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The Historikerstreit ("historians' quarrel") was an intellectual and political controversy in the late 1980s in West Germany about the crimes of Nazi Germany, including their comparability with the crimes of the Soviet Union. The German word Streit translates variously as "quarrel", "dispute", or "conflict". The most common translation of Historikerstreit in English language academic discourse is "the historians' dispute", though the German term is often used.
The Historikerstreit spanned the years 1986-1989, and pitted right-wing against left-wing intellectuals. The positions taken by the right-wing intellectuals were largely based on the totalitarianism approach which takes a comparative approach to totalitarian states, while left-wing intellectuals argued that fascism was uniquely evil, referred to as the Sonderweg approach, and could not be equated with the crimes of Soviet communism. The former were accused by their critics of downplaying Nazi crimes, while the latter were accused by their critics of downplaying Soviet crimes. The debate attracted much media attention in West Germany, with its participants' frequently giving television interviews and writing op-ed pieces in newspapers. It flared up again briefly in 2000 when one of its leading figures, Ernst Nolte, was awarded the Konrad Adenauer Prize for science.
Debates similar to those of the Historikerstreit in West Germany have been conducted in other countries independently of the German debate, especially after the fall of communism. In most of Eastern and Central Europe, a comparative approach to Soviet and Nazi crimes is the mainstream scholarly and official position taken. In the western world, the debate revolving around issues similar to those of the Historikerstreit was renewed following the publication of The Black Book of Communism in 1997. The British historian Norman Davies argued in 2006 that revelations made after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe after 1989-91 about Soviet crimes had discredited the left-wing position in the Historikerstreit debate.
Origins in post-World War II German historiography
Immediately after World War II, intense debates arose in intellectual circles about how to interpret Nazi Germany, a contested discussion that continues. Two of the more hotly debated questions were whether Nazism was in some way part of the “German national character”, and how much responsibility, if any, the German people bore for the crimes of Nazism. Various non-German historians in the immediate post-war era, such as A. J. P. Taylor and Sir Lewis Namier, argued that Nazism was the culmination of German history and that the vast majority of Germans were responsible for Nazi crimes. Different assessments of Nazism were common among Marxists, who insisted on the economic aspects of Nazism and conceived of it as the culmination of a capitalist crisis, and liberals, who emphasized Hitler's personal role and responsibility, and bypassed the larger problem of the relation of ordinary German people to the regime.
Within West Germany then, most historians were strongly defensive. In the assessment of Gerhard Ritter and others, Nazism was a totalitarian movement that represented only the work of a small criminal clique; Germans were victims of Nazism, and the Nazi era represented a total break in German history.
Starting in the 1960s, that assessment was challenged by younger German historians. Fritz Fischer argued in favor of a Sonderweg conception of German history that saw Nazism as the result of the way German society had developed. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the functionalist school of historiography emerged; its proponents argued that medium- and lower-ranking German officials were not just obeying orders and policies, but actively engaged in the making of the policies that led to the Holocaust. The functionalists thereby cast blame for the Holocaust across a wider circle. Many right-wing German historians disliked the implications of the Sonderweg conception and the functionalist school; they were generally identified with the left and structuralism, and were seen by the right-wingers as being derogatory toward Germany.
By the mid-1980s, right-wing German historians began to think it was time for the nation to start celebrating much of its history again. Michael Stürmer's 1986 article "Land without history", questioned Germany's lack of positive history in which to take pride. Stürmer's position as advisor and speechwriter to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl heightened the controversy. At the same time, many left-wing German historians disliked what they saw as the nationalistic tone of the Kohl government. A project that raised the ire of many on the left, and which became a central issue of the Historikerstreit, were two proposed museums celebrating modern German history, to be built in West Berlin and Bonn. Many of the left-wing participants in the Historikerstreit were to claim that this museum was meant to “exonerate” the German past, and asserted that there was a connection between the proposed museum, the government, and the views of such historians as Michael Stürmer, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber. In October 1986, Hans Mommsen wrote that Stürmer's assertion that he who controls the past also controls the future, his work as a co-editor with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper which had been publishing articles by Ernst Nolte and Joachim Fest denying the “singularity” of the Holocaust, and his work as an advisor to Chancellor Kohl should cause "concern" among historians.
The "quarrel" begins
The debate opened on June 6, 1986 when the philosopher and historian Ernst Nolte had a speech printed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, entitled Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will (“The past that won't go away”). Nolte argued that the “race murder” of the Nazi death camps was a “defensive reaction” to the “class murder” of the Stalinist system of gulags. In his view, the gulags were the original and greater horror. In the face of the threat of Bolshevism, it was reasonable that the German people would turn to Nazi fascism. He had already articulated this argument the previous year in an essay published in English: “Auschwitz... was above all a reaction born out of the annihilating occurrences of the Russian Revolution... the so-called annihilation of the Jews during the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original”.
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, responding in the newspaper Die Zeit, rejected this position, arguing that it could be seized upon as “a kind of cancelling out of damages” for the Holocaust (which phrase he used as the article's title and would use the following year as the title of an anthology of his recent political writings). Habermas complained that other historians such as Michael Stürmer and Andreas Hillgruber were seeking to whitewash the German past, and uniquely German aspects of the Holocaust.
The views of Ernst Nolte and Jürgen Habermas were at the center of the debate, conducted almost exclusively through articles and letters to the editor in the newspapers Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. People in West Germany followed the debate with interest. The debate was noted for its highly vitriolic and aggressive tone, with the participants often engaging in ad hominem attacks against the opposing side.
In Hillgruber's 1986 book Zweierlei Untergang (“Two kinds of downfall: the smashing of the German Reich and the end of European Jewry”), he lamented the mass expulsions of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia and Poland at the end of World War II and compared the sufferings of the Heimatvertriebene (“those expelled from their native land”) to that of victims of the Holocaust. Hillgruber had not supported Nolte, but the controversy over Zweierlei Untergang became linked with Nolte's views when Habermas and Wehler characterized both men as conservatives trying to minimize Nazi crimes.
The debate centered on four main questions:
- Were the crimes of Nazi Germany uniquely evil in history, or were other crimes, such as those of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, comparably evil?
- Did German history follow a "special path" (the above-mentioned Sonderweg) leading inevitably to Nazism?
- If that teleological interpretation was accepted, then most or all of pre-1945 German history bore the taint of the impending Nazism, while Nazism was considered inevitable. If the Sonderweg analysis were valid, it would undermine Nolte's argument that the Holocaust was a defensive reaction to Soviet crimes, and would suggest that the origins of Nazism predated World War I. The Sonderweg analysis, however, did not necessarily consider Nazism from a teleological perspective, but tried to identify historical factors explaining its rise (i.e. popularity of anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Germany, Prussian militarism, etc.)
- The West German historians Klaus Hildebrand, Gerhard Ritter, and Andreas Hillgruber rejected the Sonderweg view, while the British historian A. J. P. Taylor and the West German historians Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Wolfgang Mommsen, Hans Mommsen and Fritz Fischer supported it.
- A sub-issue of the Sonderweg thesis concerned the reasons for the alleged Sonderweg. Stürmer argued for geographical factors as the reason for the Sonderweg while Wehler insisted on cultural and social factors. One of Stürmer’s leading critics, Jürgen Kocka, himself a proponent of the Sonderweg view of history, argued that “Geography is not destiny”.
- Were other genocides comparable to the Holocaust? Many people believed that such comparisons tended to trivialize the Holocaust, but others maintained that the Holocaust could best be understood in the context of the 20th century by means of these comparisons.
- Were the crimes of the Nazis a reaction to Soviet crimes under Stalin, as Nolte contended? Should the German people bear a special burden of guilt for Nazi crimes, or could new generations of Germans find sources of pride in their history?
On one side of the argument were the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and the historians Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jürgen Kocka, Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, Heinrich August Winkler, Eberhard Jäckel, and Wolfgang Mommsen. On the other side were the philosopher Ernst Nolte, the journalist Joachim Fest, and the historians Andreas Hillgruber, Klaus Hildebrand, Rainer Zitelmann, Hagen Schulze, and Michael Stürmer. Karl Dietrich Bracher and Richard Löwenthal argued for some compromise; they said that comparing different totalitarian systems was a valid intellectual exercise, but insisted that the Holocaust should not be compared to other genocides.
A few foreign historians also contributed to the debate. The British historians Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw sided with the Sonderweg position. The American historian Gordon A. Craig was highly critical of the views of Nolte, but generally defended Hillgruber.
A comparative approach to Soviet and Nazi crimes has gained momentum in much of Eastern and Central Europe following the Fall of Communism after 1989–1990. The debate was renewed in the western world in 1997, with the publication of The Black Book of Communism. The British historian Norman Davies argued in 2006 that revelations made after the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe after 1989-91 about Soviet crimes had discredited the left-wing position taken in the 1980s during the Historikerstreit debate. In recent years, the debate has arisen anew in the European Parliament and Western intellectual circles, notably resulting in the Prague Declaration of 2008.
- Jarausch 1988.
Lukacs 1991: "[T]he proper English translation […] is not a 'historians' debate' but a 'historians' quarrel'".
- Pakier, Małgorzata; Stråth, Bo (2010). A European Memory?: Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance. Berghahn Books. p. 264.
- Cohen 2000.
- Davies, Norman (2006). Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory. London: Penguin Books. p. 470.
- Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A Profile in Power, in particular the introduction (London, 1991, rev. 2001).
- Stürmer, Michael "History In a Land Without History", pages 16-17, in Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited Ernst Piper, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993
- Wicke, Christian Helmut Kohl's Quest for Normality: His Presentation of the German Nation and Himself Berghahn: New York, 2015 pages 185-186
- Habermas, Jürgen “A Kind of Settlement of Damages On Apologetic Tendencies In German History Writing” pages 34–44 from Forever In the Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 page 41; Maier, Charles The Unmasterable Past Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1988 pages 121-159; Mommsen, Hans "Search for the 'Lost History'?" pages 101–113 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 page 110; Mommsen, Wolfgang J. "Neither Denial nor Forgetfulness Will Free Us" pages 202-215 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 pages 204-205.
- Mommsen, Hans "The New Historical Consciousness" pages 114-124 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1993 page 115.
- Nolte 1985, 36
- olte, Ernst. 1986. Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6, 1986.
- Habermas 1986; this article was anthologized in Habermas 1987
- Evans, Richard J. In Hitler's Shadow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1989, pp. 116-117
- This work, has not been published in English.
- Kocka, Jürgen "Hitler Should Not Be Repressed by Stalin and Pol Pot" pages 85-92 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993 page 91.
The voluminous academic literature on the Historikerstreit includes multiple anthologies of the major interventions, e.g., Augstein 1993 , Habermas 1987, and New German Critique 1988.
- Aly, Götz. 2006. The logic of horror, June 12, 2006 German original in Die Zeit on June 1, 2006.
- Augstein, Rudolf, et al. 1993 . Forever in the shadow of Hitler? : original documents of the Historikerstreit, the controversy concerning the singularity of the Holocaust. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press. (English language edition of “Historikerstreit”: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistschen Judenvernichtung, Munich: Piper.)
- Baldwin, Peter. 1990. Hitler, the Holocaust and the Historians Dispute. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Cohen, Roger (June 21, 2000). "Hitler Apologist Wins German Honor, and a Storm Breaks Out". New York Times.
- Craig, Gordon. 1987. The War of the German Historians. New York Review of Books, February 15, 1987, 16-19.
- Eley, Geoff. 1988. Nazism, Politics and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit 1986–1987. Past and Present, 1988 November, 121: 171–208.
- Evans, Richard. 1989. In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past, New York, NY: Pantheon.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1986. Eine Art Schadenabwicklung: Die apologetischen Tendenzen in der deutschen Zeitgeschichtsschreibung [free translation: A kind of canceling out of damages: the apologistic tendencies in German writing on postwar history]. Die Zeit, 18 July 1986.
- Habermas, Jürgen. 1987. Eine Art Schadensabwicklung: kleine politische Schriften VI. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp.
- Hillgruber, Andreas. 1986. Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reichs und das Ende des europäischen Judentums. Berlin: Siedler.
- Hirschfeld, Gerhard. 1987. Erasing the Past? History Today, 1987 August, 37(8): 8-10.
- New German Critique. Special Issue on the Historikerstreit. 1988 Spring - Summer, v. 44.
- Jarausch, Konrad H. (1988). "Removing the Nazi stain? The quarrel of the historians". German Studies Review 11 (2): 285–301. JSTOR 1429974.
- Kershaw, Ian. 1989. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretations, London: Arnold.
- Kühnl, Reinhard (editor). 1987. Vergangenheit, die nicht vergeht: Die "Historikerdebatte": Darstellung, Dokumentation, Kritik. Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein.
- Lukacs, John (1991). "Reworking the Past by Peter Baldwin, ed.". History: Reviews of New Books 19 (14): 174. doi:10.1080/03612759.1991.9949377.
- Maier, Charles. 1988. The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Muller, Jerry. 1989. German Historians At War.Commentary, 1989 May, 87(5): 33-42.
- Nolte, Ernst. 1985. Between myth and revisionism. In H. W. Koch (ed.), Aspects of the Third Reich. London: Macmillan.
- Nolte, Ernst. 1986. Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6, 1986.
- Nolte, Ernst. 1987. Das Vergehen der Vergangenheit: Antwort an meine Kritiker im sogenannten Historikerstreit, Berlin: Ullstein.
- Peter, Jürgen. 1995. Historikerstreit und die Suche nach einer nationalen Identität der achtziger Jahre, European University Studies, Political Science Vol. 288, Frankfurt am Main, New York: Peter Lang
- Alfred Sohn-Rethel. 1978. Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism,London, CSE Books.
- Stürmer, Michael. 1986. Land ohne geschichte [Land without a history], translated into English as "History In a Land Without History" pages 16–17 from Forever In The Shadow of Hitler? edited by Ernst Piper, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993.
- A. J. P. Taylor. 1980. Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918. Oxford University Press.
- A. J. P. Taylor. 1997. The Origins of the Second World War. Longman
- Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. 1988. Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit? Ein polemischer Essay zum "Historikerstreit" Munich: C.H. Beck.
- Nolte's article in FAZ Republished by the German government's German Historical Museum.