A Nation under Guilt

A Nation under Guilt

Mini Teaser: Two recent histories of Nazi Germany shore up the dyke against the rising flood of "Germany as victim" revisionism.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Fischer's book unpicked the first link in that chain of logic by arguing, with an impressive array of documentary evidence, that Germany had brought its ill luck upon itself by deliberately seeking war in 1914. This suggested in turn that the notorious "war guilt" clause of the Versailles Treaty had not been an outrageous imposition upon a blameless Germany, but a verdict based on historical truth. And this further implied that the Nazis had not been some inexplicable aberration from the sweet and wholesome flow of German civilization but that perhaps there was something uniquely aggressive and anti-social about the various forms of the German Reich, in 1914 as in 1933-45. If so, then Germany's neighbors might be forgiven for a lingering suspicion that Europe's richest and most populous power remains too dangerous for comfort.

Because of Germany's history, such issues are intensely sensitive. Margaret Thatcher was not the only European who continued to see modern Germany through the perspective of World War II and the Holocaust long after those events. Her prejudices were reinforced by an unusual seminar she conducted at her country residence, Chequers, in March 1990, when she was fighting her doomed delaying action against German unification. Six academic experts on Germany and Europe were summoned to join her, as well as Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Charles Powell, her chief adviser on foreign affairs. Powell's memorandum on the session, subsequently leaked to the British press, addressed what were seen as the negative aspects of the German character. These he listed as "angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex and sentimentality."

The list is a caricature. Nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, it should be possible to consider modern Germany apart from Hitler's shadow. But Germans themselves make it difficult to do so, because an official anti-Nazism practically defines the identity of modern Germany. In the election year of 2002, which saw the banning of a small but unpleasant neo-Nazi group, the issue of Germany's Nazi past arose repeatedly. The first was when the conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber, demanded the retraction of the Benes Decrees of 1945, under which some 3 million Czechs of German descent were deported from their homes in the border region of the Sudetenland. Stoiber, married to a Sudeten German, outraged the Czech government and alarmed other eastern Europeans, particularly the Poles, who wondered whether the issue would put at risk the whole 1945 settlement of Europe's borders. The second arose over Israel's forthright reaction to the Palestinian suicide bombings. The deputy leader of the Free Democratic Party was driven to stand down for suggesting that, in the Palestinians' place, he too would be provoked into fighting back.

The same election year saw a cultural drama over a novel that topped the German best-seller lists throughout the summer. Death of a Critic, by the acclaimed writer Martin Walser, was based on the murder of a well-known Jewish literary critic by an outraged writer. The book was condemned by the country's leading newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung--in whose pages Germany's leading (and Jewish) critic had made his reputation--as a kind of intellectual Nazism. Walser is perhaps best known outside Germany for a forthright speech, in the context of Schršder's "normal nation" policy, in which he said that it was time to stop battering Germany with "the bludgeon of Auschwitz."

"When this past is laid before me every day in the media, I notice something awakes inside me that resists such continual harping on our shame", Walser said at the presentation of the German Booksellers' Peace Prize. His remarks were made in the context of two controversies of the day: the reparation payments of German industry and banks to forced laborers from the Nazi era and the building of the Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin.

There should be little surprise that history has become such an intellectual battleground in contemporary Germany and much comfort to be drawn from the liveliness of the debate. Much of this debate focuses on the work of Ernst Nolte, whose Three Faces of Fascism remains a classic. But in 1980, Nolte ventured into highly controversial territory with a speech that is credited with unleashing the Historikerstreit, the clash of the historians.

In his 1980 lecture, "Historical Legend and Revisionism?", Nolte said:

"The Third Reich should be removed from the historical isolation in which it remains. . . . The demonization of the Third Reich is unacceptable . . . . [Instead, it] must become an object of scholarship, of a scholarship that is not aloof from politics, but that is also not merely a handmaiden of politics."

So far, so reasonable. Then Nolte went further, suggesting that Hitler's assault on the Jews might have had some shred of justification:

"It is hard to deny that Hitler had good reason to be convinced of his enemies' determination to annihilate him long before the first information about the events in Auschwitz became public. . . . Chaim Weizmann's statement in the first days of September 1939, that in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England's side . . . could lay the foundation for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war (or, more precisely, as civilian internees), thus interning them."

In June 2000, Nolte was awarded "Konrad Adenauer Prize" for literature, one of Germany's most prestigious prizes by the Munich-based Germany Foundation (Deutschlandstiftung). In his acceptance speech, Nolte suggested that the contemporary historian "should leave behind the view that the opposite of National Socialist goals is always good and right" and asked the dangerous question "whether Hitler's antisemitism may not have had a kernel of truth [or a] . . . rational, comprehensible core."

Because the Third Reich was the "strongest of all counter forces" to Soviet communism, a movement with wide Jewish support, Nolte raised the question whether Hitler may have had rational reasons for persecuting the Jews, and suggested that there was now "a Jewish paradigm" of history, which is assuming the status of a "near-religion" of which Nazism is the "new Satan." It is at this point that the reasonable questions of the serious historian start to blend into something markedly more sinister and the prospect emerges that yesterday's history becomes a contentious factor in today's politics.

This is dangerous and unpleasant ground, and Richard Evans is to be congratulated on restoring a clearly demarcated historical sensibility to what was becoming treacherous terrain. And it is striking that some of the most important new contributions to the history of the Third Reich should have come not from German but from Anglo-Saxon historians: The British contribute Evans, and Kershaw's two-volume life of Hitler (Hubris, 1889-1936 and Nemesis, 1936-1945), and Michael Burleigh (The Third Reich) is a worthy American contender who reminds us constantly that there was something deeply evil at the heart of the Nazi project.

This is not to say that Gerhard Schröder, the posthumous, and thus innocent, son of a Wehrmacht corporal, should not have been invited to the commemoration at the Normandy beaches this year. Nor is it to say that Ernst Nolte's questions are not worth pondering. There were, after all, influential people and currents of thought in Britain, France and the United States in the 1930s who found Hitler's ideology to be quite congenial. Nor is it to say that the Third Reich was unique in its modern evil. Stalin's gulag regime was an equally hideous twin whose victimization of the class enemy was just as wicked as Hitler's assault on his racial and social enemies. But it remains remarkable that the most thorough and intellectually penetrating studies of the gulag and of the Third Reich have come less from the Germans and Russians who were heirs to Nolte's "great ideological civil war" but from British and American writers such as Robert Conquest, who are products and heirs of the liberal democracies that confronted and overwhelmed Nazism and communism alike. That remains the signal challenge to German (and Russian) historians for the future, and it should be an enduring concern for the Schröders and the Putins to ponder as they congratulate themselves that their presence at the D-Day events implies that they have finally escaped from the dreadful burden of history. They have not. We never do.

Essay Types: Book Review