Ernst Nolte, the Hitler apologist who gave liberal German historians a collective coronary in the 1980s, died this summer in Berlin aged ninety-three.
For a while, Nolte seemed to be the big loser in the famous Historikerstreit, or historians’ dispute, that set German intellectual life ablaze for a few months beginning in June 1986. Ostracized for his thinly veiled efforts to excuse Nazi war crimes, he retreated into a kind of internal exile, ignored by his colleagues and forgotten by the press.
His chief opponent, the social theorist Jürgen Habermas, meanwhile emerged as the hero of the day, the very model of a public intellectual who defends democracy when not holding forth in the lecture hall. It’s not often that the Left emerges victorious, but this was one occasion when it did.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory celebration: it began to fade. Nolte was partially rehabilitated fourteen years later when the Deutschland Foundation, which is close to the right wing of the ruling Christian Democrats, gave him its Konrad Adenauer Prize for literature and Horst Möller, director of the respected Munich-based Institute for Contemporary History, seized on the opportunity to praise him for a “life’s work of high rank” and to defend him against “hate-filled and defamatory” efforts to stifle free debate.
Rather than a hero, it seemed that Habermas was now an intellectual bully of sorts. Meanwhile, a watered-down version of Nolte’s thesis has become increasingly dominant thanks to such popular historians as Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of the bestselling Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a historian of the gulag.
The neo-Nolteans have been careful to avoid the “causal nexus” that got Nolte in such trouble, the idea that Nazism was an understandable response to Bolshevik atrocities, although one that happened to go overboard. Instead, they skirt causation altogether by arguing that Nazism and Communism interacted in some unspecified way so as to drive one another to unexpected heights.
As Snyder put it in Bloodlands, they shared a “belligerent complicity” and therefore “goaded each other into escalations that cost more lives than the policies of either state by itself would have.” This is not exactly what Nolte said. But it’s close enough since his basic goal was to shift the blame for Nazism onto others, a goal that has been fully achieved in the current ideological climate in which no one is supposed to notice the neo-Nazi militias ranging across the Ukraine or the SS veterans’ parades that are an annual occurrence in the Baltics. Nolte’s death is therefore an occasion to revisit the Historikerstreit to examine what it accomplished, where it went wrong, and why Habermas and his co-thinkers allowed victory to slip through their grasp.
Nolte started the ball rolling with an article in the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) on the theme of Nazism as a response to a Communist threat:
Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an “Asiatic” deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an “Asiatic” deed? Was the Gulag Archipelago not primary to Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the “racial murder” of National Socialism?
Nazi mass murders were thus a copy of a Soviet original. As the English historian Richard J. Evans points out, rhetoric like this had been on the upswing since the Christian Democrats wrested control from the center-left Social Democrats in 1982. Franz Josef Strauss, the right-wing Bavarian politician, had taken advantage of the conservative shift to urge Germans to “walk tall” and “emerge from the shadow of the Third Reich” while the FAZ was increasingly opening its pages to the radical right. But as bad as a few far-right cranks might be, an article by a respected academic historian like Nolte — his 1963 study, Fascism in Its Epoch, was internationally known — was worse since it was a sign that the historical profession as a whole was shifting into the “revisionist” camp.
Habermas, a product of the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School, therefore mounted a counterattack not only on Nolte but on other right-wing historians as well. He sailed into the historian Andreas Hillgruber for writing that the German military in 1944–45 was engaged in “desperate and sacrificial efforts . . . to protect the German population in the East from the orgies of revenge by the Red Army.”
He upbraided Michael Stürmer, an academic historian who served as an official adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for calling for a more patriotic version of German history. And he attacked Nolte not only for suggesting that Bolshevism was the prime mover, but for arguing that a letter that Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization, wrote in September 1939 stating that Jews the world over sided with Great Britain “could lay a foundation for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war.”
Nolte didn’t say the letter did lay a foundation, merely that it could. Nonetheless, his statement was an affront because it violated what, since the 1960s and ’70s, had been the first rule of West German politics, which is that the Nazis were entirely responsible for their actions and that Germans should not shift the blame onto others, least of all the Jews.
Yet Nolte was now clearly out to “relativize” the Nazis by arguing that they were not the only ones at fault. The upshot would have been a return to the “good Nazi” rhetoric of the late 1940s and early ’50s when Hollywood turned out admiring biopics of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Adenauer assured the Bundesrat that the percentage of accused Nazi war criminals “who are really guilty is so extraordinarily small that the honor of the former German Wehrmacht is not compromised.”
It would have, that is, if Habermas and his co-thinkers had let Nolte get away with it. But they didn’t. Rather, they were able to fend off the assault by pointing out that after years of soul-searching and political debate, it was impossible to turn back the clock. “After Auschwitz we can create our national self-understanding solely by appropriating the better traditions of our critically examined history,” Habermas wrote in the liberal weekly Die Zeit. “Otherwise we cannot respect ourselves and cannot expect respect from others.”
Germans must confront the past ruthlessly and unsparingly if they were to have any future as a liberal society. The point was so obvious, so compelling, so indisputable that there was never really any doubt that the argument would carry the day.
But if that’s the case, why was it subsequently undone? Why was Nolte able to regain his footing to a degree while Habermas seemed to visibly deflate?
The answer has to do with the remedy Habermas put forth. While Germans must wrestle with the past, the ultimate solution, he said, was for West Germany to tie itself ever more securely to the liberal west. As he put it a few weeks into the great debate:
The unconditional opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the greatest intellectual achievement of our postwar period; my generation should be especially proud of this . . . The only patriotism that will not estrange us from the West is a constitutional patriotism. Unfortunately, it took Auschwitz to make possible . . . binding universalist constitutional principles anchored in conviction.
As sensible as this may seem, there was a problem. If the West is synonymous with liberalism, does that mean that the East is the opposite — intrinsically illiberal and threatening? If so, then perhaps Nolte’s argument that an “Asiatic” bacillus was at the root of it all was not off base.
Moreover, Habermas’s belief in Western liberalism was one of those assumptions that first had to be proved. The Historikerstreit, for example, was essentially an aftershock from the Bitburg furor a year earlier when Helmut Kohl prevailed on Ronald Reagan to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery containing the remains of some forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS. As Habermas wrote in the liberal weekly Die Zeit, the visit was intended to accomplish three things:
The aura of the military cemetery was supposed to waken national sentiment and thereby a “historical consciousness”; the juxtaposition of hills of corpses in the concentration camp and the SS graves in the cemetery of honor, the sequence of Bergen-Belsen in the morning and Bitburg in the afternoon implicitly disputed the singularity of the Nazi crimes and shaking hands with the veteran generals in the presence of the US president was, finally, a demonstration that we had really always stood on the right side in the fight against Bolshevism.
Quite correct. But Reagan was hardly an innocent victim of German wiles. After all, he was a hardened Cold Warrior who, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, had worked hand-in-glove with the FBI to purge Hollywood of Communist influence and, decades later, would resist visiting a German concentration camp on the grounds that unpleasant memories should remain undisturbed. “I don’t think we ought to focus on the past,” he reportedly said. “I want to focus on the future. I want to put that history behind me.” His sentiments were captured in remarks a few months earlier about Americans who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1936–39 to defend the Spanish republic: “I would say that the individuals that went over there were, in the opinions of most Americans, fighting on the wrong side.”
The right side was that of Franco. If Hitler had concentrated his fire on the Soviets instead of attacking Britain and France, the right side would presumably have been that of the Nazis. The United States thus stood for the sort of willful forgetfulness and accommodation with fascism that Habermas found so dangerous, yet he embraced it regardless. The result was to tie him hand and foot to the new “hyperpower” as it headed off in an increasingly militaristic direction with the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989–91.
Thus, Habermas supported Operation Desert Storm in 1991 even though, as Perry Anderson noted in the New Left Review, the war was essentially a defense of Saudi oil interests. He endorsed the 1999 NATO air campaign in the Balkans even though the United States was plainly seeking to back Serbia into a corner by presenting it with an ultimatum — the notorious Rambouillet Accords — that it knew it couldn’t accept. He backed the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and only balked at supporting the 2003 Iraq War when Bush and Blair failed to get UN Security Council approval. He championed the European Union and a single currency and was thus flummoxed when an over-extended EU began coming apart at the seams in response to the 2008 financial meltdown, Syriza, Brexit, and the refugee crisis.
The effect has been to paint himself into a corner. Habermas is still everyone’s favorite public intellectual, the recipient of innumerable awards and the subject of gushing profiles in publications like the Nation. But the impression otherwise is of a man adrift. This is especially the case with the European Union, increasingly the object of Habermas’s most fervent hopes.
As he freely confesses, the idea of a Germany that is both powerful and united fills German center-leftists like himself with dread. It means a return to pre-1914 days when Germany was “too weak to dominate the continent, but too strong to bring itself into line,” to quote the historian Ludwig Dehios. Just as liberal redemption lies in the West, the solution to a Germany that is both too big and too small lies in a greater Europe that is increasingly integrated.
“By embedding itself in Europe, Germany was able to develop a liberal self-understanding for the first time,” Habermas wrote recently, the same thing he said thirty years earlier about integration into the US-led international order.
Indeed, he went even farther. Rather than a sovereign Germany, his hope was for Germany to cede aspects of sovereignty to the European Union without the union taking them on itself. The state would fade away at both the national and EU level, not under socialism but amid the greatest wave of speculative mania in capitalist history. This was no less utopian than the notion of finding liberal redemption in the arms of an increasingly illiberal west, which is why it was inevitable that his hopes would eventually crash and burn.
Which brings us to yet another reason why the Historikerstreit would eventually fall short. As the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has observed, Habermas has an issue with capitalism: he doesn’t want to hear about it. Just as he sees the European Union as a device that technocrats can manage provided they have the proper “democratic roots,” he sees Nazism as a largely national problem that Germans can manage provided they dissolve themselves into some larger liberal entity. As admirable as the call for Germany to take responsibility may be, the effect is to play down certain ideological and economic aspects.
One of the curious things about the Historikerstreit, for instance, is why Habermas and his allies failed to challenge the Cold War caricature of Soviet history that was the centerpiece of Nolte’s argument. Both sides took it as a given that the Soviet experience was one big bloodbath from beginning to end — the only question is whether it planted the idea of mass extermination in Hitler’s head or whether he thought it up on his own.
After six months of controversy, it was left to an outsider, an ex-Marxist named Richard Löwenthal, to note in a letter to the FAZ that while the revolution and civil war of 1917–1921 were certainly bloody, there were no “acts of annihilation” until Stalin’s disastrous collectivization campaign in 1929–1933 and the purges in 1936–38. Since this was long after Nazi ideology had taken shape, the idea of a causal connection was spurious on its face.
So why didn’t Habermas point out the obvious? No doubt because he was unwilling to part ways with a US consensus that the Soviet Union was all bad all of the time except for a brief period of dispensation during World War II.
Similarly, his depiction of Nazism as essentially a German problem had the unintended consequence of letting other nations off the hook. So what if aging veterans parading about in their Waffen-SS uniforms were a regular occurrence in the Baltic republics? Since the Balts are not Germans, they can’t be Nazis — can they? What did it matter if statues of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera were proliferating across the Ukraine or if Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán was attempting to rehabilitate Miklos Horthy, the Axis supporter who oversaw the deportation and annihilation of some four hundred thousand Jews? Since only Germans were responsible for Nazi atrocities, the others got a free pass.
Habermas’s blind spot with regard to capitalism led to him to deemphasize Nazism as a response to the international economic crisis of 1929–1933 and hence left his followers unprepared for the impact that another great capitalist crisis would have in 2008. Where Nazism began in Germany before radiating outwards, ultra-nationalism the second time around began seemingly everywhere except Germany before invading in the form of Alternative for Germany, a self-confessed “völkisch” party that is now a rising force at the polls. Instead of spreading outwards, it began in outlying countries before flowing back in. But the effect is the same: a right-wing radicalization of German bourgeois society that Habermas thought he had headed off at the pass some three decades earlier.
Ultimately, the Historikerstreit was a very center-left affair — decorous, academic, conducted within the narrowest ideological confines. It resembles the Dreyfus affair in the sense of public intellectuals rallying to defend the republic against authoritarians trying to hijack it for the Right. But otherwise it was very weak tea.
Instead of J’Accuse-style broadsides, it featured the tepid prose of the graduate seminar. Instead of riots and threats of coup d’état, it generated a flurry of excited newspaper articles and letters to the editor. While it beat back the Right for a moment, in the end all it succeeded in creating was a Maginot Line that the far right has found all too easy to march around.
Somewhere Ernst Nolte is no doubt enjoying a good chuckle.