World War I Guilt Culpability Question Divides Historians Today

Part 3: Ernst Nolte Speaks

My next stop is Bielefeld, a visit to the office of Hans-Ulrich Wehler. He declines to agree with Baberowski. A causal nexus? "Hitler cannot be interpreted as an anti-Lenin at all." Singularity? "I think so. In my eyes, Hitler remains undefeated at the top of the list."

This too is an uncomfortable moment. It feels as if he were talking about a contest, about rankings, or even about a hit list. Must a German remain the worst of all butchers? Isn't that putting it a little too coldly?

Wehler seems to sense these thoughts. "Did you know," he says, "that one in four victims in the German concentration camps was a child?" His voice is filled with emotion and his eyes are moist. He looks at me for a long time.

Then he tells another story about Ernst Nolte. Wehler once invited him to dinner at his home. "My wife is a great cook," he notes. After one or two glasses of wine, says Wehler, Nolte loosened up and talked a little about his life. He was born with three short fingers on his left hand, which meant that he was unfit for military service, whereas his younger brother died in World War II. As a result, Nolte said according to Wehler, he had been under pressure to do something for his country.

Wehler and the two confessions: Fischer's and Nolte's. And then there is Baberowski. Personal issues played a role in the battle over Germany's history. Baberowski says that in doing his research, he also "came to terms with my own mistakes at the beginning," including his belief in the communist ideology and collecting money for Pol Pot.

'One Cannot Seriously Dispute This Connection'

Ernst Nolte, 91, opens the door to his apartment on the third floor of a stately old building in Berlin's Bayrisches district.

He is an amiable man who doesn't complain about his infirmities. He and his wife live in a spacious apartment, surrounded by books, art and a grand piano, the apartment of well-educated German intellectuals. Nolte responds to our questions at length during the two-hour conversation. These are authorized excerpts from that talk.

Regarding the causal nexus: "One cannot seriously dispute that this connection existed. Anyone who has ever read Hitler's speeches knows how important an issue Bolshevism was to him. He frequently lost control and worked himself into a state of extreme agitation. It is absurd to claim that Germany would have become a national-socialist state of the kind Hitler envisioned if the Bolshevik revolution had not taken place in Russia in 1917."

Regarding singularity: "All the horrors and extermination procedures known to have occurred in German concentration camps were reported much earlier in the concentration camps of the Cheka and the NKVD. Those who refuse to believe this may be good people, but they are no academics. The technical process of gassing people to death is one main difference. The great Jewish writer Joseph Brodsky once said that if he had the choice, he would much rather die within a few minutes in a gas chamber than after months of starvation in an ordinary concentration camp. He can say that, whereas I prefer to remain silent, because I would immediately be accused of having reprehensible motives."

Regarding the neo-Nazi terror cell NSU, whose sole surviving member is currently on trial in Munich on charges relating to the murder of 10 people mostly of Turkish origin: "I don't believe that these people should be characterized as 'right-wing' terrorists. They were simply a gang of murderers. If a note with the words 'Go home' had been pinned to the victims, it would have been an act of right-wing terrorism."

Regarding his hand: "It's the reason I wasn't drafted, and I was spared from taking part in the war. In other words, it was an unearned lucky break. Precisely for that reason, I felt a special obligation to investigate the problems of the period in an academic fashion, and not just from a standpoint of one-sided dismay."

Regarding culpability for the war in 1939: "I am more and more convinced that we should attach more weight to the role played by the Poles and the British than is usually the case. Hitler did not want to wage war for war's sake, as is often claimed. He would have liked to enter into an anti-Soviet alliance with the Poles. His claims against Poland were not 'national socialist.' Rather, they dated back to the days of the Weimar Republic. If the Polish government had sent a negotiator, as Hitler wanted, and had agreed to the 'Weimar' demands to return Gdansk to the German Reich and to establish extraterritorial road and rail connections through the 'corridor,' Hitler would not have invaded Poland."

Harsh Criticism

The conversation and his autobiography, to be published this spring, coalesce into the image of a man who considers himself to be important, and yet is resentful because he no longer plays a role today. In his last book "Späte Reflexionen" (Late Reflections), he insisted on ascribing to the Jews their "own share of the 'gulag,'" because some Bolsheviks were Jews. Based on his logic, the Jews were partly responsible for Auschwitz. This has long been an argument of anti-Semites.

Nolte received some "harsh criticism" for his book, even from acquaintances, criticism that, as he writes, "usually amounted to the theory that I had now admitted that my many adversaries were correct and that I shouldn't be surprised to be plowing a lonely furrow," he writes. He has upped the provocation once again and has to live with the fact that no one is interested. There is no outcry and no debate. Germany is at ease and Nolte is finished.

But not everything this man says is wrong. Comparisons are constantly being drawn in history seminars today between Hitler and Stalin, apples and oranges. Comparing isn't automatically equating, but instead serves to promote insight. It's what Nolte has said all along.

He insisted on the freedom of the academic, and he was right. Just how outraged everyone was at the time seems disconcerting today. In the 25th year after German reunification, fears of unification seem absurd. But at the time, no one knew how it would turn out, which makes some of the concerns understandable. But speculation shouldn't have been portrayed as the truth. Everything was the subject of speculation, from the German future to the German past.

History is not open in the same way as the future is, but it is open nonetheless. In both debates, the combatants behaved as if there were historical truths, but they don't exist. All that exists is a state of research that includes gaps, which are filled with speculation and interpretation.

No one knows what Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg truly thought and wanted in the summer of 1914. No one knows how strongly Hitler was influenced by Soviet atrocities. Historical research is the science of approximation. Constant revisions are necessary for that reason alone.

The current state of the historical interpretation is that all major powers sleepwalked into World War I, and that Bolshevism and Stalinism were more brutal than was long known or admitted. Is there a national outburst as a result? No. Is there rejoicing because German culpability is somehow reduced? No.

No matter what others did, the Nazis were disgusting criminals whom masses of Germans followed, and the German Reich did a great deal to allow World War I to happen. German responsibility for the present and the future is one of the consequences. We can live up to this responsibility without self-obfuscation.

So what's next? Are there any new revelations about Germany's past? These are questions posed to a historian of the intermediate generation, 53-year-old Edgar Wolfrum from Heidelberg, whose book "Rot-Grün an der Macht", about the Chancellery of Gerhard Schröder and his coalition with the Green Party, was published in 2013.

'German History Is Getting Smaller and Smaller'

He is sitting in his office at the University of Heidelberg, joined by his assistant Angela Siebold, the first female historian in this history of old men. What is being discussed today? Wolfrum ponders the question for a while. "It's still the old issues," he says, "but we are discussing them more quietly and calmly." He pauses to reflect, and then he says: "German history is getting smaller and smaller." With the fall of the Iron Curtain, China's opening to the world, the new importance of India and Brazil, others are also demanding that attention be paid to their past. In other parts of the world, the Holocaust is not at the center of everything.

Wolfrum struggles with this notion. He recently read a book about world history in which, as he says, the Holocaust had more or less dwindled into a footnote. War, too, was no longer the dominant theme. Instead, says Wolfrum, women's history is increasingly in the spotlight today. He prefers the hard issues to the soft, Wolfrum adds.

He looks at his assistant, perhaps a little guiltily. She looks back at him. It is an indulgent look, but also one that says: Dear men, there are going to be a few more revisions of history.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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peskyvera 02/14/2014
1. optional
One would think that after 100 years it really doesn't matter who was at fault and who wasn't. Rehashing a past that can't be changed. Emphasize on today, on now, and how to avoid major and minor conflicts. Will a world totally at peace ever be possible?
bonsai1953 02/14/2014
2. Culpability -
World War 1 - On the commencement of hostilities all belligerents view was it would be over in a few weeks. As the war progressed all belligerents hoped for a break out decisive winning battle. Which did not happen for any belligerent. IF the belligerents could have forseen the morass and social chaos flowing from World War 1 - it may have given all pause for thought. Would the Kaiser have signed the declaration knowing it would end Germany as a major power for a time ?? Similar can be said for the Czar and various other Monarchs / potentates. Given it's the 100 year centennial of World War 1 - the article should concentrate on that event. World War 2 genesis starts with World War 1's loss - but takes on it's own dynamic and should NOT BE MUDDLED with World War 1. The article is a mash up of historians differing views - and my suggestion to Germany is - get over it.
joedima 02/14/2014
Only academics who want to show how smart they are, could think this argument up. Ask most people and the answer would be who cares.
DoAskDoTell 02/14/2014
4. You have to love the Germans again
It's time to let go of all the distracting war talks (it's been 75+ years) and focus on the challenging futures where everyone must work hard to live sustainably within their own country and region for the good of the whole planet. Not everything evolves only around fightings of spoils among the West. Hopefully not.
AmericanJew 02/15/2014
5. The Nazis did not land from outer space...
Everything that Germany did in the period from 1933 to 1945 was done by previous German governments. In Namibia there were extermination camps, they just didn't use gas. The German problem still remains in Europe. The present EU looks a lot like the plan outlined in the famous 9 September 1914 government meeting in Berlin.
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