World War I Guilt Culpability Question Divides Historians Today

Part 2: A Past that Won't Pass

Wehler, on the other hand, says that 70 percent of what Fischer theorized was correct. He still believes that there was continuity between the German Empire and the Nazi regime. And the question of Russian, English and French war policy? An omission on Fischer's part.

Wehler asked him about it. They had met because Fischer was trying to recruit Wehler to teach in Hamburg. "Fischer said to me that he had already taken 800 pages for the German side, so that he couldn't devote that much space to the other major powers anymore." Who was going to read all of that?

It was a good point. In the 1960s, Germany was revolutionizing its conception of history, because a book couldn't be too thick. Later, Wehler made sure that the same thing didn't happen to him. His book "German Social History" encompasses 4,807 pages.

Another point is that Gerhard Ritter, who had been so vehemently opposed to Fischer's theories at the time, was associated with the anti-Hitler resistance and had been detained for a short time as a result. Fischer, however, had sympathized with the Nazis, as was later revealed.

Wehler says that Fischer told him that, after the war, he had found it difficult to accept having been part of the machinery of horror, both as a soldier and as a fellow of a Nazi Party institute. He felt pressure to make a contribution for a better Germany through his work. "I liked the fact that he expected a cleansing, a catharsis, through the research," says Wehler. Did Fischer deliberately exaggerate as a result? He can no longer be asked, because, like Ritter and Geiss, he is no longer alive today.

Ritter wrote that Fischer's book was a culmination of the "self-obfuscation of German historical awareness." "I am convinced that this will be no less disastrous than the excessive patriotism of the past." Later on, Geiss agreed with portions of Ritter's argument. He criticized the tendency to use Fischer's talk of the "German special path" as a reason to completely condemn Germany. He was already familiar with the second battle over German history, the dispute among historians.

One day in the 1960s, as Wehler was sitting in his office in Cologne, a strange man knocked on his door. He was stiff and aloof, introducing himself as a secondary school teacher from Bad Godesberg, near Bonn. He said that he had written a study about fascism in his free time, that is, after school had ended and he had finished correcting his students' papers. His goal, in completing the study, was to qualify to serve as a professor at the University of Cologne. His name was Ernst Nolte.

It was an unusual approach to a university career, but it was a well-written study, and it propelled Nolte, a philosopher and high school teacher, into a position as a history professor. The study was published as a book in 1963, "Fascism in its Epoch." Wehler wrote a glowing review.

A Dispute Erupts among German Historians

On June 6, 1986, Wehler, now a professor in Bielefeld, read an essay by Nolte in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung titled "The Past that Will not Pass." Once again, he was speechless. But this time Wehler was reading sentences he hadn't expected at all.

Nolte's article culminated in five rhetorical questions: "Did the Nazis and Hitler perhaps commit an 'Asiatic' act merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an 'Asian' deed (for Nolte, the term "Asiatic" was a euphemism for something especially gruesome)? 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? Cannot Hitler's most secret deeds be explained by the fact that he had not forgotten the rat cage? Did Ausschwitz in its root causes not originate in a past that would not pass?" Nolte left no doubt that each of these questions had to be answered in the affirmative.

Wehler couldn't believe what he was reading. He called sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a friend from his younger days in Gummersbach. "Jürgen was beside himself," says Wehler. Nolte's article couldn't remain unchallenged. But who would write the response? "We decided to divide up the task," says Wehler. Habermas, the more famous of the two men, wrote the text, while Wehler dug up the necessary information and sent his assistant, Paul Nolte, to the archives. Paul Nolte, who is unrelated to Ernst Nolte, is a well-known historian in his own right today.

In his response, Habermas stirred up attacks on other conservative academics and journalists. "The text was all wrong," Wehler says with a chuckle, but it became a brilliant success. On July 11, 1986, the Habermas essay was published in Die Zeit under the title "A Kind of Settlement of Damages." The dispute among historians had erupted. On one side, it involved the left-liberal faction led by Wehler and Habermas, who were opposed to a new revisionism. Rudolf Augstein, the founder and publisher of SPIEGEL, was also a sharp critic of Nolte. Conservative historians and journalists, including Michael Stürmer and Joachim Fest, stood on the other side of the debate.

Like the Fischer controversy, this dispute also occurred during the Cold War, when ideological lines were being drawn between the left and the right. It was a heated and harsh battle. One day, Nolte's car was set on fire in the parking lot of the Free University of Berlin.

Nothing Allowed to Minimize German Guilt

The historians' dispute revolved primarily around two concepts: singularity and causal nexus, a Latin term for connection. The left-liberal faction insisted that the Holocaust was exceptional, and that its atrocities could not be compared with the horrors of Stalinism. It also insisted that the Holocaust was not a reaction to the gulag, but rather a spawn of the German hatred of Jews. It was singularity, but not causal nexus.

Nothing was to be allowed to minimize German guilt. Once again, the present played a critical role. Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor at the time, was a man with an awareness of history and a national consciousness, and he wanted a conservative revival, away from the cultural and political dominance of the left liberals, who had been around since the late 1960s. In 1985, Kohl took then US President Ronald Reagan to a cemetery in the southwestern town of Bitburg, which also included the graves of soldiers who had served in the Waffen-SS. He wanted to shape the House of History in Bonn and the German Historical Museum in Berlin to suit his agenda. The left-liberal intellectuals feared a revision of history and a return to the national master narrative.

For Habermas, the alternative was "constitutional patriotism." Furthermore, West Germany was to view itself as a part of the West, not as its own entity, one that had to recognize that something was missing, namely the eastern part of Germany. History had taught the Germans that unification was impossible. And as history became more and more horrible and singular, the notion of reunification became more and more forbidden.

In November 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, historian Heinrich August Winkler wrote: "In light of the role that Germany played in the genesis of the two world wars, Europe and the Germans cannot and should not desire a new German Reich, a sovereign nation-state, anymore. This is the logic of history and, to quote Bismarck, it is more precise than the Prussian Oberrechenkammer."

On the whole, the left-liberal faction prevailed. "We won," says Wehler.

'Nolte Was Done an Injustice'

Jörg Baberowski, 62, was studying history in the central German city of Göttingen when the historians' dispute erupted. During his schooldays in the nearby town of Holzminde, he had joined the Communist League of West Germany (KBW) and had collected money for its causes. They included Pol Pot, the Socialist ruler of Cambodia, responsible for the deaths of close to 2 million of his fellow citizens, a butcher like Hitler and Stalin. Which, of course, heaven forbid, is a comparison.

By 1986, Baberowski had changed to such a degree that he was the only student to defend Nolte's theories in an advanced seminar. He was berated for his position, says Baberowski, "but I didn't care; I was used to that from my days with the KBW."

Baberowski became a historian and a specialist in Eastern Europe. Like Münkler, he teaches and does research at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His book "Verbrannte Erde - Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt" (Scorched Earth - Stalin's Reign of Violence) won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2012. "Nolte was done an injustice," says Baberowski. "Historically speaking, he was right."

Singularity? While conducting his research in Russian archives, Baberowski discovered how vicious Stalin and his thugs had been. Concentration camps had existed in Russia since 1918. In a camp near Moscow, for example, four people shot and killed 20,000 people in one year. "It was essentially the same thing: killing on an industrial scale," says Baberowski.

Causal nexus? "Of course, Hitler was not unaffected by what he knew about the Russian civil war and Stalinism."

Sitting in Café Einstein, he says: "Hitler was no psychopath, and he wasn't vicious. He didn't want people to talk about the extermination of the Jews at his table. Stalin, on the other hand, delighted in adding to and signing off on the death lists. He was vicious. He was a psychopath."

Spoons are clinking against cups, an espresso machine is hissing and other patrons are speaking in muted voices. It's an uncomfortable moment. Can he say this sort of thing? Can Hitler have been less vicious than someone else? Did the people at nearby tables hear what he just said? Such questions spring to the fore, the product of decades of German history education from schools, books and the media. The imprint is deep.

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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