Some thirteen years ago, a leading figure of German academic life, Professor Ernst Nolte of the Free University of Berlin, drew back the curtain from a forbidden topic of public discourse in his country. With a lecture delivered in Munich entitled, “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of 1980,” the prominent historian fired a warning shot across the bow of Germany’s intellectual establishment.
Six years later, a provocative essay by Dr. Nolte touched off an unprecedented exchange of letters, essays and other polemics among leading scholars of modern German history. This “historians’ dispute,” or Historikerstreit, was marked – in the words of the editor of one American scholarly journal – by “an intensity unprecedented in the public life of the [German] Federal Republic.” Moreover, “it soon evolved into a major intellectual conflict over the meaning of the Nazi past for contemporary West German political and cultural identity.”
A complex controversy, the Historikerstreit involves questions about the political uses of history, differences in the historical perspective of generations, historical research methods, and the limits of objectivity in dealing with major events in a nation’s life. At the core of the dispute is a question with profound social-political ramifications for Germany and the Western world: how is the legacy of Hitler and the Third Reich to be integrated into a long-term view of German history? At stake here, obviously, are questions of importance not merely to academics, but issues of essential consequence for German national self-understanding and self-definition, and for Germany’s place in the world.
The spark that set ablaze Germany’s intellectual world was an essay by Nolte that appeared on June 6, 1986, in the prestigious German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In this short piece, entitled “The Past That Will Not Pass Away,” Nolte argued that the current generation of Germans, forty years after the end of the Second World War, should be allowed to embrace its national past without a permanent sense of guilt. “Talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’,” he observed, “all too blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists…. All the attention devoted to the Final Solution simply diverts our attention from important facts about the National Socialist period …” When dealing with the history of the Third Reich, he went on to note with regret, the most basic rules of historical scholarship seem to have been suspended. In fact, “every past is knowable in its complexity … black-and-white images of politically involved contemporaries should be correctable; earlier histories should be subject to revision.”
As early as his 1980 lecture, “Historical Legend and Revisionism?,” Nolte had warned:
The negative vitality of a historical phenomenon represents a great danger for the discipline of history. A permanent negative or positive image necessarily has the character of a myth, which is an actualized form of a legend. This is true because a myth like this can be made to found or support an ideology of state …
Therefore, Nolte said, “subjecting the history of the Third Reich to revision … seems to me to be a difficult and pressing task.” He went on to propose “three postulates” as a basis for a future Third Reich historiography:
1. The Third Reich should be removed from the historical isolation in which it remains even when it is treated within the framework of an epoch of fascism. It must be studied in the context of the disruptions, crisis, fears, diagnoses, and therapies that were generated by the industrial revolution …
2. The instrumentalization to which the Third Reich owes a good part of its continuing fascination should be prevented …
3. The demonization of the Third Reich is unacceptable … [Rather, it] must become an object of scholarship, of a scholarship that is not aloof from politics, but that is also not merely a handmaiden of politics.
What Nolte’s many critics – both in Germany and abroad – found most distressing in his writings was, predictably, his iconoclastic discussion of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Hitler’s wartime treatment of the Jews, the historian seemed to suggest, might legitimately be regarded as a defensive response by the Führer to the threat of Bolshevik mass murder of the Germans. In his 1980 lecture, Nolte said:
… It is hard to deny that Hitler had good reason to be convinced of his enemies’ determination to annihilate long before the first information about the events in Auschwitz became public … [Zionist leader] Chaim Weizmann’s statement in the first days of September 1939, that in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England’s side … could lay a foundation for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war, and thus interning them.
In his 1986 essay, Nolte posed for consideration two questions, which have since been widely quoted, that he called “permissible, even unavoidable”:
Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an “Asiatic” deed [of mass killing] merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an “Asiatic” deed [by the Soviets]? Was the [Soviet] Gulag Archipelago not primary to Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the “racial murder” of National Socialism?
Reaction to such statements came quickly. A few weeks later, well-known leftist social theorist and political activist Jürgen Habermas responded in a detailed article, “A Kind of Settlement of Damages: The Apologetic Tendencies in German History Writing,” which appeared in the liberal Hamburg weekly Die Zeit. During the months that followed, many other scholars joined in the heated discussion. Reaction to Nolte’s writings was not confined to mere rhetoric. In 1988 his automobile was destroyed in a terrorist fire-bombing attack carried out by an anarchist-leftist group.
Few scholars speak with greater authority on Third Reich history than Professor Nolte. Over the years, his sometimes unconventional insights into twentieth century history and political philosophy – presented in several books and numerous articles – have earned him wide acclaim. Probably his best-known work is the 1963 study, Der Faschismus in Seiner Epoche – first published in English in 1965 under the title Three Faces of Fascism – which compares the phenomenon of “fascism” in France, Italy and Germany. Widely regarded as a path-breaking and classic work on the subject, it is still virtually required reading for every serious student of the matter.
As even the most critical of his intellectual adversaries will concede, the often bitter controversy he touched off has been a landmark development in German awareness of twentieth-century European history. More than any other single person, he has encouraged a profound national self-examination of contemporary history, which in turn has engendered a new openness and maturity of thinking.
Last May, this writer was afforded the opportunity of a comprehensive conversation with Professor Nolte at his Berlin home. During this meeting, this tall and distinguished-looking scholar offered a thoughtful assessment of the role of the historian, and of the critical function of historical revisionism in the context of national identity, within the context of the so-called Historikerstreit. As one whose scholarship and personal values are closely intertwined, Nolte’s perspective during our conversation was analytical and yet not devoid of passionate commitment to the values of scholarly historical inquiry.
It has been more than a dozen years since you first began warning about the creation of a historical legend or myth. In doing so, were you trying to resist a development that you saw happening, perhaps especially among German historians, perhaps even among world leaders? Let me also then ask about your motivation for undertaking such a daring and difficult, even dangerous task.
I would say that every reigning opinion, every general conformism, has a tendency to become a myth. Let me offer the example of Marxism, which at its core contained factual observations but was then transformed into a legend/myth. Looking back, Leninism was the inevitable outcome of an entire world-historical development, the future of which was to be the Soviet Union – ultimately to be the central state, even what might be called a world state, where all the languages and all the nations would be melted together. This is a myth, to be connected with some very early myths in history. It was followed by the long undisputed dominance of what may be called “anti-fascism,” an interpretation of history that has also became a myth.
I wanted to warn against this mythologizing because it is contrary to a major characteristic of scholarship: to make revisions, and to place knowledge and facts within new contexts. I am not speaking here about “revisionism” as based on revision for its own sake, although I am always referred to as a “revisionist.” I am not a revisionist for revisionism’s sake. In my opinion, one of the most necessary revisions, perhaps the most important single revision that must be made, is to rectify the practice of interpreting Germany history by looking only at German history, that is, to seek out only German sources for what happened in Germany, especially during the “Third Reich” period of 1933–1945. It is always a question of interpreting, of understanding National Socialism in its correct context.
I am of the opinion that what you may call epochal influences – which come out of the character of a certain epoch and not so much out of national origins – must be accentuated. In my book, Three Faces of Fascism, the term “fascism” refers to a broad European phenomenon and concept under which National Socialism is to be subsumed, although it has its own distinctive characteristics. In my view this means that this epochal character is more important than the national character. In the context of what we in Germany call Gesellschaftgeschichte, that is, “societal history,” the concept of a national German Sonderweg (“special path”) is most essential. For my part, I do not believe that the national character of “fascism” should be placed exclusively in the forefront.
During the fifties there was the so-called theory of totalitarianism, which viewed this as an epochal idea. Modern totalitarianism is not to be confounded with despotism, for example, because it is quite a new phenomena, essentially connected with one single epochal event. Then came a tendency to examine the national roots of this world phenomenon. For my part, in 1963 I tried to accentuate its epochal characteristic, but with a difference: looking at theories of totalitarianism not so much in terms of the outward conformity or the formal similarity between two great non-liberal, anti-liberal totalitarian movements – namely National Socialism and Communism. Rather, I took the view that the enmity between these two movements needed to be taken very seriously. My book on fascism could therefore have been entitled “The European Civil War,” a title I did use for a work published in 1987. This idea was certainly implied in Three Faces of Fascism, for example in my definition of fascism as anti-Marxism – a political movement that sought to annihilate the enemy by establishing opposite aims, while often employing similar methods. This all supposes that there was an enemy who did try to annihilate. In this respect, the whole concept of a European civil war was already implied in my first book.
What was my motive for writing on German history and for getting involved in a public controversy? Certainly it was personal, but I reject the idea that it was to apologize for Germany. Many people say this, but I have always said that I would hope to say the same things if I were an American or if I were a Frenchman. It is not tolerable in scholarship, in science, to maintain forever such a one-sided picture of the world. It must be complemented by taking into consideration the forces that this [“fascist”] movement considered as the main enemy.
Let me make another point. We should not speak of the “specter of Communism.” Lenin never regarded himself merely as a specter. He believed himself to be a world-historical figure. In my view, this notion of a violent World Communist Revolution was not just imaginary. So, in this respect, I wanted to draw a more even-handed picture of the world, even though it cannot be a truly complete picture, because the archives of the former Soviet Union are just now beginning to be opened.
It is a curious phenomenon that Socialist ideas, which were so very influential in Europe during the 19th century, never won a political victory. (The only exception was the Paris Commune of 1871, which lasted for just a few weeks.)
Then, in 1917, a Marxist state came into existence for the first time; a state that was to become the greatest in the world. This is a fact of tremendous importance. Not to take this seriously, not to take the enemies of this “fascist” phenomenon seriously, seems superficial. Above all, it prevents one from seeing what a curious fact it is that National Socialism, the most formidable enemy of this phenomenon of [Soviet] Socialism as a state power, had to copy its aspects to a certain extent. Thus, instead of being complete opposites, there were considerable similarities between the two.
There is a good basis in biological studies of isomorphism for the view that in cases of conflict each side takes on the characteristics of the opponent. Is this applicable here?
It is not only outward characteristics, for example, that are important when somebody has to defend himself from an enemy. But in this case, there is also inner similarity. And this is not so self-evident. One could, if people were not so eager to always detect supposed political aspects in my work, discern the paradox of the real victory of socialism against its enemies – but not in the way as the socialists themselves had imagined.
Perhaps if there were real National Socialists here in Germany, they would say that Mr. Nolte is a dangerous apologist for the Bolsheviks because he tries to show that they were powerful enough to win a victory that they themselves had not thought possible; indeed, one which was completely unanticipated, but nevertheless clearly-defined. But there are no real National Socialists. There are only, let us say, “nostalgic National Socialists,” and so people always speak of “apologists.”
So perhaps your worst fault is that your arguments are too subtle, and can therefore be more easily attacked in a superficial but inaccurate way?
Well, but on the other hand, my main point is very simple. Because if, in intellectual life, one side is completely victorious, as in the case of what is called the Left, then the result is a sterile conformism. The general conformism in this country is leftist, which is paradoxical because the Left was originally a movement of protest, a movement of those who do not conform with the general opinion. I said “no” to this prevailing sentiment.
I said that National Socialism has to be understood historically, that it is not to be mythologized in this sense. You have to look not only at the one side, but there are other sides to the question, for example, of whether National Socialism was not exclusively anti-modernist. This is a very important trait, which cannot be ignored. If one says this, a common rejoinder is to charge that “you are closer to this phenomenon than we, so you must be an apologist.” As a scholar, one must try to find out the other side of any historical phenomenon that has been presented with a universal simplicity. Thus, in America, in the aftermath of the Civil War the prevailing view was, at first, only that of the righteous cause of the victor, but later historians tried to better understand the South, to find some good side to the Southern cause, to explore its politics and historical context.
There is certainly a long revisionist tradition in America. But it seems to me that there are some important questions that have still not been dealt with in the Historikerstreit. For example, apparently no one has dealt with the implications of the important role of American historians in forming our understanding of Third Reich history. Perhaps there should be a debate between American and German historians on Third Reich history? And if differences emerge, would these be based on who the victors were?
I would say that the first German historians to deal with the Third Reich were the old established historians, such as Gerhard Ritter (1888–1967). Ritter displayed a certain defensive caution and self-consciousness. National Socialism, he argued, was not a Prussian phenomenon; it was much more an Austrian phenomenon, and so on. Or consider the case of Friedrich Meinecke, who was a very fine and prominent historian even before the First World War. Meinecke said that in National Socialism the worst traits of German history came to the fore. I think that this older generation of German historians remained in the foreground until the beginning of the sixties.
Then came a younger generation of historians, many of them connected with the Institute for Contemporary History (“Institut für Zeitgeschichte”) in Munich, which was established as a center for the study of the National Socialist epoch. These younger historians, such as Martin Broszat (1926–1989), brought a different point of view, one not connected with their own experience in the period prior to 1945. This new generation was inclined to underline the conformity or compliance of the older generation with National Socialism and the Hitler regime. This tendency developed its most extreme form in connection with the 1968 revolt when, for the first time, it was Germany as such that was condemned. The outlook of this younger generation was essentially formed by the connection with the United States. They all had been in the United States. It was, so to speak, the appropriation of the American interpretation by the younger generation of Germans.
This seems to me a most important point to make.
Yes, if you conduct certain things to an extreme, you may become an enemy of your former friend. And this is what happened in Germany. For most of our common history, we have normally been on good terms with the Americans. But the more extreme of the new generation of German historians became so leftist that they fought against “American imperialism” and the ideas connected with it. The extreme wing of the generation of 1968 became anti-American, because it had such a strong dose of Americanism, of American television, and so forth. There were even a few who developed a positive view of National Socialism.
Consider the case of Armin Mohler, who is Swiss, and for this reason has a certain “bonus”: he has been allowed to say many things that a German could not say. It is this characteristic, a certain moral “higher standing,” that permits him greater freedom to speak out.
Because such a person is regarded as not self-interested; a certain objectivity of the outsider?
No, because such a person is connected with people who were persecuted. In Germany, the most characteristic “bonus” in this in this sense is the Jewish advantage. Jews are permitted to say many things here that no German may say.
As long as you are part of the victim class?
Yes, then you have a considerable advantage.
A certain legitimacy?
A legitimacy that others do not have. In the case of Mohler, who is Swiss and therefore an outsider, he wrote a book on the conservative revolution in Germany during the Weimar Republic that, although it did not identify with Spengler and Carl Schmitt and so on, tried to evaluate them in a positive sense.
There has always been a certain, let us say, “part” of the German Right that is connected with National Socialism; it has remained alive because it is so important. A good example is Richard Wagner, who was connected with National Socialism because of his views, and because of the National Socialist preference for him. In spite of this, Wagner was never totally rejected or discredited in the postwar era. In America, and in many other countries, there have always been Wagnerians, and his operas have always been performed. On the other hand, a writer like Ernst Jünger has, to a certain extent, been “implicated” because, during the twenties, he wrote many things that are very similar to what the National Socialists said.
We know that the whole of the so-called German resistance came from the former Right. Now, of course, they are naturally appreciated, which means that the rightist tradition was not totally destroyed. There have always been those who are sympathetic towards figures such as Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, and so on. For example, the great poet Gottfried Benn “emigrated” into the Wehrmacht. It was a position that, for a short time during the early fifties, seemed to come into the foreground.
Against this tendency of a larger renaissance of the non-National Socialist intellectual right, an important movement of reaction established itself. This was the so-called “Group 47” (“Gruppe 47”) of young writers, poets and so forth that met for the first time, I think, in 1953 or 1955, under the direction of Hans-Werner Richter, a former Communist. Among those who belonged to this circle was, for example, Günter Grass, who is today most important. Erich Kuby, for example, and others, fought strongly against German rearmament in 1955 and 1956. I myself belonged to the outer margins of this movement, something that is not known or remembered. These people were very much disturbed by what seemed to be a renaissance of National Socialism in connection with German rearmament. At that time, you know, there was a dispute about how the former SS officers were to be treated. Should they be accepted into the Bundeswehr, West Germany’s postwar armed forces? Those who were concerned about this development, and tried to oppose it, joined together in what was at that time called the Grünwälderkreis, an association of intellectuals that has been largely forgotten.
This “Group 47” came to dominate German intellectual life from the beginning of the sixties onward. As the student rebels came into the forefront during the mid-sixties, one may speak of Leftist conformism in Germany. In the beginning, I felt quite close to this movement, although at that time I was an unknown schoolteacher. During the period when the left seemed to be very isolated, when leftist ideas seemed to be in retreat, I sympathized with them. I never supported leftist conformism, though, and I have always considered the victory of conformity to be rather dangerous.
What do you think has been the main effect or consequences of your raising of these issues?
Well, I believe that it was indeed what it was called at that time, in 1986, a Tabubruch – a breaking of a taboo. To speak, in the same sentence, of Auschwitz and the Gulag [Soviet camp system] – that was really terrible. Today this has become a triviality. It has become quite common to speak of “as was the case with the Gulag and Auschwitz,” while then making some distinctions. For that matter, I also made distinctions. Still, to name these two phenomena, and the two personalities – Stalin and Hitler – in the same sentence, was to break a taboo of the time.
What I did was no great achievement, though, because such a comparison had already been made during the fifties, with its emphasis on the theory of totalitarianism. It was more a matter of courage, let us say, than of insight.
Even before the Historikerstreit that resulted, I had the feeling that the predominance of Jürgen Habermas, who was my main antagonist, as you know, was already a little bit menaced. Moreover, his reaction to what I wrote had a certain nervous tone, as did that of other adversaries. If you re-read what Habermas and those like him wrote at that time, you will see that in most cases there is a certain defensiveness in their arguments.
With German reunification, of course, everything has changed, because one of the main points made by Habermas and his friends was that if you do not accept their way of interpreting German history, then you endanger peaceful coexistence [between the West and the USSR]. You also showed yourself to be a German nationalist who wanted to reunite the nation by annexing the communist “German Democratic Republic,” a view that was regarded as the most dangerous one that could be taken, and which therefore had to be rejected unconditionally. As things have happened – and as none of us foresaw, least of all Habermas – this entire position is no longer valid. You can no longer say that if somebody speaks in the same sentence of the Gulag and Auschwitz, he is endangering world peace! And so there is a great dark silence.
A resounding silence?
Yes. So far no one has drawn up a balance sheet showing precisely what has happened. The very paradoxical thing is that these, let us say, more moderate leftist social historians, such as Habermas, have been assigned the gigantic task – paradoxically enough – of reorganizing higher education in the former East Germany, to define “Germanness” there. And their influence is very direct.
Those in East Germany who have presumably given up their Stalinist orthodoxy, and other Germans who have supposedly lost their fear of endangering the world’s peace by discussing these issues, are much closer to each other than those who, like me, are called “rightists.” They simply do not speak about it. In this respect, one may speak of a certain renaissance of this leftist conformism. A consequence of this is that, to a great extent, the historians and political scientists in charge in the universities in East Germany are my silent but very active antagonists. This is a curious and paradoxical role, but an understandable situation.
Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Seeing how things have gone, would you have done anything differently? What’s to be done now? What is the most important thing to do now about this problem of legend-building?
Well, if I had known what would happen, I probably would not have written that June 1986 article that was the starting-point of the Historikerstreit debate. Instead, I simply would have published my book on the European Civil War, which deals with the same subject as that article, but in which my arguments are much more fully explicated. In a newspaper article one is forced to write in a certain provocative way, and that article was, perhaps, too accentuated. So I may complain that in that case I was more publicist than scholar.
On the other hand, I had been invited by a rather leftist organization to give an address, and they had asked me to speak on this subject. It was not my initiative. Then the group rejected the topic and withdrew the invitation. I could not simply capitulate. Because I had already written the text, I gave it to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Today, clearly, there is no longer a Marxist danger, and there is, therefore, no need to fight against it. This was certainly one of my original intentions in raising the historical issues I did. Certainly, I was opposing a kind of unilateralism. At the same time, I was simply following the rules of scholarship. Thus, it is now necessary to write the history of the 20th century anew – particularly the period from 1917 to 1989 or 1991. And you must ask yourself if the histories that have been written during this period can stand the test of time and of subsequent events.
Of course, this same question applies to my own work as well, because it was created during this particular era. Recently I wrote an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled “The Fragility of Triumph.” Recently there has been quite a lot of talk about the triumph of liberal democracy and the beginning of a “New World Order.” In my view, though, this is not a solid, but rather a fragile triumph. I try to show that this fragility is necessarily connected with our system, the liberal [or liberal-democratic] system, and therefore cannot win such a total (or totalitarian) victory as that of the Bolsheviks in 1917.
I believe that new problems of historical interpretation have arisen since the fall of Communism. I hope still to be able to do something in that regard, although my main task remains that of a historian. My latest book recapitulates, to a certain extent, everything I’ve written. Paradoxically, and for the first time, National Socialism is the sole subject of the work, but on a higher dimension, so to speak. This work is not entitled “National Socialism: A History,” or anything like that. Its title is Streitpunkte: Heutige und künftige Kontroversen um den Nationalsozialismus (“Points of Contention: Current and Future Controversies Concerning National Socialism”). It is a sort of ‘literature on the literature,’ in which I explain the various points of conflict. For example, was there more historical continuity or discontinuity in the phenomenon of National Socialism? There was both, of course, but which factor is more important? Or, can National Socialism be called anti-modern or modern, or both? These are the current controversies I try to explain. And, naturally, my own views are evident throughout the book. [Streitpunkte is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of the Journal.]
Because I seek to be objective where such a perspective is difficult to achieve, I imagine that the latter third of the book, in particular, will cause some people to again say this is the writing of an “apologist.” However, this is no apology, but rather simply an effort to offer a many-sided picture based on some clearly acknowledged and universally valid maxims or guidelines. This means, for example, that the history of National Socialism must be subjected to same critical methods as every other historical phenomenon. This does not mean, of course, that this is exactly like other historical phenomena, but rather that, by applying the same methods, one will best discover the differences.
Because I have now entered my eighth decade, I think this will be my last work as an historian of fascism. In a general sense, this work which began in 1963, actually started with a small article on Mussolini I wrote three years earlier. Now, with the completion of Streitpunkte, I do not intend to write any more on this subject. I want to return – at least to a certain degree – to philosophy, which was my point of departure. I do not mean so-called “scientific philosophy.” While it is not yet entirely clear in my mind what sort of philosophy this will be, I intend an approach that takes history more into account than is normally the case with philosophers.
[VHO 2009 : Unfortunately, the references to the footnotes are missing in the text above.]
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 15.
Published with permission, courtesy of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR).
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