Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Adolf Hitler: Gay or Gassy?

with 5 comments

by Weiner

A recent episode of The Daily Show featured a hilarious bit about religious conservative nutcase Scott Lively‘s belief that Adolf Hitler, along with much of the Nazi leadership, were homosexuals. As historian Dagmar Herzog astutely commented, there is no evidence to support this claim, and more important, it’s entirely irrelevant.

Of course, it got me thinking about another strange Hitler theory, namely that his horrendous gas may have led to his horrendous deeds. According to Tony Perrottet, “medical historians are unanimous that Adolf was the victim of uncontrollable flatulence.” The implication, unstated but clear, is that Hitler’s farts may have caused the Holocaust.

Of course, among the “scholarship” in Perrottet’s “Further Reading” suggestions is The Secret Diaries of Hitler’s Doctor by notorious antisemite and Holocaust-denier David Irving. So it’s best to take Perrottet’s conclusion with a grain of salt (or Gas-X).

Still, this got me thinking about a common “what if” scenario involving the Holocaust: What if Hitler had been accepted to art school? Would he have become Adolf Hitler, the antisemitic artist, rather than Adolf Hitler, mastermind of the Holocaust?

This question in turns leads us to the bitter historical debate about the Holocaust, between functionalism versus intentionalism. Very briefly, intentionalists argue for a master plan to exterminate the Jews, a direct order from Hitler and the highest level of Nazi leadership. Many also believe that Hitler had planned to organize the genocide of the Jews as early as his writing of Mein Kampf. Functionalists argue that no such order or plan was made, and that the murder of Jews was decided upon at far lower levels in the German bureaucracy, or as a reaction to domestic power struggles in Germany, external events during the Second World War, or some other processes beyond the individual level.

For those who support the intentionalist school and place a great deal of blame upon Hitler, his sexual orientation, gastrointestinal problems and artistic ability could potentially be very significant. For functionalists, these are less important: something like the Holocaust was going to happen anyway.

Most historians today argue for a synthesis of these two views. But of course, this debate extends beyond the Holocaust and into broader questions for the field of history.

For example, the excellent book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by sociologist Charles Payne looks at the American Civil Rights movement but avoids a Martin Luther King Jr. centric perspective, focusing on grassroots organizing, or at least at the leadership level below King, like Ella Baker or Medgar Evers. This time looking at one of history’s good guys, we can pose similar questions: How important was MLK to the Civil Rights movement? Would it have happened without him? Would it have happened differently?

The turn towards social history in the 1960s and 1970s, history from the “bottom up,” so to speak, has done a lot of good, by opening up both new theoretical lenses with which to look at history, but also by granting agency to a new set of actors: the poor, workers, women, ethnic and racial minorities, children, and of course people who combine two or more of those categories.

Many historians today shun the “Great Man” school of history, whereby important individuals, almost always white men, shaped world history, on the battlefield, in seats of government, in the clergy or the Ivory Tower. Politicians, generals and intellectuals have become less interesting than the “ordinary men” who slaughtered Jews during WW2, as described in Christopher Browning‘s famous book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

Much of this social history, though by no means all or even most of it, employs a Marxist viewpoint. The pioneering work in this regard is E.P. Thompson‘s 1963 tour de force, The Making of the English Working Class, which argues that the working class developed its own class consciousness, restoring agency to poor English workers. Following this example, Lizabeth Cohen wrote Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, arguing that workers quite literally made the New Deal happen through their activism.

While these works of social history are both brilliant and important, as an intellectual historian, I’m sympathetic to individuals as major actors. I think Hitler’s personality, like MLK’s, or Josef Stalin’s, or Karl Marx’s, Margaret Thatcher’s, Albert Einstein’s, were all important in shaping world history.

Obviously there is some form of middle ground here, and perhaps I’m setting up a false dichotomy. But these questions are important, not just for historians, but also for those interested in the present, when we think about how much blame or praise to heap upon Barack Obama, Congress, the American people, the international market, fundamentalist Islam and other individuals, groups and large structural forces at work in the world.


5 Responses

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  1. Yea, if there was more vibrant progressive activism, Obama would be a better president…he’s got 6 years or so left, so maybe…


    July 29, 2010 at 20:03

  2. Fundamentalist Islam is an interesting counterexample to the Great Man theory. There’s al-Wahhab, and Khomeini, and of course, Osama Bin Laden, but the leaders seem relatively peripheral to the movement, unlike the intensely Hitler-centric view of Nazism we have.

    I mean, the Fuhrer was certainly not the first or last major European leader to score points by persecuting Jews, but he did seem to add a certain messianic element that Himmler might not have been able to pull off, and that’s the kind of thing that turns a pogrom into a genocide.


    July 29, 2010 at 21:20

  3. Mikey, I think you make a really good point here. I think that certainly structural elements facilitated Hitler’s rise to power, but he had a unique charisma that enabled him to take over first the Nazi party and then all of Germany. I also think that his choice of emphasizing the antisemitic elements of Nazism cannot be ignored.

    In terms of fundamentalist Islam, you’re right again too. I think Israel’s experience with Hamas is worth mentioning here: while Yasser Arafat achieved figurehead status for the PLO (though even he seems to have faded from memory a bit), nobody has come close to that for Hamas. Each martyr becomes a new symbol, but the ideology remains the dominant force.

    Steve, all I can say is I hope so. I’m more optimistic than some of the other bloggers here, so I’m going to keep hoping.


    July 31, 2010 at 18:16

  4. […] is right on the money here, but this got me thinking about an earlier post I wrote on the role of the individual in history. In that post, I noted that while earlier […]

  5. […] Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history. […]

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