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,

because never before had any state, with all the authority of its responsible leader, decided and announced that it intended to kill off a particular group of human beings, including the old, the women, the children and the sucklings, as completely as possible and had then translated this decision into action with every possible expedient of power at the state’s command. These facts are so obvious and well known that it must seem astonishing that they have not come to Fest’s attention.

In Habermas’s article in Die Zeit, he was less interested in the rationality of Nolte’s argument than he was in the service he believed it performed for those conservatives who wished to use history to arouse a new national consciousness and felt themselves impeded by the antipathy against the national state that was one of the chief results of the Nazi experience. For them, he wrote, “Nolte’s theory has a great advantage. He kills two flies with one blow. The Nazi crimes lose their singularity by being made at least understandable as an answer to a (still-continuing) Bolshevik threat of destruction. Auschwitz shrinks to the format of a technical innovation and is explained by the ‘asiatic’ threat from an enemy that still stands at our gates.”

Even so, Nolte was, in Habermas’s view, a relatively minor figure in the conservative camp, and the weight of his assault was directed less at him than at another historian who was, he seemed to feel, if not the spiritus rector, then at least the most articulate spokesman, of the revisionist movement. This was Michael Sturmer, an exceptionally gifted and energetic scholar who is professor at the University of Erlangen, sometime adviser to the Kohl government, intermittent leader writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and author of, among other books, a history of the Bismarck-Wilhelmine Reich in Wolf Jobst Siedler’s projected six-volume series The Germans and Their Nation, in which he argues that Germany’s problems in the past stemmed less from a deficit of liberalism and democracy than from its geographical position in the middle of Europe, which defined its national essence. On the eve of the Historikerstreit, he produced a new book, The Dissonances of Progress, which contained not only a series of brilliant essays on such varied themes as work and social security in the eighteenth century, court culture during the ancien régime, and caesarism in nineteenth-century politics, but also—in a section called “Bundesrepublik quo vadis?”—a number of provocative political essays that were bound to arouse Habermas’s suspicion and concern.

It is not always easy to understand what Stürmer is driving at in his articles on politics. His style is highly mannered, the tone varying between the portentous and the romantic (“In a land without history, he who fills the memory, defines the concepts, and interprets the past wins the future”), and precision and definition are often blurred by excessive ornamentation and allusion. But the essays printed in Dissonances leave no doubt about his belief that the Federal Republic is in a crisis of consciousness or identity, which he blames on the pluralism and permissiveness of the cultural trend of the 1960s, with its “pedagogy of conflict, destruction of authority, early specialization,” indiscipline in the higher school grades, and neglect of subjects that are important for an understanding of the modern world, like chemistry and physics, and literature and history.

“Today,” he writes in one of these essays,

the issue is the salvation of our intellectual personality, the identity of the Germans in the middle of Europe, the calculability of our policy, the inner good sense of our political culture, and, last of all, the continuity of our fatally threatened constitution of freedom…. The cultural policy of the 60s sowed the wind, and today we are reaping the tempest. If we do not succeed in agreeing on an elementary cultural curriculum, with which to prepare the way for continuity and consensus in the country and to find once more the measure and mode of patriotism, then it may well be that the Federal Republic of Germany has the best part of its history behind it.

Correcting this will require a new “interpretation of German history that doesn’t live in trauma or lead to Traumland, but draws a national historical balance.” Stürmer presumably means by this that the blockage in continuity caused by the National Socialist experience must somehow be overcome, and the national fantasies of the past avoided,without sacrificing national self-consciousness in the process. In the first essay in Dissonances, he writes that historians must “constantly wander on the thin edge between Sinnstiftung [that is, investing history with a meaning with which people can identify] and Entmythologisierung [demythologizing]”; and elsewhere he has written that the German identity “can no longer be based on the nation state, but cannot exist without the nation.” In any case, he argues, in this crisis in its intellectual fortunes, the Federal Republic needs the kind of history that “promises direction-signs to identity, anchorages in the cataracts of progress. If it deserves its name, history is not a dreamy nostalgia, not a millennial myth, not an imperative of the German way [Wesen], now sinner, now saint. History holds for the Germans in Europe the chance to recognize themselves again.” And this is all the more reason why there must be broad agreement about the role of history in the schools, and why it is also important that Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s plans for a museum of German history in Berlin and one for the history of the Bundesrepublik in Bonn be realized. In a chapter called “The Search for a Purpose for Existence: On the Difficult Relationship between Politics and Culture,” Stürmer writes, “The Republic needs a geometrical location for its identity, a consensus with itself.”

This emphasis upon consensus and this intimation that it is necessary to lead Germans out of the trauma of the recent past into the broader regions of national history enraged Habermas and led him to accuse the Erlangen historian and his supporters of wishing to make history into an instrument for political purposes. The hallmark of modern historiography, he wrote, was “the sharpened methodological consciousness [which made] an end of any closed historical picture that was prescribed by government historians…. The pluralism of interpretation mirrors the structure of the open society.” The creation of such a society was the greatest achievement of the postwar generation, for it opened Germany unreservedly to the political culture of the West. The conservatives, Habermas charged, were now seeking to abandon that culture in favor of the old and dangerous obsession with the German mission in Mitteleuropa. Noting that the word patriotism was often in Stürmer’s mouth, Habermas wrote,

The only patriotism that will not alienate us from the West is constitutional patriotism. Unfortunately, a tie to universal constitutional principles that is based upon conviction has only been possible in Germany since, and because of, Auschwitz. Anyone who wants to drive the blush of shame over that deed from our cheeks by using meaningless phrases like “obsession with guilt” [a term he specifically attributed to Stürmer], anyone who wants to call Germans back to a conventional kind of identity, destroys the only reliable basis of our tie to the West.

This cogent reminder that the Western alliance depended more upon a compatibility of political principle than upon military collaboration seemed, as the debate went on, to irritate as many people as it impressed. Stürmer, after all, was no enemy of the Western connection, dozens of passages in his book proving the opposite, and those who were interested like him in reviving a truly national history and who later went to the Schleyer symposium to discuss its feasibility resented being considered members of a conservative conspiracy. On the other hand, Habermas’s point about historical method did not go unremarked. Did Germany really need Sinnstiftung, which would amount to the interpretation of history in nationalistic terms? Were there not already, in the political sphere, too many indications of real and potential manipulation of history, what with Chancellor Kohl comparing Gorbachev with Goebbels and Reykjavík with Munich, and Alfred Dregger of the CDU calling for more patriotism in school instruction and less brooding over the mistakes of the past? Why was there so much talk about “the loss of history” at a time when interest in the subject was greater in Germany than it had been for years past?

The Germans had not lost their history, wrote Martin Broszat of the Institute for Contemporary History; they had merely, through pain and suffering, acquired some moral sensitivity toward it. Why should this be considered “a political and cultural disadvantage in comparison with other nations”? Why, asked Heinrich August Winkler of Freiburg in the Frankfurter Rundschau, was it not obvious that it was a matter of duty for Germans “to learn to live with their history without trying to trade it in for something else…acknowledging that they must make no excessive demands on the future, and knowing why?”

Such questions elicited no common response. As the debate went on, however, it was clear that the problem that had inspired it in the first place, that of fitting the National Socialist era into the continuity of German history, was still as unresolved as it was troubling. At Trier, the president of the German Historical Association, Christian Meier of the University of Munich, described a general perplexity when he said:

With every day the number grows of those who had nothing to do with the atrocities of that time, and do not see why they should belong to a stigmatized people. And at the same time, the terrifying, the ghastly nature of the crimes themselves also grows…. Even if we busy ourselves with a thousand different things and seem to get through the present quite successfully, this sensitive nerve remains, this wound that festers and aches and demands our attention and absorbs much of our being.

What was the historian to do about this? Clearly, comparative trivialization was not the answer. “Even if our crimes were not unique,” Meier asked, “what would be won for us and our position in the world? What would we gain if the destruction of the Jews were placed in the same category as the persecution and liquidation of the kulaks and the exterminations of Pol Pot?” Nor could the problem be solved by neglect or by taking refuge in remote fields of specialization. The historian had a duty “to resolve the hypnotic paralysis of large numbers of our people before the Nazi past and to free them from the juxtaposition of, on the one hand, total condemnation of all Germans and everything German in that time and, on the other, repression and defiant attraction.” But how was this to be accomplished?

With this problem, one participant in the long debate had concerned himself for some time. During the confused hullabaloo over Bitburg, Martin Broszat had written a “Plea for the Historicization of National Socialism,” which has now been reprinted in his present volume,After Hitler: The Difficult Association with our History. This is a book that deserves the attention of all serious students of Germany during the last decade for it includes, among many fine things, a demolition of David Irving’s attempt to rehabilitate Adolf Hitler’s military reputation; incisive discussions of the television series The Holocaust, which made such an impression in Germany in 1979, and of the bogus Hitler Diaries; and a systematic critique of Chancellor Kohl’s proposal for a House for the History of the Bundesrepublik in Bonn, in which Broszat expresses the fear that such an institution would be vulnerable to political pressure and might easily become an instrument for maintaining the status quo unless careful safeguards were written into its statutes. Habermas echoed the same fears in his article in Die Zeit.

In his “Plaidoyer für eine Historisierung des Nationalisozialismus,” Broszat makes the point that, although we have many studies of the National Socialist dictatorship and thousands of specialized monographs on particular aspects of the Nazi regime, we still have no real history of the Nazi period, our view of it being dominated by received notions of an ideologically monolithic time in which all aspects of life were directed by the commands of an omnipotent and omnipresent leader. Yet the more closely we study it, the more we become aware of its contradictions, its inconsistencies, its variety, indeed, its lack of monolithic character and control, and the more it becomes apparent that old ideas and traditions persisted and new ones were born without reference to system and ideology. To take only one example, studies of Nazi social policy during the Second World War have revealed a German Labor Front plan for universal social security that bears a strong similarity to the Beveridge Plan in Great Britain and, in its basic ideas, to legislation passed in the Bundesrepublik in the 1950s. Though a product of the Nazi time, it seems, in its inception, to have been largely independent of ideological prescription and purpose.

The point, for Broszat, is that “not everything that happened in the Nazi time and was historically significant merely served the dictatorial and inhuman power objectives of the regime.” He argues that “the shamefulness that constitutes the general balance of this epoch should not make us assume that the many social, economic, and civilizing forces that were at work then, and the countless modernizing endeavors, derive their historical significance only from their connection with National Socialism.” Instead of a total moral isolation of the Nazi period, what is needed is a cleaning up of the received conceptual scheme in which it is seen and “the liberation of many historical perspectives on events and persons from the constraining corset of an all-encompassing dictatorship.” A more differentiated view of the period—which implies in no way a relativist treatment of the crimes of the leaders and the responsibilities of the led—may break the blockade that National Socialism has imposed upon the German historical consciousness. In itself that blockade is a form of repression and putting under taboo (Tabuisierung), as well as a temptation to indulge in uncritical glorification of the “healthy periods” of German history. To avoid that, Broszat concludes, and to make possible a process of moral sensitizing with respect to every epoch of the past, the Nazi period must be restored to the main stream of German history.

This is perhaps easier said than done, but as the heat of the great historical debate began to diminish, there was perhaps a greater understanding of the problem and a greater disposition to try to tackle it rationally rather than polemically. Aside from that, it is difficult to make any final judgment on this protracted scholarly set-to. During its course, German bookstores were displaying the collected articles of the Munich historian Thomas Nipperdey, entitled Reflections on German History, and, as one read these splendid essays—on Luther and the modern world, on problems of modernization, on federalism in German history, on romantic nationalism, on Prussia and the university, on the cathedral of Cologne as a national monument—it was easy to feel that historians are really more interesting when they are writing history than when they are talking about it.

It is when he is doing his proper work that the historian learns not to take himself too seriously, without at the same time depreciating his true worth. For his assignment is not unimportant. He is the protector of the collective memory, and, as Nipperdey says in the opening essay in his book, it is his duty to “clarify recollection and preserve it from legends and manipulators.”

If he keeps the record of the past, or his chosen part of the past, honestly and well, the historian can demonstrate what human beings are capable of by showing what they have been and what they have done, and in this way he can help the present understand both its limitations and its possibilities. Depending upon his talents, he can satisfy his readers’ curiosity about their past, give them a healthy skepticism about permanence and duration, and encourage them to respect or, if that is not always possible, to accept and strive to understand their inheritance. As he tries to do all this, with his limited powers of comprehension and execution, and as he also—a wonderful thought of Nipperdey’s!—endeavors in his reconstructions “to give back to past generations what they once possessed, what every present possesses: the fullness of the possible future, the uncertainty, the freedom, the finiteness, the contradictoriness,” he has no time to worry about large ideological considerations like the current demand for consensus. The only consensus that interests him already exists in any case—his agreement with his fellows about the rules of the game and the common perception of what is good history and what is not.

This Issue

January 15, 1987