Ron Rosenbaum

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

…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.