I'm not saying that plowing one's way through a thousand page biography of Adolf Hitler is an enjoyable experience, no, but it's certainly an educational one.
Having recently finished John Toland's excellent 1976 biography of the Fuhrer (picked up for a couple of bucks down in a Sihanoukville used-book shop), the maddening thing is that I know a hell of a lot more than I used to about the twentieth century's most maniacal madman, but I'm not sure I truly can grasp the depth of his depravity.
Who can? It's almost a cliche, comparing someone like Saddam Hussein or Milosevic to Hitler, but his nefarious reputation certainly stands up well under scrutiny, like some kind of inverted, perverted Horatio Alger story run cruelly, abominably wrong.
There was so much I didn't know about Hitler, starting with the fact that he was Austrian. News to me. (Hey, I passed on Grade 12 History where all that stuff was explained!) I always thought he was a bona fide, from the cradle German, but no -- only in his early twenties did he wander into the country of his obsession, penniless, a mere sack or two his only possessions. How he then slowly but surely insinuated himself into the highest ranks of the German political leadership, eventually reigning supreme as their, well, supreme ruler -- it's scary stuff, is what it is.
Scary, because it seems to arise not from hell but from the thwarted dreams of a frustrated painter; seems like all the old cliches and speculations regarding Hitler's art school days are true -- he really was an aspiring artist, and if he had been accepted into the prestigious art schools he so craved entering, World War II would most likely never have happened.
And his infatuation with the destruction of the Jewish race -- where did that come from? Toland thankfully refrains from offering too much armchair psychology, but it's no secret that Hitler was bitterly disappointed as a young man at the Jewish doctor who was unable to cure his mother's terminal cancer. Was that enough to slowly push him over the brink? Who knows? Some questions, especially those involving the psyche of another person, let alone a demented person, cannot be answered.
How one individual can rise from nothing in a country not its own and lead it to the very brink of destruction is instructive, to say the least. It shows how gullible we are as humans, and how much power, true power, we invest in our leaders. (Which makes choosing those same leaders all the more crucial.)
And yet. Ironies abound, not the least of which something I had never considered before: that Hitler's determination to eradicate all the Jews he possibly could eventually led to the creation of a Jewish state, thereby ensuring their longevity and prosperity. What this says about humanity I'm not sure, but, at the very least, it illustrates our ability to rise up above ourselves and find the courage to start all over again, even when faced with something as monstrously inexplicable as genocide.
As for me, I'm wiped. (Reading so much about Hitler in such a short space of time will do that to a person.)
I need something jolly. I need something jovial. Which is why I've just started Patricia Cornwell's non-fiction investigation into the true identity of Jack The Ripper.
Because hey -- after Hitler, even Jack the Ripper and his limited, small-scale atrocities seem almost, well, quaint in comparison.
But who knows. One can only take so much Victorian blood and gore. That compilation of Charlie Brown cartoons I've seen floating around town seems pretty enticing right about now.