August 22, 2014 8:14 pm

Martin Amis on Hitler and the nature of evil

In this edited afterword to his new novel ‘The Zone of Interest’, the author discusses Primo Levi and the Nazis’ incomprehensible brutality

A visitor walks between electric barbed-wire fences at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and former concentration camp, November 2013

As disseminators of death, the three great tyrants of the 20th century can claim rough equivalence. But Hitler stands alone as a source of lasting and unanimous incomprehension. Of mainstream historians, not one claims to understand him, and many make a point of saying that they don’t understand him; and some, like Alan Bullock, go further and admit to an ever-deepening perplexity (“I can’t explain Hitler. I don’t believe anyone can ... The more I learn about Hitler, the harder I find it to explain”). We know a great deal about the how – about how he did what he did; but we seem to know almost nothing about the why.

FT Weekend Interview Series: Martin Amis

Martin Amis

The author talks about his latest book ‘The Zone of Interest’

Newly detrained at Auschwitz in February 1944, and newly stripped, showered, sheared, tattooed, and reclothed in random rags (and nursing a four-day thirst), Primo Levi and his fellow Italian prisoners were packed into a vacant shed and told to wait. This famous passage continues:

 . . . I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.

There was no why in Auschwitz. Was there a why in the mind of the Reichskanzler-President-Generalissimo? And if there was, why can’t we find it?

One way out of the quandary involves an epistemological rejection: thou shalt not seek an answer. And this commandment can take different forms (leading us into a sphere known as the theology of the Holocaust). In Explaining Hitler – a work of almost uncanny percipience and stamina – Ron Rosenbaum is sympathetic to the spiritual queasiness of Emil Fackenheim (author of, for example, The Human Condition After Auschwitz); however, he quietly derides the secular but self-righteous Claude Lanzmann (maker of Shoah), who calls all attempts at explanation “obscene”. Rather, Rosenbaum inclines to the position of Louis Micheels (who wrote the painfully intimate memoir, Doctor 117641): “Da soll ein warum sein: There must be a why.” As Yehuda Bauer tells Rosenbaum, in Jerusalem, “I’d like to find it [the why], yes, but I haven’t”: “Hitler is explicable in principle, but that does not mean he has been explained.”


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Still, we shouldn’t forget that the mystery, the why, is divisible: first, the Austrian artist manqué turned tub-thumper, second, the German – and Austrian – instruments he carried with him. Sebastian Haffner was a popular historian who studied both ends of the phenomenon, from below in Defying Hitler (a memoir of life in Berlin 1914-33, written in 1939, just after he got out) and from above in The Meaning of Hitler, an intense exegesis that appeared in 1978, when Haffner was 71 (in 1914 he was seven). The first book went unpublished in his lifetime, and there is no attempt at uniting the two perspectives. But we can attempt it; and the connections are unignorable.

In moods and mentalities, it seems, Volk and Führer partook of the same troubled Danubian brew. On the one hand, the people, with their peculiar “despair of politics” (as Hugh Trevor-Roper has put it), their eager fatalism, their wallowing in petulance and perversity, what Haffner calls their “resentful dimness” and their “heated readiness to hate”, their refusal of moderation and, in adversity, of all consolation, their ethos of zero-sum (of all or nothing, of Sein oder Nichtsein), and their embrace of the irrational and hysterical. And on the other hand the leader, who indulged these tendencies on the stage of global politics. His inner arcanum, Haffner believes, floridly manifested itself during the critical hinge of the war: namely the two-week period between November 27 and December 11, 1941.

One way out of the quandary involves an epistemological rejection: thou shalt not seek an answer

When the Blitzkrieg in the east began to collapse, Hitler notoriously remarked (November 27):

On this point, too, I am icily cold. If one day the German nation is no longer sufficiently strong or sufficiently ready for sacrifice to stake its blood for its existence, then let it perish and be annihilated by some other stronger power ... I shall shed no tears for the German nation.

By December 6, as the war diary of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff records, Hitler had acknowledged that “no victory could any longer be won”. And on December 11, four days after Pearl Harbor, he boldly, gratuitously, and suicidally declared war on the USA. Where, here, is the Führer’s why? According to Haffner, he was “now coveting defeat”; and he wanted that defeat to be “as complete and disastrous as possible”. Thereafter his aggression veered in on a new target: Germans.

This reading offers a framework for December 1941-April 1945, and helps make some sense of the Ardennes offensive in late 1944 (which effectively opened the eastern door to the Russians) and the two disobeyed “Führer Orders” the following March (for mass civilian evacuation from the west, and the “Nero Order” for scorched earth). We now ask, how far back did it go – the subconscious drive towards self-destruction, and later its treasonable corollary, the conscious drive towards “national death”? And the answer seems to be that it went back all the way.

Hitler’s core notion, “living space”, announced with settled pomp in Mein Kampf (1925), was from the start a ridiculous anachronism (the reasoning is “pre-industrial”); and its sine qua non, the quick win over Russia, was ruled out in advance by demographics and geography. When the dissident diarist Friedrich Reck, who came from an old military family, learned of the attack on Russia (June 1941) he reacted with “wild jubilation”: “Satan’s own have over-reached themselves, and now they are in the net, and they will never free themselves again”. Thus in Haffner’s words, the “programmatician”, as Hitler liked to call himself, “programmed his failure”.

Both Haffner’s books give you the rare excitement of impending (if perhaps fugitive) clarity; and read in tandem they do seem to inch us a little closer to coherence. But we are continuing to beg an enormous question: the question of sanity. After all, Hitler’s other core notion, the one about the Jewish world conspiracy, comes straight out of a primer on mental diseases – it is the schizophrenic’s first and most miserable cliché. In the street, then, gutter Judaeophobia (or at best the unnatural “indifference” adduced by Ian Kershaw), a fulminant nationalism, and herd docility punctuated by “mass intoxications”; in the Chancellery, the slow felo de se of a mind now putrescing with power. And madness, if we impute it (and how can we exclude it?), is bound to frustrate our investigation – because of course we will get no coherence, and no legible why, from the mad.

What is the unique difficulty in coming to terms with “that which happened” (in Paul Celan’s coldly muted phrase)? Any attempt at an answer will necessarily be personal, and for this reason: “the Nazi genocide”, as Michael André Bernstein has written, “is somehow central to our self-understanding”. Not everyone will feel that way about the events in eastern Europe 1941-45 (and I am reminded of WG Sebald’s dry aside to the effect that no serious person ever thinks about anything else). But I accede to Bernstein’s formulation; it is surely one of the defining elements of the singularity.

My own inner narrative is one of chronic stasis, followed by a kind of reprieve. Here is an illustration. I first read Martin Gilbert’s classic The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy in 1987, and I read it with incredulity; in 2011 I read it again, and my incredulity was intact and entire – it was wholly undiminished. Between those dates I had worked my way through scores of books on the subject; and while I might have gained in knowledge, I had gained nothing at all in penetration. The facts, set down in a historiography of tens of thousands of volumes, are not in the slightest doubt; but they remain in some sense unbelievable, or beyond belief, and cannot quite be assimilated. Very cautiously I submit that part of the exceptionalism of the Third Reich lies in its unyieldingness, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip.

The facts, set down in historiography, are not in the slightest doubt; but they remain in some sense unbelievable

Soon after this negative eureka (I have not found it, I cannot understand it), my eye was caught by a new edition of Primo Levi’s The Truce (his comedic and affirmatory companion volume to the darkness of If This Is a Man). And here I came across an addendum I hadn’t seen before – “The Author’s Answers to His Readers’ Questions”, which covers 18 pages of small print.

“How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?” asks question number seven. In reply Levi lists the most commonly cited root causes, which, nevertheless, he finds “not commensurate with, not proportional to, the facts that need explaining”. He goes on:


Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behaviour means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him. Now, no normal human being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Eichmann, and endless others. This dismays us, and at the same time gives us a sense of relief, because perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human ... [T]here is no rationality in the Nazi hatred; it is a hate that is not in us; it is outside man ...

Historians will consider this more an evasion than an argument. To non-discursive writers, though (and we remember that Levi was also a novelist and a poet), such a feint or flourish may be taken as a spur. Here, Levi is very far from hoisting up the no-entry sign demanded by the sphinxists, the anti-explainers. On the contrary, he is lifting the pressure off the why, and so pointing to a way in.

This extract is from the afterword of Martin Amis’s new novel, ‘The Zone of Interest’ (Jonathan Cape/Knopf)


Letter in response to this article:

There is no need to agonise or speculate on Hitler’s sanity / From Mr Don Cropper

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