Will Smith found himself in hot water last week after making a statement to a Scottish newspaper that Adolph Hitler "didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was good."
Smith's quote was preceded by the interviewer's gratuitous observation, "Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good." So websites pounced on Smith for allegedly believing that Hitler was "a good person," even though Smith said no such thing.
The Jewish Defense League said Smith's words "spit on the memory of every person murdered by the Nazis" and called on theaters to boycott Smith's new movie. It looked like another Mel Gibson moment in the making.
But what was lost in the controversy is that Smith's actual statement -- not that Hitler was a good person, but that Hitler thought he was a good person -- lies at the heart of one of the most baffling questions about Hitler that historians and philosophers have grappled with since the Holocaust.
The most cogent discussion of that question is laid out in Ron Rosenbaum's brilliant book Explaining Hitler, which ought to be required reading for anyone interested in deciphering the worst villainy in modern history.
Rosenbaum examines various attempts by historians and philosophers to explain "what made Hitler Hitler." And one of Rosenbaum's most interesting discussions centers on the very issue Will Smith addressed:
Did Hitler, Rosenbaun asks, "believe in some deeply deluded way that he was doing good?" In other words, was he "convinced of his own rectitude," as Hitler biographer Hugh Trevor-Roper and many other scholars have argued? Or was Hitler "deeply aware of his own criminality," as philosophers such as Berel Lang and others maintain?
To frame this discussion, Rosenbaum points to a tradition in Western philosophy going back to Plato that draws a distinction between two concepts: "evil" and "wicked."
In this tradition, "evil" can describe people who do terrible things but who think, in their own deluded way, that they are actually doing good. "Wickedness," on the other hand, is reserved for people who do terrible things "knowing they are doing wrong."
In the case of Hitler, the question of whether he knew he was doing wrong and just did it anyway, or whether he actually thought he was doing good despite his horrific acts, bedevil all attempts to understand the worst crime of the twentieth century.
And interestingly, lots of scholars come down on the side of Will Smith, arguing that Hitler was "convinced of his own rectitude."
Not all of these people are philosophical hairsplitters, either. Rosenbaum finds, for example, an "unexpected echo of this rectitude argument" in Israel's chief Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wisenthal Center.
"When I asked Zuroff....whether Hitler was conscious of doing wrong, he was even more emphatic than Trevor-Roper. 'Of course not!' he practically yelled at me. 'Hitler thought he was a doctor! Killing germs!...He believed he was doing good, not evil.'"
Rosenbaum himself is not convinced. Later in his book he writes that he is "more inclined to see Hitler as a vicious, cold-blooded hater who fabricated, counterfeited a mask of rectitude for the sake of history and expediency."
But while many agree with Rosenbaum, many principled scholars, biographers, philosophers -- even Nazi hunters -- do not.
In fact, when you look at Will Smith's actual quote, he describes the "rectitude" argument rather concisely. Hitler, he said, did not use logic but rather "a twisted, backwards logic" to do not good but "what he thought was good." Zuroff could hardly have put it more succinctly.
As soon as the controversy erupted, Will Smith issued a statement clarifying his belief that Hitler was "a vile, heinous vicious killer responsible for one of the greatest acts of evil committed on this planet."
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League accepted the clarification. "We welcome and accept Will Smith's statement that Hitler was a 'vicious killer,'" Foxman said, "and that he did not mean for his remarks about the Nazi leader to be mistaken as praise."
Foxman pointed out that words "can be twisted by those with hate and bigotry in their hearts. This is why all celebrities bear a special responsibility to weigh their words carefully, and an obligation to speak out against racism and bigotry whenever even a whiff of it appears, as Will Smith has done in this instance."
Well said. But journalists, bloggers and anti-hate groups also have a responsibility to weigh their words carefully, and not to stifle or demonize attempts to understand the nature of Nazi evil.
That evil stands at the center of modern history -- and modern life. Did Hitler represent, as Emil Fackenheim has said, a unique "eruption of demonism into history" -- in which case he stands at a comfortable remove from the rest of us? Or was Hitler simply a more extreme version of something much more familiar -- a person who thought he was doing good, even if it had to be accomplished by terrible means? In which case his misdeeds are much more troubling, because they are at least somewhat recognizable.
Will Smith may not be a scholar, historian or philosopher, but he was expressing a widely-held and respected side of that question. It's a question that can never be answered. But merely asking it, merely pondering it, represents a small step in humanity's struggle to assure that what Hitler did, for whatever reasons he did it, is less likely to happen again.