Ron Rosenbaum Explaining Hitler  
Ron Rosenbaum:
Explaining Hitler
Explaining Hitler (Ron Rosenbaum)

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  The recurrence of linkages of one sort or another between Hitler and Kafka throughout "Hitler studies" is rather remarkable--and controversial. In addition to the D. M. Thomas character's conjecture about the kinship of Kafka and Hitler as artists of the unthinkable and the unbearable, many have invoked Kafka as a prophet, seen the absurd logic of the death camps foreshadowed in "In the Penal Colony" and The Trial, and wondered whether only a Kafkaesque universe can explain the nightmare world Hitler made flesh. So many that a kind of scholarly backlash against Kafka-Hitler linkages has emerged: Michael André Bernstein, author of Foregone Conclusions, has characterized the habit of reading Hitler intimations into Kafka as "backshadowing." And Holocaust literature scholar Lawrence Langer has argued that the Kafka linkage is another instance of explanation as consolation: "Establishing precedents for the unprecedented allays the puzzled conscience of a dismayed generation that still has trouble living with the unaccountability of the history of its time."

Still, some of the little details and correspondences are striking. George Steiner, who, as we'll see, believes in some metaphysical sense that Kafka invented Hitler or at least Hitler's concentration-camp universe, points out, on a smaller scale, that Ungeziefer, the word Kafka used to describe the insect into which Gregor Samsa metamorphosed, is a favorite word of Hitler's, one he used to characterize the "vermin" of Europe, the Jews he wanted to exterminate like unwanted insects. But Binion was the first to apprise me of the very peculiar fact--meaningless except in a Kafkaesque way--that a man named Kafka once lived in Hitler's house.

"I have a friend who was a GI who'd been with the American occupation forces in Munich in 1946," Binion told me that afternoon. "And he was visiting Hitler's apartment on Prinzregentenplatz," where Hitler lived from 1928 till he took power in Berlin in 1933, the one in which Geli Raubal was found shot to death. "And he found it occupied by a lawyer named Kafka."

A coincidence certainly, but the Hitler-Kafka connections go deeper than happenstance. Were it not for Binion's Hitler explanation and the attack on it by a descendant of Kafka, the world might never have known that the Jewish doctor who treated Hitler's mother was a relative of Franz Kafka.

Is there something more to the link than these accidents of fate? It might be best to approach Binion's Kafka entanglement from the beginning. Over pasta and potato salad at Pick-a-Chick, I asked Binion if his initial interest in the Hitler question had something to do with his family background. Did he lose relatives in the camps? Having talked with him for an hour or so, I assumed by many cues that he was Jewish; he's a tall, lean, excitable Shpritzer type full of hostile, dismissive wisecracks about his academic antagonists; Philip Roth-esque, one might say. But apparently because of the ambiguity of his name, certain of his opponents assumed Binion was not Jewish. I don't think Claude Lanzmann--who virtually called him a "Revisionist"--knew. In fact, Binion says he's half Jewish. His father was Swiss, "but my mother was Ukrainian Jewish," he told me. "She had been in Austria and Germany in between wars," before coming to America. "After the war she rushed over to see her old friends as if nothing had happened. I remember her innocence and I thought, what's wrong with her? I had seen her cry, terribly, desperately, shortly after the war when the first revelations had come out about the camps saying, 'These were my people.' And then never another word. Until a year before she died.
She'd fallen into a cellar door open [on a sidewalk in Brooklyn]. I rushed to New York, and my mother was semidelirious in her room, and she would say to me in a kind of hushed whisper, with terror in her eyes, when no one was within earshot, the doctors were gone, 'Get me out of here. They're gassing us. They're putting us into gas ovens, and we're here to be killed. Get me out of here!'

"And in the year afterwards, I remember, when she was back in her normal mind and we were talking about her hospital experience, I said, 'Oh Mother, you don't know you were so far gone, you said this.' And she said, 'Are you telling me that your mother [is mad]? They were gassing us.' Completely insane," Binion says. "I mean there's a little corner of insanity in which she had been traumatized. But the rest, I mean in her conscious, waking, normal condition, she had no sense of being involved in the Holocaust even indirectly. You know, I think every Jew was hit in one way or another with this."

Certainly--right then and there--Binion had been hit. But he couldn't know when he began his investigation into Hitler's metamorphosis that it would bring him back to an eerily similar tableau: a tormented, delirious mother on a sickbed and her impressionable, traumatized son--not Rudolph Binion, but Adolf Hitler.

Accepting the challenge he found in Bradley Smith's book on Hitler's childhood--"something happened" to transform the "likeable" young Adolf into the later monster; what was it?--Binion began his search by immersing himself in Hitler's world, trying to get inside Hitler's head. This "method of empathy" would be a focus of Claude Lanzmann's attack on Binion's book; Lanzmann believes that to attempt to understand Hitler by putting oneself in Hitler's place, by in effect becoming Hitler, is a dangerous delusion that can lead ultimately to exculpation. But Binion had the courage of his convictions. He located what he believed was the key to Hitler's psyche in a cache of captured sound recordings of Hitler speeches he'd found in the National Archives in Washington.

What struck Binion most forcefully in listening to the recordings was how often Hitler articulated his hated of Jews as hatred of "the Jew." "It's so strange, in the first years he's inevitably using the singular--'the Jew.' I just felt there had to be a Jew. Now, at first, I thought maybe it was the guy who invented poison gas because Hitler was gassed. Then I saw a Gertrud Kurth," the analyst who'd worked on the OSS profile of Hitler for FDR. "Wonderful woman. She had written an article called 'The Jew and Adolf Hitler,' ...saying just as I did that 'the Jew' was a person, and look, here's this guy [Dr. Bloch] who treated his mother, and [Hitler] didn't know what was involved in the treatment, but obviously patients always blame the doctor unconsciously when something goes wrong. And Hitler sent Bloch loving postcards afterwards with 'yours gratefully, Adolf,' and he became the protector of Dr. Bloch after the 1938 Anschluss."

The peculiar relationship between Hitler and the Jewish doctor intrigued Binion. "I thought, this is something worth investigating," he told me.

Binion then did what no previous historian had done, which was to scour the archival records and interviews for details of Dr. Bloch's treatment of Hitler's mother. And finally--his eureka moment--down there in the National Archives, in the collection of Hitler papers, he found a file labeled "Cassette de Hitler," private papers relating to Hitler that had been captured by the Allies.

Inside that, he found a Hitler document no one had ever remarked on before, that no one had imagined would have survived. It was the medical casebook of Dr. Eduard Bloch, with the record of his 19O7 treatment of Klara Hitler. It had been procured by the Gestapo from Bloch in 1938 along with various other Hitler memorabilia (including those affectionate postcards from young Adolf) before Bloch left Linz for America--indeed, it turned out, as a condition for Bloch getting the precious exit visa denied to almost all the other doomed Jews of Austria.

The case notes on Klara Hitler were extremely hard to read, Binion told me. "It took a lot of deciphering."

"Was it in code or bad handwriting?" I asked Binion, little realizing I'd hit on a sore point--that this question was the occasion of the entry of Kafka into the tale.

"It turns out it was not his own handwriting, I think. There was a guy who was brought up by Bloch--was actually a nephew. But I think Bloch's brother died, and so he brought the kid up. And he is called now...his name is Kafka, John Kafka, a whole new person who has been persecuting me since my book came out."

"Persecuting you?" This was the first I'd heard of the Kafka-Binion war.

"Because he thinks that I blamed the Holocaust on Bloch, and he's got to deny everything that I ever said. And I was at a scholarly meeting in San Francisco, and all of a sudden this guy rose to condemn me, saying, 'And furthermore, [Binion] said in his book that it was Dr. Bloch's billing record, but it's not in his handwriting!'"

Before we get further into the bitter dispute between Binion and Kafka over Dr. Bloch's treatment of Hitler's mother, let's address the question: Did-- does--Binion blame the Holocaust on Kafka's uncle, Hitler's mother's doctor?

This is how Binion reconstructs the situation. Adolf was not yet eighteen when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 1907. At the time, he was entertaining ideas of going to Vienna to become an artist. After his mother's operation in February and her apparent recovery, he did go off to Vienna, where he experienced his profoundly disappointing rejection by the Academy of Fine Arts. And then, in September, when he'd heard his mother had taken a turn for the worse, he returned to Linz to consult with Dr. Bloch, who told him the tumor had recurred in the surgical wound, the cancer was spreading, and only desperate measures had a chance of saving her.

Bloch proposed using iodoform, the disinfectant now mainly known as the source of "hospital smell" but then hailed as a kind of panacea in the medical literature. According to Binion, there were several things wrong with iodoforrn treatment for breast cancer in general: It was utterly ineffective, "ruinously" expensive, and the caustic solution caused unbearable agony for the patient it was administered to, usually in the form of iodoform-soaked gauze applied directly to the skin above the tumor.

In addition, Binion argues, on the basis of his deciphering of Bloch's medical casebook, the well-meaning doctor gave poor Klara extreme overdoses of the searing solution:

Several decades of medical warnings were defied as iodoform gauze was packed onto the suppurating wound at an unexampled, intolerable rate (about a meter of fresh gauze containing some five grams of iodoform daily). Why did not Bloch, a compassionate "poor folks' doctor" and "benefactor of the indigent," kill the pain with morphine instead at small cost? For he recollected that Klara Hitler's sufferings "seemed to torture her son. An anguished grimace would come over him whenever he saw pain contract her face."

Why indeed? Binion proposes on the basis of somewhat sketchier evidence than he's employed up to now that Hitler himself urged the overtreatment on the doctor. He quotes Hitler's sometimes-reliable friend Kubizek recalling Hitler flaring up at the doctor's verdict that his mother's cancer was incurable. "Such a Hitler," Binion writes, "would have urged upon Bloch the drastic treatment that followed."

Binion, then, finds Hitler much implicated in the horrific and disastrous course of treatment--not Dr. Bloch alone. Nonetheless, if he does not ever explicitly blame the Holocaust on this one Jewish doctor, he's certainly critical of every aspect of the treatment the doctor supervised, from the dosage to the price. And few dispute that the results of this treatment were months of unbearable agony for Hitler's mother, suffering Hitler witnessed firsthand as she approached her painful death on December 21, 1907.

"I have never seen a boy so ineffably saddened," Bloch would say later. Adolf's suffering was intense. And transformative, Binion believes: "Hitler's experience of his mother's last illness," Binion concludes, "looms behind his later tireless diatribes against 'the Jewish cancer,' the 'Jewish poison,' the Jewish profiteer.'"

He cites telling examples from Hitler's rhetoric of the spectral presence of his mother's medical trauma: "How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus!... [The Jews are] poisonous abscesses eating into the endless stream of poison...being driven by a mysterious power into the outermost blood vessels" of the body politic.

Binion deals with the obvious objection to this theory--Hitler's profusions of gratefulness to Bloch at the time, the singular protection he extended to Bloch when he absorbed Austria in 1938, the "undying gratitude" Bloch himself later described as Hitler s attitude toward him--by insisting that "consciously Hitler bore Bloch no grudges" because he was both traumatized and knew himself to be implicated in the "order to burn out the the raw flesh" of his mother.

But while the trauma had buried his resentment at the Jewish doctor deep in his unconscious, it festered and metastasized there, Binion insists. "Abusing 'the Jew'" in his speeches, Binion maintains, "was for Hitler a means of abusing Bloch." Murdering the Jews in the camps was the ultimate outcome.

It is perhaps an oversimplification to say that Binion blames the Holocaust on the malpractice of a Jewish country doctor, and his thesis involves more than just the Dr. Bloch episode. (Another essential triggering event of the metamorphosis, Binion believes, was Hitler's own medical trauma ten years later: his 1918 gassing and the treatment he received from the doctor at Pasewalk. Binion was the one who unearthed the story first circulated by Ernst Weiss, the emigre novelist and friend of Franz Kafka, that posthypnotic suggestion by a Pasewalk "nerve doctor" precipitated Hitler's metamorphosis.) Nonetheless, Binion's view of Dr. Bloch's management of Hitler's mother's treatment does lend itself to a blame-the-doctor oversimplification.

That was what most upset Dr. Kafka, Dr. Bloch's nephew and Binion's implacable nemesis, when I later spoke to him. Dr. Kafka brought to my attention the advance description of the first published form of Binion's thesis in the History of Childhood Quarterly:

In 1907 a Jewish doctor poisoned Hitler's mother while treating her for breast cancer.

In 1918 Hitler was himself hospitalized from gas poisoning in the War and hallucinated a summons from on high to reverse Germany's defeat.

In 1941 Hitler personally ordered removal of "the Jewish cancer" from the breast of Germany through the use of poison gas. Six million Jews died as a result.

However oversimplified this may sound, in the years since Binion published his thesis, it has garnered a number of adherents, including biographer John Toland (in part) in the United States and, in Germany, the highly regarded historian Eberhard Jäckel, as well as the influential psychohistorical biographer Helm Stierlin.

Until Dr. Kafka materialized on Binion's case, those who objected to his theory tended to focus on the debatable persuasiveness of the unconscious dynamic of trauma Binion described--in which Hitler supposedly forced the Jews to pay the price for Dr. Bloch's prescriptions but spared the doctor himself. But Dr. Kafka's assault on Binion focused on his analysis of the prescriptions themselves, on Binion's claim that Dr. Bloch misprescribed, overprescribed, and overcharged for the searing poison he applied to Klara Hitler's breast and thus can be blamed for the Holocaust.

I'd read some vague reference to this objection to Binion's thesis in a scholarly journal, and asked Binion about it. "That's junk!" Binion told me. "This is so hopelessly stupid! No one has the patience to read through the literature as I did, but Kafka brought this up at that San Francisco meeting. And he said 'Maybe you all think that just because he was my foster father, I'm defending him [Bloch]. But that's not true. It's because truth requires it. Now," says Binion, "Kafka moves in for the kill. Aargh."

Kafka moves in for the kill.... It should be noted at this point that the Kafka Binion refers to so casually and dismissively is not a lone, obsessive amateur. Dr. John Kafka, M.D., is, in fact, a scholar in his own right, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the George Washington University School of Medicine, a senior training and supervising analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, and the author of Multiple Realities in Clinical Practice, a provocative book about the way "our personally meaningful realities are fluctuating and subtly diverging." The divergences in realities between Kafka and Binion are far from subtle, but Binion is not too far off, however, in his perception of Kafka's relentlessness, his implacability in pressing home, at every opportunity and in every forum, his attack on Binion's thesis.

But when he "moves in for the kill," he does so by entangling Binion in an unspeakably complicated and bizarre--indeed Kafkaesque--polemical embroilment over medical packaging as practiced nine decades ago in provincial Austria. Specifically, whether, back in 1907, Kafka's uncle Dr. Bloch used the "large economy size" of iodoform gauze and exactly how much use he made of it.

Binion argues on the basis of Dr. Bloch's billing notes in his Klara Hitler file that Bloch overapplied the iodoform-soaked gauze, thus causing Klara needless torture. At that San Francisco conference, where Binion was delivering a paper and Kafka "moved in for the kill," Dr. Kafka argued that while Dr. Bloch's records show purchases of forty packages of sterile iodoform gauze, Binion's mistaken in concluding he applied all the gauze in every package to Klara s breast.

"Kafka is saying, in effect, he bought large economy-size packages," Binion tells me, "used a little, and since he wanted the gauze to remain sterile, he could have discarded the unused balance. But the gauze is an antiseptic; it remains sterile. If you think it through," Binion says, "that means he would have bought a huge package, charged Adolf for it, and snipped off a bit and thrown the rest away. Completely insane! And nobody believed that."

Of course both positions are matters of retrospective conjecture, and Binion's argument didn't get Kafka to back off. Indeed, Binion says, Kafka has taken his Binion-baiting crusade international now and is stalking not just Binion but his scholarly allies. "I recently got a letter from Eberhard Jäckel," Binion told me. "Jäckel was speaking at some conference in Germany and along came Kafka to heckle him because he was one of my supporters. And he began with this business about the iodoform and the large economy size."

Binion sighs. "Kafka will never give it up."

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Excerpted from Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. Copyright © 1999 by Ron Rosenbaum. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © Marion Ettlinger