Last week the director Oliver Stone caused quite a stir when, in describing his new Showtime mini-series, “A Secret History of America,” he declared that Adolf Hitler was an “easy scapegoat throughout history… [who]‘s been used cheaply.” “We can’t judge people as only ‘bad’ or ‘good,’” Stone continued. Even Hitler was “the product of a series of actions. It’s cause and effect. People in America don’t know the connection between WWI and WWII.” “You cannot approach history,” Stone added in reference to Stalin and Hitler, “unless you have empathy for the person you may hate.”
The furor, as one can imagine, was immediate; not only from historians and Jewish groups, but journalists and politicians as well. As Ron Radosh wrote in his own scathing HNN reply to Stone and the director’s main consultant, the historian Peter Kuznick, it’s hardly novel for academics to argue that Nazism was a product of external and internal circumstances. Without the First World War, Versailles Treaty, or the Great Depression, the Nazi movement could never have achieved the success that it did. And without the repeated social and political crises that defined the latter years of the Weimar Republic, Hitler would not have been named German Chancellor in January 1933. We don’t need “empathy” for Hitler to understand the way that people, even Hitler and the Nazis, were shaped by circumstances. So what in the world is Stone talking about?
One can only speculate as to the director’s precise point of departure. But I’m going to presume that Stone, despite his penchant for sensationalism, is hardly going to make the case that Hitler was a decent human being. The question he probably intends to answer is the same one I address in my recent book, Living With Hitler (reviewed by Jeffrey Gaab in the September 2009 HNN newsletter): How could so many educated, liberal-minded Germans have actively supported, or at the very least passively accommodated, a fanatic like Hitler?