Was Hitler a member of the Brotherhood of Judy? That is the question asked by an upcoming HBO documentary based on Lothar Machtan’s book The Hidden Hitler. Machtan makes the case that Hitler’s secret homosexuality is the missing key to understanding what made the great dictator tick. Among other things, he proposes that the 1934 purge of Ernst Rohm and some 150 other ranking members of the Nazi party was Hitler’s preemptive response to a threatened “outing” by the openly gay Rohm.
In his book Machtan makes an interesting and — given what we know about Hitler’s life as a young and aimless drifter in Vienna — an entirely plausible case. Unfortunately in making his case he becomes a little too enamored of his theory. If Hitler were homosexual, then that could be one of the puzzle pieces needed to try and answer that eternal historical question — what the heck was the deal with this guy? But Machtan makes that one piece the whole picture — more or less concluding that World War II was just one big hissyfit.
Around the same time that HBO announced their Hitler project, the BBC planned one of their own — a miniseries covering Hitler’s formative years. The series was to be an attempt to figure out Hitler from the angle of his troubled youth, with Robert Downey Jr. cast as the mixed-up kid from Braunau am Inn. Last month the BBC scrapped the project. This is too bad, as Robert Downey Jr. is a very good actor and a mixed-up kid himself, and, as he showed in Chaplin, he is very adept at portraying famous people with Hitler mustaches.
Completing the “Hitler youth” trifecta is CBS’s upcoming Hitler: Origins of Evil, a four-hour movie about which little is known — except that an extremely thin and aging Peter O’Toole has been cast as an extremely fat and aging President von Hindenburg.
So: Which movie treatment comes closest to revealing what made this man a monster? Was it his repressed homosexuality? Was it his bad childhood? Was it the strange miscasting of Peter O’Toole?
Are any of these questions at all relevant? Maybe. Is even asking them offensive? That is the position taken by some Jewish groups and scholars who have spoken out against these projects. As Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, puts it: “Whatever he was like as a teenager or what his sexuality was is irrelevant. All that matters is that this is a monster who we should despise and condemn.” A professor of Yiddish at Harvard University, Ruth Weiss believes Hitler’s evil is diminished by the effort to “try and attribute human qualities to this monster.”
These are understandable sentiments, but they are wrong. My father came to America from what is now Slovakia in 1929, along with his mother and father and brothers and a sister. Another sister, my Aunt Ilona, didn’t come over until 1938 — making it out just under the wire. The rest of my father’s family, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, stayed behind in Europe. None survived the camps. As my father would say on the very rare occasions when he could bring himself to talk about it: “Those bums killed them all.”
At a very young age, I snuck into my parent’s room and read my mother’s copy of William Shirer’s The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich. I wanted to know why; how was this possible? I wanted an answer to that eternal question: What the heck was the deal with this guy? Like millions of others, I’ve read hundreds of books on the subject since. Like millions of others, I know everything about Hitler — and, of course, I know nothing about him.
It is good to ask “why?” Not because we’ll ever really get an answer. Because it reminds us, for all our flaws, that man is basically good. We look at monsters and ask “Why?” instead of shrugging our shoulders and saying “of course.” As for Hitler, it is possible to seek to understand him and still revile him. Just as it is possible for him to be a human and a monster.
The debate over these films is similar to the reaction a year ago to those who asked “why” regarding Osama bin Laden. Those who were offended by the question itself missed the point; it is possible to seek to understand the motivation of a monster while at the same time taking great pleasure in seeing 5,000-pound bombs dropped on his head.
— Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A . He just completed his first novel Good Luck Mr. Gorsky. Konig is an NRO contributor.