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In March 1856, the novelist Gottfried Keller wrote from Zurich to his Berlin friend Lina Duncker about the intellectuals and scholars who had fled to his native city after the revolutions of 1848 and found employment in the university and the new polytechnic institute. After talking about the activities of mutual friends, he completed his report by writing, “For the rest, the German professors are continually in each others’ hair.”
Keller noted this without any surprise, as if it were a law of nature that German scholars should be contentious, and he has found more than enough corroboration in the 130 years that have passed since his letter. The historians, in particular, have been prone to prolonged and bitter intellectual donnybrooks, and some of these, because of the importance of the issues involved and the passion with which they have been debated, are remembered as significant illustrations of the social and intellectual temper of their times. This is true of the so-called Berlin Antisemitismusstreit that followed Heinrich von Treitschke’s statement, in an article in the Preußische Jahrbücher in November 1879, that “the Jews are our misfortune,” which brought Theodor Mommsen, Karl Fischer, Heinrich Graetz, Hermann Cohen, and Harry Breßlau into the lists against him and had profound reverberations in the national press.
A dispute of equal intensity and choler occurred at the turn of the century, when Karl Lamprecht challenged the dominant school of national political history by advocating an approach based on broad social, cultural, and psychological trends and found himself at sword’s point with the whole academic establishment. In more recent memory is the war aims controversy of the Sixties, which was touched off by the Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer’s provocative theses concerning German responsibility for the coming of the First World War, which outraged his conservative colleagues.
Since the spring of this year, a new debate has been raging in Germany that has been no less acrimonious or charged with consequential issues than these earlier examples. It originated with an article by Jürgen Habermas in the influential weekly newspaper Die Zeit, which was entitled “A Kind of Damage Control: Apologetic Tendencies in Current German Historical Writing.” The Frankfurt sociologist accused two leading historians, Andreas Hillgruber of the University of Cologne and Ernst Nolte of the Free University of Berlin, of seeking in recent books and articles to trivialize the National Socialist experience and to deny the singularity of its crime against the Jews. He then went on to argue that a powerful neoconservative movement was at work within the profession, whose objective was to replace the pluralistic historiography of the post-1945 period, and the values, derived from the Enlightenment, that characterized it, with a new historical nationalism that was intended to create a view of the past with which Germans could identify and from which they would regain confidence and pride in themselves.
Habermas’s article caused a great fluttering in the academic dovecotes. Defensive briefs for Hillgruber and Nolte were quick to appear, the most extraordinary…
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