Blogs > Cliopatria > The humanity of Hitler

Sep 19, 2004 6:23 pm

The humanity of Hitler

HNN links this story on a movie seeking to “humanize” Hitler. OK, the movie sounds like dog, regardless of one’s view of the subject matter. But it’s as good a point as any to bring up a question that has haunted me for a long time: “Why not depict Hitler as human? Why not, if we really do believe in something like free will (or even chance), can we look to see if there was a time or place where a different path for Hitler was possible?

Most of the time the answer seems to be that if we humanize Hitler we go partway toward forgiving or even absolving him of his crimes. And in doing so we would open the door for more evil.

Yet if we do not humanize him, that is, if we cannot look at him as a human being, then he is off-limits to history, to be treated as a sort of deity of evil, who can be described but never understood. And while I know there is greater fear of what popular culture could do with such sympathy, the line between gagging movie-makers and gagging historians is thin indeed,

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Oscar Chamberlain - 9/20/2004

I did mean SCLC not SCLS, whatever that is.

mark safranski - 9/20/2004


I'm not expert enough to render a judgement on MLK in terms of his intra-movement influence but I'd wager my chips on King's influence as being critical in terms of moral suasion to turn a majority of white opinion in favor of Civil Rights.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/20/2004

I remember a line from sf writer Frank Herbert: “The flesh the day shapes, and the day the flesh shapes.” But when historians explore some aspect of the past, they make, often implicitly, a judgment on which mattered more in a given circumstance, the flesh or the day, the skills and the will of an individual or the world in which he or she acted.

An example:
In the history of the American Civil Rights movement, there has been reconsideration of the importance of Martin Luther King as opposed to the many other leaders. I think it is pretty obvious that the rise of local civil rights leaders, and the rise of student activists (e.g. early SNCC), mattered more.

But what would have been different if the Civil Rights Movement had not had a leader of such charisma? Or if the SCLS had a leader even slightly less committed to non-violence? How would that have affected the turbulence of the 1960s? Am I right? Did the movement shape him? Or did he shape the movement more?

mark safranski - 9/20/2004

Dr. Dresner wrote:
"And your view of the uniquely important influence of Hitler also seems overstated to me"

I did not state that Hitler was uniquely important as an innovator or origin point of ideas. for you are right that he was not. Hitler was a synthesizer of ideas - some with little more depth than slogans - but a promoter of them in simplified form par excellence. Hitler however does not simply rate notice for being an unusually adept demogogue.

Where Hitler is " uniquely important" ( even here I would say rare rather than unique) is in the consequences of his actions. Simply from a statistical standpoint, Hitler's wars and race policies radically altered the demographic trendlines of Europe. Millions of people who would have otherwise been born, lived and reared children of their own, never lived as a direct result of Hitler's actions. People who would have most likely lived had WWII simply had the character of a " normal " war with randomly distributed collateral damage, did not survive.

On the flip side, the multinational exodus of refugees from a dozen countries with re-drawn borders, some uprooted by Nazi slave labor recruitment , others fleeing the Soviet advance intermingled and intermarried with each other on a grand scale that would not have happened without WWII. The exodus from Europe both prewar ( due to Nazi anti-semitism) and postwar representated an unprecedented brain drain for Europe not seen since the Jews were expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century.

Beyond the simple matter of individual lives affected, we can also discuss how Hitler affected the fate of nations, permanently destroying the previous balance of power and unintentionally making possible both the state of Israel and the European Union. Consider the mathematical probability of these results without Adolf Hitler, they are to say the least, highly unlikely.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/20/2004

The humanity of Hitler is not a serious problem for historians, but for moralists. History as a discipline passed through a relatively brief period in which "process" was even remotely close to competing with individual agency as a dominant trope, and it now is pretty thoroghly integrated: which is to say, the vast majority of historians understand that "process" is not a disembodied thing but the result of millions of individual decisions within a cultural and social network which shapes those choices, and also understand that there are some people who are more influential and important than others.

And your view of the uniquely important influence of Hitler also seems overstated to me: he was not creating ideology ex nihilo, but building on political, racial and economic theories in existence to create something which only differed slightly from other forms of fascism before and after him. To argue that there would never have been a Hitler if Hitler hadn't existed is indeed to place him outside of history and normal understanding.

This is not a problem for historians, but for popular culture and its inability to handle ambiguity, nuance and three-dimensional people. This is a problem of ethics and art, not historiography.

mark safranski - 9/19/2004


Adolf Hitler presents a number of uncomfortable realities for historians and intellectuals.

Foremost, his career tends to refute the deterministic, impersonal forces view of history so beloved by historians and so arguable in most cases. Few individuals have had so dramatic an influence on changing the course of history as Hitler did. Without Adolf Hitler you simply do not have WWII as we know it much less the apocalyptic genocide of the Jews. Any second " Great War " without Hitler would have been a European conflict of limited, realpolitik aims.

Secondly, Hitler challenges modern intellectual views on morality and sanity. The tendency arises to psychologize Hitler and write him off in popular accounts as a " madman" because it is difficult to admit that his irrational visionary objectives had a cold, rational, aspect of historical calculation. To admit that is to give credence to the theological concept of evil which is very unsettling to secular moderns. Most statesmen who have written accounts of their dealings with Hitler from Molotov to Anthony Eden to Hitler's own henchmen like Speer were quick to dismiss any " insanity" thesis. Hitler made mistakes but in their view he knew exactly what he was doing and the stakes of his gambits.

" Humanizing " Hitler in the long run is more likely to make him all the more terrifying a figure because it will allow people to grasp the enormity of his crimes.

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