Writing the History of Nazi Germany
The Historikerstreit

What is History?

Three definitions:  History is the past (whether or not anyone recalls or writes about it); History is the active process of studying and writing about the past; and History is what men and women write (an essay, an article, or a book) following a systematic study of the past.  History, in the broadest sense then, results from a multi-faceted encounter between the past and the men and women who study it as well as write about it and the reader of the results.  Or, as the authors of a recent text write, “History is an effort to reconstruct the past to discover what people thought and did and how their beliefs and actions continue to influence human life.” [McKay, Hill, and Buckler, History of World Societies, 3rd ed, 1992, p. 4]

In reconstructing the past, what do historians ask and do:

1.  What happened (collect and organize evidence)?

2.  Why did the event happen (analysis and explanation)?

3.  What is the importance of the event?

Stackelberg, Hitler’s Germany (1999):

1.  Difficult in Germany to write the history of the Third Reich; both Germanies repudiated Nazism; it became a “negative foil” to democracy in the west and socialism in the east; means that the interpretation of NS is contested both in politics and historiography; in both countries the historiography of Nazism is related to political practice.

West Germany: Three Phases, each parallels major political developments and changes in political consciousness:

1.  1945-1960: Conservative; tended to repudiate but not take responsibility for Nazism; demonize Hitler and the top Nazi leadership; portray Germany as “seduced” by the Nazis; view Nazism as an accidental aberration in German history; pressures of the Cold War also shifted attention from the Nazi past; schools avoided the subject by ending courses with WWI.

2.  1960s-1970s: Liberal-left; part of youth rebellion, younger scholars interested history of Nazi Germany, which they saw as repressed by their parents; interested in roles of social and economic groups in Imperial and Weimar Germany that undermined democracy; new interest in social history; emphasized Germany’s deviation for the Western democratic tradition, its sonderweg; greater political acceptance of responsibility for Nazi crimes;

3.  1980s: Neo-conservative revival: conservative politicians advocated casting off Germany’s “burden of guilt;” combat the true enemy: communism.  Bitburg ceremony designed to “buty the Nazi trauma and demonstrate a united front in the Cold War.” (256) President Reagan was to lay a wreath in a military ceremony that contained by the graves of Wehrmacht and Waffen SS soldiers; conservatives argued that Waffen SS draftees were as much victims as concentration camp inmates.  Others felt this trivialized the role of the SS and denied the exceptionality of the Holocaust–this controversy anticipated the Historikerstreit.

The Historikerstreit: New conservative interpretations of Nazi Germany and Germany history appeared in the late 70s rejecting the liberal-left trends of the previous decades.  Michael Stürmer (assoc with the CDU):  favored a revival of national pride, a unified and positive national identity, and self-confidence; denounced the liberal-left’s obsession with guilt.  He wrote: “In a land without history, the future is controlled by those who determine the content of memory, coin the concepts, and interpret the past.” (Quoted, 257)

Jürgen Habermas set off the the Historikerstreit by calling attention to the new conservative revisionism; he attacked Stürmer and other historians, esp Ernst Nolte, who asserted that Nazi atrocities were no worse than those of Stalin and that Stalin’s atrocities provoked the Nazis’; Nolte denied the uniqueness of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Debate divided historians along political and historiographical lines; the Liberal-left accused conservatives of trying to “normalize” and “relativize” the Nazi past; conservatives accused their opponents of dwelling on guilt and weakening Germany.

Recent examples:

1.  Reaction to the Goldhagen book: Hitler’s Willing Executioners;

2.  Travelling exhibit of photographs documenting Wehrmacht war crimes;

3.  Inability to agree on a Holocaust Museum for Berlin.

These are not academic debates; they are “debates about national identity and the moral basis of politics.” (262)
Baldwin, Peter, "The Historikerstreit in Context".

**Reasons for the controversy:  deals with the Nazi Regime and the Holocaust; involves "problems of historical methodology;" involves political questions--part of a Left-Right in German politics; debate cross-cuts these issues; hence its complexity.

**Historikerstreit began in summer 1986; Jürgen Habermas challenged theses advanced by Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte; similar positions from Michael Stürmer, Joachim Fest, Klaus Hildebrand, and Hagen Schulze; Habermas and his allies (Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jurgen Kocka, Eberhard Jackel, Hans Mommsen, and Wolfgang Mommsen) also charged that these conservatives were trying to “normalize” Germany's past; create a new national identity; and re-establish the continuity of German history; in line with the political agenda of the CDU.

**Hillgruber's Zweierlei Untergang contained two essays, one on the Holocaust, the other on the fate of the Wehrmacht on the Russian front and of the German civilian population in the east; the title suggested an equivalence between the two topics; further, Hillgruber treated the Holocaust in dispassionate terms, while he wrote with empathy of the German fate in the east; in the latter case, he called for imaginative sympathy for the soldier caught between the conflicting demands of patriotism and prolonging the war (and hence the Nazi regime's crimes); in the account of the Wehrmacht, Hillgruber may have blurred the lines between understanding motivation and justifying theat motivation.

**Nolte, given the passage of time since the end of the war, called for the Nazi regime to be undemonized and to be treated as one "normal" historical event amongst many; also the Holocaust could be "normalized" or "relativized" and set in the context of other twentieth-century atrocities; further, that the precedent for the Nazi atrocities were Soviet efforts to exterminate the "bourgeois" kulaks; i.e. the Soviets murdered on the basis of class identity, while the Germans murdered on the basis of racial identity; further, that Hitler so feared Bolshevik terror (which he attributed to Jews) that he undertook the Holocaust as a preventive measure [Baldwin says there is no evidence for such a claim]; further, Hitler could view Jews as an enemy because Chaim Weizmann declared in 1939 that Jews should fight alongside Britain.

Two sides in the Historikerstreit:

 1.  Conservatives/CDU:  Nazi regime, admittedly repulsive, was not unique when viewed in the context of 20th century history; Nazi Germany should be assimilated into the continuity of German history; the Nazi period should not provide a barrier to the past, distorting national identity, and preventing West Germans from recognizing the positive aspects of Weimar Germany and the Second Reich; problem of historization (=problem of locating the Third Reich in German history; its place in time, with distant origins and present consequences);

 2.  Liberal/Socialists/SDP:  integration and relativization as part of the conservative agenda was to gloss over the particular horrors of the Nazi period; also it glorified the Second Reich, whose peculiarities and weaknesses were passed on to Weimar Germany, and they made it possible for the Nazis to come to power.

Mixed within these issues were other points of contention:

 1.  Intentionalists vs Structuralists or Functionalists:  Intentionalists see a sufficient explanation for the Holocaust in Nazi anti-Semetic ideas and the Nazi's opportunity to put their plans into practice; Structuralists argue that between Hitler's ideas and the Holocaust must be placed the polycentric nature of the Hitler state; the Holocaust then stems from accidental events and circumstances, particularly the lack of success in the Russian war; hence the Holocaust was not the inevitable result of Nazi anti-Semetism.

 2.  Advocates of a German Sonderweg against those who deny such a Sonderweg (=special path of evolution); advocates of the Sonderweg (Kocka and Wehler) use it attempt to explain the coming of Nazi Germany; German history is viewed as different from French, British, or American; others reject the Sonderweg thesis.

 3.  Advocates of the history of high politics and decision-makers against history from the bottom up, the history of everyday life, or Alltagsgeschichte.

Problem of Historization = "the problem of locating the Nazi era within the course of German development:  what is its place in the longer sweep of the past, what connections extend backward to earlier times or continue forward into the present?" (13)  Some (like Friedrich Meinecke) see the Nazi era as an irrational upheaval, unconnected to past or future.  Three other alternatives:  1) there are continuities from the Second Empire to the Weimar Period to the Third Reich; i.e. militarism, authoritarian leadership, lack of political liberalization; continued power of aristocratic elites, etc.  Tends to take the Nazi Period and look backward for antecedents.  2) Normalization (Nolte and Hillgruber): integrate Nazism into German history and compare and contrast the Nazis with other totalitarian regimes; relativizes the Nazis.  3) Martin Broszat's "historization": Broszat is a functionalist and is interested in Alltagsgeschichte; Nazi regime not wholly demonic; many people lived ordinary lives; exphasizes continuity with German history and impact on the post-WWII period.

Why the Histroikerstreit?
 1.  Many of the key issues have long been debated;
 2.  Involvement of prominent historians, many of who exaggerated views held by others; backed by prominent conservatives like Joachim Fest
 3.  Erupted at a time of debate over German national identity and the relation of the Third Reich to democratic West Germany; Bitburg, German electoral campaign; Kohl's speech in Israel; the debate over the historical museums in Bonn and Berlin;
 4.  Conservative shift in West Germany and the resulting debate about the Federal Republic's historical and national idenity; conservatives tend to favor emergence from the shadow of the Third Reich; normalize the past;
 5.  Desire by some to cleanse or whitewash the past;

Raises questions about Germany's past and how to remember, especially since those who experienced the Third Reich will soon be gone; also the problem of German unification; broadening the interpretation as the Nazi period recedes into the past.

Key Question:  "The question is not when will Nazism finally be viewed as part of history as usual, for that day is unlikely ever to come, but how will this period, with all its anguish and inexplicability, be situated within our collective memory.  How the history of this era will be written is the issue over which the dispute has been fought, a question that will continue to prompt controversy." [Baldwin, “Reworking,” 29]

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update: 15.IV.2008
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