Explaining The Inexplicable
07/23/1998 - 20:00
Jewish Week Book Critic
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More than 50 years after Hitler’s death, there’s no consensus among the many Holocaust scholars about the nature of his evil, his motivations, his self-awareness, his hiddenness. As journalist Ron Rosenbaum points out in his new book Explaining Hitler (Random House), there are many competing visions and passionate, bitter disputes. In fact, the scholars portray many Hitlers: the psychologically damaged son, the German shaped by forces of history, the Hamlet-like leader who couldn’t make up his mind, among others — “Hitlers who might not recognize each other well enough to say ‘Heil’ if they came face to face in Hell,” Rosenbaum writes.

It’s not just the scholars who disagree. On many recent radio call-in shows, the author has encountered individuals who have their own explanations of Hitler’s behavior. “People feel compelled to have a theory about Hitler,” Rosenbaum says in an interview last week at the Yale Club. “In some ways it’s maybe more comforting to have a bad explanation than no explanation at all.”

Rosenbaum’s book is a study of the explainers, written with scholarly thoroughness and the lively prose of a cultural journalist. “I’d argue that Hitler explanations ... are cultural self-portraits; the shapes we project onto the inky Rorschach of Hitler’s psyche are often cultural self-portraits in the negative. What we talk about when we talk about Hitler is also who we are and who we are not,” he writes.

Growing up in Bay Shore, L.I., in ’50s and ’60s, the Holocaust was an “abstract fact” for Rosenbaum. He remembers being aware of the 6 Million who were murdered, but there were no Holocaust survivors among his family and friends, and none living in his town. It was much later that Hitler would become an obsession.

Among the factors that sparked his interest — why he “plunged into the abyss” — were his father’s casual mention at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1982 of a relative who died in the Holocaust; it was the first time Rosenbaum learned of their family connection. Soon after, he engaged in conversation with a group of Jewish militants who proposed assassinating Nazi war criminals. He disagreed, but one of their questions — whether, if he was living in Weimar Germany, he would have thought it was legitimate to kill Hitler — stayed with him. He was also struck by reading Milton Himmelfarb’s essay in Commentary, “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” and sought to answer for himself questions about who Hitler was and why he did what he did.

Known as a journalist who turns subjects inside out, Rosenbaum writes the weekly “The Edgy Enthusiast” column in The New York Observer, where he voices his sometimes quirky obsessions. The author of a novel and three collections of essays who now also writes for The New York Times Magazine and Esquire and teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Rosenbaum began researching this topic with the aim of writing a novel about Jews who planned to assassinate Hitler in the 1920s, but became fascinated with the issues and shifted to non-fiction.

In doing research, Rosenbaum traveled to Germany, Austria, England, France and Israel to visit archives and to meet with the leading explainers, including British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, biographer Alan Bullock, scholar Daniel Goldhagen whose book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” was greeted critically in the scholarly community, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, revisionist David Irving, scholar Christopher Browning, theologian Emil Fackenheim and Hebrew University professor Yehuda Bauer, a founder of the discipline of Holocaust studies.

Trevor-Roper presents a sincere Hitler convinced of his righteousness in carrying out the Final Solution, acting for the good of Germany. Bullock claims he was manipulative and cold-blooded. Some put the blame on situations in Hitler’s life, others point to circumstances in Germany and say that if there had been no Hitler, the society would have produced someone else to execute the Final Solution. Himmelfarb believes the opposite.

Psychoanalytic thinkers point to his family and their bad parenting, what Rosenbaum refers to as “the Menendez defense of Hitler.” Others identify Jews in his life who may have inspired his boundless hatred: Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal theorizes that it was the effect of an attack of syphilis, caught from a Jewish prostitute.

Bauer tells the author that “Hitler is not inexplicable. But the fact that something is explicable does not mean that it has been explained.” For Fackenheim, Hitler is beyond explanation; no explanation could explain the enormity of his crimes. Lanzmann feels adamantly that Hitler can’t be understood, for understanding might imply forgiveness.

Once involved in the maze of explanations and decades-long arguments among scholars, he refocuses his goal, from trying to uncover a single answer to trying to understand the personal agendas as well as the interpretations of the explainers. His ability to see many sides of the argument at once gives this provocative work a Talmudic-like quality.

When asked if there’s one view closest to his own, the journalist long used to asking the questions doesn’t answer directly, but says that he felt it was particularly important to restore the vision of the late historian Lucy Davidowicz, whose 1975 book “The War Against the Jews” is often ignored. In contrast to Browning who sees Hitler as wavering in his decision-making — “the nebbish Hitler,” as Rosenbaum describes — Davidowicz claimed that Hitler made his decision about the Final Solution as far back as November 1918, while recuperating in a military hospital, and that he never changed his mind.

Has Rosenbaum’s outlook changed after spending more than 10 years working on this book? “You can’t help taking a darker view of human nature if you spend a lot of time focusing on nightmarish events. On the other hand, I didn’t have much of a Pollyanish, bright view of human nature before either.”

As to whether his Jewish identity has been affected by his work on this project, he says, “I felt myself more and more feeling a kind of identification with the Jewish people for their persistence, their struggle, what they’ve endured and that they survived. I probably have come to more of a sense of being part of this amazing people.”

Rosenbaum, now in his early 50s, says that he’s long been drawn to Jewish thinkers, writers, and visionaries, and he’s also drawn to “this great Jewish impulse to question the world, to look at the world as a text to be unrolled, examined and explicated.” For many years, he’s been “obsessed” with figures like Spinoza, Kafka and Singer. “What’s developed in the course of writing this is maybe a sense of tragic solidarity with what my people have gone through. It’s not that I have suffered. I have come to feel that all of the victims and survivors are part of my extended family.”

Underlying the many questions about Hitler is the debate over his exceptionalism, whether Hitler is on a “continuum” with other mass murderers, on the extreme end of a spectrum of human nature shared by all members of society. Rosenbaum ponders whether there’s a potential Hitler within all people, or whether he’s “off the grid,” beyond any continuum.

For his next book, he’s considering a further exploration of the exceptionalism question, with regard to the genius of William Shakespeare, a writer Rosenbaum has been reading and rereading since his days as an English major at Yale. “Is he just a great writer, on the same continuum as others, or does his work transcend the work of other writers?” Rosenbaum asks. “If I’m going to spend another 10 years on something, I won’t be locked up in a room with Hitler. It will be with someone who’s given the world great pleasure.”

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Psychiatrist Scott Peck has written a very interesting book where he views human evil as a mental illness, as a psychological disorder; the book is called People Of The Lie, and it is by far the most outstanding work of psychiatrical literature I have ever seen. I believe this book might help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the evil of Adolf Hitler, and other evil people in the world ( for there apparently quite a few.)

According to Scott Peck, evil people would prefer to blame others rather than take responsibility for their own faults and failures. They tend to come from very unpleasant, disrespectful, abusive families (even when the abuse is only verbal); a person apparently becomes evil when the massive sense of abandonment, distress, fear, guilt and humiliation they grow up with becomes so great, that a person turns inwards, hiding away the agony they feel from the world, denying the guilt and pain within themselves.

Peck's book is named "People of the Lie" because everything about evil people is a lie; they keep up a facade of normalcy in order to fool others as well as themselves into believing that they are actually good persons, and they are concerned with appearing as morally upright as possible so as not to be identified as evil; such persons are so terrified of someone figuring out that they are evil, it would be (for them) like being shot. Peck argues that the evil thus live with levels of terror known to few. They are apparently filled with vengeful motives and hatred for good people, who have qualities such as honesty, compassion, openness, integrity, mercy, and so on, which evil people lack. And so whenever the evil encounter a good person with such qualities, it shows the evil up for what they are; it reveals themselves to themselves. It makes them feel weak and stupid. And since nobody likes to feel weak and stupid, the evil thus reach out and attempt to tear down that good person for making them feel that way, in order to make that other person feel just as broken down and miserable as they themselves feel.

Evil people are immensely confusing individuals. They go out of their way to be confusing, in order to control and deceive others. They tend to seek out positions of authority in order to make themselves appear legitimate and respectable, so that they can work out their vengeful motives against others and appear blameless while doing so. They often appear to be immensely prideful, arrogant people, appearing to derive a perverse pleasure from fooling others into believing them to be good individuals. Though deep down they themselves have zero self esteem, evil people disguise this aspect of themselves so well that it is difficult to tell that this is the case.

According to this theory, evil people are very common in society, and are masters of disguise; very hard to detect. You likely meet them every day, at work, church, the supermarket, school, and so on. Peck's belief is that roughly 2 to 3 percent of the population is evil, a small, but significant minority. And he further believes that psychology up till now has missed out on identifying evil as a disorder (a very rigid, regimental disorder) because most psychologists and psychiatrists have bought the facade; evil people claim they have no problems, and almost never seek out therapy, unless only for the most twisted of motives. The evil flee the light of self-examination, and it is quite impossible to help someone who will not concede that they have a problem. One cannot change what one does not acknowledge.

Evil people are often confused with psychopaths and sociopaths, since both can be highly manipulative, bullying, and are often accomplished liars. However, evil people are most certainly not sociopathic or psychopathic. Though the evil tend to behave with remarkable insensitivity toward their victims, they themselves are immensely empathetic, sensitive people; Overly-sensitive, in fact, is how Scott Peck classifies them. The evil cannot tolerate even the smallest criticism without reacting vengefully, attempting to remove any suggestion of guilt from themselves by placing it onto other people. Psychopaths and sociopaths can at least admit when they may have done something wrong (as long as their self-interest is not involved), and they are quite capable of accepting that they might be psychopathic or sociopathic; ie., that they might have a problem. An evil person, conversely, would never admit to ANY fault, of ANY sort whatsoever, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant; they believe themselves to be perfect persons, without fault, and why should a perfect person ever have to apologize for anything? Thus one will never, ever, ever hear an evil person apologize for anything; this is one of the ways in which they can be identified.

The evil cannot stop messing with others. They wish to appear good. They don't wish to actually BE good. If a situation arises where an evil person can hurt a good person in some way (even if only in the tiniest way) and look innocent while doing so, the evil person will take that opportunity; the evil just slips out. If it would look bad for the evil person to behave unpleasantly, the person will restrain themselves. Thus the evil tend to be extremely subtle abusers, and almost never end up in jail. They know where the limits are. They know exactly how far to push, and no farther. Thus the lives of evil people tend to be a bizarre balancing act between looking respectable and blameless, and hurting as many good people as possible. Give them a family, and they will turn it into a tragedy. Give them a country, and they become dictators.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck believed he could detect no limit in those he identified as evil people as to how far they were willing to go when working out their vengeful hatreds upon others, if given the opportunity and freedom to do so. The evil appear to have a limitless black lake of hatred to draw on which never runs dry, which seems to go much further In explaining the Holocaust than anything else; psychopaths and sociopaths are often just insensitive to others; evil people actively HATE others, locating within them the cause of their own pain and suffering. And when they victimize people, the evil are merciless, because they are transferring upon others the evil which they deny and flee from within themselves; they feel they are punishing evil, and their cause is a righteous cause. This further likely explains why the Nazis continued to exterminate the Jews right up to the very last moment on Hitler's own orders, even when it was clear that the Nazis had lost the War; only hatred could account for such vicious dedication, when there was no other clear or particular reason to do so; bottomless hatred for their victims.

Evil people tend to scapegoat others. They tend to pick victims, or particular types of victims, whom they hound without mercy until those people are either dead, or can somehow escape from the evil people themselves. The scapegoating of the Jews and others, seen from this theory, seems rather textbook from this view. Evil people are chronic scapegoaters, and once their primary victims are dispatched (or escape), they then pick someone else to victimize. Evil people don't appear to visibly suffer from any guilt or shame for their actions (or much of anything at all), since in their minds they place all the responsibility for their wicked behaviour onto others; thus the evil most often can be identified by their victims. If the evil behave badly, why, then it must be someone else's fault, or someTHING else's fault; never, ever THEIR fault. Through transference, they see others as to blame, and they punish those people accordingly. Thus convinced of their own perfection and innocence, the evil often appear creepily calm and ordinary even when it is clear they have behaved very badly indeed, as in the case of Adolf Eichmann, who murdered millions of Jews, but appeared so ordinary, sane, banal, and even boring. The evil blame their victims, rather than themselves, and thus feel no genuine weight of responsibility for what they do to them.

I cannot recommend Scott Peck's book "People of the Lie" enough. It seems (to my mind at least) to clear away the immense fog of confusion the evil often cloak themselves with, revealing them as pathetic, dull, terrified individuals, wandering the world, creating havoc wherever they go and denying all of it. When Paul Berardo and Karla Homolka were arrested for murder, Bernardo was easily identified as a psychopath; but Karla Homolka easily passed the psychopath exams administered, baffling all of the practitioners, because nothing could be found wrong with her according to psychology at that time. Evil people appear to have no defect in their sense of empathy, as psychopaths and sociopaths do; they appear to know exactly how others feel, and they use this understanding to inflict exquisite suffering on their victims; evil people instead seem to have a defect in their will; they are immensely willful people, utterly determined to have their own way, and are willing to work harder than most to get it.

"People of the Lie" can be found on Amazon. Look it up.

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