Last November, the West German parliament met in special session. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the organized pogroms of Kristallnacht, but it was the Holocaust as a whole, and not just one night, which was being commemorated in Bonn. Among the honored guests were the president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker; the chairman of the Central Board of Jews in Germany; and the ambassador of Israel. The choir of the local Bach Society sang, in Yiddish, a song of the destruction of the Cracow ghetto. A noted German actress of Jewish descent recited “Death Fugue,” Paul Celan’s powerful poem about the death camps.
Then Philipp Jenninger, president of the Bundestag, rose to offer the official address. Within a few moments he was being repeatedly interrupted from the floor and shortly thereafter fifty of his colleagues demonstratively left the chamber. Twenty-four hours later, Philipp Jenninger was no longer president of the Bundestag.
“Veneration of Hitler Causes Tumult in West German Parliament” was the headline in the Dutch paper Telegraaf. In Italy, Il Messaggero opined that Jenninger’s talk had “reopened the historic wound between Germany and the Jewish people.” The editors of the London Daily Express asked Chancellor Kohl, “How many more Jenningers are there in your back room? The nations who fought against the Nazis have the right to demand an answer.” Stefan Heym, a prominent East German novelist, called the speech “the plea of a man whom one characterizes in literature as a devil’s advocate.”
Among Jews, the president of the World Jewish Congress expressed “shock.” “Jenninger Defends Hitler Era,” ran a headline in the Israeli daily Maariv. A spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared, “We hope and believe that this is a transitory episode, which does not express the view of the German people in regard to Hitler and his times.” Added a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry, “The manner in which the history and background of the Nazi era were presented in his speech cannot be accepted by any member of the Jewish people.”
From New York to London to Amsterdam to Tel Aviv, the recurrent theme was, Here we go again. For four-and-a-half decades since 1945, the suspicion has never wholly vanished that behind the new, democratic Germany lurks the old National Socialism. Jenninger’s speech seemed, to many, to confirm the truth of that suspicion.
But this time there was a twist. Within a few weeks of Jenninger’s resignation, second thoughts were being aired. According to the liberal German historian Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Jenninger’s speech was a “substantial contribution toward an understanding of the fateful year 1938.” Hildegard Hamm-Brucher, a distinguished senior parliamentarian of the liberal Free Democrats whose distraught departure from the hall had been much noted, now asserted that the speech was in fact more “helpful” than an earlier (May 1985) address on the German past by President Weizsäcker. Letters of support began to pour in, many of them from Jews. And when Jenninger’s speech was finally published in its entirety, readers were favorably struck by the directness and force with which he had confronted the most discomfiting issues of the Nazi past: the systematic brutality of the Holocaust, but also the more sensitive and subtle question of the massive support enjoyed by Hitler in the years before and immediately after Kristallnacht.
What had Jenninger done to merit such consternation and condemnation? What motivated his colleagues to heckle him and then walk out?
The stimulus for the Kristallnacht commemoration originally came not from the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), but from the opposition Greens—a party of the ecological and pacifist Left—and the Social Democrats (SPD), who had also wanted a Jewish speaker to address the Bundestag on the occasion. Against doubts within the Christian Democratic party and the Christian Social Union (CSU), the more conservative, Bavarian wing of the CDU, to which Jenninger belongs, he had insisted that the Kristallnacht commemoration take place, and had also demanded that he himself—known as an advocate of German-Jewish reconciliation and as a friend of Israel—give the address.
After the highly ritualized and emotional opening ceremonies, Jenninger’s speech, which even his sympathizers agree was too long and in places overly academic, began on a note both cool and startling:
Many of us participated yesterday at the invitation of the Central Council of Jews in Germany in the commemoration at the synagogue at Frankfurt am Main. Today, we have come together in the German Bundestag to commemorate here in parliament the pogrom of November 9 and 10, 1938. For it is not the victims, but we, in whose midst the crimes occurred, who must remember and render account, for we Germans want to achieve a clear understanding of our history and of the political lessons for our present and future. The victims—Jews around the world—know only too well what the events of November 1938 signified in terms of their later suffering. Do we know it too?
Even as he spoke these introductory sentences, Jenninger was being heckled from the floor by representatives of the Greens. Begging for order, he went on to describe the horrors and organized destruction which occurred on Kristallnacht, emphasizing the passivity and lack of response on the part of the German public:
Everyone saw what happened, but most looked away and remained silent, including the churches. In retrospect it becomes clear that a revolution had taken place in Germany between 1933 and 1938, in which a state of law was tranformed into a state of lawlessness and criminality. . . . At the end of this revolution the domination of the National Socialists was decisively consolidated; the consciousness of justice had been destroyed far more radically than was evident on the surface.
By 1938, Jenninger continued, “A great majority of Germans stood behind Hitler, and identified with him and his policies.” It was, indeed, the remarkable string of Hitler’s foreign and domestic successes which were particularly fateful for Germany and for the world, since these were widely contrasted with the failures of liberal democracy during the Weimar years. As for the anti-Semitic propaganda and the measures taken against Jews in the period between Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 and Kristallnacht, they too were accepted, because they corresponded to what so many Germans themselves believed was necessary and right.
Here Jenninger turned to the history of anti-Semitism in Germany. He noted its religious origins; its transformation in response to the coming of capitalism, liberalism, and socialism; its links with a peculiarly vehement German nationalism; and finally its emergence as racial anti-Semitism under the impress of Social Darwinist ideas:
Here finally was a tool with which the mutterings about the Jewish world conspiracy and the eternal struggle of the races could be given a thin scientific veneer. On the one side the healthy, the strong, and useful; on the other the sick, the inferior, the harmful, the Jewish “decay,” the “vermin” from whom one could be freed only by “expunging” and “extermination.”
It was at this point, about one-third of the way through Jenninger’s speech, that the delegation of Greens rose and demonstratively left the Bundestag. They were followed by some Social Democrats, and even a few Liberal Democrats. What those who departed missed was Jenninger’s exposition of the centrality of racist anti-Semitism in Hitler’s world view, and its connection with his 1941 attack against the Soviet Union. Jenninger also read from a terrible eyewitness report of a killing by the SS of Jewish men, women, and children, and followed this with Himmler’s infamous address of October 1943 praising SS leaders for their exemplary behavior in carrying out the murder of the Jews—in Himmler’s words, “an unwritten and never-to-be-written glorious page in our history.” Jenninger:
In the face of this millionfold destruction, we are helpless. For human suffering is not reparable, and every individual who became a victim was himself irreplaceable. There remains that which fails every attempt to explain and conceive what occurred.
Finally, Jenninger pleaded “to keep memory awake and to accept the past as part of our identity as Germans, for this alone promises the older and younger among us liberation from the burden of history.”
In explaining the reasons for their departure, some deputies later claimed that Jenninger had identified himself with the anti-Semitic characterizations in his speech. This interpretation was clearly at odds with the context in which the sentences were spoken, yet it was reflected as well in the foreign headlines, in the comments of Jenninger’s critics outside the Bundestag, and in articles in Left-liberal journals.
The most widely circulated Left-of-Center daily in West Germany, the Frankfurter Rundschau, headlined its transcription of the speech with a quotation lifted from the text: “Hitler’s March of Triumph Must Have Seemed a Wonder to the Germans.” The weekly Die Zeit, the most prestigious platform of Left-liberalism in West Germany and, thanks to its overseas edition, the main window on German life for many foreign observers, ran an analysis by its co-editor Marion Countess Dönhoff; she too found it impossible to ascertain whether the anti-Semitic views cited by Jenninger were those of past Germans or his own. Another contributor to Die Zeit, Ulrich Greiner, wrote that Jenninger’s speech “explains something. . . . And he who makes something understandable necessarily gives the appearance of supporting it.” And the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which devoted a cover story to the Jenninger affair, interpreted the speech as demonstrating that the Christian Democrats had not overcome “the shadow of the past.”
The continuity of the Nazi past with the Christian Democratic present: as a reading of Jenninger’s speech this was absurd, but, within the context of West German political culture, hardly extraordinary. Indeed, the Jenninger affair can best be understood as a manifestation within the political arena of a frequent ploy among Left and liberal West German intellectuals: the use of the charge of apologizing for National Socialism to delegitimate more conservative opponents.
This process is apparent in the now-notorious “historians’ controversy”—a controversy that in the last two years has taken on international resonance. Although the focus of that debate is supposedly limited to, in the words of the subtitle to one key collection of documents, “the uniqueness of the National Socialist annihilation of the Jews,” what is at stake goes far beyond this particular issue.
A flavor of the politics involved may be gleaned from a publisher’s advertisement appended to a recent book by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, a leading Left-liberal historian, entitled Unburdening the German Past? A Polemical Essay on the “Historians’ Controversy.” At the back of this book, under the heading “Let Us Not Repress the Past,” the following titles are listed: In the Warsaw Ghetto; Children of the Holocaust; Visit to Hades: Auschwitz and Breslau 1966; The Exodus of Culture: Writers, Scholars, and Artists in Emigration after 1933; and a volume edited by Iring Fetscher, a professor at Frankfurt and a leading political theorist of the Social Democratic Left, Neoconservatives and the “New Right”: The Attack on the Welfare State and on Liberal Democracy in the United States, Western Europe, and the Federal Republic. That a line of continuity runs from those who created the Warsaw Ghetto to more recent supposed threats to freedom—that is, a line of continuity from the Nazis to the neoconservatives—is the not-so-subtle message conveyed by the heading, “Let Us Not Repress the Past.”
But who are these neoconservatives who allegedly imperil the democratic political culture of the Federal Republic?
Like its counterparts in the United States and other Western nations, West German neoconservatism developed largely in reaction to the perceived excesses of the New Left of the 1960’s, and was led by intellectuals who had previously located themselves somewhere Left of Center on the political spectrum. In part, then, what we are dealing with is a familiar change in nomenclature, as values once regarded as “liberal” came to be called “conservative.” But from the neoconservatives’ point of view we are also dealing with a new openness toward an intellectual tradition compromised in Germany by the close collaboration of many German conservatives with the National Socialist regime and regarded as beyond the pale by much of the generation that came of age in the postwar era, as well as with the belief that the values and institutions which make a liberal-democratic society possible are in need of a principled defense to ensure their “conservation.”
One milestone event on the road to German neoconservatism occurred in the early 1970’s with a debate over guidelines for high-school curricula in the SPD-governed province of Hesse. At the time the Minister of Education in Hesse was Ludwig von Friedeburg, a professor of sociology at Frankfurt and a collaborator of the social theorist Jürgen Habermas, himself destined to become a central figure in the historians’ controversy. A series of commissions convened under Friedeburg’s auspices had developed basic principles and goals reflecting the ideals of “emancipatory education.” Students were to become aware of their true interests in ending “domination,” to be on the alert for ideological distortion, to recognize the conflict-laden nature of their society. Just what all this meant was vague, but it bespoke a mandate to challenge authority and to work for “emancipation”—a term bearing the connotations of “liberation.” The most controversial recommendation was that the teaching of history be eliminated, and replaced by “social studies.”
Opposition to the plan came first and foremost from parents, objecting to what they regarded as an attempt to mobilize the schools for systematic radicalization. Their outrage was a contributing factor in a major setback suffered by the SPD in the state elections of 1974, and led to Friedeburg’s resignation. Supporting the parents were a number of intellectuals, including Hermann Lübbe and Michael Stürmer.
Hermann Lübbe is a political philosopher who in the late 1960’s served in the SPD-controlled government of Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia. In 1970, returning to teaching, he became a leading critic of the New Left and its academic supporters and of government concessions to the radical student movement. Michael Stürmer, then a young professor of modern social history at a new university in Hesse, was led into his oppositional role in part through disillusionment with the new educational reforms. Both men were liberal intellectuals who had once sympathized with the SPD but had become alarmed at what they saw as the politicization of education and scholarship. The SPD, they felt, had caved in to the New Left and to what Lübbe called the “cultural revolution.”
The first wave of West German neoconservatism was thus a response to the institutionalization of “emancipatory” social science in the German educational and cultural establishment. Its adherents focused in their writing on cultural questions, and on political theory. Lübbe, for example, undertook a defense of the liberal aspects of liberal democracy against the demands to replace cultural and social pluralism with enforced communitarianism and egalitarianism. For Lübbe, individual and collective identity came at least in part from identification with past traditions, without which the pace of technological and social change would leave the individual disoriented, or dependent for direction upon utopian social theories which promised to replace older moral traditions but could not1
The second wave of intellectual neoconservatism occurred in the early 1980’s as a response to the increasing political influence of neutralist, pacifist, and nationalist currents in Germany. These burst onto the public stage in the massive demonstrations against the proposed installation of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, a policy adopted by NATO in 1979 at the urging of the Social Democratic Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, to counter the build-up of such weapons in the Warsaw Pact.
The demonstrations were striking both for their size—the largest brought 300,000 protesters from across the country to Bonn in October 1981—and for their apocalyptic rhetoric. A generation that had come of age in the period of détente, which had not been told that the relations between East and West rested on a military balance of power, now became alarmed at the predictions of some “peace researchers” that the stationing of Pershing II and cruise missiles would quickly lead to a war in which the Germans would be the first victims. It became the fashion to promote a sense of terrified anxiety, then to call upon politicians to do something about it.
The moralism and pacifism of the opponents of missile deployment seeped deeply into an SPD that had once been dominated by the liberal, Atlanticist, and pro-NATO stance to which Schmidt, for one, still adhered. To be sure, the Social Democrats had already absorbed some of the assumptions of the New Left, and even while Schmidt governed as Chancellor his party had been turning away from the concept of security through deterrence. And meanwhile a new movement had arisen, the Greens, a motley conglomeration of anti-nuclear activists, ecologists, pacifists, and feminists, drawn from the most highly educated strata of German society.
What tied the “alternative politics” of the Greens to the New Left of the 60’s—and distinguished it from the Social Democrats—was a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of the existing institutions of the Federal Republic. The Greens were suspicious of if not hostile toward parliamentary democracy. Their preference was for “direct democracy” and extra-parliamentary action which would challenge the authority of the state to enact measures the Greens opposed—stationing missiles, building new airport runways, processing nuclear wastes. The notion that the United States posed the major threat to German security also became a widely shared and vocally articulated assumption among the Greens. Finally, it became common among peace advocates and anti-nuclear-power activists to invoke the specter of the Nazi past. If Germany was to avoid a “nuclear holocaust,” the claim went, citizens must engage in “Widerstand,” or resistance, against the state—as their fathers had failed to do in relation to Hitler.
The peace movement, the new nationalism on the Left, and the spread of pacifist sentiment into the SPD were viewed with concern by the Federal Republic’s allies, especially the French. Within Germany itself, the response came above all from two historians, Hans-Peter Schwarz and the aforementioned Michael Stürmer.
In 1985 Schwarz, a professor of contemporary history and political science in Bonn, published a short, topical book entitled The Tamed Germans: From Power Obsession to Power Amnesia. From the days of the Kaiser until the collapse of Hitler in 1945, he wrote, the Germans had fallen prey to an irrational fascination with power, and with a state that was oriented toward the limitless, brutal use of force. Fortunately, those who became the country’s leaders after 1945 developed a realistic attitude toward power, accepting the need for it in world affairs but retaining a proper respect for international order and humanistic ideals. Now, however, public opinion was swinging to an opposite extreme. Where their ancestors had been intoxicated by power, younger Germans were more often, but no less dangerously, intoxicated by peace. They had forgotten that there was such a thing as the responsible deployment of power, without which the international order would sink into chaos, and Germany itself might forfeit its security.
The idea that national security depends on a sober realism about the role of power in international affairs is also one of the major themes of Michael Stürmer. In the early 1980’s Stürmer emerged as the most salient and engagé of the neoconservative intellectuals, becoming a regular contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s most distinguished daily, editing a series of historical works on “The Germans and Their Nation,” lecturing to a wide range of nonacademic audiences, and acting as an occasional adviser to Chancellor Kohl, who subsequently appointed him director of a government-funded think-tank devoted to foreign affairs and security policy.
A writer of graceful prose in a profession bedeviled by jargon, Stürmer has made a deliberate attempt to convey to as large an audience as possible what he takes to be the lessons of German history, in the belief that “the future is won by those who coin concepts and interpret the past.” The main messages his work communicates are that the preservation of liberal democracy is not something to be taken for granted; that liberal democracy, although it has roots in German history, is above all a response to the calamitous experience of the Germans with totalitarian regimes of the Right and Left; that Germany’s position in the center of Europe has always played a role (often disastrous) in its political options; and that, all this being so, a Swedish-style neutralism or the quest for unification with the East is a chimera.2
Not surprisingly, the hero of Sturmer’s vision of German history is neither Frederick the Great nor Bismarck but Konrad Adenauer. “The most important attempt by the Germans to learn from their history,” he writes, “is the Basic Constitution of the Federal Republic.” The historical “consensus” which Stürmer has aimed to restore is one in which the rules of liberal democracy are accepted, in which Germany’s ties (including its military ties) to the West are unequivocal, and in which the achievements of democracy in West Germany can be regarded by its citizens as the foundation of a justified patriotism.
In calling for a more positive sense of German national identity, Stürmer is not alone. On the Left, a voice like Helmut Schmidt notes that “In the long run no nation can live without a historical identity. If our German history were merely regarded as one single chain of crimes and failures, then our nation could be shaken and the future could be put at stake.” And on the Right there has been a longstanding desire for a more positive evaluation of German identity.
The problem, of course, is what role the Nazi period in general and the Holocaust in particular ought to play in the Germans’ view of their own past. On the right wing of the CDU/CSU a call has been raised intermittently since the 1950’s to “close the books” on the Nazi past. There has also been a propensity to mitigate the suffering caused by Germans through reference to the suffering inflicted upon Germans, most recently in the attempt by some politicians on the right wing of the CDU (Alfred Dregger, for example) to lump together the deliberate and ideologically-inspired mass murder of the Jews of Europe with the deaths of German soldiers or the murder and expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe after 1945.
Both of these temptations seemed to be reflected in Helmut Kohl’s decision to commemorate the 40th annniversary of the end of World War II with a ceremony at the Bitburg military ceremony. While, however, President Reagan’s remarks at Bitburg reiterated an old and discredited view of the Third Reich as “one man’s totalitarian dictatorship,” implying that the regime was somehow forced upon an unwitting populace, the writings of the German neoconservatives reflect an awareness that Hitler’s dictatorship had vast support, which at least in the prewar period encompassed the majority of the German population. It is this awareness which has led them to their highly positive evaluation of the Adenauer era.
Thus, in an address on “National Socialism in Postwar German Consciousness,” delivered to an international conference in Berlin in 1983 and published shortly thereafter in a leading historical journal, Lübbe attacked the notion, popular on the Left, that the Adenauer era was a “missed opportunity” to overcome the legacy of Nazism. Although direct public confrontation with the specifics of the Nazi past was limited in the immediate postwar decades, Lübbe argued that “this relative silence was the social-psychological and politically necessary medium for the transformation of our postwar populace into the citizenry of the Federal Republic of Germany.” Since it was impossible to create a viable democracy which excluded a majority on account of their past, the achievement of the Adenauer years, as Lübbe saw it, was to have integrated former supporters of National Socialism into a democratic polity while National Socialism itself was entirely delegitimated. And that democratic transformation “of a people that only a few years before had in its majority cheered Hitler” did occur, thanks to the founding fathers of the Federal Republic, and especially Adenauer. It was to them that credit belonged for turning Germany definitively toward liberal democracy and toward the West—a turn which Lübbe saw as threatened by the New Left with its tendency to delegitimate liberal democracy itself by stressing the purported continuity between the Third Reich and its successor government.
Although Schwarz, Lübbe, and especially Stürmer were to become involved in the “historians’ controversy,” it was not the work of these neoconservatives that served as the immediate occasion for the controversy, but rather an article by Ernst Nolte, a historian whose recent writings have reflected some of the more pernicious bromides of the traditional German Right. In his Germany and the Cold War, published in 1976, Nolte had insisted that every great power had its own “Hitler age,” and had tried to show the common ground between National Socialism and Zionism. Now, in an essay published in June 1986 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and entitled “The Past That Will Not Pass Away,” Nolte claimed that the preoccupation with the Holocaust served certain contemporary interests, including those of the younger German generation against its fathers, as well as “the interests of the persecuted and their descendants in a permanent, privileged status.”
The notion that the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive because it is advantageous to the Jews has long been a mainstay of what Germans refer to as the Stammtisch, the table in the beer hall at which the common man vents his uninhibited opinions. It is a charge that can also be found in print, but in journals considered beyond the pale of intellectual and political respectability, such as the Nationalzeitung, a weekly available in many a kiosk in West Germany and Austria. What Nolte’s piece did, then, was to transport the thoughts of the anti-democratic Right into the pages of the most important daily newspaper in West Germany.
But he also had other things to say there. A deeper historical understanding of the Third Reich, Nolte wrote, could only be achieved by putting it in its proper historical context. For one thing, with the exception of the technical process of gassing, Nolte claimed, the mass murder committed by the Nazis had been anticipated in the crimes of the Bolsheviks, which were well known to Hitler in the 1920’s. (“Was not the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ more original than Auschwitz? Was not the ‘class murder’ by the Bolsheviks logically and factually prior to the ‘racial murder’ of the National Socialists?”) For another thing, it was time, Nolte wrote, to focus on the question of whether Hitler and the Nazis may have committed mass murder because they viewed themselves as the possible targets of mass murder. Though one mass murder could in no sense “legitimate” another, it was wrong, said Nolte, “to look at only one mass murder and not take into account the other, when a causal nexus between them is probable.”
Nolte was hardly the first to compare the mass murders committed by Nazi Germany with those committed by Soviet and other 20th-century regimes. Nor was this the first time he himself had sounded the theme of “others did it, too.” But he was the first in some years to make an issue of such comparisons. He did so, moreover, in a way that was bound to muddy rather than to clarify, by confusing the question of historical comparability with that of historical causality.
One month later, and from the other side, Jürgen Habermas muddied the waters still further with a long response in Die Zeit called “Apologetic Tendencies in German Historiography.” By portraying the quirky and objectionable Nolte as representative of an “apologetic” trend, and in particular by amalgamating his views to those of Michael Stürmer, Habermas saddled his neoconservative political opponents with the burden of ideas they have never held.
Thus, according to Habermas, Stürmer believes that “a pluralism of values and interests leads, when there is no longer any common ground, . . . sooner or later to a social civil war.” This charge—that Stürmer seeks a “unified” version of German history and is an opponent of a pluralist society—would be repeated by almost every later commentator on the Left, including Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who would characterize Stürmer’s view as “a strident declaration of war against a key element of the consensus upon which the sociopolitical life of this second republic has rested heretofore.”
Yet here is what Stürmer had actually written:
A pluralism of values and interests, when there is no longer any common ground, when it is no longer blunted by economic growth, no longer subdued by the acceptance of responsibility, leads sooner or later to social civil war, as at the end of the Weimar Republic.
And elsewhere Stürmer expanded on this conception:
Social conflicts, competition regarding the values of our communal order, the heterogeneity of goals and the multiplicity of answers to the question of the meaning of life: all of these are a constitutive part of a pluralistic, free society. The market economy is not only its economic basis, it is also a metaphor of its political existence. But conflicts must be limited: through the legal order, through the values of the constitution, through a consensus about the past, present, and future. When conflicts do not remain within these boundaries, they shatter the communal order.
Clearly, to characterize Stürmer as an enemy of a pluralist, liberal democracy does not merely distort his words, it reverses them.
But Stürmer was not the only victim of Habermas’s misrepresentations. As a sample of the new view which he charged neoconservatives like Stürmer with promoting, Habermas also cited a recent work by Andreas Hillgruber entitled Two Types of Decline: The Destruction of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry.
Hillgruber, perhaps the most distinguished German diplomatic historian of his generation, is best known for his attempt to document and reconstruct the direction and timing of Hitler’s expansionist policy, and is the first scholar to have tried to explain the link between Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and the decision to murder the Jews of Europe. The book cited by Habermas is made up of a long essay on “The Collapse of the German East in 1944-45 as a Problem in German and European History” and a shorter piece on “The Historical Position of the Murder of the Jews,” the latter originating as a closing address to a conference of Israeli and West German historians devoted to the “The Murder of the Jews in the Second World War.”
The former essay is, for the most part, an attempt to summarize recent research on the wartime diplomacy that led to the transfer of East Prussia to Poland, and to place the expulsion of the Germans from East Prussia, where Hillgruber was born, in its broader historical context. Though Hillgruber is now reconciled to the new borders in the East, his essay laments the destruction of Germany as an independent power and the forced expulsion of ethnic Germans from what is now Poland and the Soviet Union. In addition to causing much suffering—including to Hillgruber’s own family—the events turned Central Europe into a battleground between the two superpowers, at the same time that continued Soviet hegemony over the region ensured that it would look eastward rather than westward, “a tragedy for all of Europe.”
Toward the beginning of this essay, Hillgruber quotes a statement by a politician on the left wing of the CDU to the effect that every day the German army held the Eastern front in 1944 enabled the concentration and extermination camps to continue their work. Hillgruber does not take issue with the truth of the statement, but objects that it fails to account for the subjective intentions of those German soldiers who fought the Red Army as it moved into East Prussia. Included among them were German officers who had been opposed to Hitler’s expansionist plans but now found themselves defending the German East from an expected “revenge by the Red Army against the German population for all the crimes that had been committed by one or another German force. . . .” On this point, Hillgruber says, he identifies with the German army.
Habermas, rightly, protested the arbitrariness of this identification with the Germans of East Prussia rather than with the inmates of the concentration camps whose survival depended on the forward movement of the Red Army. But Habermas went further—much further. Quoting Hillgruber’s statement that Hitler sought the physical extermination of all Jews “because only through such a ‘racial revolution’ could he secure the ‘world-power status’ for which he strove,” Habermas claimed that the word “could” in this sentence makes it unclear whether or not Hillgruber shares Hitler’s perspective. Here was an insinuation that would recur two years later, when Philipp Jenninger would similarly be accused of holding views he was only describing.
Habermas clinched his attack on what he called the “new revisionism” by taking on Nolte’s essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as well as another essay by Nolte in a 1985 English anthology. In the latter, Nolte had argued that a “revision” of the past was intrinsic to historical scholarship, and necessary in the case of the Third Reich not in order to overturn known facts but to view events in their larger historical contexts. As an example Nolte had cited a statement made by Chaim Weizmann in early September 1939 that in case of war Jews would stand on the side of the democracies; this, said Nolte, might conceivably have justified Hitler’s treating the Jews as prisoners of war, and hence deporting them. To Habermas, this claim of Nolte’s, along with his more recent assertion that the murder of Jews ought to be understood as a perverted copy of Stalinist policy, was but an added illustration of the attempt to create a new, untroubled vision of the past with which Germans were supposed to identify. And why, Habermas asked, should the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have wanted to publish such views? The reason was that Germany’s “ideology-planners” needed “images of the enemy” to create a national consensus, and Nolte’s was particularly useful for such “manipulations.” Yet, Habermas continued, the effort was misguided: since a heartfelt commitment to constitutional government had come about in Germany only because of Auschwitz, those seeking to exorcise the shame of Auschwitz in order to create a “conventional form of national identity” were destroying Germany’s link to the West. The culprits, in Habermas’s reading, were not just Nolte but Stürmer, Hillgruber, and neoconservatives in general.
Habermas did not go unanswered. The major reply came from an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Joachim Fest, himself an author of important books on Hitler and the Third Reich and in 1985 a leading opponent of the attempt in Frankfurt to stage an anti-Semitic play by the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
To fest, it was indeed permissible, as a matter of historical inquiry, to compare the mass murders committed by Bolsheviks and Nazis and to investigate any possible causal connections between them. Were not both, he asked, systematic and ideologically motivated? Of course, questioning the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide could be used to exculpate German history; but the malicious misuse of an idea did not invalidate the idea itself. Anyway, “guilt is not simply a matter of balances. The other’s crime in no way diminishes one’s own, and no murderer can exculpate himself with reference to another.” Fest chided the German Left for the ideological manner in which it selected those to be acknowledged as victims. Unlike their French and Italian counterparts, he noted, leftist German intellectuals had in particular failed to come to terms with the historical and moral significance of the Gulag.
In the months that followed, the controversy was joined by dozens of historians, political scientists, and journalists, and found its way into the foreign press. On the whole, liberal historians and those further to the Left defended Habermas. Some were troubled by his misrepresentation of his intellectual opponents, and by his tossing of Stürmer and Hillgruber into the same pot with Nolte. Most also conceded that in principle the Nazi murder of the Jews, like all historical phenomena, had to be compared with other such phenomena. Nevertheless they tended to conclude that the particular comparison with the mass murders in the Soviet Union did not lead very far, was intrinsically apologetic, a danger to détente, or for one or another reason was not a valid parallel.
Historians on the Center-Right defended Habermas’s targets, though some, including Hillgruber, distanced themselves from Nolte. (At a conference of Center-Right historians in West Berlin which included Stürmer, Schwarz, and Hillgruber, Nolte was conspicuous by his absence.) In general, those on the Center-Right maintained that comparison was a legitimate historical method, and that in this particular case it in no way diminished the moral implications of the Holocaust for Germans, but did point to a broader phenomenon of the 20th century that was not confined to Nazi Germany.
By July 1987 a portion of these responses had been collected and anthologized.3 Review articles appeared in numerous journals devoted to German studies. Then, over the course of 1988, more than a half-dozen full-length works appeared on the subject in German, several by major historians, including the book mentioned above by Hans-Ulrich Wehler summarizing the Left-liberal case against Nolte, Stürmer, and Hillgruber and adding a number of often acute and important historical criticisms of their various claims. Yet Wehler’s book is also true to its subtitle, “A Polemical Essay.” In dealing with each of his opponents, Wehler ascribes their current political stance not to legitimate differences of judgment but either to psychic damage they suffered at the hands of the student Left of the 1960’s or to professional frustration. The entire historians’ controversy, Wehler writes, is “a thoroughly political struggle for the self-understanding of the Federal Republic and the political consciousness of its citizens” which pits “the representatives of a liberal-democratic politics, of an enlightened, self-critical position, of a rationality which is critical of ideology,” against “a cartel devoted to repressing and excusing” the Nazi past.
Many articles on the historians’ controversy have appeared in English over the last year or so, and at least one book, Charles Maier’s The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity.4 Among the articles, the impression most often conveyed is that Habermas and other intellectual supporters of liberal democracy have valiantly been trying to thwart a conservative move to deny the historical significance of the Holocaust and erase the memory of the Third Reich from the collective German conscience. This interpretation, as we have seen, presents a very skewed picture of the debate and, like Habermas himself, ignores the crucial differences between the likes of Nolte and the likes of Stürmer.5
Charles Maier’s political and historiographical predilections, as he himself acknowledges, are close to those of Hans-Ulrich Wehler. He seems unfamiliar with Lübbe’s work and with the development of German neoconservatism, and tends to interpret Stunner’s writings and motives through the distorted characterization of them by Habermas and Wehler. Yet he also makes a laudable effort at objectivity, and a comparison of his book with Wehler’s reveals an interesting peculiarity of the political culture of German Left-liberal intellectuals.
For Maier, the question of the comparability of the Holocaust to the murders of the Stalin regime is intrinsically legitimate. In one chapter he sets out the best available evidence in order to determine what was unique about the Nazi murder of the Jews and what qualities it shared with the ideologically motivated mass murders of the Stalinist regime. His avowed purpose is not to demonstrate that the murders of the Communist regime were less reprehensible; in numerical terms, he reminds us, they were greater than those of the Nazi regime, even without counting the victims of the great famine of the early 1930’s. He also acknowledges that the more we have come to know about the Soviet terror, the more we see that the Nazi apparatus of murder, complete with train schedules and cattle cars, had its parallels there as well. What makes the Holocaust distinct, he concludes, was the priority granted by the Nazi regime after 1941 to the murder of every last member of the Jewish people; this was extermination not as the byproduct of some other goal but as an end in itself, avowed in principle and carried out in practice with an efficiency and single-mindedness that were unparalleled. Yet Maier also writes:
For too long Western intellectuals hung on to the difference between Stalinist excesses committed in the name of historical progress, and Nazi crimes carried out to abet the most backward aspirations. In a sense they sought to relativize Communist terror vis-à-vis Auschwitz, even as Nolte and others have relativized Auschwitz vis-à-vis the Gulag.
In contrast to Maier’s careful sifting of the comparative evidence, his German counterpart, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, alludes to the issue only in order to dismiss it. The murders of the Stalinist regime he refers to as “the excesses of the Russian civil war,” and explains the Gulag as in some respects a continuation of the czarist system of penal exile. In any case, Wehler writes, Germany ought to be compared primarily not with Russia but with Western countries, with their values of constitutionalism, Christianity, humanism, and enlightenment.
Wehler’s book demonstrates a lack of knowledge of or interest in the Soviet case which is quite remarkable for a historian with an ongoing concern for comparative history. A similar lack of familiarity dogs Jürgen Habermas, who in one of his essays in the historians’ controversy referred to “the deportation of the kulaks.” Later, informed that many kulaks had been not only deported but killed, Habermas amended his formulation, but it is a sorry comment that such basic facts had to be brought to his notice as late as 1986, or that Wehler felt compelled to minimize their importance in 1987.
Ironically, as Soviet authorities today permit a more open discussion about the Stalinist past, one increasingly encounters in Soviet writing the comparison between the crimes of Stalin and those of Hitler. The assumption that it is more enlightened and internationalist to turn away from systematic reflection upon the evil committed by one’s enemies, past or present, threatens to leave part of the German Left-liberal intelligentsia behind its Russian counterparts.
What ought we to conclude from these German struggles over the interpretation of the Third Reich in general and the Holocaust in particular?
There are, indeed, those in Germany who have sought to diminish the stain of the Nazi past, either by averting their eyes or by conflating victims with perpetrators. But such strategies have had markedly diminishing success over the years. The outcry in Germany over Chancellor Kohl’s decision to honor the German war dead at Bitburg cured him, for one, of these perennial temptations within the Right; and, its polemical high-handedness aside, the strong criticism leveled against Ernst Nolte’s work has similarly contributed to dispelling historical distortion. Mainly, though, it is simply not the case that most Christian Democrats in Germany believe a democratic moderate conservatism can be built only by ignoring the Third Reich; and as for Nolte’s misrepresentations, these, as we have seen, are hardly typical of German historians, including especially those of the neoconservative persuasion with whom he has been unfairly grouped. Thanks to the intellectual and political institutions of a thriving liberal democracy, every attempt to bury, distort, or water down the past has had the opposite effect of keeping it alive.
Therefore, just as we ought to be properly skeptical of the claim (made by some on the German Right) that Germany as a nation has been crippled by guilt over the Third Reich and the Holocaust, so we ought to be wary of the charge (common on the Left) that Germans are desperate to suppress or explain away such guilt.
By the same token, it behooves us to be wary of charges by politically engaged intellectuals that other intellectuals are attempting to apologize for or relegitimate the Nazi past. Such charges are often based on serious distortions and serve to buttress current political positions by tarring opponents with the brush of Nazism. There are too many on the German Left still loath to part with a vision of German conservatism as a night of the spirit in which all shirts are brown. But here, though disrupted and defamed by the Left, is a voice of recent German conservatism:
We must all oppose the calling into question of historical truth, the offsetting of victims against other victims, or the denying of facts. Those who want to offset guilt against guilt, those who maintain that it wasn’t all so bad—or at least not quite so bad—are attempting to defend the indefensible. . . . No matter what may happen in the future or what part of the events that occurred is forgotten, till the end of time people will continue to remember Auschwitz as part of our German history. . . . Liberating oneself by facing up to these traumatic events is less agonizing than repressing the memory of them. . . . Keeping the memory of the past alive and accepting the past as part of our identity as Germans—this alone holds out the prospect of the older and younger generation being liberated from the burden of history.
These are not new words, but they are wise words, good words—the words of Philipp Jenninger to the Bundestag on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
1 See Fortschritts-Reaktionen (“Reaction to Progress”), a collection of Lübbe's recent essays which includes his own exposition of German neoconservatism, Styria Verlag, Graz, 1987.
2 The major collection of Sturmer's essays is Dissonanzen des Fortschritts (“The Dissonances of Progress”), Piper Verlag, Munich, 1986.
3 Historikerstreit: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung (“The Historians' Conflict: Documentation on the Controversy about the Singularity of the National Socialist Destruction of the Jews”), Piper Verlag, Munich, 1987.
4 Harvard University Press, 240 pp., $22.50.
5 Just how wide these differences are can be seen from a later contribution to the controversy by Ernst Nolte, The European Civil War: Bolshevism and National Socialism. The work is a jumble of truth, half-truth, and non-truth in which National Socialism, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, and the murder of the Jews are portrayed primarily as a response to the fear of Hitler and his followers that Western society would otherwise be wiped out by Communism. This fear, according to Nolte, was in essence justified, though it “took so exaggerated a form that it led to the greatest war in the history of the world, and to such singular mass crimes”—an argument that depends upon overlooking the fact that Hitler's anti-Semitism and the desire of the German Right to subjugate Eastern Europe and Russia preceded the Bolshevik Revolution, on exaggerating the threat posed by the German Communists, and above all on distorting the role of the Soviet threat in determining Hitler's plans to attack Russia in 1941. The best antidote to Nolte's pseudo-history is the careful work of Hillgruber, such as his Germany and the Two World Wars (1981). It is worth noting that the conservative publisher Wolf Jobst Siedler, who brought out Hillgruber's book and a series edited by Stürmer, turned down Nolte's manuscript when it was submitted for publication.