Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Explaining Hitler (but who remembers the Armenians?)

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: the Search for the Origins of His Evil is a fine exploration of what scholars have written about Hitler and the Holocaust. Rosenbaum talks to the scholars (those that were still alive at the time) and reads their works, taking the reader steadily through the range of approaches to explaining Hitler and the Holocaust, which vary greatly.

So this is a book wrestling with the nature of evil, the nature of historical explanation, the nature of causality in history. Big issues, very well handled.

Eliminationist ideas
Perhaps the most important thing in analysis is to ask the right questions. Reading Explaining Hitler, I had a persistent sense that the debate over Hitler and the Holocaust suffers greatly from not asking the right questions. First, too many contributors seemed to be too focused on the killing of Jews. The death camps killed Jews, but also gypsies, gays, Slavs, ideological opponents. Second, participants regularly had too great a sense of the Holocaust as something unprecedented.

The sad fact is that killing people wholesale, even killing Jews wholesale, is not unique to the Holocaust. What is distinctive about the Holocaust is mass killing being adopted and implemented as a policy by a major European state (counting Russia as being semi-European). The Holocaust displays the power of the modern state in a hideous way. In particular, the technological facility and bureaucratic capacity of the German state. But Stalin (a comparison that does get mentioned in Explaining Hitler) and particularly Mao (who does not) killed in comparable numbers. While Pol Pot killed far more of the people he had available to kill.

It is the common “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” framing that bothers me. Some notion that being European, being advanced, being civilised, being something somehow guarantees that “people like us” will neither do nor suffer such things. Demonstrably not true and the Holocaust does not get some extra ontological oomph from proving it is not true. Nor should it be treated as if it does.

In wrestling with the how? and the why?, there are layers of causal questions. When did Hitler decide to kill the Jews? Why did Hitler decide to kill the Jews? How did killing Jews get to the implemented policy of the German state? What was the role of Hitler in that? Adding in the other victims of the Holocaust changes the questions. Not including them makes any answer that cannot also cover them clearly wrong.

The notion that society would be improved by elimination of categories of people was very much part of modern European thought. Eugenics aimed to breed them out, but elimination by murder was also in the air. Consider Engels writing in the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung edited by Karl Marx in January 1849:
The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.
The entire Marxist enterprise was about eliminating whole classes. It is all very well to say that was a predicted historical process, but if you say the goal towards history is directed, and properly so, is a classless society, then simply killing the members of classes who are “surplus to requirements” is a perfectly logical step. As Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc demonstrated.
But one can go further back still. The notion of God the virtuous exterminator—who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because He was so horrified by men having sex with men—dates back to Philo of Alexandria’s welding of natural law theory to Scriptural Revelation at the time of Christ. The medieval Church even promoted the notion of God as virtuous-exterminator-by-category:
In that night our Blessed Lady and Mother of God was delivered of our Blessed Saviour upon the hay that lay in the rack. At which nativity our Lord shewed many marvels. … And it happed this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof Saint Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.
A fascinating transmutation of the Gospel of Love.

About lebensraum
The notion of lebensraum does not get considered in Explaining Hitler yet, as Tooze has shown, it was central to Nazi policy. Indeed, it was central to the program laid out in Mein Kampf. The Nazi program of killing can be understood as a territorial “clearing” and a social “cleansing”. So Slavs were killed (particularly their elite), for they occupied territory the Aryans were to have. Jews and Gypsies were killed, for they “polluted” the territory and society the Aryans already had and “needed” to be “cleansed” from their new lands. Homosexuals were killed, for they “polluted” Aryanness itself and undermined the breeding of warriors. Ideological opponents were killed, for they obstructed the Aryan cause. Killing “genetic defectives” to “strengthen the race” was, in fact, the forerunner program of Nazi killing: the one that gassing was developed for. (That the program was closed down due to public, Church-led, opposition is revealing in itself, particularly regarding whether more could have been done to oppose the slaughters.)

Nor did only Germans (and Austrians) do the killing, a central problem with Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis about Germans being specifically infected with “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. Putting the question as “why did Hitler lead Germans to kill Jews?” is simply the wrong question. Indeed, it gives Hitler the posthumous victory of agreeing with him that the Jews (and Germans) have some distinguishing quality. It is utterly wrong to deny that Hitler hated Jews, and that killing Jews was a central feature of the Holocaust. But slaughter-by-category was a much broader feature of the Nazi empire.

One aspect of Explaining Hitler which does touch directly on lebensraum is the discussion of the Nazi fixation on Genghis Khan. Hitler is famously quoted as citing Genghis Khan with approval in his “secret speech” prior to the attack on Poland. Himmler had a few years earlier distributed a biography of Genghis Khan to the SS (p.174).

This makes perfect sense. The entire notion of geopolitics, quite central to Mein Kampf, operated on the basis of empires of the Eurasian “heartland”. Prior to the advance of the Russian Empire, these were essentially nomad empires. Killing peasants to clear them off grazing land was an active element in the public policy of nomad conquerors—as Hitler was invoking in the “secret speech”.

Any attempt to characterise lebensraum as some sort of “cover” for killing Jews seems just too fixated for words. It is much more plausible that the idea of taking land from other “races” for the benefit of Aryans was a program of slaughter that fitted with achieving the aim of a Judenfrei, and otherwise “cleansed”, Aryan society through mass murder.

Virtue and hate
If slaughter was inherent in the logic of the program of lebensraum, volkisch race theory had an appeal in itself. For it made every “Aryan” an “aristocrat of blood”—and did so effortlessly. It gave a sense of place and identity in an uncertain world. Including various categories people to define oneself against. “Designated hate receptacles” to use an anachronistic, but felicitous, phrase. Anti-Semitism particularly worked in such a fashion.

Anti-Semitism, defined in a “by the blood” way, had a strong history in Germany, Austria and France: indeed, across Catholic (and Orthodox) Europe, since both Churches put considerable effort into promoting Jew hatred. If anything, anti-Semitism was stronger in France (where Republicanism excluded conservative Catholics) and Austria (where Germans felt threatened by a Slav majority), both overwhelmingly Catholic countries, than in Germany (substantially Protestant). Key organisers of the Holocaust (Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich) were born and raised Catholic or grew up in predominantly Catholic areas (Goring, Eichmann). Eight out of ten concentration camp commandants were Austrian and as many of 40% of the camp SS personnel (so almost certainly Catholic).

Of the scholars Rosenbaum talks to, Hyam Maccoby sees the Holocaust as ultimately a Christian phenomenon, but his indictment is so all-embracing as to lose any connection to specific historical events. Yes, Jew-hatred had been part of Christian thinking. But it waxed and waned and manifested very differently in different places. Prominent English Catholics had even made pests of themselves publicly speaking up for Jews against the Vatican, but they knew what it was like to be an excluded religious minority.

Jew-hatred had a long history, but much more pertinent was the way the Catholic Church (and Russian Orthodox Church) used Jew-hatred as a tactic to shore up support in troubled times—such as using treating Jews as equals as a reductio ad absurdem of liberal modernity. (Much as Catholic and other Christian apologists and priests and ministers do now with gay equality.) By focusing on Hitler and Germany, this wider but specifically relevant history is largely overlooked.

The purposes of Hitler
Explaining Hitler is focused on wrestling with the character and the role of Hitler. In what sense was he evil? Did he mean it or was he playing a role? Why did he hate Jews? When did he come to hate Jews? When did hating Jews come to mean killing them wholesale?

While the issues are fascinating, I found the debate about Hitler more frustrating. After all, lots of people hated Jews. Hitler was hardly unusual in that. Clearly, also lots of people were willing to kill Jews. Balancing the general and particular is inherently difficult, but there is a difference between seeing Hitler as extraordinary in the extent of the horror he unleashed and seeing him as extraordinary in the beliefs he had, or his willingness to engage in slaughter. Anti-Semitism and volkisch, “blood and soil”, nationalism were both widely held systems of belief, which typically went together. Nor, in a century that produced Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, can we really see Hitler’s willingness to engage in slaughter as being something sui generis.

We are perilously back to that very dubious “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” question. Are we really willing to say, after Year Zero, that the Holocaust was some unique horror?

There is a real tension in analysing Hitler-as-successful-politician and Hitler-as-ruler with Hitler-as-unleasher-of-horror. The first two are things to be done for any politician and ruler. Then the Holocaust bumps us somewhere else.

The question “how come Hitler unleashed such enormous destruction?” is about will and power. Hitler’s achieving power, his willingness to go to war, for what purposes, and the power his military success gave him. Which gets into his interaction with domestic and foreign opponents and questions of responsibility for failing to frustrate him. It is difficult, to neither ignore the Holocaust nor get mesmerised by it.

And it is certainly easier to think of the Holocaust as being about Germans, Jews and Hitler. Or even just Germans and Jews, as Goldhagen would have it. But, the grim fact is, that is not how it was. It was about mass killing as public policy, killing of various categories of people carried out and abetted by people who were not only Germans from wherever.

But admitting its more general nature then runs the risk of turning into something so “functionally” analysed that individuals who chose to act (or not) get swallowed up (and thereby, in a sense, excused) in broad categories. Or else turning into an indictment of such broad phenomena as “Christianity” or “Western Civilisation” or whatever.

But only one third of Germans voted for Hitler in a free election. Many people refused to take part in the killings (even in the SS: Himmler was clever enough to allow his SS personnel to work in the areas they were comfortable with—which makes those who took part in the killings even more culpable). Millions fought Hitler. Many sheltered Jews and other potential victims. We cannot get away from individual responsibility—particularly as the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers. It is just that we also cannot see something that thousands, or millions, did or believed as somehow extraordinary about Hitler himself.

I also found some of the debate Rosenbaum reporting seemed to want too much coherence in Hitler, or too little. People can have various aims and projects they want to carry forth which rise and fall in urgency depending on circumstances. Waiting for the opportunity does not prove lack of intent. But nor does it prove that was always the central aim. That Hitler early on conceived Jews as His Enemy and sought their destruction seems clear. How complete a destruction he conceived of and when, is less clear. But that his vision of lebensraum had no place for Jews (or gypsies, or Slavs …) is also clear. At whatever point mass murder was decided upon, it was always inherent in the project. As in, for example, Wehrmacht planning for the attack on the Soviet Union incorporating simply taking food from Ukraine (thereby repeating what Lenin and Stalin had previously done): mass starvation was part of the plan. This inherent tendency to slaughter also fitted in with the somewhat haphazard nature of the killing, the varied interactions of opportunity and willingness.

One of the great virtues of Explaining Hitler is that Rosenbaum looks into those who opposed Hitler at the time. Particularly those Munich journalists who sought to expose him. The stand out among these was Fritz Gerlich. He was a conservative nationalist, a convert to Catholicism during his period of opposing Hitler. Early on, he had been interested in a possible alliance with the Nazis, but ended up on the wrong side of Hitler’s manoeuvring during the Beer Hall Putsch and transmuted into Hitler’s most bitter enemy. Precisely because of where he came from ideologically, Gerlich knew exactly where to put the knife in. A two-part newspaper piece he did based around a photomontage with Hitler as groom to a Negro bride speculating whether Hitler had Mongol blood is set out at some length. (Which included the point that neither would matter to any genuine Christian.)

Gerlich’s aristocratic circle was, in many ways, Hitler’s most dangerous enemies since they later were later also key instigators in the July 1944 Bomb Plot. Gerlich himself paid for his opposition: as soon as Hitler came to power, SS goons smashed the plates of his last expose and dragged him off to be murdered in prison. The SS mailed his spectacles, covered in his blood, back to his wife (p.167). One of those moments which reveal so vividly the nature of Hitler’s regime.

Hitler the personage
There is a great deal of picking over Hitler’s personal history. Rosenbaum brings out how much of this is obscured and contentious. Personally, I find examining Hitler’s sexuality (about which there is no consensus), his family history (did he fear Jewish ancestry?, did he blame his mother’s Jewish doctor for her agonising death?), the suicide (or was it murder?) of his half-niece Geli Raubal and so on, of limited historical interest. Attempting to do psychological profiles of him so often tell us much more about the profilers than the subject, given there is such a limited stock of hard evidence to go on.

That Hitler was a malignant narcissist is surely fairly clear. A telling moment is when he is giving his story to the detective investigating Geli Raubal’s death (found shot in his apartment). The report says Hitler said:
Her dying touches his emotions very deeply because she was the only one of his relatives who was close to him. And now this must happen to him
Yes, it is all about you Adolf.

Nor is that his staff liked him all that startling. Narcissists can often be quite charming and their job was to serve him.

So much of this seems to be about seeing Hitler as extraordinary on the grounds that his evil was extraordinary. Or even that he was so evil he cannot and should not be explained, as some contend. Really? Let us consider Pol Pot again. That very dubious “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” question keeps lurking.

Understandable in a way, for those caught up in the horror. A whole set of comforting assumptions got smashed: perhaps too many for clear analysis.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in an aside, observed that Herman Rauschning’s (another conservative turned bitter Hitler opponent) “sensationalist” The Revolution of Nihilism proved, in hindsight, to provide a better understanding of Hitler and his regime than many more “sophisticated” pre-war analyses (p.xxviii). We can get too “clever” in our analyses, allowing our sense of “sophistication” to become a shield of illusions.

But who does remember the Armenians?
Hitler was famously quoted as asking who remembers the Armenians? The first mass murder of the C20th was of a dhimmi group in a Muslim empire. No Germans, no Jews, a non-Western state.

“Who remembers the Armenians?” is a question that still lurks over Hitler and the Holocaust.

It is a tribute to Rosenbaum’s efforts that the debate over Hitler and the Holocaust is conveyed so vividly in Explaining Hitler. My qualms about that debate are certainly not qualms about this excellent book.

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