Photo Gallery: The Past that Won't Pass

Foto: Max Ehlert

World War I Guilt Culpability Question Divides Historians Today

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of the start of World War II. Questions over the degree of German guilt remain contentious among historians, who have been fighting over the issue for years.

In his book "The Blood Intoxication of the Bolsheviks," published in the early 1920s, a certain R. Nilostonsky described a particularly horrific form of torture used in the Russian civil war. A rat was placed into an iron pipe, which was then pressed against the body of a prisoner. When the torturers placed the other end of the pipe against a fire, the panic-stricken rat had only one choice: to eat its way through the prisoner.

When Hitler met with his officers on Feb. 1, 1943, after the defeat at Stalingrad, he told them that he suspected some German prisoners were likely to commit treason. "You have to imagine a prisoner being brought to Moscow, and then imagine the 'rat cage.' That prisoner will sign anything."

Historian Ernst Nolte published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on June 6, 1986. In it, he suggested that Hitler's use of the term "rat cage" meant that the Nazi leader had heard of the Soviet form of torture involving a rat and a pipe. For Nolte, this served as evidence of the fear that Hitler and his men had of the Russians, a fear that could have "prompted" them to commit genocide.

In 1988, historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler published a book in which he devoted an entire chapter to the "rat cage," in an effort to prove that Nolte's theory was wrong.

As much as their debate seemed to revolve around rats, the real issue was culpability. How much guilt has Germany acquired throughout its history? And does the anecdote about Hitler and the Russian rat torture somehow diminish German guilt?

This year will be a historic one, marking three important anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the eruption of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The first two dates have been the source of heated debates among German intellectuals. The Fischer controversy in the early 1960s had to do with assigning blame for the eruption of World War I, while the dispute between historians in the mid-1980s revolved around culpability for the Holocaust. Both debates were informed by the positions in what was then a divided nation, including views on German unification.

History is not just history, but also a part of the present. This is especially true of Germany. The overwhelming history of the 20th century engulfed the country and shaped the consciousness of politically active citizens.

Both debates ended in victory for those who advocated Germany accepting the greatest possible culpability and therefore sought to exclude the possibility of German reunification, fearing that a unified Germany could lead to fatal consequences, perhaps even a third world war. As a result, German consciousness was strongly influenced by this acceptance of guilt for decades to come.

A New Identity for Germans?

In the meantime, new information has come to light on the issues in both debates, which tends to support the losing side. Could this lead to a new national identity for Germans?

The importance of this question underscores the need to revisit the Fischer controversy and the dispute among historians in this historic year. It also focuses our attention, once again, on a controversial concept of the day: revisionism. It was once anathema to one side of the debate, and subsequently to the other. But it's a necessary debate.

A device that has already been relegated to history stands on the desk of Hans-Ulrich Wehler: a typewriter. In a sense, Wehler lives between the Netherlands and Italy, in a white house on the outskirts of the northwestern German city of Bielefeld, near the underground Dutch-Italian natural gas pipeline. For Wehler, living so close to the pipeline means that nothing can be built to spoil his view. When he sits in his office, he looks out at trees and meadows. Behind him are enough books to take an ordinary person an entire life to read, but for Wehler they represent only a small portion of his reading material.

He was a professor at the University of Bielefeld for 25 years. His most important work is a book called "Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte" (German Social History). Wehler, 82, is a slim, cheerful man with a hint of the singsong accent typical of the Rhineland region.

When he was an assistant professor at the University of Cologne in the early 1960s, Wehler attended a colloquium led by Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer. But he was disappointed. He had expected something wild and exciting, but Fischer was a conservative man who "engaged in the conventional history of diplomacy."

Destroying a Comfortable Relationship with the Past

In 1961, Fischer published a book called "Germany's Aims in the First World War." A sentence in Fischer's book led to many changes. For Fischer, the German Reich bore "a substantial share of the historical responsibility for the outbreak of the general war."

The young Wehler was speechless. He had been waiting for a sentence like that.

At the time, West Germany was a country that felt relatively at ease with its past. The "national master narrative," the account of Germany's good past, still existed. The 12 Nazi years were certainly viewed as horrific, but they were also largely repressed at the time. German history prior to the Nazi era was viewed as anything from tolerable to heroic, including the history of World War I. German historians of the early postwar period clung to a word that had been used by former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George: "slid." In George's view, the major powers had slid into the war, which meant that everyone was equally culpable or innocent.

Fischer's theories destroyed this comfortable relationship with the past. He saw a continuity between the war objectives and 1914 and 1939: great conquests with the goal of achieving global power. The German Empire became a precursor to the Nazi regime and World War I an overture to World War II. "A mine has been placed against the good conscience of the Germans," SPIEGEL, which agreed with Fischer's ideas, wrote in its review of his book.

For Gerhard Ritter, an important historian at the time, Fischer's book was intolerable. He had served the German Kaiser as a soldier in World War I, and he believed that Fischer's theories were a "national disaster." He was uninterested in revisionist history. The Fischer controversy had begun, a debate that was carried out in newspapers and magazine, and at the 1964 "Historikertag" (Conference of German Historians) in Berlin.

Wehler says he defended Fischer "as much as possible." But he was still too young at the time to be taken seriously as a historian.

The dispute soon became political. In 1964, the German Foreign Ministry tried to prevent Fischer from traveling to the United States to give a series of lectures. In 1965, Franz Josef Strauss, the deputy chairman of the conservative faction in the German parliament, the Bundestag, called upon the government to do everything in its power "to combat and eradicate the habitual, negligent and deliberate distortions of German history and Germany's image today, distortions that are sometimes made with the intention of dissolving the Western community."

Strauss was troubled by the idea of "sole moral responsibility," which was not something Fischer had mentioned but had become a central concept in the dispute. This is often the case in debates, when they become condensed into individual words and sentences, making do with less than complete accuracy in the interest of strengthening an argument.

Carving History into Stone

Fischer's view prevailed. Whether the term being used was "sole responsibility" or a "significant share of the historic responsibility," the national master narrative had been destroyed -- an agreeable outcome for those who dominated the public dialogue starting in the late 1960s, the student revolutionaries who came to be known as the 1968 generation.

In 1972 historian Immanuel Geiss, one of Fischer's students, said: "The overwhelming role played by the German Reich in the outbreak of World War I and the offensive character of Germany's war objectives is no longer a point of controversy, nor is it disputable." It was as if he were carving history into stone.

Geiss knew how to make this final state of the history of World War I politically useful. In his view, the Fischer controversy had produced a new kind of person, "the German who had become insightful." From the 1972 perspective, Geiss had developed instructions for this person. The first and second world wars, he said, had resulted in "the need to make do with the status of lesser powers in Europe," as well as the "final liquidation of all patriotic dreams of a German Reich." He was referring to the possibility of German reunification. "Any attempt to circumvent these political consequences, to squeeze past them, would inevitably lead to a third phase of German power politics, hence leading to a third world war initiated, once again, by Germany."

Four decades later, over lunch at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, Herfried Münkler, 62, shoots that notion down. A third world war? Nowhere in sight. Power politics? Difficult question. Germany is a power in Europe once again, but primarily an economic one. Münkler is critical of Germany, which, as "the strongest player at the center is keeping itself out of the political fray."

Münkler, who teaches political science at Berlin's Humboldt University, has just written a book about World War I, "Der Grosse Krieg" (The Great War). He refers to Fritz Fischer's research as "outrageous, in principle," noting that the historian limited his research to German archives, ignoring Russian, English and French material. This, says Münkler, meant that Fischer couldn't have discovered that the other major powers also had reasons to go to war.

Confusing Scenarios and Political Plans

Besides, says Münkler, Fischer "confused scenarios and political plans." The German military leaders had in fact developed war plans, just as everyone else had, he explains. They were determined to be prepared. But the political leadership did not embrace these plans, says Münkler. Australian historian Christopher Clark reaches similar conclusions in his book "The Sleepwalkers." There are similarities between sleepwalking and sliding into war. Both involve uncontrolled movements.

Nevertheless, Münkler finds the Fischer controversy "helpful in terms of political history" and sees "a positive effect of mistakes." It was necessary, says Münkler, for the Germans to turn to their history once again, for something to break open and for the national master narrative to give way to a critical consciousness.

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.

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
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