From Hitler to FDR

I don’t know what I expected from reading a biography of Adolph Hitler. The name itself, the image in photographs and newsreels, it’s such a force of history I think I had forgotten that the smiling saluting man in military uniforms—clearly pleased to spend what appears to be an inordinate amount of time reviewing incredible numbers of soldiers, utterly unperturbed (as I think many people would be) by endless crowds of screaming crying admirers—was indeed a human being.

I guess I had hoped that there was some kind of tragedy to Hitler’s life, that he started good but ended bad, and I would even guess that Adolph Hitler as a child was probably little different from other children his age in his place and time—though his father appears to be more of an asshole than what 19th-century parenting called for, abusing his young son, refusing to accept that young Hitler could want to be anything except a paper pusher in the civil service like his father—but in reading about his Vienna days, when I think he was around my age, and steadfastly refusing to get himself a job, supporting himself instead on his meager earnings from mediocre paintings, dwelling in flea-infested flophouses, spending his free time shouting down democrats in political cafes—proto web forums—I discovered, call me crazy, that Adolph Hitler (at least according to Alan Bullock) really was as vile and reprehensible as you would expect, that even if you met Hitler as a young man without any knowledge of what was to come you would probably conclude that he was a terrible person.

There are unfounded rumors that one of Hitler’s parents was sired out of wedlock by a rich Jew, that Hitler fell in love as a teenager with a Jewish beauty, that he blamed the Jewish doctor for his mother’s death, and so on. Bullock speculates that Hitler began to despise Jews after contracting a venereal disease from a Jewish prostitute. Hitler himself says in the trustworthy-of-trustworthies, Mein Kampf, that in Vienna, that “laboratory for apocalypses“, when he first encountered Jews—really Jewish Jews, like out of the opening scene of Schindler’s List, with long black sidelocks, huge beards, caftans, the works—he was disgusted, repelled, and deeply concerned with whether this person was a German like himself—even though Hitler was actually Austrian. There is an interesting theory that the craziest rulers always come from the empire’s periphery—Hitler from Austria, Obama from Hawaii, though the easy Hawaiian climate appears to have made the president into a man who wouldn’t blink if he received news that Vladimir Putin was launching Russia’s entire arsenal of ICBMs at American targets. While I myself am half-Jewish I actually haven’t spent more than an hour or two of my life with really religious Jews, two of which I encountered at my alma mater, Hampshire College, which was overrun with secular Jews like myself, many of whom were actively, almost even violently supportive of a Palestinian state. I’m also hesitantly on their side, though I would rather not pick sides in such a complex conflict…

Anyway, I met one man, maybe a Hasidic Jew?, hanging around the entrance to the ultraist Hampshire College library, and we started talking somehow, and at first I tried baiting him with a stupid attack on the existence of god or something (my teenage self once did the same to a Santa Claus), but he was not only completely undisturbed, he turned out to be friendly, interesting, and open-minded. His young pretty wife, dressed in somewhat conservative traditional religious attire (long sleeves, long skirt, no skin), was perhaps the extremist of the family, and apparently eager to spend the next couple of decades pumping babies out of her vaginal assembly line every nine months.

I also met a college student who was an American but honestly seemingly more of a rightwing Israeli citizen, as she couldn’t stop talking about how Israel was completely justified in its actions because the Bible says that country belongs to the Jews, who were also the most maligned people on Earth and the victims of the greatest wrongs in human history. Such things, I thought, were true seventy years in the past (about Jews being maligned, not about Israel belonging to Jews), but at the same time how could regular folksy folks not have questions when a minority of people who sometimes look slightly different from the average run of humanity happen to possess an inordinate amount of wealth, power, and nobel prizes? I’ve heard from multiple sources, from one of my best friends as well as a beautiful acquaintance I briefly made in the country and not the state of Georgia, that Israel is a beautiful place, but I also believe that New York, which has a Jewish population almost as high as Israel’s, is the promised land of milky and honey—not only for Jews, but for everyone.

So we can guess, based on the millions of Jews he gassed, that Hitler had a somewhat different reaction to Jews than myself. But the man didn’t just pass them in the street. What got to me, in Bullock’s biography, was that poor Jews actually helped the young penniless Adolph Hitler. “[21-year-old Hitler] wore an ancient black overcoat, which had been given him by an old-clothes dealer in the hostel, a Hungarian Jew named Neumann, and which reached down over his knees.” (Bullock, 34) This website states that Hitler “disappeared for a week” with this mysterious Neumann, about whom a movie will surely be made sooner or later—another movie I liked a great deal, Max, appears to be loosely based on a Jewish art dealer named Morgenstern, who was a patron of Hitler’s and who later died (along with his wife) in a concentration camp. I suppose these facts are what did it for me. Hitler’s later life was preoccupied with taking revenge on the mostly-Jewish November Criminals who supposedly stabbed Germany in the back at the end of the First World War—as though Germany wasn’t exhausted from losing millions of people to endless pointless trench warfare—but if murdering people who worked hard to help you when you were in trouble isn’t treachery, I don’t know what is.

Though Bullock’s biography is excellent, it’s hard to read such a long story about such a disgusting character. To refresh myself, to wash my eyes, I turned instead to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s awesome awesome awesome No Ordinary Time, about FDR in the Second World War, and came upon this quote, which would refresh my eyes even further if it were uttered by or about President-elect Sanders in the near future rather than someone discussing Eleanor Roosevelt in the distant past—she was fighting a war, too, “a war against [economic] depression”, working night and day on behalf of civil rights and American social progress to reduce poverty and to help those dealt a harsher fate way back in the old days when the wheelchair-bound king of liberalism and progressivism and socialism won so many presidential elections the Republicans had to pass a new constitutional amendment to make sure none of his ilk ever got so far again.