Saturday, July 26, 2014

Evil and the Will

In the back of my mind recently, when I wrote about a strong-willing Irish friend, was the more serious, eternally mysterious question of human evil and to what extent it results from our free will.

Of course, Hitler comes to mind. Just recently, I found an article by Ron Rosenbaum, author of a new edition of Explaining Hitler.  Having studied his subject more thoroughly than most people, Rosenbaum concludes that what made Hitler want to do what he did remains ultimately unclear.

Will power he had in abundance, and hatred. Some (Alice Miller, the Swiss psychoanalyst, among others) have argued that young Adolf's upbringing--being beaten by his father--led to violent hatred and shame, compounded by the defeat of Germany in World War I.  Others have seen Hitler as a demon or monster or madman who ultimately wanted to destroy himself and ruin his beloved Fatherland.

It is interesting for me, having taught a course in evil that put emphasis on the choices we make, to find Rosenbaum concluding that it wasn't a combination of external forces that led Hitler to become Hitler: "it required him to choose evil. It required free will."

The full source of the "continuous series of choices" that Hitler made in his life may never be understood. The author says we may never know what effect an alleged hypnotist had on Hitler after the first war. So rather than indulge in endless speculation, Rosenbaum, lacking definitive proof of the potent combination of personal and social forces that drove him to annihilate millions, concludes that "we may never know with certainty what made Hitler Hitler."

This means that some basic issues about the war and the Holocaust remain uncertain since Hitler's racial war was unlike any other. Hitler arrived on the world scene at just the right moment, in a country eager for authoritarian control and willing to participate in his evil monstrosity.

And yet the greatest evil of the modern era remains, like so much human evil, a mystery.

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