cover of Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler

Hitler: Mastermind or Puppet?:
A look at theorists' ideas years after his death

(a review of Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler)

by Teresa Ibarra
December 10, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(Hist 33d course homepage, web projects index page,
Hitler in History project main page)

Weak Points
Strong Points
About the
Page Author

Introduction (back to top)

Adolf Hitler, "der Führer" of Germany, born in 1889 in Austria in a small, now in ruins, town called Döllersheim, has been at the center of many heated debates and volumes of work. It has been not for a small circumstance that Adolf Hitler has been the subject of many scholars, theologians, film makers, journalists and students; after all he is attributed to one of the greatest crime committed against humanity in modern times, the Holocaust, as well as all the other atrocities that were committed during his ascension to power and while in power. Explaining Hitler and the Holocaust has been the prime goal for these knowledge seekers, and Ron Rosenbaum undertakes the task of explaining who these Hitler specialists were and how they came up with their conclusion about Hitler.

A journalist and novelist by profession, Ron Rosenbaum leads us down his anecdotal excursions with his interviewees who range from H.R. Trevor-Roper, Alan Bullock, Walter C. Langer, David Irving, Claude Lanzmann, Dr. Louis Micheels, Emil Frankenheim, Yehuda Bauer, George Steiner, Daniel Goldhagen, and Lucy S. Dawidowicz. Rosenbaum's questions about Hilter's origins, conscious evil, and exceptionalism are all considered, yet none come to complete agreement about who exactly Hitler was. Explanations range from blaming the parents, blaming genital dysfunction or deformity, blaming the Jews, blaming the Germans, and times to simply stating that Hitler was aware of what he was doing. In the end, Rosenbaum presents us with unclear findings about Hitler's origins of evil, which leaves readers feeling that Yehuda Bauer's statement "Hitler is still a mystery that has not been explained in practice [emphasis added]" (Rosenbaum, 280) is a true statement.

Weak Points (back to top)

John Gross, a reviewer of Rosenbaum's work, states that Rosenbaum's weaknesses are the unevenness of the investigation and the lopsidedness of his choice for "both themes and interviewees" (Gross, 12). I cannot say that I agree more with Gross's view of what makes Rosenbaum's argument less believable. Rosenbaum constantly juxtaposes one school of thought with another, as was the case with H.R. Trevor-Roper and Allan Bullock's mountebank-true believer theories or Emil Frankenheim/Yehuda Bauer's disagreements about the meaning of evil. Rosenbaum's technique would be justifiable had not most of the above mentioned been scrutinized by Rosenbaum as having something wrong within themselves, something that subconsciously they are trying to solve by solving the Hitler mystery. Take for example the subtle refutation of Trevor-Roper's idea of Hitler being a true believer and "convinced of his own rectitude" (Rosenbaum, 69) by establishing that "one of the most… influential [author] of postwar Hitler books" (63) was simply mesmerized by the "power of Hitler's spell" (77), therefore cannot be taken as valid because even Trevor-Roper fell for lies as real truth. Another example is the dismissal of Christopher Browning's Hitler. Rosenbaum uses literary techniques to undermine Browning's theory that Hitler was filled with hesitation when it came to the Final Solution, such as the repetition of the question "My dear Heinie…Would it be possible?" (371), questioning Browning's choice of words time and time again, and illustrating a man who himself is hesitant (372). Lawrence L. Langer, another reviewer, also states that Rosenbaum's favoritism is apparent, leaning more on the view of Hitler in Dawidowicz'sThe War Against the Jews, than on Browning's, even though Browning was "using material unavailable to Lucy Dawodowicz" to make his argument (Langer, 104). Langer goes on to say that "Browning is too distinguished a Holocaust scholar to have his hypothesis dismissed with such shallow derision" (104).

Langer also states that one of Rosenbaum's weakness stems from his lack of analyzing Hitler through literary context. He states that further insight would have been gained had Rosenbaum probed novels such as George Steiner's The Portage of San Cristobal of A.H. or Milton's Paradise Lost. Langer is not satisfied with mere "allusions to Satan" from Paradise Lost; he states that a clear similarity can be grasped from "a detour" into this and other works (100). Similarities such as Hitler and Satan being "masters of the monologue," "leaders of masses willing to obey…, driven by hatred, vowing vengeance and resolved to find an outlet for his resentment."(101) Langer is also captivated by Steiner's "creative portrayal of Adolf Hitler" drawing even further inferences from this Hitler's language and orating skills than from Hitler himself, however he does state that the real Hitler indeed possessed a very "hypnotic power [in] his voice" (100). I do not agree with Langer's view that a literary figure like Satan in Paradise Lost would have given further insight into Hitler than what is already available because it would not prove or disprove any of the existing theories. Nor would it have added to Rosenbaum's ability to present who Hitler was.

Strong Points (back to top)

However, not all of Rosenbaum's research and assertions are filled with flaw. His writing is very colorful and one cannot but love the way he goes on to describe his encounters with his interviewees. Walter Sundberg, professor of Church History and reviewer of Rosenbaum's work, explains this as "the typical gusto of [a] contemporary journalist" (Sunderberg, 7). John Gross says "it is both thoughtful and deeply felt" (Gross, 12), and Lawrence Langer posses it as a "picaresque excursion." (Langer, 99).The ability to present the reader with vivid descriptions of his encounters with his interviewees is what I was most drawn to, his ability to somehow make the reader know who his interviewee is firsthand using his journalistic abilities.

A good example of this is the encounters with filmmaker Lanzmann. Lanzmann and Rosenbaum are to meet at Lanzmann's mansion for the interview and Rosenbaum was not given the codes to enter through the gates. After much attempts at calling Lanzmann, Rosenbam is about to leave back to his hotel room, therefore decides to leave a message in which he states that he is about to leave, but before doing so he gives one last call. The last call is answered not with an apologetic Lanzmann, but with an attacking one who comes close to calling Rosenbaum a liar. This anecdote is not simply stating Rosenbaum's hardships in attempting to get interviews from so many opposing theorists it lends itself as insight into the very nature of Lanzmann. He is the one who attacked Dr. Micheels, an Auschwitz survivor and psychoanalyst at Yale School of Medicine, who tried to explain why the Holocaust happened. What is disturbing about this picture is not the fact that Lanzmann is attacking a Holocaust survivor wanting to know why he had undergone such hardships, but the fact that Lanzmann is the director of Shoah, a highly respected nine-hour long documentary about the Holocaust. Lanzmann is therefore someone who you think would have the capacity to understand a survivor's position in wanting to ask why. Anecdotes such as the one I've explained fill Rosenbaum's book, one that, although digressing from academic thought, is not boring.

Another strong point of Rosenbaum's book is his discovery of the archives of the Munich Post, the aggressive anti-Hitler newspaper of the 1920s and early 1930s that was presumed lost. His insight about what once was thought a non-attacking, conformist German society now shines light about what this newspaper wrote about Hitler and his Nazi Party, and demonstrates that not everyone in Germany fell under Hitler's powerful spell. Rosenbaum obviously has some inclination to demonstrate how valiant and martyr-like the reporters at the Munich Post were because he himself is a journalist. Nonetheless, the finding is remarkable. Rosenbaum declares that the Post's journalists were

"... the first to focus sustained critical attention on Hitler…the first to tangle with him, the first to ridicule him, the first to investigate him, the first to expose the seamy underside of his party, the murderous behavior masked by its pretensions to being a political movement…the first to attempt to alert the world" (Rosenbaum, 37).

There is certainly a lot of emphasis placed on the Munich Post as being the first at everything, and Rosenbaum is correct to recognize it for that. These reporters certainly would have been more influential if they had not been silenced so quickly by Hitler and his party. Yet they did not leave without a fight. As Rosenbaum explains, their final headlines read: "Hitler Against the Munich Post," "On His Bell Again," "Warm Brotherhood in the Brown House: Sexual Life in the Third Reich," and "The November Criminals: What Hitler Doesn't Tell His Listeners." (40-53). What is perhaps most insightful about the Post reporters, Rosenbaum explains, is that they were able to see through Hitler's charade and made public his "signature crimes," (51) blackmailing and counterfeiting true history. Gross states that Rosenbaum is enticed to believe that "Hitler was a gangster first and an ideologue second," however this is not Rosenbaum's "settled opinion" about Hitler's nature, but is nonetheless a forceful one (Gross, 12).

Perhaps an even stronger argument for Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler is his ability to raise questions within the reader. Thought-provoking statements such as Dr. Micheels'"'Da soll ein warum sein': there must be a why" (Rosenbaum, 276), or the final sentences of the book:

"in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also resist explanation…to resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation…to resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape [emphasis added]" (395).

To me this can be translated into never forgetting to ask why things happen in life, but also never giving or settling for an answer that allows the perpetrator to get away or gain victory.

Conclusion (back to top)

In light of this, Rosenbaum does not want readers to "leave" without acknowledging the fact that Hitler was inherently evil. He tells us time and time again that Hitler is truly responsible for his actions, and no amount of psychohistory analysis is going to explain that Hitler was not responsible for something utterly wrong, the mass murder of millions of European Jews. By the end of the book, he is firm in his belief, showed by Lucy Dawidowicz that Hitler knew from the time he rose to power that he wanted to go through with the Final Solution, and was therefore solely responsible for it. Out of a footnote in Dawidowicz's book, Rosenbaum envisioned a laughing Hitler, one who enjoyed the sufferings of the Jews in fact, "with his laughter he [was] sucking the bone" (389). However, this laughing Hitler was not alone in his actions, the fact is that thousands of others joined him in the implementation of the Final Solution, something that Gross, Langer, Sundberg and I all agree on: he was not alone.

Bibliography (back to top)

  • Gross, John. "A Nice Pleasant Youth." The New York Review of Books 45, no.20 (1998):12-17. (preview at NYRB)
  • Langer, Lawrence, L. "Satan's Biographers." Atlantic Monthly 283 no. 2 (Feb. 1999): 99-104.
  • Rosenbaum, Ron. Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Sundeberg, Walter. "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (Review)." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 56, no. 1 (1999): accessed through Expanded Academic ASAP, Thompson Gale, UCSB (10 November 2005).

About the Author (back to top)


prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/15/05; last updated:
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