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The War of the German Historians

Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reiches und das Ende des Europäischen Judentums

by Andreas Hillgruber
Corso bei Siedler (Berlin), 112 pp., DM20.00

Dissonanzen des Fortschritts: Essays über Geschichte und Politik in Deutschland

by Michael Stürmer
Piper (Munich), 334 pp., DM39.80

Nach Hitler: Der Schwierige Umgang mit Unserer Geschichte: Beiträge von Martin Broszat

edited by Hermann Graml, edited by Klaus-Dietmar Henke
Oldenbourg (Munich), 326 pp., DM48

Nachdenken über die Deutsche Geschichte: Essays

by Thomas Nipperdey
Beck (Munich), 236 pp., DM38.00

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 of which, perhaps, was a long article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by one of its senior editors, the Hitler biographer Joachim C. Fest. These in turn became the targets of criticism and abuse, notably in the columns of the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel. The broader issues received full-scale treatment in a twelve-article series by leading historians in Die Zeit, but important comments appeared also in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Rheinische Merkur, the Frankfurter Rundschau, the Munich journal Merkur, and other papers. The Hanns Martin Schleyer Foundation sponsored a symposium in Berlin, which addressed itself to the question “To Whom Does German History Belong?”; the Social Democratic Party organized a small forum on the subject “Education, Enlightenment, Restoration,” in which Habermas’s theses formed the central theme; and the controversy became the subject of the presidential address at the meeting of the German Historical Association at Trier in October. By November nearly every major historian in the country had had something to say about the issues raised by Habermas, and it was still by no means certain that this great Historikerstreit had blown itself out.

It is only fair to say that its course might have been more focused if Habermas’s attacks upon individual scholars had not diverted the attention of some of his readers from the major thrust of his argument. In particular, it was both mistaken and unfair of him to single out Andreas Hillgruber, a scholar whose books on Hitler’s foreign policy have earned as much praise in this country as in his own and who can, by no stretch of the imagination, be regarded as an apologist for National Socialism.

Hillgruber became involved in this affair because he allowed the publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler to bring out two essentially unconnected lectures of his, given at conferences in 1984 and 1985, under the title Two Kinds of Downfall: The Destruction of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry, with a provocative statement on the book jacket claiming that his “work contradicts the generally accepted opinion that the destruction of the German Reich was an answer to the misdeeds of the National Socialist regime.” The distinction between Zerschlagung and Ende in the book’s title led Habermas to charge that Hillgruber was attempting to neutralize the Holocaust and turn it into something that just sort of happened, thus evading the question of responsibility. A closer reading of the book would have shown that, in fact, Hillgruber never talks about the “end” of the Jews at all but always about their “murder” and “destruction.”

As for the blurb on the jacket, it so enraged Rudolf Augstein of Der Spiegel that, in a violent article on the controversy, he wrote that anyone who believed what it said was “a constitutional Nazi.” Here again, the implication was unfair to Hillgruber, for he doesn’t believe the publisher’s blurb either and argues quite explicitly that it was “Hitler’s determination to subordinate all of Europe to his racist and ideologically inspired direct rule” and to build “his continental imperium and the world domination that he was seeking on the ruins of the Soviet Union” that made it inevitable that “from the perspective of the victorious powers the foundations of this so dangerous Germany—the Bismarck Reich and its core, the state of Prussia—should be destroyed.”

Indeed, it is difficult to find any startling revisionist tendency in Hillgruber’s book, once one has got beyond its exterior. In the longer of its two articles, which deals with the last phase of the war in the east—a subject that, as the author rightly points out, has so far received inadequate attention from historians of the Nazi period—he emphasizes the tragedy inherent in the stubborn and often heroic attempt by the German army to defend lands whose postwar disposition had already been decided by interallied agreement and he points to the consequences for Europe of the destruction of the German east. Habermas feels that Hillgruber shows too much sympathy for Nazi dignitaries who shared in the defense against Soviet forces, but the text hardly supports that; and, since we are living with the consequences of wartime decisions about redistribution of territory, there is good reason for us to consider how they were reached, about which Hillgruber knows a great deal.

The case of Ernst Nolte is of a different order. Best known in this country for his book Three Faces of Fascism, the Berlin scholar has always been more of a philosopher than a historian, with a penchant for making startling comparisons or posing daring hypotheses, often in the form of questions, which therefore do not require an underpinning of fact. In Germany and the Cold War, Nolte spoke of a “worldwide” impression that “the United States was after all putting into practice in Vietnam its essentially crueller version of Auschwitz,” and suggested that “Franklin Roosevelt would have viewed an anti-Communist and anti-Semitic movement in the USA at least with sympathy if the [Communist] Party had played a role in American politics comparable to that of the KPD in Germany.” He described the destruction of the European Jews as “nothing else” than a modern attempt to “solve problems connected with industrialization by means of disposing of large numbers of human beings.” After reading the book, Peter Gay described his method as one of “comparative trivialization,” designed to “cover over the special horror of German barbarity between 1933 and 1945.”

The past two years have seen other examples of Nolte’s comparative method. In an article entitled “Between Myth and Revisionism: The Third Reich in the Perspective of the 1980s,” which appeared in a British collection of essays on the Third Reich in 1985, Nolte stated that Chaim Weizmann’s declaration in September 1939 that Jews in the whole world would fight on the side of England “might justify the consequential thesis that Hitler was allowed to treat the German Jews as prisoners of war and by this means to intern them.” He admitted that the logic of this proposition might be questioned but refused to make clear what his own opinion was. More daringly, in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on June 6, 1986, he advanced two hypotheses: first, that all of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, “with the sole exception of the technical process of the gassing,” had been anticipated in the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks, the White Terror in Russia and the horrors of the gulag; and, second, that it was Hitler’s fear of the Soviet Union and his knowledge of the fiendishness of its methods that prompted his own brutalities. “The question must be permitted,” he wrote,

Did the National Socialists, did Hitler carry out an “asiatic” action perhaps only because they regarded themselves and their kind as potential or real victims of an “asiatic” action? Was not the Gulag Archipelago more original [ursprünglicher] than Auschwitz? Was not the “class murder” of the Bolshevists the logical and factual prius of the “racial murder” of the National Socialists? Was it not a scientific mistake to focus on the latter and neglect the former, although a causal nexus is probable?

The most effective criticism of this curious argument came from Eberhard Jäckel of the University of Stuttgart, who pointed out, in his contribution to the series in Die Zeit, that it was completely bereft of rational foundation. Hitler had given many explanations of his desire to get rid of the Jews, but in none of them had he said anything about fear of the Bolsheviks and their methods. Indeed, it was well known that the Nazi leader believed, at least until Stalingrad, that the Soviet Union, because it was ruled by Jews, was trembling on the verge of collapse. Jäckel also expressed dismay that Joachim Fest, who had rushed into the breach after the chorus of disapproval that had greeted Nolte’s article, should not only have defended Nolte’s right to ask the kind of questions that he did but should himself have argued against the uniqueness of Hitler’s destruction of the Jews. It was indeed unique, Jäckel retorted,

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