HITLER AND THE HOLOCAUST'S UNANSWERABLE QUESTION
The Huffington Post,
Dec. 27, 2007
Will Smith found himself in hot water last week
after making a statement to a Scottish newspaper that Adolph
Hitler "didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I
can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and using a
twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was
Smith's quote was preceded by the interviewer's
gratuitous observation, "Remarkably, Will believes everyone is
basically good." So websites pounced on Smith for allegedly
believing that Hitler was "a good person," even though Smith
said no such thing.
The Jewish Defense League said Smith's words
"spit on the memory of every person murdered by the Nazis" and
called on theaters to boycott Smith's new movie. It looked like
another Mel Gibson moment in the making.
But what was lost in the controversy is that
Smith's actual statement -- not that Hitler was a good person,
but that Hitler thought he was a good person -- lies at
the heart of one of the most baffling questions about Hitler
that historians and philosophers have grappled with since the
The most cogent discussion of that question is
laid out in Ron Rosenbaum's brilliant book Explaining Hitler,
which ought to be required reading for anyone interested in
deciphering the worst villainy in modern history.
Rosenbaum examines various attempts by
historians and philosophers to explain "what made Hitler
Hitler." And one of Rosenbaum's most interesting discussions
centers on the very issue Will Smith addressed:
Did Hitler, Rosenbaun asks, "believe in some
deeply deluded way that he was doing good?" In other words, was
he "convinced of his own rectitude," as Hitler biographer Hugh
Trevor-Roper and many other scholars have argued? Or was Hitler
"deeply aware of his own criminality," as philosophers such as
Berel Lang and others maintain?
To frame this discussion, Rosenbaum points to a
tradition in Western philosophy going back to Plato that draws a
distinction between two concepts: "evil" and "wicked."
In this tradition, "evil" can describe people
who do terrible things but who think, in their own deluded way,
that they are actually doing good. "Wickedness," on the other
hand, is reserved for people who do terrible things "knowing
they are doing wrong."
In the case of Hitler, the question of whether he knew he was
doing wrong and just did it anyway, or whether he actually
thought he was doing good despite his horrific acts, bedevil all
attempts to understand the worst crime of the twentieth century.
And interestingly, lots of scholars come down on
the side of Will Smith, arguing that Hitler was "convinced of
his own rectitude."
Not all of these people are philosophical
hairsplitters, either. Rosenbaum finds, for example, an
"unexpected echo of this rectitude argument" in Israel's chief
Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wisenthal Center.
"When I asked Zuroff....whether Hitler was
conscious of doing wrong, he was even more emphatic than
Trevor-Roper. 'Of course not!' he practically yelled at me.
'Hitler thought he was a doctor! Killing germs!...He believed he
was doing good, not evil.'"
Rosenbaum himself is not convinced. Later in his
book he writes that he is "more inclined to see Hitler as a
vicious, cold-blooded hater who fabricated, counterfeited a
mask of rectitude for the sake of history and expediency."
But while many agree with Rosenbaum, many
principled scholars, biographers, philosophers -- even Nazi
hunters -- do not.
In fact, when you look at Will Smith's actual
quote, he describes the "rectitude" argument rather concisely.
Hitler, he said, did not use logic but rather "a twisted,
backwards logic" to do not good but "what he thought
was good." Zuroff could hardly have put it more succinctly.
As soon as the controversy erupted, Will Smith
issued a statement clarifying his belief that Hitler was "a
vile, heinous vicious killer responsible for one of the greatest
acts of evil committed on this planet."
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League
accepted the clarification. "We welcome and accept Will Smith's
statement that Hitler was a 'vicious killer,'" Foxman said, "and
that he did not mean for his remarks about the Nazi leader to be
mistaken as praise."
Foxman pointed out that words "can be twisted by
those with hate and bigotry in their hearts. This is why all
celebrities bear a special responsibility to weigh their words
carefully, and an obligation to speak out against racism and
bigotry whenever even a whiff of it appears, as Will Smith has
done in this instance."
Well said. But journalists, bloggers and
anti-hate groups also have a responsibility to weigh their words
carefully, and not to stifle or demonize attempts to understand
the nature of Nazi evil.
That evil stands at the center of modern history
-- and modern life. Did Hitler represent, as Emil Fackenheim has
said, a unique "eruption of demonism into history" -- in which
case he stands at a comfortable remove from the rest of us? Or
was Hitler simply a more extreme version of something much more
familiar -- a person who thought he was doing good, even if it
had to be accomplished by terrible means? In which case his
misdeeds are much more troubling, because they are at least
Will Smith may not be a scholar, historian or
philosopher, but he was expressing a widely-held and respected
side of that question. It's a question that can never be
answered. But merely asking it, merely pondering it, represents
a small step in humanity's struggle to assure that what Hitler
did, for whatever reasons he did it, is less likely to happen