I would very likely bite anyone who tries snatching this book from my hands. Yesterday morning, 6AM, I’m grumbling, “Don’t bother me; I’m reading!” The other evening, 5PM, I’m whining, “I hope someone’s on top of supper because I’m getting hungry.” This has been going on for days, now. I was awake at 3 o’clock this morning. The house was cold so I curled into a capsule beneath the blankets. I was also under cover so the dogs wouldn’t twig that I was awake and demand a pee and then, as morning follows evening, kibble follows pee, tug follows kibble, and so on.
Forgive my awkward segue, but reality isn’t always smooth. The book I am reading is Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. It’s not new, originally published in 1998, with an updated edition released in 2014. It isn’t that big, topping out at 630 pages (and I probably won’t read the index), so the length of the volume is not the reason that, although I can’t put the book down, I’m no further than page 324. It’s simply that the book stops me in my mind’s tracks, over and over, leaving me to wonder and worry and, honestly, weep.
This is not a book review, so here I’m focusing on the chapter where this morning I was reading, as I lay beneath my duvet, hiding from my dogs, wishing we could all hide from a potentially terrible truth. I will, no doubt, return to this work often in the blogs to come, but for now I am sunk, chest deep, in Part Five – The Art of Evil and the Future of It. Mr. Rosenbaum isn’t being glib when he uses the word art. He is discussing the concept of Evil as Art. Art as in ART – painting, photography, poetry, novels, architecture, music, dance – expressions of the creative soul. EVIL as ART. EVIL as an expression of the creative soul.
And he isn’t being artsy when he speaks about the future of Evil. He’s terminally serious.
Rosenbaum, for the purposes of his research, travelled between Holocaust experts, asking essentially the same question: What was Hitler thinking? This particular chapter, on which I focus here, recounts an interview between Rosenbaum and philosopher Berel Lang, author of many things but among them an essay entitled, “The History of Evil and the Future of the Holocaust.” Here is where Mr. Lang explores the concept of the Holocaust as a work of art. The idea that the annihilation of 6 million Jews gave creative pleasure to Hitler and his colleagues and, also, that the Holocaust is not just in our past but in our future, this is what lurks behind the attic door in the horror story of my dreams and what is waking me up and making me cry in the night.
Remember – please remember! – the Third Reich lasted a brief 12 years and in that time, 50 to 80 million people died. No, let me make that more actual, more factual, more in your face. It was murder, in the first degree. All of it was premeditated and none of it had to happen as there was no direct threat to the German people. Beyond the appalling scope of the crime, the intricacy of its design is enthralling. Rosenbaum and Lang consider the idea that the perpetrators of the Holocaust manipulated Evil as a sculptor works clay or a writer plays with word and rhythm.
Rosenbaum points out that Hitler and his cohort considered themselves a league of artists: Hitler a painter and architect, Heydrich an accomplished violinist, Goebbels a novelist, and so on. Thomas Mann, apparently recognized, early on, that Hitler appealed to the German people through the presentation of himself as an artist instead of a politician. We very often consider the Holocaust as the epitome of inhumanity and balk when it’s compared to other inhumanities because it’s different, it’s greater, it’s more horrific. Building a hierarchy of inhumanity is just plain ugly but I do believe the Holocaust stands apart for a number of reasons. Now, I’m thinking, perhaps the most significant reason for the Holocaust being on a plain of its own is because it was a work of art, hence a work of love.
So then the next point begs attention: If the perpetrators of the Holocaust were creating art, then, as artists do when they are in the throes of their work, they push boundaries and break rules, while seeking the next step in their imaginative journey. Beyond the journey of the individual, there is the development of art within and through our ever changing cultures. Is it safe to say that Mozart never anticipated Schoenberg? Michelangelo probably wouldn’t have understood Giacometti, nor would Proust enjoy James Joyce. Art evolves. Therefore, we can expect Evil to evolve?
Says Lang: I suggested [in The History of Evil and the Future of the Holocaust] that this may not be the last phase of evil; I would use the artistic analogy. I mean, if one can talk about the future of art, we are speaking of the imagination. I think it does require an act of the imagination, of the immoral imagination, to conceive of genocide as they did. And if one speaks of the imagination, the one feature of it that distinguishes it, really, is the kind of unpredictability of it.
If the Nazis hadn’t been stopped, how far or in what ways would they have allowed their creative child, the Holocaust, to evolve? But speaking more directly to my nightmares, what’s next?
Our country is in the grips of a league of senators, congressmen, cabinet members, judges and financial backers who consider themselves above the law (note their interference in the FBI investigation), beyond the constraints set by their constituents (note the passage of the wholly unpopular tax bill), and in contempt of our Constitution (note their attitude toward the 1st Amendment and their scorn for the legitimate press). They have positioned themselves behind a man whom they know is a “fucking idiot”, keeping him happy by fawning, petting, applauding. My own congressman, Erik Paulsen, is one of the most deliriously obsequious of them all, may he find rest and retirement this November.
I wonder what Angela Merkel and her people are saying beneath the covers. I believe they can see what we Americans have going here. I believe they know the scenario that plays out with an ignorant and narcissistic leader surrounded by artists of power, greed, manipulation, unrestrained aspiration, and contempt for human rights. I believe the real leaders of this planet know what’s happening but don’t know what to do about it.
I believe the future of the Holocaust has arrived.
(Everything above is my response to Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum; I can take credit only for having the good sense to read it. Mr. Rosenbaum has an essay in the L.A. Review of Books entitled, Against Normalization: The Lesson of the “Munich Post”; please read this, also.)