Germans and the German Past

J.P. Stern

  • The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity by Charles Maier
    Harvard, 227 pp, £17.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 674 92975 6
  • Historikerstreit
    Piper, 397 pp, DM 17.80, July 1987, ISBN 3 492 10816 4
  • In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past by Richard Evans
    Tauris, 196 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 1 85043 146 9
  • Why did the heavens not darken? by Arno Mayer
    Verso, 510 pp, £19.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 86091 267 1
  • A German Identity, 1770-1990 by Harold James
    Weidenfeld, 240 pp, £16.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 297 79504 X
  • Die Republikaner: Phantombild der neuen Rechten by Claus Leggewie
    Rotbuch, 155 pp, May 1989, ISBN 3 88022 011 5
  • Ich war dabei by Franz Schönhuber
    Langen Müller, 356 pp, April 1989, ISBN 3 7844 2249 7

The ‘white years’ of German history – the period between the end of the war and Adenauer’s first government of 1949 – were notable for two blank spaces in the national consciousness. The first was the space left by community spirit: in the material circumstances that followed on the bombing of Germany’s cities and the unconditional surrender of the German Armed Forces, Volksgemeinschaft, the centrepiece of National Socialist ideology and propaganda, gave way to individual interest, to the spirit of ‘everyone for himself’. But this in turn was part of a larger blank, a kind of national amnesia. With Hitler’s disappearance, his and his movement’s tenets, its ‘faith’ and goals, seemed forgotten, its actions beyond recall. It wasn’t merely that individual men and women were unwilling to speak of their own immediate political past: the ideology, indeed the very substance of that past, had become unavailable. Reinhart Koselleck in a recent essay recalls ‘the speechlessness of the Germans when, in 1945, they were faced with the catastrophe into which they had drawn countless people and countries. And to this day,’ he writes, ‘every attempt to find a language adequate to the mass annihilation seems to fail. Every effort to stabilise recollection by means of language comes too late – too late for those who were its victims, too late for the event itself.’ How does one stabilise such a recollection? Even today, fifty years later, the historians’ question can hardly be separated from the travails of the national identity.

There is, then, a seemingly inevitable chasm between the event and the description of the event which any tolerable historian of that intolerable past must face, if its history is not to become a recital of insensate clichés, and the deaths of millions a series of mere technicalities: if, in other words, the history is not to be trivialised. Given the self-protective limits of our capacity to understand a phenomenon such as the attempted annihilation of whole peoples – a capacity which our mass media are designed further to impair – some trivialisation is inevitable. And since this is a past which won’t go away, and which has continued to haunt the national conscience of the Federal Republic throughout its history, it seems equally inevitable that the manner of its recollection has become a political factor, to an extent unequalled in the life of other countries. And it is inevitable that the bitter quarrel of historians and publicists, the Historikerstreit which erupted in the German press and in its academic life some three years ago, should have assumed a political dimension. Generating more heat than light, these battling academics and journalists (not a woman on either side of the dispute) present a spectacle which is anything but exhilarating. And yet, for all its repetitious and clumsy polemics, its ad personam insinuations and its evasions, the row is not without a grain of virtue. The Austrians have not faced their past as members of the Third Reich with comparable concern, nor have the East German party bosses. November 1989 – as momentous a date as any in European history – proves that by suppressing any proper discussion of the past and by making the Federal Republic alone responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich, the rulers of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic have perpetuated the iniquities of totalitarianism. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the migration of 200,000 working people to the West amount to a popular uprising. They show that doctrinaire Marxism is the last obstacle on Germany’s road to democracy.

An American scholar, Charles Maier of Harvard, has followed the historians’ dispute and written a commentary on it. The nonce word in his title raises expectations of originality which the book doesn’t fulfil. His summaries of the main contributions are useful, fair, and almost as lengthy as Piper Verlag’s Historikerstreit, on which he draws. He shows how the attempt by the ‘revisionists’ to ‘relativise’ the Final Solution has become part of a concerted effort to provide the country with a ‘usable past’. He has buttressed the whole controversy with an intellectual background, and with inconclusive comments of an one-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other kind; and he tells a hilarious story of how a recent Austrian Foreign Minister asked the country’s historians to pull up their socks and refute their British colleagues’ calumnies on the Austrian resistance; but he has done little else.

Another account of the controversy – Richard Evans’s In Hitler’s Shadow – is better informed, and more perceptive. Professor Evans shows in abundantly documented detail how the arguments the embattled historians are advancing ‘are derived, consciously or unconsciously, from the propaganda of the Nazis themselves’; and he is the only author among those mentioned here to give intelligent thought to the political significance of the current controversy: ‘German political culture in West and East is shaped not only by the legacy of post-war reconstruction, but also by the events that preceded it. How people regard the Third Reich and its crimes provides an important key to how they would use political power in the present or future. That is why the neo-conservatives’ interpretation of the German past is so disturbing.’

Among the topics at issue in the Federal Republic is the role of the conspirators of July 1944 (patriots or traitors?); the ‘desperate war in defence of the German Reich’s autonomous independence and position as a great power’, cited as a patriotic reason for prolonging the war after the breakdown of the eastern fronts; and above all the question of whether ‘the Germans ... were justified in fulfilling their warlike duties punctilliously, correctly, efficiently and bravely’, or whether they should have ‘betrayed their country because of its regime’. All these questions, however, and the dispute as a whole, focus on the ‘revision’ undertaken by E. Nolte, a historian in the Free University of Berlin, concerning the annihilation of the Jews.

Professor Nolte’s paper was first published in English under the title ‘Between Myth and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of the 1980s’, in Aspects of the Third Reich, an anthology edited by H.W. Koch, a historian whose attitude to the Third Reich I find too obscure to unravel; it was not until the paper appeared as an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and was attacked by Jürgen Habermas, that it created a stir. Unlike some other writers (German, French, English and American), Professor Nolte does not quite deny the existence of the annihilation camps, though he concedes to those who do that their work should be taken seriously. Instead, he argues that when, in September 1939, Dr Chaim Weizmann, then President of the Jewish Agency and acting on behalf of the World Zionist Organisation, wrote in an open letter to Neville Chamberlain (published in the Times of 5 September 1939) that in the hour of supreme crisis the Jews ‘stand by Great Britain and will fight on the side of the democracies’, this amounted to ‘something like a declaration of war on Germany’. Nolte goes on to suggest that this ‘official declaration may give grounds in support of the momentous thesis that it allowed Hitler to treat the Jews as prisoners of war and, that is, intern them.’ (This reasoning, the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer has claimed, is based on an argument advanced by David Irving.) Nolte does not explain how the president of an international organisation without a state, or government, or army – an organisation whose purpose in 1939 was to advise the British on the question of Palestine and offer relief to the persecuted Jews of Europe – could possibly ‘declare war’ on anybody. Nor is it clear whether by ‘internment’ he means annihilation. In fact, his remark is a gratuitous adjunct to his main ‘revisionist’ argument, which is that the policy and practice of annihilation carried out by the Third Reich was in no sense unique, but that it is comparable with the practices of the French Revolution and its opponents, with the ‘therapy of annihilation of the radical wing of Malthusianism’, with the inhumanities of the Industrial Revolution and, above all, with ‘the Red Terror’ of the Bolshevik Revolution (Cambodia and Vietnam are thrown in for good measure).

Comparisons of this kind are likely to be guided by two very different considerations. They may aim at providing a context for a given historical event in order to bring about a fuller understanding of that event. This is Professor Nolte’s avowed aim, which I take to be entirely legitimate. However, the comparative method may also be used in order to minimise the differences between one event and the other events with which it is compared. Converting anterior events into antecedents makes it possible to argue that one was derived from the other. Used in this way, the method is intended to demonstrate that the German annihilation of the Jews was (in Professor Nolte’s own words) ‘a reaction or distorted copy and not a first act or original’. And this is Nolte’s real aim when he writes: ‘Auschwitz is, first and foremost, not the result of traditional anti-semitism and was in its essence no mere “genocide”, but it was above all a reaction, born of fear, to the process of annihilation of the Russian Revolution.’ Whatever his and his fellow ‘revisionists” motives may be, the portrayal of the Third Reich’s anti-semitism and policy of annihilation as a mere by-product of German anti-Bolshevism, and thus in some obscure way a Russian responsibility, is a scandalous distortion.

‘The Jews’ were Hitler’s political and ideological target at all times, from the beginning of his career in Munich to its very end. The regime itself – ruling by means of a complex mixture of near-anarchic ad hoc ‘measures’ (Massnahmen) and bureaucratically-legitimated orders – could not have existed without the Jews as its adversarial rallying-point. They were the enemy: because they could be described as part of a Bolshevist world plot, because they were seen as part of a world-wide capitalist conspiracy, and because Hitler knew that, to the German and Austrian populations at large, they were the most immediate, concrete, familiar target. Unlike the German Communists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were racially irredeemable. He could wage ‘war’ on them with impunity because, contrary to Nolte’s insinuation of Zionist world power, they could offer no resistance; only the Gypsies (another racial group with international affiliations) shared their fate. These obvious remarks are not intended to reverse Nolte’s argument, to suggest that Hitler’s hatred of Bolshevism was secondary, a mere ‘copy’ of ‘the final solution of the Jewish problem’. Given that Hitler’s hatred and desire for annihilation, which encompassed all the Slavonic peoples of Europe, knew no bounds, we can trace only the chronology of his destructive acts: it makes no sense to place them in an order of importance. The Jews were his target long before he had the means to destroy any of the other ‘inferior races’, and their destruction continued to the last days of the war. The annihilation campaign in Eastern Europe was directed against all the Slavonic peoples, yet it cannot have been without Hitler’s knowledge that Himmler and Heydrich recruited Ukrainians and Poles, as well as citizens of the Baltic states, into the Waffen SS and as guards of the concentration camps (the two were not as distinct as the leader of the new German Republican Party claims). The Jews were unique in the sense that, once they were expropriated, their annihilation was motivated, not by ordinary political or military considerations, but by Hitler’s ‘will’ and ideology.

Bad history attracts the question of the historian’s motives. It is not simply the fact of Nolte’s denial of the uniqueness of the ‘Final Solution’ which is suspect, but the manner of the denial. The locus classicus of such denials is to be found in Part One of Goethe’s Faust. When Faust, filled with remorse and guilt, rages at Mephistopheles for having kept him away from Gretchen while she has borne his child and been condemned to death for infanticide, Mephistopheles’s only reply is a sneer: Sie ist die erste nicht. (‘She is not the first.’) There is no doubt about the accuracy of that terrible sentence. Equally, there is no doubt as to its ill intent.

Strangely enough, Professor Nolte’s ‘revisionist’ thesis has some striking affinities with a book whose intentions are very different. Arno Mayer, Professor of European History at Princeton University, takes his title, Why did the heavens not darken?, from Solomon bar Simson’s chronicle of the massacres of the Jews of Mainz in 1096: but the book’s motto could well be Ernst Bloch’s ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem.

Three aims, Professor Mayer tells us, inform his thinking in this book: to abandon the vantage-point of the Cold War; ‘to place the Judeocide in its pertinent historical setting; and to use an overarching interpretative construct to explain the horrors both of the Jewish catastrophe and of the historical circumstances in which it occurred’. These guidelines, however, direct one’s attention to the grave flaws of the book: Mayer does not mention a single previous account of the Final Solution that is coloured by the McCarthyite politics he wishes to refute; his presentation of a ‘pertinent historical setting’ ignores the ground rules of the historical scholarship he invokes; and the explanation he offers doesn’t fit what actually happened.

Unlike Nolte, Mayer doesn’t claim that the German campaign of annihilation was a ‘reaction’ to or a ‘distorted copy’ of the Red Terror, but he is nonetheless determined on a novel interpretation (the book in which elements of a similar interpretation were considered, Uwe Dietrich Adam’s Judenpolitik im Dritten Reich, published in 1979, is not mentioned in Professor Mayer’s bibliography). His ‘overarching interpretative construct’, which partly overlaps with Nolte’s, goes as follows: Hitler’s campaign of destruction was aimed not against the Jews but against the Bolsheviks, who were at all times his principal foe. While his eastern campaign was going according to plan, the ‘Nazi policy’ against the Jews was casual, barely co-ordinated, not very different from the traditional ‘wild’ pogroms the Jews had endured under the Tsars and in the period after 1918; but ‘when its eastern campaign bogged down in the late fall of 1941, Nazi Germany radicalised the conduct of the war against the Soviets and the crusade within it, fixing on the Jews for slaughter as the most hated and accessible member of the “common enemy” – “Judeobolshevism”.’

Although Professor Mayer is far from consistent in asserting this central thesis of his, I can see nothing else that is original about the book – certainly, most of its inaccuracies are intended to support this ‘construct’. Shorn of its rhetoric, Professor Mayer’s view is that the Final Solution was a by-product of the failure of Operation Barbarossa. This of course is manifestly untrue. The systematic annihilation of the Jews began in co-ordination with the Polish campaign. It was conducted not only in the wake of the Wehrmacht, but with its now tacit, now explicit agreement, and occasionally with its co-operation (numerous writers, including Evans, offer abundant evidence of this). The Final Solution was thus dependent on the military campaign only in the obvious sense that the more territories the German armies occupied, the larger the number of Jews that fell into German hands. Professor Mayer’s contention that it was the anti-Bolshevik ‘crusade within the war that generated the destructive fury which became so singularly fatal for the Jews’ is not so much a surmise as a complicated fabrication.

As D.G. Goldhagen (a mere research student in this professorial galère) has shown in a meticulously documented review in the New Republic, a large number of witnesses and participants have testified to the concerted nature of the murders, and their accounts were verified, first at Nuremberg, then in numerous trials before the German courts. Mr Goldhagen quotes from the testimony of a member of one of the SS killing gangs, talking about the murder of some eleven hundred Jews 12 days after the start of the undeclared war on the Soviet Union: ‘The Jews were killed because they were Jews, and because the so-called Führer Order demanded it. To my knowledge the first instruction about the tasks of the Einsatzkommando was given by [its commander] at the first stop in Russia [on 3 July 1941]. I do not remember [his] exact words, but their gist was that the Jews were a useless, bad people, and must therefore be annihilated.’

This knowledge was not confined to the murderers. Hans Scholl, a sergeant in the Medical Corps on study leave at Munich University from the Eastern Front, was sentenced by Freisler and beheaded together with his sister and his friends at Stadelheim Prison on 22 February 1943 for distributing anti-war broadsheets. In the second of these broadsheets, composed in the summer of 1942, they write: ‘We cite as an example [of German atrocities] the fact that since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in the most bestial manner.’ Seeing that they mention the killing, deportation and imprisonment of the Polish intelligentsia and aristocracy, one might expect them to refer also to ‘Judeobolshevism’: but they don’t; nor, for that matter, does Julius Streicher in the most notorious of his attacks on Jews in Der Stürmer of May 1939.

Although Professor Mayer is not generally choosy in his use of words, treating us to the same empty phrases throughout the book, he does insist on distinguishing between ‘anti-semitism’ as a broad ideological attitude, and ‘Judeocide’ as the more accurate designation of the events; and he rejects the term ‘Holocaust’ (as Walter Laqueur did before him), a word that has petrified into an empty cliché since it was given currency by an American television show. What was done to the Jews, Mayer rightly observes, has nothing to do with the word’s traditional meaning: they were not ‘a sacrificial offering wholly consumed by fire in exaltation of God’.

One of the sources of anti-semitism in Central and Eastern Europe (and in France) is the local populations’ perception of Jews as Germans or Germanisers. Their very language, Yiddish, has as its basis the German dialect which the Rhenish Jews brought with them when they migrated to Poland after the ravages of the Black Death of 1348. (‘I would like to tell you, ladies and gentlemen,’ Franz Kafka told a German-speaking audience in Prague before a recital of visiting Yiddish poets, ‘how much more of the jargon you will understand than you think.’) This kinship was the reason why the Slavs, and the Hungarians too, denounced their Jews as propagators of the enemy language. From the age of the Enlightenment, the Jewish love-affair with German thought and literature, though sometimes reciprocated, was more often scorned and ridiculed by the writers in whose culture they sought their secular salvation. Of the monstrous irony of this predicament Professor Mayer says not a word – it doesn’t fit his ‘construct’. In the perspective he attributes to the populations among whom the Final Solution was enacted, the Jews are ‘unassimilable aliens in the service of Judeobolshevism’ – the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ in today’s Russia must be suffering from some archaic delusion.

He offers a Stalinist apologia for the Russian failure to relieve the siege of Warsaw in the summer of 1944 (Katyn is not mentioned). Of the notorious Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1944, at which the Final Solution was the only item on the agenda, we read that ‘there could be no doubt for any [of its participants] that they were assembled to increase, not alleviate, the torment of the Jews,’ though ‘there was nothing definitive’ about the action on which the conference decided. (When Eichmann was asked what was meant by the euphemisms used by those present, and what Heydrich in particular had meant by saying that the surviving Jews ‘must be treated accordingly’, he replied: ‘Killed. Killed, undoubtedly.’) Mayer’s book distinguishes between those prisoners in the camps who died a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ death – meaning death from exhaustion, starvation, dysentery and other epidemics – and those who were murdered by asphyxiation, phenol injections, shooting, and other ‘unnatural’ forms of violence. The point of the distinction seems to be that, although Professor Mayer has qualms about the precise number of those killed at Auschwitz, he is quite certain that the number of those who died there of so-called ‘natural causes’ exceeded the number of those who were killed by ‘unnatural means’. In this way he creates the impression that the mass annihilation was adventitious and improvised, while at the same time seeing fit to inform us that ‘the Nazi leaders decided to transport frail and sick Jews, and Gypsies, to Auschwitz in full awareness of the perils they would face, and they continued to do so once there was no ignoring or denying the deadly conditions there, including the endemic danger of epidemics.’ Any historian of the Final Solution is bound to consider the many recorded occasions when a conflict arose between Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy and the German war effort; as, for instance, in December 1944, when all half-Jewish serving officers and men were ordered to be dismissed from active service while boys of 14 and old men in their sixties were pressed into the Volkssturm. None of these conflicts, which leave Mayer’s ‘interpretative construct’ in tatters, is mentioned.

Harold James is a recent export to Princeton from Peterhouse, Cambridge, and has solid, old-fashioned fare to offer. His book is inspired by Society and Democracy in Germany but lacks Ralf Dahrendorf’s width and intellectual stamina; its strength derives, above all, from the data of socio-economic history. Perhaps this explains why there is so little on Prussia’s role in the formation of a German national state, and nothing on German militarism and its mystique. The book gets better as it goes along, however, perhaps because German history after 1945 is easier to cope with in the traditional manner of English social history. As James convincingly demonstrates in his last two chapters, the growth of parliamentary democracy in the Federal Republic means the dismantling of weltanschauungspolitik – that is, the displacement of nationalistic ideologies by the ideology of a modern industrial and consumerist society. This, as James shows, is not a wholly new development. As German nationalism after 1848 ‘became more anti-intellectual, the case about a German superiority in the things of the mind (Geist) was replaced by a doctrine about a German ascendancy justified by the material facts of economics.’ These ‘things of the mind’, as well as Germany’s ‘very extensive and unusually literate culture’, are briefly spoken of. But concentrating instead on the notorious absence of stable national institutions, James ignores the centrality of language as a social and political institution: its reification, in the wake of Herder, was a major political force. What is so exceptional about subsequent German history is its mixture of commercialism and spiritual pathos, the extent to which literature and philosophy determined the German self-image: materialism with a bad conscience. James discusses in some detail the foreign influences on German architecture, but far more striking are the claims made on behalf of heilige deutsche Musik (meaning sometimes ‘sacred German music’ and at other times ‘German sacred music’) and the philosophical and ideological aspirations of German literature, which are both a major source of its interest and the reason it has so often been appropriated by nationalist sentiment.

Professor James steers clear of these metaphysical riddles, and yet he quotes Harry Graf Kessler quoting Hermann Graf Keyserling in July 1933:

the Germans desire purposeless death in the shape of self-sacrifice. And they sense that [Hitler] ... is emphatically the suicidal type, one who, in seeking death, embodies a fundamental trait of the German nation, which has always been in love with death, and for whom Nibelungennot is a constantly recurring fundamental experience. Only in this situation do the Germans feel entirely German: they admire and desire death without a purpose, self-sacrifice. And they sense that through Hitler they are once more being led toward grandiose destruction, toward another Nibelungennot; that is what fascinates them about him. He is fulfilling their deepest longing. The French or the English want victory, all the Germans ever want is to die.

The remark raises an important issue on the unstable borderline between literature and politics. It describes a behaviour pattern which was first articulated in literature, in the anonymous early 13th-century Lay of the Nibelungs, which tells of betrayals, revenge and slaughter in the Burgundian royal family and of its overthrow by the Huns. Written down, the gory tale founded a literary tradition whose power was demonstrated when it became a paradigm of behaviour outside literature – in situations of national emergency which were themselves partly formed by the literary tradition. In Professor James’s book the quotation comes as a considerable surprise – the history he tells provides no retrospective context for it. Still, I share his implied view that Keyserling’s remark makes little sense in the context of today’s Federal Republic: it is no longer a part of the German identity.

Only an attack of academic hubris can explain why Harold James chose ‘1770-1990’ as his title. In his somewhat pretentious summing-up he ignores not only the inhumanity but also the incompetence of the East German regime. When he writes, ‘The GDR is without doubt the most successful of the Eastern bloc economies; the Federal Republic is widely thought to hold a similar position in Europe’ (my italics) without a word of comment on the wretchedness of that success, his entire ‘economic’ approach becomes questionable. Nor, however, does he help us to understand the much-reported emergence on the German political scene of the Republikaner (REPs), whose founder and leader, Franz Schönhuber, will sue you if you get his name wrong? He at all events can testify that there weren’t two wars (as Mayer implies), but that (as Evans puts it) ‘all the German troops were fighting for the same cause. They were not fighting to preserve Europe from Communism. Almost to the end they believed they were fighting for Hitler and fighting for Germany.’

It isn’t altogether easy to be serious about Franz Schönhuber, whose political career is described in Claus Leggewie’s book. Though he is not as funny as Josef Svejk (perhaps Schönhuber’s best part in his brief post-war career as an actor), he does resemble the Good Soldier in other ways. I was there is the title of his autobiography, but its point is that he was but that nothing much happened, at least not while he was there. In 1941, a mere lad of 18 from Upper Bavaria, he volunteered for service in the Waffen SS. He knew there was something fishy about their tattooing his blood group on his upper arm (the time he had getting it removed by a doctor after it was all over!), but he is quite clear, at least some of the time, that there was no real connection between the military élite of the Waffen SS and the criminals who were in charge of the concentration camps. He was lucky, and he thanks Providence more than once: it so happened that he saw no atrocities (except in photographs ‘the Tommies’ showed him), he was on a training course near Warsaw in the spring of 1944 but took no part in the fighting, the only warlike action in which he participated was the evacuation of Corsica, and he was hospitalised with ... well, never mind, while his battalion was in the thick of battle.

To this day he deeply mourns the execution of a battalion of French volunteers on the Eastern Front, though he recognises that ‘our Zeitgeist doesn’t allow for a decent Fascist’ – in other words, the National Socialists have given Fascism a bad name. While he is in favour of providing a home to the Volksdeutsche from Eastern Europe and Russia, he fears that with them will come a lot of alien riffraff which must be kept out. Of course he is not anti-semitic – how could he be, seeing that his first wife was Jewish and some of his best friends etc. Nor is he hostile to the Gastarbeiter: after all, he has a villa in Turkey! After a brief but profitable time as a prisoner of war in British hands, a career in acting, and a few years in journalism, he ran a popular chat-show on Bavarian television, which was cut short by what he calls ‘a campaign of character assassination’. On being dismissed from his post, with a decent pension, he soon found that his literary genre, a mixture of autobiography and political day-dreaming, was a little goldmine. In November 1983 he and six of his friends founded ‘a democratically-legitimated, authentic right-wing party’, the REP. (The literary genre, like the appeal to the lucky number, is not without its precedent in the Munich of an earlier era: ‘And so I applied to join the German Workers’ Party, and received a provisional membership card which bore the number 7’ – Mein Kampf, 1943 edition, page 244.) Schönhuber’s loyalty to the Waffen SS remains unshaken. Though he disclaims any heroism for himself, he quotes E. Nolte: ‘They were the last genuine sons of the god of war.’ In other words, his aim is to legitimate today’s fatty culture by grafting National Socialist sentimentalities onto it.

What, then, is the programme of his party, and where does his electoral success come from? The programme of 1984 mentions unemployment, loss of national identity, lack of historical consciousness (‘the usable past’), and the environment. His electoral success is highly localised: in the Berlin state elections, where he polled 10 per cent, the programme was reduced to three points: Drug dealers and Turks go home! We are proud to be German! The division of Germany must not be thought of as permanent. ‘The most important thing is to keep alive the faith and hope and the will’ for a united Germany. To his contemporaries (‘I am 66 and will probably not live to see the reunification’) the terminology of ‘faith and hope and the will’ must be familiar. He was reluctant to let his party contest the Berlin state election, and thought at first that his success there was a fluke. The 17 per cent he polled in his own constituency of Rosenheim in Upper Bavaria is based on his personal popularity. There at all events he seems to be looked on as the heir to Franz Josef Strauss; and it is the Bavarian vote, rather than any socially-determined factor, which is reflected in the 7.1 per cent he polled in the European election. He is no less anti-EEC than his farmer constituents, and occasionally speaks of German autarchy. ‘I can not only move the masses, but think them,’ he boasts of his speeches on the Munich Oktoberwiese, where he has scored his greatest successes, adding: ‘Once I’ve left the tent, I say: anti-Americanism will not be tolerated.’ Reports of his political meetings in Bavaria don’t suggest Hitlerian hysteria, even though, what with guards in black breeches and white shirts complete with shoulder straps, these meetings are rough. In short, there is (as Der Spiegel has it) a ‘Mr Jekill-Dr Hyde quality’ about him. Quite apart from his inferior political intelligence, he is not Strauss’s successor. His party (with a membership of over eight thousand) offers a political home to the Far Right, which both the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian equivalent, the Christian Social Union, have been intent on keeping out, though not always successfully. Half the paid-up REP members are civil servants, junior officers and policemen (in Berlin, Schönhuber has claimed, four out of five policemen voted for him), and all these, he insists, being ‘sworn on the constitution ... can’t be Neo-Nazis’. In addition, he counts on the votes of those who consider themselves social failures – das no-future-Milieu from which he himself made his escape.

His role must be seen in the context of West German conservatism, which is well to the left of the present Tory Party as well as of the American Republicans; the consensus on which it is based is that of a parliamentary welfare state. On the whole, the conservative establishment’s attitude to the past is honourably confused rather than consistently discreditable. A recent estimate has put the number of potential voters to the right of the two conservative parties at 15 per cent of the electorate; and conservative policy is divided between those who believe they can absorb this extremist minority without a fundamental change in their populist democratic outlook, and those who think that the REP will disintegrate the way previous right-wing extremist parties have done. Schönhuber himself is looking hopefully for votes among the members of the Freie Deutsche Partei, the German Liberals, a party which he thinks is finished. Will this discontented yet ill-assorted minority provide him at the next national election with the 5 per cent needed for Parliamentary representation? There is no doubt that only a major economic crisis, of which there is no sign, could so weaken German democracy as to force a future government to accept the REPs as coalition partners.

Why do none of these books contain the slightest intimation of last month’s events? Imperception, even when it afflicts historians, is not beyond explanation. One reason for the failure of imagination among Western intellectuals, including those of the Federal Republic, is their lingering distrust of that state and especially of the strength of its democratic spirit. This distrust is expressed by Richard Evans when, contemplating the prospects for German unification, he writes that the 17 million East Germans have no guarantee that a majority of electors among the 60 million West Germans would not dismantle the East German welfare state and its social security, as though the Federal Republic were an outpost of Thatcherism. The fact is that the over-whelming majority of East Germans have no such suspicions; brought to the verge of economic ruin, they know that their ‘welfare state’ is corrupt and doesn’t work. But there is a further reason why nobody in the West foresaw these momentous events. The old anxiety about what the Germans are up to is accompanied not only by a consistently apologetic attitude towards the Government of the GDR, but also by ignorance of Central Europe’s deep longing for liberty, and a lack of faith in what the West has to offer its populations.

The revolution, almost entirely bloodless so far, has only just begun. The ghosts of warring nationalisms have not been laid, and it will require many acts of statesmanship to allay the deep fears of the battered peoples of that region. All the same, a vigorous west wind is blowing. What we are witnessing is an unprecedented consensus in which Poland, Hungary, the old dismantled Prussia and now Czechoslovakia are all borne along by the same fervent hope. This hour belongs not to the historians but to the poet who wrote ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’