Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 28, 2007

The Most Clear-headed Discussion of the Issues Raised by the Will Smith Hitler Quote…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:36 am

…can be found in this Huffington Post entry by Gabriel Rotello. I say this, I admit, with some gratitude, since he summarizes with gratifying accuracy some distinctions I made in Explaining Hitler (see left column), saving me the trouble of summarizing them myself. I just want to take them one step further.

The flap over Smith’s remark that Hitler didn’t wake up and think “today I’m going to commit evil acts” illustrates the difficulty and complexity of defining the phenomenon of conscious evil.

My eyes were opened to the continued currency of this centuries old controversy over the nature of evil one gloomy afternoon in the library of London’s Oxford-Cambridge Club when I was interviewing H.R. Trevor-Roper, the brilliant historian and author of the highly influential Last Days of Hitler.

I’d asked Trevor-Roper the deceptively simple question I’d been asking a wide range of historians, philosophers, and theologians for my book: Did Hitler commit his crimes knowing that he was doing wrong.

Without hesitation Trevor-Roper shot back: “Absolutely not. Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.” In other words Hitler thought he was doing the world a service, doing good, by ridding it a people he sincerely regarded as a plague, the Jews, however murderously misguided this position was. Which was exactly the view of Hitler Will Smith took, once his quotation had been freed from the original reporter’s distortion.

But it is not the only position. The very next day I traveled to Oxford to interview Alan Bullock, whose Hitler: A Study of Tyranny had made him one of the premier post-War biographers of Hitler. And one who, initially at least, took a position diametrically opposite from Trevor-Roper’s argument that Hitler was a “true believer” in his anti-semitism. In Bullock’s book Hitler is portrayed as a knowing, cynical con man, a mountebank, an actor, who didn’t even believe in his own anti-semitism, but merely espoused it, unleashed it, opportunistically, in order to advance his own rise to power.

What surprised me though, in my interview with Bullock at Oxford was the unreported, and complex change in his previous position. He’d come to a third way of looking at Hitler’s evil he told me (nobody disputed that Hitler’s acts were evil, it was the nature of the intentionality behind them that was at issue. Socrates, for instance, argued in The Protagoras as I put it in my book “that people do wrong only if they have a defect that prevents them from knowing right, or are deluded into mistakenly thinking they are doing right when actually doing wrong”–essentially the Trevor-Roper view).

In his study at Oxford, Bullock told me he had now incorporated an element of Trevor-Roper’s position into a new synthesis of his and his rival’s positions. He now believed that Hitler had started out as a cynic, an actor, but had become “the actor who believes in, become possessed by, his own act.” In other words his success in deluding people into buying into the sincerity of his hatred had succeeded in deluding himself.

A fascinating synthesis that was not merely interesting as academic speculation, but in fact, Bullock told me, had important historical consequences, helped explain why Hitler lost the war.

Once he became convinced of his truth of the divinely inspired self-image he had propagated (after his initial victories), Bullock said, Hitler made disastrous wartime errors because he lost the shrewdness of a cynic. He came to believe his own words about his divinely inspired infallibility and thus, for instance, refused to allow his generals to make tactical retreats on the Eastern front, most saliently at Stalingrad. Instead, convinced he could never be defeated and thus need not retreat an inch, consigned his armies–and himself–to fatal acts of self-destruction that cost him the war when the outcome was hanging in the balance.

it still does not answer definitively Socrates’ question–nor the one raised by Will Smith about the nature and possibility of conscious evil. Some moral philosophers make a distinction and call those who commit evil knowingly “wicked” and use phrases like “malignant wickedness” and yet are hard-pressed to find examples of such except in literature (Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, for instance). Nor does this discussion in any way support Smith’s subsequent remark that Hitler could have been “reprogrammed” to a state of benevolence or harmlessness.

But it does suggest that evil is a wickedly slippery term to use and should be handled with appropriate care. Just like that tiger in the San Francisco zoo.



  1. If Will Smith is now under the spell of Scientology, the purpose of his remark may have been to equate the current German government, in the act of banning Scientology, with Hitler, a nice twist, because the rationale of the German ban on cults is to prevent a recurrence of Nazism.

    ,strong> Possibly true. But I think it’s a remark that raises a question that can be addressed on its own terms as well.

    Comment by charlie finch — December 28, 2007 @ 8:48 am | Reply

  2. Mr. Rosenbaum, your book Explaining Hitler is what first drew me to your work. And while there can be no “final” answer to the questions surrounding Hitler’s intentionality any more than there are “final” explanations of any other complex historical phenomenon, the image with which you close the book (citing Lucy Davidowicz), of Hitler laughing contemptuously, seems to me the right one. Who but an intellectual could doubt that there are people who do evil, knowing that it is evil?

    In the Jewish tradition, the communal confession on Yom Kippur includes an admission of “running to do evil,” which surely implies intentionality. God is depicted in the book of Genesis, following the flood, as recognizing the capacity for evil in Man’s heart. The concept of Original Sin in Christianity, strange and terrible though it is, is one of the great strengths of that faith, because it surely gestures at something very real in human nature.

    As to why the most commonly adduced examples of “wickedness” are literary (e.g. Shakespeare’s Iago), I would venture that the explanation is fairly simple: In the real world, intentional evildoers constantly dissemble, for many readily understandable reasons, and we are not privy to their “asides,” which are an artistic construct– brilliantly realized in Shakespeare’s case, less brilliantly though quite vividly in such pop cultural depictions of cackling menace as the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars movies.

    So of course there’s no written “Fuhrer order” to go out and murder every Jew in Europe; how does that make the intention any less real? To shift the metaphor, we are never going to have access to those eighteen-and-a-half minutes of erased tape and hear Nixon bare his innermost soul. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, correctly in my view, that philosophical arguments that try to prove that evil is just the absence of good are like arguing that cold is just the absence of heat; they don’t protect you from frostbite.

    Thanks for a thoughtful discussion of the question.

    Comment by Martin Gidron — December 28, 2007 @ 9:32 am | Reply

  3. Greetings:

    When I was growing up, my father once told me to watch out for men in patent leather shoes. His follow on explanation was that when a man stopped shining his own shoes or opening doors for himself he had begun to travel the road to ruin.

    Comment by Denis Eugene Sullivan — December 28, 2007 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

  4. I have just finished reading Explaining Hitler and can only recommend it most highly.
    Ron Rosenbaum has written a brilliant book, it tortures the reader as he wanders the intellectual world of ‘why’. By the end of the book he proves himself the most astute thinkers of all on the subject.

    Many thanks!

    Comment by Fred J Harris — December 29, 2007 @ 11:26 am | Reply

  5. What a delight — that Will Smith gave me the opportunity to talk to my father-in-law about Ron Rosenbaum! He had been in Germany 1952-4, and this turned out to be a conversation that was still vivid for him. He knew that many Germans were intent on rationalizing their choices or those of their family members, but the whole question of what motivated Germans to become Nazis and Nazis to slaughter and some to subvert the slaughter was of great interest to him, not the least because they were still trying to figure out just how far to trust Germans during his time in the service.

    He was clear that he and his fellow soldiers felt most comfortable with those who admitted their Nazi affiliation, and could talk about why they joined and what disaffected them, while they were very uneasy with those who were claimants to the title of “always against them” title. They suspected there had to be some of them out there, but they couldn’t figure out how to identify them.

    Meanwhile, there was the (he tells me, 53 years later) regular phenomenon, that once you got into t regular and conversational relationship with Germans, they would end up pointing out that “Hitler didn’t intend evil, it just turned out that way because of pressure from the Communists.”

    Was that how they felt, how they had felt, or just what they thought GI’s wanted to hear at the height of the Cold War? But the general rejection of Hitler’s malign intent still has my father-in-law skeptical of Germany to this day.

    All of which i learn thanks to the conjunction of Ron Rosenbaum and Will Smith! And he wants to read “Explaining Hitler” now, which i fear will be a bit technical for his tastes, but let’s try it and see!

    Thanks, Ron. And thanks for the taste of chicken fricassee last week, which went well with sage dressing and corn casserole.

    Comment by Jeff — December 30, 2007 @ 3:01 pm | Reply

  6. Post 9/11 this partiuclar question about the nature of evil has become so relevant again. Perhaps it’s why a movie like “Mr. Brooks” was made, and why “Dexter” is such a popular tv show. What’s curious though, is that whatever one thinks about Hitler’s *intent* nobody (except the most extreme antisemites) doubts that the *act* was evil, yet with Islamist terror there are still so many who consider such acts of mass murder justifiable.

    Comment by Leon Crunk — December 31, 2007 @ 7:30 am | Reply

  7. Harry Truman told Merle Miller that he slept like a baby the night after he made the decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan. The result was the end of the war and a complete change of a Japanese culture based on primitive notions of shame and honor. Many think, perhaps rightly, that we should hit the Islamofascists with tactical nukes to end that war and reverse a primitive culture based on shame. The results might be “good”, but the act itself is evil, the dead are the dead. But to not acknowledge one’s encounter with sin, as Truman did, is evil.

    Comment by charlie finch — January 2, 2008 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  8. Of course, we all get through life with various kinds of double-think. But Hitler’s sincere belief that he represented some sort of “good” for Germany and the world does not let him off the hook for reveling in the knowledge that most of the world would consider his Good to be Evil. When you let your chiefest minions represent you in black uniforms with silver skulls on them, it shows that your Good isn’t just a misunderstood desire for more living room for apple-cheeked infants but also death to anyone who gets in the way; that you know this damn well; and that you take joy in it.

    I tend to agree and say so in my book–expecially the part about Hitler’s “taking joy” in slaughter. But I don’t think historians like Trevor-Roper were necessarily defending Hitler, nor was poor Will Smith. It’s often hard to separate the true believer in evil from the person who does evil for evil’s sake

    Comment by Bill Adams — January 3, 2008 @ 1:14 pm | Reply

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