Virtual Memories: Ron Rosenbaum – Re-Explaining Hitler
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“The choices that an artist makes are not traceable back to a particular set of neurons firing. They’re choices made by the complete consciousness of a person. Art, in a way, validates free will, and thereby validates the notion of evil.”
Ron Rosenbaum returns to the show to talk about the new edition of his great book, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (Da Capo Press)! We talk Hitler, the meaning(s) of evil, determinism and free will, Hitler-as-artist vs. Hitler-as-suicide-bomber, “degenerate art,” the tendency to blame Jews for their misfortune, his search for the “Higgs Boson” of Hitler, and how internet culture has warped the meaning of Hitler in the 16 years since Ron’s book was first published.
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“I just couldn’t bear being a graduate student, so I dropped out after a year and revolted against academia. I wanted to hang out with cops and criminals and write long form stories about America, about crimes, about strange things.”
Of course, we also get around to some other fun topics, like whether his studies of the Holocaust inspired him to become a “better Jew”, whether it’s possible to knowingly commit evil, how Bleak House changed his life, and just how he managed to become a unique voice in American nonfiction.
Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:
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About our Guest
Ron Rosenbaum‘s work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, Esquire and other magazines. He is currently the national correspondent for Smithsonian Magazine, and was recently featured in the History Channel documentary, “The World Wars.” His books include The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups, and he edited Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism. You can find him on twitter at @ronrosenbaum1.
Credits: This episode’s music is Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (see, because Ron’s a fan of her stuff, and the episode is about his returning to the topic of evil, and — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded in a friend’s apartment on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. (There was a loud air conditioner, so I did some noise removal, which may have tweaked the audio a little.) Photo of Mr. Rosenbaum by me.
One Reply to “Podcast: Re-Explaining Hitler”
Psychiatrist Scott Peck has written a very interesting book where he views human evil as a mental illness, as a psychological disorder; the book is called People Of The Lie, and it is by far the most outstanding work of psychiatrical literature I have ever seen. I believe this book might help clear up some of the confusion surrounding the evil of Adolf Hitler, and other evil people in the world ( for there apparently quite a few.)
According to Scott Peck, evil people would prefer to blame others rather than take responsibility for their own faults and failures. They tend to come from very unpleasant, disrespectful, abusive families (even when the abuse is only verbal); a person apparently becomes evil when the massive sense of abandonment, distress, fear, guilt and humiation they grow up with becomes so great, that a person turns inwards, hiding away the agony they feel from the world, denying the guilt and pain within themselves.
Peck’s book is named “People of the Lie” because everything about evil people is a lie; they keep up a facade of normalcy in order to fool others as well as themselves into believing that they are actually good persons, and they are concerned with appearing as morally upright as possible so as not to be identified as evil; such persons are so terrified of someone figuring out that they are evil, it would be (for them) like being shot. Peck argues that the evil thus live with levels of terror known to few. They are apparently filled with vengeful motives and hatred for good people, who have qualities such as honesty, compassion, openness, integrity, mercy, and so on, which evil people lack. And so whenever the evil encounter a good person with such qualities, it shows the evil up for what they are; it reveals themselves to themselves. It makes them feel weak and stupid. And since nobody likes to feel weak and stupid, the evil thus reach out and attempt to tear down that good person for making them feel that way, in order to make that other person feel just as broken down and miserable as they themselves feel. It’s a fear reaction, and is the kind of thing done by someone with no self esteem at all.
Evil people are immensely confusing individuals. They go out of their way to be confusing, in order to control and deceive others. They tend to seek out positions of authority in order to make themselves appear legitimate and respectable, so that they can work out their vengeful motives against others and appear blameless while doing so. They often appear to be immensely prideful, arrogant people, appearing to derive a perverse pleasure from fooling others into believing them to be good individuals. Though deep down they themselves have zero self esteem, evil people disguise this aspect of themselves so well that it is difficult to tell that this is the case.
According to this theory, evil people are very common in society, and are masters of disguise; very hard to detect. You likely meet them every day, at work, church, the supermarket, school, and so on. Peck’s belief is that roughly 2 to 3 percent of the population is evil, a small, but significant minority. And he further believes that psychology up till now has missed out on identifying evil as a disorder (a very rigid, regimental disorder) because most psychologists and psychiatrists have bought the facade; evil people claim they have no problems, and almost never seek out therapy, unless only for the most twisted of motives. The evil flee the light of self-examination, and it is quite impossible to help someone who will not concede that they have a problem. One cannot change what one does not acknowledge.
Evil people are often confused with psychopaths and sociopaths, since both can be highly manipulative, bullying, and are often accomplished liars. However, evil people are most certainly not sociopathic or psychopathic. Though the evil tend to behave with remarkable insensitivity toward their victims, they themselves are immensely empathetic, sensitive people; Overly-sensitive, in fact, is how Scott Peck classifies them. The evil cannot tolerate even the smallest criticism without reacting vengefully, attempting to remove any suggestion of guilt from themselves by placing it onto other people. Psychopaths and sociopaths can at least admit when they may have done something wrong (as long as their self-interest is not involved), and they are quite capable of accepting that they might be psychopathic or sociopathic; ie., that they might have a problem. An evil person, conversely, would never admit to ANY fault, of ANY sort whatsoever, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant; they believe themselves to be perfect persons, without fault, and why should a perfect person ever have to apologize for anything? Thus one will never, ever, ever hear an evil person apologize for anything; this is one of the ways in which they can be identified.
The evil cannot stop messing with others. They wish to appear good. They don’t wish to actually BE good. If a situation arises where an evil person can hurt a good person in some way (even if only in the tiniest way) and look innocent while doing so, the evil person will take that opportunity; the evil just slips out. If it would look bad for the evil person to behave unpleasantly, the person will restrain themselves. Thus the evil tend to be extremely subtle abusers, and almost never end up in jail. They know where the limits are. They know exactly how far to push, and no farther. Thus the lives of evil people tend to be a bizarre balancing act between looking respectable and blameless, and hurting as many good people as possible. Give them a family, and they will turn it into a tragedy. Give them a country, and they become dictators.
Psychiatrist Scott Peck believed he could detect no limit in those he identified as evil people as to how far they were willing to go when working out their vengeful hatreds upon others, if given the opportunity and freedom to do so. The evil appear to have a limitless black lake of hatred to draw on which never runs dry, which seems to go much further In explaining the Holocaust than anything else; psychopaths and sociopaths are often just insensitive to others; evil people actively HATE others, locating within them the cause of their own pain and suffering. And when they victimize people, the evil are merciless, because they are transferring upon others the evil which they deny and flee from within themselves; they feel they are punishing evil, and their cause is a righteous cause. This further likely explains why the Nazis continued to exterminate the Jews right up to the very last moment on Hitler’s own orders, even when it was clear that the Nazis had lost the War; only hatred could account for such vicious dedication, when there was no other clear or particular reason to do so; bottomless hatred for their victims.
Evil people tend to scapegoat others. They tend to pick victims, or particular types of victims, whom they hound without mercy until those people are either dead, or can somehow escape from the evil people themselves. The scapegoating of the Jews and others, seen from this theory, seems rather textbook from this view. Evil people are chronic scapegoaters, and once their primary victims are dispatched (or escape), they then pick someone else to victimize. Evil people don’t appear to visibly suffer from any guilt or shame for their actions (or much of anything at all), since in their minds they place all the responsibility for their wicked behaviour onto others; thus the evil most often can be identified by their victims. If the evil behave badly, why, then it must be someone else’s fault, or someTHING else’s fault; never, ever THEIR fault. Through transference, they see others as to blame, and they punish those people accordingly. Thus convinced of their own perfection and innocence, the evil often appear creepily calm and ordinary even when it is clear they have behaved very badly indeed, as in the case of Adolf Eichmann, who murdered millions of Jews, but appeared so ordinary, sane, banal, and even boring. The evil blame their victims, rather than themselves, and thus feel no genuine weight of responsibility for what they do to them.
I cannot recommend Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie” enough. It seems (to my mind at least) to clear away the immense fog of confusion the evil often cloak themselves with, revealing them as pathetic, dull, terrified individuals, wandering the world, creating havoc wherever they go and denying all of it. When Paul Berardo and Karla Homolka were arrested for murder, Bernardo was easily identified as a psychopath; but Karla Homolka easily passed the psychopath exams administered, baffling all of the practitioners, because nothing could be found wrong with her according to psychology at that time. Evil people appear to have no defect in their sense of empathy, as psychopaths and sociopaths do; they appear to know exactly how others feel, and they use this understanding to inflict exquisite suffering on their victims; evil people instead seem to have a defect in their will; they are immensely willful people, utterly determined to have their own way, and are willing to work harder than most to get it.
“People of the Lie” can be found on Amazon. Look it up.