Hitler and the Analysis of Evil

Who was Adolf Hitler? And how does one explain him? Clearly, he has made a profoundly morbid impact on human history. By his enemies, he has been called a madman, murderer, and lunatic. By his followers, he has been dubbed a genius, mystic, and Messiah. His twisted ideas, fierce rhetoric, and unparalleled civil and military successes catapulted this murderer and mystery to the all-powerful totalitarian pinnacle. Adolf Hitler became the Fuhrer. The Leader.

In my research on Adolf Hitler (for my lecture series), I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about him. A beaten child, a wounded war veteran, a homeless artist, and a Wagner disciple – Hitler was the sum of his parts. His anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik views were, in part, informed by his disappointment in Germany’s capitulation in World War I and his keen interest in the rants of reactionary politicians and philosophers of Austria. Of even more interest, Hitler’s botched attempt to overthrow the German state with violence (in the Beer Hall Putsch) was eclipsed by his successful attempt to rule the state through political manipulation. Imagine…what gunfire and chaos could not achieve for the young upstart Hitler, the power of the ballot and political horse trading could.  Hitler actualized his power through democratic means thanks to his spell-binding oratory, robust propaganda machine, and the utter abdication of responsibility by those who could stop him: the masters of politics, the leaders of the military, and the man on the street. The rise of Adolf Hitler is a lesson in individual craftiness, oppositional impotence, and national vengeance. The speed and completeness with which Hitler would ultimately effect power in the face of his rivals’ weakness would even surprise him as he mused sardonically, “One would never have thought so miserable a collapse possible.” So it seemed that his time had come: Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

In studying who Adolf Hitler was and how he achieved his wicked and ruthless ends, I stumbled across a very intriguing debate among Hitler historians. Was Adolf Hitler’s philosophy on war and the Holocaust present from his earliest days, enacted strictly from his orders, and thus, his responsibility alone? Or did Hitler provide a horrific, but vague  and evolving framework that was largely developed, manipulated, and achieved by a bureaucracy of followers? In short, were the Third Reich and its horrors the responsibility of Hitler or the Nazi State? If one subscribed to the former theory of Hitler as enduring mastermind, you would fall into the “Intentionalist” camp (so named because Hitler’s intentions alone explain the Holocaust and aggressive war). If one subscribed the latter theory of the bureaucracy as mastermind, you would fall into the “Functionalist or Structuralist” camp (so named because the Nazi state’s function or structure explain the Holocaust and aggressive war). The Intentionalists endorse the notion of “the straight road to Auschwitz” which was the Holocaust as fulfillment of a program from Hitler’s earliest days. The Functionalist/Structuralists instead endorse the notion of “the twisted or crooked road to Auschwitz” which was the Holocaust arose rather as a byproduct of an evolving, “enterprising” Nazi state.

Admittedly, this whole discussion and debate struck me as curious and chilling. It is effectively a forensic analysis of how one of the most wicked undertakings in history came to fruition and who was chiefly responsible. Immediately post-war, the Nuremberg trials had their say on guilt. Now the scholars will debate this further into perpetuity. Was it Hitler? Was it the bureaucracy? Was it both (as eminent Hitler historian, Ian Kershaw, seems to espouse)? This debate is not without its cost, however. The risk that is run is that whichever side one might advocate as having greatest guilt, would then seem to be letting the other side off too lightly. And between the Fuhrer and his macabre bureaucracy of henchmen, there seems no room to fairly absolve anyone of their guilty role.

In this jousting over where greatest responsibility lies, one truth is again apparent: human beings do terrible things to one another. The wickedness of the 20th century provides a humbling reminder that “progress” is a dangerous euphemism (please see my previous post on this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2012/11/13/the-dangerous-euphemism-of-progress/) when it is without a firm moral standard to progress toward. The stories of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Osama bin Laden and their followers are enough to give one a dreadful foreboding about the future. Are these leaders pure monsters? Are their followers deranged and utterly evil? I don’t know the answer to this, but I would offer a simple notion: to simply dub someone a monster, insane, and pure evil is to run the risk of underestimating the next one that arises; the one who arises with charisma, eloquence, and passion. The one who comes and says something that sounds good to me or to you. The one who seems like an advocate that we can believe in. Can a person with these traits ever yield the horrors akin to those of the twentieth century? Well, ask a citizen from Germany or Russia or China or Cambodia or the Arab world.

Without doubt, the academic dissections of evil-doers serve a purpose. It seems to give us a better grasp (if that is possible) on the horrors of the past. And, perhaps, it gives us a better chance to avert horrors of the future. But regardless of how the Intentionalist vs. Functionalist/Structuralist debate plays out over Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime, the greater truth to grasp is that evil is ubiquitous and some people(s) in some places for some reasons wreak more havoc than others. How do we anticipate this? How do we recognize this? How do we prevent this? Perhaps realizing a simple truth as articulated by two wise men would be a good start. As American diplomat George Kennan warned,

The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each & every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence & security which keeps this evil genius down…If confidence & security were to disappear, don’t think that he would not be waiting to take their place.”

And Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would remind,

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between parties either, but right through every human heart. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within the hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil…It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person. “

So let us analyze Adolf Hitler’s evil and its origins. Let us arrive at our best conclusions to understand, heal, anticipate, and plan. This will give us a better chance to comprehend the incomprehensible. But we should not forget the “bit of totalitarian” buried way down deep in ourselves. We must not ignore the line running through our heart. For in knowing this, we are assured of one thing: It is the starting point in truly understanding evil…and defying it.

  • Dave from Minnetonka

    Very interesting post. I think you are exactly right in your caution against rationalizing the behavior of Hitler and others by simply calling them madmen or crazy. We need to recognize that these are humans with remarkable abilities if for no other reason than to see that others like them can arise in the future.

  • Irene F.

    I’m reading this post a year after it was posted and thinking about recent deaths of protesters in Ukraine. and wondering how we (in Ukraine) let it happen. who are all these people, from the former president to police commanders to snipers, who gave and carried out the deadly orders? it’s scary to know that they are our countrymen, the people we live with in the same cities. I could ride in a bus with one of them. and after hopefully there are no more victims and the suspects are judged, how do we prevent such things?..


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