In response, a reader left this comment: "Hitler bores me. He was a raging lunatic no longer worthy of conversation."
Well, I confess that my blog may bore people at times, but I find it impossible to understand how Hitler could bore people. But that's not what really bothered me about the comment. Rather, it was describing Hitler as "a raging lunatic."
I reject that description because it is way, way too simple. And it has unfortunate implications. By dismissing Hitler as crazy, we let ourselves off the hook. By which I mean that each of us is capable of evil, and if we simply dismiss evil as a product of mental illness we never really understand the human capacity of evil or the human condition.
A much more fruitful approach to this subject is the one historian Christopher Browning took in his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. I read this as I did research for my own new Holocaust-related book, due out in a few weeks, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.
In Browning's book, he doesn't dismiss as "raging lunatics" the men who followed orders to murder Jews. Rather, he seeks to understand how the moral compass of ordinary German soldiers could go so awry. Dismissing them as crazy would have relieved Browning of the task of understanding evil not only in those German soldiers but also in us.
Almost every imaginable adjective has been applied to Hitler in an effort to explain what may not be fully explainable. That's understandable. But let's also understand the implications of dismissing him as a lunatic: We relieve ourselves of the responsibility of truly understanding the man and -- more to the point -- of truly understanding ourselves.
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WHY WE SAVE IMPRISONED INDIVIDUALS
The mission that sent Bill Clinton to North Korea to bring back two American journalists has been analyzed for its political import. This Christian Science Monitor piece is a good example. But what I'd like us not to lose sight of is what this -- and the 18-year effort to find out what happened to Scott Speicher in Iraq -- says about the American view of the values of individuals. It says each human being is of ultimate worth. (It's why we have a welfare system. It's why we send the Coast Guard out to rescue just one careless private sailor.) And where did this idea come from? Author and political scientist Glenn Tinder argues in his book, The Political Meaning of Christianity, that it comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which holds that every individual is exalted because each one is a creation of God with a divinely appointed destiny. He calls that idea "the spiritual center of Western politics." If two American journalists weren't viewed as invaluable individuals but, rather, as mere pawns in a geopolitical game, they might still be in North Korea. Sometimes we tend to forget why we do things. We saved two Americans from the hell of North Korean imprisonment because as individuals they are of inestimable worth.