In 1998 the journalist Ron Rosenbaum published Explaining Hitler. Contrary to what the title might suggest, it is not an explanation of Hitler, per se, but rather a 500-page meta-analysis of different theories intended to explain Hitler. Ron Rosenbaum traveled from the ruins of Hitler's Austrian birthplace to meet the historians, psychologists, and Nazi-hunters who have promoted different explanations for Hitler's evil. Whether the basis of the theories are plausible (Hitler's Jewish ancestry) or extremely unlikely (Hitler's penis was bitten off while he attempted to pee into the mouth of a billy goat) they are all presented with a relentless skepticism that makes reading Explaining Hitler a unique and destabilizing experience. (For a near comprehensive investigation of Hitler's evil that rises to address human evil as a whole it is also surprisingly funny.) This week a new, updated edition of Explaining Hitler was released, so I called up Ron Rosenbaum for a chat about Hitler, evil, and despair.
VICE: I just finished reading the afterword to the updated edition of Explaining Hitler. I was really glad to see that you formally introduced an analysis of the Downfall parodies.
Ron Rosenbaum: You know, it’s so interesting how resilient the Downfall parodies are, because they can somehow take any cultural meme and apply Hitler and trivialize it, and yet he remains embodied as this evil presence, not diminished by being in a Downfall parody. The Downfall parodies don’t trivialize Hitler’s evil, instead they trivialize the trivializations.
It seems to be a unique sort of Hitler joke that is immune to anti-Semitic misappropriation—no matter what Hitler never looks good or reasonable. When Sacha Baron Cohen released Throw the Jew Down the Well, the Anti-Defamation League released an open letter expressing concern his song would be taken at face value i.e., as an incitement to throw Jews down wells, and if you go by the responses in YouTube comments they may have been right.
I’ve not really paid much attention to the YouTube comments. What is the attitude you’re talking about? Many viewers are enjoying the song on a purely anti-Semitic level. For them the joke is not about how normal Americans will passively join a call for racial violence but rather, ‘Haha serves those Jews right for taking everybody’s money.’
I think YouTube commentators generally are recognized as the lowest of the low, really the bottom of the barrel of internet commenters, and that’s saying a lot. YouTube is almost like a magnet that pulls all the moronic iron filings of the world toward it. I’m not surprised that anti-Semites show up there.
I agree completely, but it’s easy to marginalize anti-Semitism and assume that it’s just self-identifying neo-Nazi groups, yet all over YouTube there is Holocaust denial and extreme racial hate seething within many otherwise “normal” people.
That’s certainly a downside of the internet. It also allows the publication and spread of all these anti-Semitic books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or unauthorized copies of Mein Kampf, but occasionally there are flashes of wisdom. I read about Godwin’s Law, that at a certain point every conversation online will devolve into Nazi or Hitler comparisons—if someone says vegetarianism is good the response is ‘Well, Hitler was a vegetarian.’ Godwin’s Law is really interesting. I don’t think you should ban comparisons to Hitler, but on the other hand comparisons to Hitler do overstate things most of the time. You can respond to a ban on soda by saying ‘It’s just like Nazi Germany,’ but it’s not.
Do you really think the free availability of Mein Kampf is problematic? Obviously it’s a core historical text in anti-Semitism, but it’s not something that I see anyone, anti-Semites included, referencing to justify their beliefs. Aside from its geographical specificity, the book just doesn’t seem like a very convincing argument.
Here in America probably there are not going to be many people who find Mein Kampf a convincing argument, but worldwide studies show that many people believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a conspiracy theory about Jews ruling the world that Mein Kampf was based on and that has certainly been circulated on the internet and also been published in many languages. But I think that Holocaust denial has superseded pure Nazism—it’s a Truther theory in a way, and you can see how in some ways almost all conspiracy theories share elements with Holocaust denial. It starts with the outrageous ‘I bet you can’t possibly believe I can prove it’ premise, but the fact that it’s so outrageous allows people to argue that the truth about it has been suppressed. It’s fascinating how tenacious Holocaust denial is.
I’m amazed by the persistence of the theories that you deconstructed when Explaining Hitler was first published 15 years ago. Even then they were often 30 or 40 years old, yet they are still written about in tabloids and widely shared on Facebook today. News stories about Hitler having escaped to South America, etc.
In some ways Hitler has survived through these survival conspiracy theories. There’s a fascination with the Hitler survival myth—the idea that Hitler lives or Hitler could be revived. I went into a bookstore the other day and picked up a new edition of The Boys from Brazil, which is one of the first Hitler recreation stories. It’s almost as if there’s a necessity to believe that he’s still with us. Maybe it’s easier to believe a lie than confront the uncertainty of what actually happened. Sir Richard Evans wrote an interesting article recently in the London Review of Books about the Reichstag fire. The conventional wisdom is that it wasn’t set by this lone Dutch communist, Van Der Lubbe, but that Nazis set fire to the Reichstag in 1933, falsely accused the Communists, and that allowed Hitler to declare a state of emergency, bar civil liberties, and basically seize dictatorial powers. But Richard Evans, who’s one of the most respected historians of the Third Reich, traced all the evidence and makes a very convincing argument that it truly was this lone Dutch communist, Van Der Lubbe, and that Hitler promoted it as a large Communist conspiracy so he could seize power supposedly to protect the nation from Communist attacks. There is one very striking sentence in his article where he says, ‘The Third Reich was founded by a conspiracy theory.’ That is certainly important to know. Conspiracy theories aren’t just laughable fantasies, they can be used by malicious powers.
There’s a great line in your article about Danny Casolaro where you are arguing against the possibility Casolaro was assassinated by clandestine government operatives. You wrote: “Danny was not the victim of a conspiracy but rather of conspiracy theorists…”
Yes. People are disoriented by conspiracy theories, damaged by them, and in Danny Casolaro’s case you could argue they drove him to suicide, which is not to say that there are no conspiracies. There are conspiracies––conspiracies to assassinate Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln for instance––but you have to judge them case-by-case. The problem is people who respond to any uncertainty by building these castles-in-the-air conspiracy theories before they find any evidence, which often obscures the search for truth. When I was researching the tragic death of Danny Casolaro I found that really he had fallen victim to a group of predatory conspiracy theorists who fooled him into thinking he had found the solution to all the bad things that had happened in the last half century, and when he couldn’t prove it, he proclaimed he was about to prove it and, I believe, committed suicide in order to create the illusion that people wanted to silence him about this imaginary conspiracy.
After the Santa Barbra shooting there were conspiracy theories that suggested Elliot Rodger’s apparent homosexuality might have been a sign that he was actually an 'actor,' which only served to obscure the fact that Rodger had been bullied for years for appearing gay. A psychologist went on Fox to talk abut the possibility that Rodger was gay and provoked vicious debates between different factions of explainers. There is something universal in Explaining Hitler’s themes, they reappear in almost every instance of contemporary evil—clashes between schools of explanation, conspiracies that only serve to distract from the search for truth.
Oh my God, there are so many terrible psychological attempts to explain Hitler. I think the subject brings out the worst in talk show psychologists. There’s a lot of 'psychopathic narcissism' among those psychologizing Hitler. The examples in my book were two psychoanalysts—one wanted to claim that Hitler became Hitler because he was beaten by his father, and the other psychoanalyst was equally determined to believe that Hitler had a malignant mother who was over-protective. As if everyone who has an over-protective mother or abusive father turns into Hitler. If everyone who has been struck by their father turned into Hitler we would be in a lot more trouble than we are. The failure of psychoanalysis, psychohistory, pyscho-everything to really understand what made Hitler is a kind of indictment of the whole profession because they unthinkingly take their pet theories and try to project them on Hitler. They think if their theory can prove what made Hitler Hitler then they’ve demonstrated their great wisdom.
Elliot Rodger’s manifesto concludes with a fantasy about building concentration camps to exterminate all women so men can live together in a utopian single-gender society free from sexual temptation. Reading material like that does raise the question of whether Hitler’s evil was unique, or rather his ability to execute that evil, and whether the attitudes in Nazi Germany were fundamentally different from anything that exists today, as was proposed by Daniel Goldhagen.
What makes me skeptical about the Goldhagen thesis, which is that an "eliminationist anti-Semitism" existed that primed Germans to willingly participate in mass executions, is that there were Germans who did refuse to go along with this eliminationist ideology. The chapter in my book that I feel closest to was about the anti-Hitler journalists of the Munich Post. The Munich Post was a socialist newspaper that covered Hitler from 1920, when he first appeared on the streets, through his takeover. It was extremely brave for them to take on Hitler, who had no compunction about beating up and killing the opposition. It was fascinating to me that they are not recognized in Germany—they should be. You’d think they’d be heroic figures and yet even German journalists had not recognized them until I found their archives and wrote about them. There was very little, if anything, in post-war Germany about them, and I think the reason is that it demonstrated it was possible for Germans not to robotically follow Goldhagen’s eliminationist anti-Semitism, but to resist it. There were also resisters like Martin Niemöller and the White Rose. These people are heroes and also a refutation of the idea that the German people were somehow victims.
When I was taking your class at the University of Chicago, you mentioned that you’d spent a decade writing the book and became increasingly depressed in the process, that your editor had to forcibly take the manuscript away from you because you wanted to continue working on it.
I’m not sure if it was that dramatic, but it’s a book that I worked on for ten years and could have worked on for ten years more. I think my editor was wise in telling me that I’d actually produced a book that did its job, and that to try to do everything would mean the book would never be completed.
Since the first edition's publication there have been major new pieces of historical information uncovered—like diaries from Hitler's sister or Hitler's medical records—does any of it strike you as having significant explanatory value?
The most striking and disheartening thing I came across was in Daniel Blatman's book The Death Marches in which he documents the way, even after the war was all but lost and the death camps dismantled, the guards put the remaining tens of thousands of Jews on the road to be tormented and slaughtered even if it meant losing the chance to save their own lives. The Hitler spell prevailed. The other new thing that I find repulsive in the postwar cultural response to Hitler and the Holocaust is the emergence of what I call 'the feel good Holocaust genre,' where films must have uplifting tributes to the human spirit like Life Is Beautiful—these films do not confront the true depths of human nature Hitler revealed.
There is a great section in the book were you classify the types of despair people encounter when they attempt to explain Hitler: evidentiary despair, epistemological despair, and then a third level where the despair turns into hostility directed toward the process of explaining itself.
That’s a key point. The final type of despair is the position of Claude Lanzmann. He believes that all explanation ultimately becomes exculpation. If you try to explain Hitler then you’re really moving away from the acts of Hitler, and who Hitler was, and you're saying it was some set of psychological factors: he had a Jewish grandfather, he read the wrong books, his mother died under the care of a Jewish doctor, you blame these sources as the problem. Lanzmann says all explanation is an excuse, like the way people explain serial killers by saying ‘Oh, they were psychopaths’ or ‘Oh, they were sociopaths,’ as if that explains anything. It explains nothing. I actually think some of the reductionist conclusions from neuroscience and neuroimaging studies do give support to the Lanzmann position. If we had an fMRI of Hitler it might show abnormal functioning in some region of the brain and then we could all blame it on a simple neural defect. My feeling ultimately is that there are dangers in the explanation that Lanzmann has outlined, but we shouldn’t be forbidden from the attempt, we shouldn’t stop searching for evidence. I don't claim to have a unified field theory of Hitler, no Higgs boson of Hitler, but Lanzmann wants to shut people up and not allow them to discuss the question ‘why?’ and I think there’s no more important question than why, even if there’s still no answer. I suppose part of it also has to do with self-preservation. It's easier to settle on an explanation or refuse to ask why than engage with one or more of these three levels of despair, or with the depth of the uncertainty.
Yeah, well, I guess most of the time I feel all three levels of despair.
Follow Hamilton on Twitter.