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Historikerstreit. Die Dokumentation der…
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Historikerstreit. Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse

by Rudolf Augstein

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The Historikerstreit and the Rewriting of German History Michael E. Dobe, Sr.
Works Covered in This Review

Historikerstreit: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse urn die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung Piper V erlag, 1987.
In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape From the Nazi Past by Richard J. Evans Pantheon Books, 1989.
The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity by Charles S Maier Harvard University Press, 1988.
The Unresolved Past: A Debate in German History edited by Gina Thomas Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.
Das Ganze Deutschland: Perspectiven der Wiedervereinigung by Wolfgang Seiffert Piper Verlag, 1986.

The Historikerstreit, or historians' controversy, consists primarily of articles written by German historians for two newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and Die Zeit, during 1986 and 1987. By 1987 the Piper Press had already published a collection of these articles under the title Historikerstreit: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse urn die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung. As the title of this collection indicates, on one level the controversy is quite clearly definable. At stake in these articles was the re-evaluation of German history during the years 1933-1945. Forty years after the capitulation of the Third German Reich, German historians were debating whether or not it was time to "normalize" the Nazi past by placing the Holocaust within the context of other 20th century genocides. Delimiting the controversy within a brief space in time proves less difficult than examining its substance and significance. The Historikerstreit has occasioned at least two books which analyze the issues involved, attempting to disentangle reasoned arguments from pure polemics. It has also been the subject of an academic conference in England, at which prominent German and non-German historians attempted to assess the meaning and importance of the controversy.

Richard Evans's book provides a basic account of the controversy which is direct and readable. This book is free enough from historical jargon that it could serve as a layman's handbook for the controversy. After a brief overview of the "nature and scale of Nazi crimes" in WWII he addresses the positions of the leading figures in the debate. Evans concentrates on the arguments of Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, two of the figures Juergen Habermas singled out as illustrative of the new revisionist trend in German historiography. Though he states in his preface that his book is "not written in a combative spirit," his distaste for the positions of these neoconservatives is obvious throughout.

Evans goes into great detail in describing the historically distorted and politically dangerous arguments presented in Ernst Nolte's The European Civil War. These are, as Evans points out, essentially the arguments Nolte made in an article entitled "The Past That Will Not Pass Away," which appeared in the FAZ on June 6, 1986. In the opinion of some participants, it was this article which ignited the entire controversy. The most contentious aspect of Nolte's article was his argument that Germany needs to overcome its obsessive concern with the Nazi past. Since the Holocaust is comparable to other 20th century genocides, such as the Soviet genocide in Afghanistan, it should no longer burden present-day Germany. Nolte couples this comparison with a broader revisionist view of Nazism as a justifiable response to the Bolshevik Revolution, arguing among other things that Hitler patterned the biological extermination
of the Jews on the social exterminism of the Gulag. Evans argues that this is at best a bad use of historical comparison and at worst mere apologetics.

The arguments presented by Andreas Hillgruber in his Two Kinds of Downfall: The Destruction of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry also rest upon a comparison which Evans condemns as specious. Evans points out that by putting a dramatic essay on the expulsion of the German population from the East side by side with a relatively dispassionate essay on the Holocaust in the same volume, Hillgruber is arguing for comparison of the two tragedies. More problematically, Hillgruber argues that Germans in the Federal Republic should "identify" with the German soldiers fighting on the Eastern front to delay the Soviet counterattack in 1944-5. Fighting to defend East Prussia against the rapacious Soviets was more rational than trying to blow up Hitler. Devaluing the self-sacrifice of the generals involved in the Bomb Plot and comparing the fate of German expellees with the fate of European Jewry doesn't do much to advance historical understanding. What it does seem to do is argue for a renewal of uncritical German nationalism.

In his conclusion, Evans sounds the same alarm as Juergen Habermas, warning the reader about the dangers of the rising neoconservative movement. He begins by addressing the meaning of the Tendenzwende, embodied by the Kohl government, in terms of academic politics. "With the backing of the Kohl government and provincial Christian Democrats when it comes to academic appointments and careers too, revisionist historians have achieved influence from which they may well have impact on the theories and methods adopted by the younger generation of German historians …" (p. 123) After having made such great strides in incorporating "social, economic, and demographic history" into the narrative of Germany's past, Evans fears the return to "the history of high politics" and German historicism. For the German academic community, neoconservatism means a backlash against the changes wrought by the left during its ascendancy in the late '60s and '70s. In Evans's view, this is a terrible loss.

In a larger sense, however, historiographical shifts could be harbingers of more dangerous political trends. Historicism, it must be remembered, has been associated in the past with apologetics for extremist nationalism. "How people regard the Third Reich and its crimes provide an important key to how they would use political power in the present or future. That is why the neoconservatives' reinterpretation of the German past is so disturbing" (p. 138) The attempt to escape from Hitler's shadow signifies a reassessment of the very basis of German national identity, which since the founding of the Federal Republic had rested on the acknowledgment of German guilt. Evans fears that the very essence of German democracy is threatened by a tendency to minimize the importance of "continuing, open, and honest confrontation with the Nazi past." In a nation with such a past, revisionists are playing with fire.

Charles Maier, in his The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity, provides a more cerebral account of the controversy than Evans. As a self-confessed American liberal, Maier is also unhappy with the trend toward revisionism represented by the neoconservatives in the Historikerstreit. Though his prose is less accessible than Evans's, his account is more balanced and less partisan. Maier's account begins by dispassionately examining the stakes of the controversy. For Nolte and Hillgruber, among other revisionists, the controversy means precluding a leftist interpretation of twentieth- century history, rolling back what has been condemned as the self-righteous political and academic intimidation of the late 1960s" (p. 32). Reading Maier's account one actually understands how it is that historians like Nolte could have felt harassed and threatened in the academic environment of the late 1960s and 1970s, even if one disagrees with their political agenda. For the academic left, it means preserving the last remnants of the methodological changes it wrought in the academy in those days of its ascendancy. Maier reproduces the siege mentality for both sides, where Evans's book makes it difficult to understand the source of such bitterness.

One would clearly count Juergen Habermas, despite his cleaving to the enlightenment amidst the anti-enlightenment tendencies of the Frankfurt School, amongst the academic left. Maier presents Habermas's critique of Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber and Michael Stuermer within the broader context of his philosophy of history. Stuermer is perhaps the most dangerous, since "According to Habermas, Stuermer's quest for historical identity (or orientation) provided the unifying thread for the revisionist assessments of the Third Reich offered by Nolte and Hillgruber. History for Stuermer, Habermas wrote, amounted to a sort of spiritual insurance plan for the damages entailed by modernization" (p. 44). As a semi-official advisor to Helmut Kohl, Stuermer represented for Habermas the insidious tendency to use history for the political ends of the CDU government.

The use of history for political purposes is clearly evidenced for Maier in the discussions surrounding plans for a German national historical museum, a project to which Maier devotes an entire chapter. Maier finds the use of history with the purpose of creating a national identity, which the museum certainly attempts, is a project doomed from the start. Once again, Habermas provides the key insight "More explicitly than the other participants in this debate, Habermas has posed the problems that most of the historians on both sides have taken for granted: How is history constitutive of collective identity? Must not analytic history, with its need for critical questioning of the past, always stand in some degree of tension to national identity (p. 154). The frustrating experience of the museum planners suggests that "[i]dentity may in fact be a spurious goal for the historian."

Perhaps it is fortunate that the issue of creating a synthetic national identity through a German historical museum has been overcome by events, but the balance of methodological questions raised by the controversy appears troublingly unclear. Surveying the dispute Maier deduces that "What sort of comparison is licit, or decent, has not been conclusively answered in this controversy" (p.54). What remains in retrospect is a warning to historians that "The sirens of historicism sing their beautiful songs again. Are the rocks less dangerous?" The role of the historian, as custodian of national memory, is critical not celebratory.

Reviewing the transcript of the September 1987 Wheatland Foundation Conference on the Historikerstreit, printed in a book entitled The Unresolved Past: A Debate in German History, is enough to convince one that Maier is correct in implying that the controversy illustrates more about the role of the historian in society than about history itself. The wide range of interpretations of the conflict presented could overwhelm a reader unfamiliar with the substance of the debate. After having read the accounts by Evans and Maier, however, the more tendentious aspects of the controversy are readily apparent. One is, for instance, not surprised that Michael Stuermer defends his own interpretation of the Primat der Aussenpolitik against critics on the left both present and absent: "It is intellectually weak and politically infamous to denounce an approach that looks beyond the class struggle at the interplay of political and ideological forces in this wider European, or global context" (p. 35). As one would expect, Eberhard Jaeckel reasserts the singularity of the Holocaust, labels the Bitburg cemetery incident of 1985 the opening salvo in the controversy, and urges for continued confrontation of the Nazi past as a "touchstone for political culture." Those directly involved in the controversy essentially reiterated familiar themes.

A furor teutonics seems to separate intensely involved Germans from their slightly befuddled non-German colleagues. Reading the introduction to this conference, one is forewarned of this tendency. In his opening remarks, Ralph Dahrendorf observes: "The Historikerstreit is a very German phenomenon. It boiled up at a stage when, for the first time, a generation of leaders felt free to place the country in a historical and political context defined by them rather than by the circumstances of 1945. Small wonder that this opportunity raised conflicting views, old and new passions, and some sleeping dogs. "(xii) Rather than concerning themselves with the issues like comparison, which Ralph Dahrendorf deems a red herring, many of the non-German participants are more interested in the enduring lessons of the controversy. Whereas Joachim Fest and Eberhard Jaeckel threatened to derail the entire conference with the intensity of their personal spat over the role of Totalitarian theory in the historiography of post-war Germany, Gordon Craig and Lord Weidenfeld use the occasion to urge historians to write for a broader and more generally literate public in order to revitalize history as a force in society.

Those participants in the conference, both German and non- German, who rose above the temptations of polemics demonstrated an interest in ascertaining the implications this conflict has
for the writing of history in general and how the issues raised can shed light on the role of the historian in society. A most instructive contribution comes from Robert Conquest, who surveys the terrain of Soviet historiography. He reminds his listeners that the politicization of history in Germany, around which this historians' controversy revolves, pales in comparison to the use which the Soviet government had made of history and historians. Corning to grips with Hitler and National Socialism has been much less problematic for Germans than mastering the Stalinist past has been for the Soviets. At least the Germans have had access to accurate information all along. Only with Glasnost did it become "official policy that facts must not be concealed."

Conquest's paper reminds the reader that it was never the facts which were in dispute in this controversy, but rather the rewriting of German history given a set of generally accepted facts. Unlike in the Fischer controversy, which occurred in the 1960s and centered on German responsibility for the corning of WWI, historians did not marshal reams of documents to support their claims. Beyond doubt the Wheatland conference bears further testimony that, at least in the strident tones it assumed, the Historikerstreit resembled the Fischer controversy. Where the Fisher controversy lingered, however, it is another peculiarity of German historiography that this controversy ended so abruptly. A dispute which saw long-time friends and respected colleagues denouncing each other in a very public forum disappeared from the press as quickly as it had appeared. The accounts of Evans and Maier stand as postmortems of the conflict. Since German reunification, the community of German historians has maintained public silence on the issue of revising the history of Nazism.

Ironically, the "German Question" was never addressed as part of the Historikerstreit. The prominent historians involved assumed that German reunification was either so unlikely or inadvisable that it was not open for discussion. At the same time Wolfgang Seiffert, a comparatively marginal academic figure at the University of Erlangen, published a book entitled Das Ganze Deutschland: Perspectiven der Wiedervereinigung. In this book he argued that reunification not only should but must corne. In retrospect, Seiffert seems to have been blessed with the gift of second sight. He focused his discussion of the "German Question" on Articles 23 and 146 of the Grundgesetz, as opposed to such popular concerns as the powers of the Chancellor which turned out to be of little importance when reunification carne. Seiffert's book has become a best-seller in reunified Germany, whereas the Cassandra call of Evans and Maier's tightly reasoned argument hardly even sell in translation. In a world where Wolfgang Seiffert's paradigm for reunification materialized, perhaps the members of the German academic community who took part in the Historikerstreit are simply taking time out to reassess their own Weltanschauungen.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
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