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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The necessary evil?

Why all Adolf Hitler's destructiveness is not enough to make him person of the century

By NANCY GIBBS

cover photo

December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:46 p.m. EST (1746 GMT)

How can you not pick Hitler, demand the players around the table who take seriously the rules of TIME's parlor game: Who had the greatest impact on this century, for better or worse? It is too easy just to say that he lost, when in doing so he still changed everything. It was he who opened the veins of the Bloody Century, an epoch that has seen mayhem on a scale unimagined for centuries before. "As a result of Hitler," argued Elie Wiesel in TIME last year, "man is defined by what makes him inhuman." And while the Reich lasted 12 years rather than 1,000, its spores still survive and multiply. "The essence of Hitlerism--racism, ethnic hatred, extreme nationalism, state-organized murder--is still alive, still causing millions of deaths," wrote U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke when he reluctantly nominated Hitler as the century's dominant character. "Freedom is the century's most powerful idea, but the struggle is far from over."

You could ask this of any year, any century: Which has the greater impact, good or evil, the heroes or the villains, Roosevelt and Churchill or Hitler and Stalin? To what extent do they depend on each other, when threats produce resolve, when terror engenders courage, when an ultimate challenge to principle has the effect of making principles stronger, forging them by fire? Thoughtful people who argue for Hitler as the Person of the Century do not want to honor him; they want to autopsy him, understand what made him strong and what finally killed him, and search, perhaps, for a vaccine for the virus that reappears still in ethnic enclaves, on websites, in the wilderness camps of skinhead anarchists and in the halls of Columbine High School, where two boys celebrated Hitler's birthday with a memorial massacre of children.

If impact were measured only in number of lives lost, one argument goes, Hitler would fall behind his fellow despots, Stalin and Mao. There are those who insist that Hitler is not the century's dominant figure because he was simply the latest in a long line of murderous figures, stretching back to before Genghis Khan. The only difference was technology: Hitler went about his cynical carnage with all the efficiency that modern industry had perfected.

And then there is the problem of impact. Which matters more, a life lost or a life changed forever? How many divisions does the Pope have, Stalin asked. Yet an idea that changes lives can have more power than an army that takes them--which leaves Gutenberg presiding over the 15th century, Jefferson over the 18th. Making body counts the ultimate measure of influence precludes the possibility of heroic sacrifice, a single death that inspires countless others to live their lives differently, a young man in front of a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square. "Five hundred years from now, it won't be Hitler we remember," says theologian Martin Marty. "Hitler may have set the century's agenda; he was a sort of vortex of negative energy that sucked everything else in. But I think God takes fallible human beings like Roosevelt or Churchill and carves them for his purposes. In five centuries, we'll look back and say the story of the century was not Hitler or Stalin; it was the survival of the human spirit in the face of genocide."

If all Hitler had done was kill people in vast numbers more efficiently than anyone else ever did, the debate over his lasting importance might end there. But Hitler's impact went beyond his willingness to kill without mercy. He did something civilization had not seen before. Genghis Khan operated in the context of the nomadic steppe, where pillaging villages was the norm. Hitler came out of the most civilized society on Earth, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He set out to kill people not for what they did but for who they were. Even Mao and Stalin were killing their "class enemies." Hitler killed a million Jewish babies just for existing.

It is this distinction that pulls us right into the heart of the question. And that is our long, modern conversation over the nature of evil. The debate goes back to Socrates, who argued that anyone who was acquainted with good could not intentionally choose evil instead. Enlightenment thinkers went further, pushing concepts of good and evil into the realm of superstition. But Hitler changed that. It was he, perhaps more than any other figure, who demanded a whole rethinking about good, evil, God and man.

"Before Hitler, we thought we had sounded the depths of human nature," argues Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler. "He showed how much lower we could go, and that's what was so horrifying. It gets us wondering not just at the depths he showed us but whether there is worse to come." The power of Hitler was to confound the modernist notion that judgments about good and evil were little more than matters of taste, reflections of social class and power and status. Although some modern scholars drive past the notion of evil and instead explain Hitler's conduct as a reflection of his childhood and self-esteem issues, for most survivors of the 20th century he is confirmation of our instinctive sense that evil does exist. It moves among us; it leads us astray and deploys powerful, subtle weapons against even the sturdiest souls.

There is a more nuanced, even insidious, argument for Hitler's pre-eminence: that good and evil are dependent on one another. It is a fundamental tenet to many religions that evil, while mysterious, may clear the way for good, that the soul is perfected only in battle, that pain and ecstasy are somehow twins, that only a soul--or a century--that has truly suffered can truly realize joy. Again we sense this instinctively--the pleasure we feel when a tooth stops hurting reminds us that we live our life in contexts and contrasts, and so perhaps you can argue that only by witnessing, and confronting, great evil were the forces of light able to burn most bright.

There are theologians and historians who have made this point. Most explicit are those who have called him God's punishment of European Jews for their secularization, then gone on to argue that it was mainly because of Hitler and the Holocaust that the biblical prophecy was fulfilled and the state of Israel born--only Western guilt on so massive a scale could have cleared the way to the Promised Land.

There is a political version of this equation: that at the beginning of the century, the West was ruled mainly by thin-blooded despots, with the exception of the more entrenched democracies of England and the U.S. Hitler did not believe the Western democracies capable of defending the principles they espoused--and as they wavered and appeased and betrayed in the face of his expansion, Hitler appeared to be right.

It was Churchill first, and then Roosevelt, who reawakened the West to its core values: freedom, civility, common decency in the face of evil, destructive forces of hate. The challenge that Hitler presented became the occasion for Churchill and Roosevelt and the lovers of freedom to battle the great diseases of the century: nihilism and defeatism. Churchill's apostles argue for him as the century's titan on these grounds. It was by no means obvious, in the dark days of 1940, that the Western Allies could prevail against the Axis. His optimism about victory and his conviction that there were truths worth defending to the death were as important as his identifying the threat and standing up to it. Forty years later, when Ronald Reagan approached the cold war as a battle to be not only fought but also won, he was following a Churchillian strategy.

So did it take a Hitler, a mortal threat, to move the Allied democracies from complacent enclaves to the global powerhouses that by century's end would embrace most of the world's people? Here is a place to draw the line. "It may be true that we've got great medical breakthroughs, radar, sonar because of war," says theologian Marty, "but I don't like to make a theology out of that; it's an accidental product." Rosenbaum agrees that to focus on the benefits is to risk trivializing the tragedy itself. "There are a lot of people who want to say God was teaching us a lesson--evil is there so that we can learn by struggling against it. I find it kind of barbaric to envision a God who needs to slaughter a million babies in order to perhaps improve our character. I'm irritated by people who try to find some happy-ever-after improving lesson from this."

However much stronger the Western democracies were after the war, as they went on to discredit not only fascism but communism as well, that strength still came at a terrible cost. "How much happier a world it would be if one did not have to mount crusades against racism, segregation, a Holocaust, the extermination of 'inferior peoples,'" notes presidential historian Robert Dallek. "We don't need evil. We'd do fine without Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. Think of the amount of money and energy used in World War II--if only they could have been used in constructive ways. Good doesn't need evil. We'd be just as well rid of it."

If we must place the century in a time capsule, there are better candidates for Person of the Century than its greatest criminal. The large characters, heroes and villains alike, do set the scales on which we balance progress. Evil may be a powerful force, a seductive idea, but is it more powerful than genius, creativity, courage or generosity? The century has offered characters who stretched our understanding and faith in those qualities as well. The heroes not only defeated Hitler; they provided our lasting inspiration as well. "Just as Hitler made us believe we hadn't yet sounded the depths," notes Rosenbaum, "maybe Martin Luther King Jr. and the great artists of the century, like Nabokov, help us believe there are still heights we haven't found."


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: December 31, 1999

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