Lanzmann vs. Rosenbaum vs. Hitler

I’m almost at the end of  Ron Rosenbaum’s massive search for Hitler–or, more precisely, for what made Hitler Hitler? The book, entitled Explaining Hitler, is less an attempt to explain Hitler than to come to grips with various threads of Hitler explainers who have spent much of their lives grappling with the Hitler enigma. It’s well-nigh impossible to contemplate the Shoah without some attempt at explanation: it was the product of German anti-Semitism (Daniel Goldhagen), Christian anti-Semitism (Hyam Maccoby), Adolf Hitler’s personal passion for Jew-hatred (Lucy S. Dawidowicz)…then there are those who downplay Hitler’s role, blaming the Inevitable Forces of History for the murder of six million Jews, or those who add that many Catholics, Romany and homosexuals were killed as well, in an attempt to steal back their greatest tragedy from the Jews and “universalize” it (or de-Judaize it).

One of the most peculiar of Rosenbaum’s subjects is Claude Lanzmann, director of the 9 1/2 hour film Shoah. Lanzmann finds all attempts at explanation obscene, and Rosenbaum aptly titles his chapter on Lanzmann “The War Agianst the Question Why.” But why declare war on those like Rosenbaum (and most of us nerds) who ask the forbidden question, why? Lanzmann’s metaphor is itself lifted from Primo Levi, a man who knew first-hand from Auschwitz (unlike Lanzmann): “Here there is no why,” a German guard maliciously quips to the young Levi, who was only asking why the guard wouldn’t let him have the icicle he’d noticed hanging from the roof of his barracks. Lanzmann turns this into a kind of “eleventh commandment”–thou shalt not ask why. I find Lanzmann’s logic (if there is any) puzzling, to say the least, and tend to shy away from mystic auras, in any case.

I’ll come back to this book in future posts. It’s worth reading. Meanwhile, here is an excellent review of the book.

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