but have not yet gotten 'round to tackling the other book.)

Thank you for your attention to this. My station in life, and the fact that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows make it necessary that I choose my reading (and viewing) with care. Your reviews have been helpful in that regard. It is as important to expose and denounce the false and meretricious as it is to extol what is good and true.
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