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).

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