Sympathy for the Devil

Standard one is born evil. We are all born sinful, thanks to the impromptu fruit snack Adam and Eve had in the Garden, but sinful is far from evil. I’ve known many a vile sinner who was a joy to be around. I’m actually related by blood or marriage to quite a few, but I’ve never actually known or known of someone who was born truly, irredeemably, black-heartedly evil.

I say that because today is the 126th anniversary of a man widely viewed as the most evil person who ever lived — Adolf Hitler. I realize just writing a blog post about him on his birthday and including “Sympathy” in the title puts me in serious danger of losing followers, being branded a Nazi, and generally dismissed as a complete kook. Please give me a hearing.

I am not a Nazi or Hitler apologist. I agree with the prevailing historical interpretation placing Der Fuhrer at or very near the top of a short list of extremely evil people who perpetrated crimes against civilization which will forever coat their names in anathema for as long as mankind’s collective memory exists. I agree with the usual evangelical Christian opinion a special place in an exquisitely real and burning Hell for Hitler to roast and reflect on his misdeeds for all eternity. I believe, without qualification or prevarication, Adolf Hitler was a thoroughly evil man — one of the most evil who has ever existed.

I just don’t believe he was born that way.

That’s his baby portrait up top of this post. Does he LOOK evil in it? Do his little chubby fat rolls on his legs and arms simply EXUDE vile antisemitism and abject megalomania? Does anything in this picture, besides the bowl haircut, belie the human monster this baby will become? This isn’t a portrait of someone with visions of grandeur who plans on plunging the entire world into the flames of the most destructive conflict ever envisioned while executing the most thorough and organized genocide since Pharaoh ordered the slaughter of the Hebrew male children in Moses’ infancy.

That’s a baby; a sweet, chubby, innocent baby. Had he but pitched forward suddenly and fallen from the chair in which he sits, perhaps he would have had the good fortune to snap his neck fatally and in the process save not only his immortal soul but also the world from another War to End all Wars and millions of people from annihilation.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he grew. He became a young boy who grew up on a farm. He watched his beloved brother die of measles. He became a hard-headed youth fighting with an equally hard-headed father over what the future held for him. His father wanted him to become a bureaucrat and settle into a good career with a steady income and a comfortable life carrying on the family name . . . just as many fathers everywhere throughout time have wished. Hitler wanted to be an artist — like many young men before and since. His father died, his mother gave him part of his inheritance and he struck out for the big city (Vienna, in this case) to make his fortune as the next great painter.

Like many young men before and since, he had his dreams crushed by gatekeepers. Turned away twice from art school, he eventually ran out of money and became a wanderer sharing hostels and men’s shelters with other wayward dreamers like himself. He counted several Jewish boys among his friends. He was drifting and drifting objects tend to get sucked into the worst possible places . . . came the Great War. The young man fled his home for a neighboring country and enlisted in a well-known fighting regiment. Finally, he found something he was good at; he found a home and a sense of belonging among his comrades-in-arms. By all accounts, he was brave when called upon but not reckless. He became a corporal, earned the prestigious Iron Cross-First Class for his actions in battle, and then, he was gassed. He lay recuperating in the hospital from his gassing and other wounds when news came of Germany’s surrender. His beloved adopted country fell into ignoble defeat. Another dream crushed and again he began to wander.

Since he had no other skills, he stayed in the military, now as an intelligence gatherer. Then, he met Dietrich Eckart. Like other young drifting souls before him, he fell in with someone he’d have been better off avoiding. Eckart introduced Hitler to the seminal ideas of what would eventually become Nazi ideology. The National Socialist’s ancestor party, the DAP, discovered Hitler’s talent for haranguing huge crowds into revolutionary fervor. They pressed him to go into politics. He delighted in the political sphere — the speeches and intrigue — and he started a series of poor choices ending with the infamous Beer Hall Pustch of 1923. He was arrested, convicted of treason, and sent to prison. One year later he emerged, having written Mein Kampf. Now he wasn’t drifting. He had a plan; he’d made his choice.

The rest, of course, is history.

So, emphatically no, the baby in the picture wasn’t evil. He hadn’t had time to be evil. He wasn’t born evil, but he certainly died evil. He gained his evil the same way all evil men and women do — choice by choice, each worse and more soul-searing than the last. Somewhere along the way, the little boy who sang in the church choir and was an ardent admirer of Martin Luther, the German Reformer, made one wrong choice too many and became Der Fuhrer and the world would burn because of it.

What if? What if the Vienna Academy of Fine Art had accepted the young painter. He wasn’t exactly or Gauguin, but he wasn’t horrible. What if they had eased their criticism of his work and encouraged him just a little instead of saying he was, “unfit to become an artist?” What if he’d met a good Lutheran minister instead of Eckart? What if he’d served his entire prison sentence and the Nazi party had been given time to die out before his release?

So I write this on his birthday, not to praise him, but to call attention to his choices and his influences. How close are any of us to becoming an Adolf Hitler? We’ve all had shattered dreams. We’ve all had family conflicts. What’s more, we interact every day with untold numbers of people who are in the midst of who knows what kind of crisis. Which way do we push them, towards goodness or evil? See that ragged soul walking around homeless? How will you treat him? It may be the difference between a Hitler and a helper.

Love y’all. Keep those feet clean.

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