I just finished re-reading Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. Originally published in 1998, the book is a meditation on “the search for the origins of [Hitler’s] evil,” as the subtitle puts it. As the book unfolds, Rosenbaum interviews in person or interacts with the writings of nearly every prominent Hitler explainer of the post-war period, from Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock to Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. As he does so, he critically interacts with the major explanations of Hitler’s evil: that it was the byproduct of genital malformation, sexual perversion, psychological projection, abstract historical forces, or Hitler’s own intention and agency. The last five chapters, in this regard, have revealing titles. Too many Hitler explainers, it seems,Â are apt to blame God, the Jews themselves, Christians, or Germans for Hitler’s evil–rather than Hitler himself. Here are Rosenbaum’s concluding paragraphs:
[Milton] Himmelfarb almost seems to be saying that it is, in fact, the culmination of a truer sophistication to be able to hate Hitler, a sophistication that doesn’t fall prey to the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation as exculpation, of explanation as abstraction away from Hitler’s personal agency. Hatred as not that which one starts with, rather as something one ends up with: the product of a deeper understanding. A less inflammatory word than “hatred” might be “resistance.” It’s the world Emil Fackenheim used when he described the “double move” one must make in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also to resist explanation.
Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist the misleading exculpatory corollaries of explanation. To resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate, by shifting responsibility from him to faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistible compulsions that gave him no choice or made his choice irrelevant. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of a last laugh.
Alexander Chase said, “To understand is to forgive.” Perhaps this is sometimes true. (Chase added “even oneself” to his apercus.) But not in the case of Hitler. Not in the face of such evil.