August 13, 1998
Explaining Hitler: An Interview with Ron Rosenbaum
By Rob Eshman, Managing Editor
If you were alive in 1918 and bumped into an undistinguished German army corporal named Adolf Hitler, wouldn't you have been duty-bound to murder him? Just more than 10 years ago, a Jewish militant stopped journalist Ron Rosenbaum short with that question. Rosenbaum answered no, that even without Hitler, the Nazi Party would have eventually come to power and the Jews would have been persecuted. But then, Rosenbaum said, "as I said it, I realized the answer wasn't very clear to me." Perhaps the Holocaust wouldn't have happened without that one man. Perhaps Hitler's evil was unique, extraordinary. "At what point, I wondered, did Hitler become Hitler, the absolute icon of evil?" Rosenbaum, media critic for the New York Observer, began an exhaustive journey of reportage, research and writing that led to "Explaining Hitler" (Random House, $30).
The book takes readers on a trek through five decades of Hitler analysis, advancing and usually dismantling theories, ranging from the legendary (a Jewish grandparent) to the ludicrous (a goat bite on his penis) to the pernicious (an inept Jewish doctor) to the dim-witted (his dad beat him) to the most incisive (see below).
The power of this book -- and it works a powerful spell on the reader -- is Rosenbaum's ability to at once immerse himself in the search for the historical Hitler while exposing the prejudices that predetermined most conclusions on the nature of Hitler.
Along the way, Rosenbaum runs down what are probably the last warm leads on Hitler's mysterious past, and uncovers a most original and poignant find: an archive of muckraking anti-Hitler German journalism, whose writers and editors told the truth to a deaf world, and paid with their lives.
The Jewish Journal met Rosenbaum for a breakfast interview -- excerpted below -- during the Los Angeles leg of his book tour. Imagine the anthropologist Jacob Bronowski at fortysomething -- rumpled clothes, a quick mind, constantly turning over ideas and reluctant to espouse an absolutist stance -- perhaps the byproduct of 10 years spent researching the cost humanity pays for the delusion of absolute truth. Rosenbaum will