A refugee from Nazism and a distinguished New York psychoanalyst, Sandor Rado had thought long and deeply about Hitler's takeover of Germany. Years ago, the writer Otto Friedrich interviewed him in his Manhattan apartment and asked him why the Nazis came to power. "There is a long silence...'That is not an easy question that you ask me,' Dr. Rado says. Another long silence. Dr. Rado stares into the dusk of his study, thinking. Finally, he decides on his answer. He speaks very slowly, very carefully. 'I don't know.'"
Rado's "I don't know" may stand as the ultimate statement about the Nazi genocide, honest humility of reason faced with human irrationality. We don't know. Or we do know, but only in pieces and chunks? The whole continues to elude us. Yet the effort to comprehend the why and the what of Nazism not only proceeds but intensifies. Sixty years ago few wrote about the Nazi slaughter. Today an expanding literature addresses every aspect of it.
The more ambitious efforts to understand Nazism fall into two categories. One type identifies something specifically in German history as the root cause: German authoritarianism, feeble liberalism, brash nationalism or virulent anti-Semitism. From A.J.P. Taylor's The Course of German History fifty-five years ago to Daniel Goldhagen's recent Hitler's Willing Executioners, Nazism is understood as the outcome of a long history of uniquely German traits. Approaches like these command an immediate plausibility and often popularity. After all, Germany began the war and organized the genocide. "Nazi" designated a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party. German malfeasance derives exclusively from German factors.
As satisfying as such an account may be, it runs into immediate problems. In isolating something peculiarly German, it seems to forget the map. Germany partakes of Europe--and Western civilization--and shares its strengths and weaknesses. Germany hardly monopolized anti-Semitism, for instance. Indeed, for decades anti-Semitism in France and in the Austrian empire far exceeded that in Germany. Edouard Drumont's Jewish France, a two-volume compendium of racist nonsense, sold more than a million copies in 1886. For many contemporary observers, the Dreyfus case of the 1890s pegged France as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Before World War I, two out of three Austrians voted for anti-Semitic parties. When Germany occupied Austria in 1938, a half-million Austrians wildly greeted Hitler in Vienna, a gathering whose size is still unsurpassed in Austria to this day. Hitler himself was Austrian.
If one approach to Nazism focuses on specifically German features, the other follows the opposite path, and highlights wider issues such as larger European anti-Semitism. Of course, these studies go beyond anti-Semitism to consider modern nationalism, capitalism, racism, mass society, totalitarianism and human psychology. In this category is Hannah Arendt's still-controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil, as well as Christopher Browning's much more recent Ordinary Men, a study of a German police battalion that rounded up and shot Jews. These books suggest that the nature of bureaucracy, the propensity for obedience or lack of imagination, render genocide "banal" or ordinary. Any nation or individual could be caught up in a murderous operation. If the German-centric method seems to ignore Germans' links to the rest of the world, the danger here is the opposite; it dissolves German history in a universal solvent. No one person or thing is guilty because everything is.