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The "Third Reich"

History and Historians
part two

"Understanding Hitler" may well be a questionable task, but understanding his German historians is indispensable for a country endeavouring to come to terms with a dark period of its past. Ian Kershaw, Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield and author of the highly acclaimed biography "Hitler", in his foreword to Edouard Husson's "Comprendre le Holocaust", takes a closer look at the "Third Reich" historiography (part I: click here)

By Ian Kershaw

Curiously, in the debates of the 1960s and 1970s, the Holocaust had hardly figured. The syllabuses at German universities during those years had seldom contained series of lectures or seminars on the persecution and the extermination of the Jews. Few of the leading historians of Nazi Germany had undertaken systematic research on the ‘Final Solution'. Yet beneath the surface, it preoccupied all of them. Once the American television film, Holocaust, had done what academic works had failed to do and driven the horror of the killing of the Jews into public consciousness, research on anti-Semitism and the genesis of the ‘Final Solution' expanded rapidly. The growth in ‘Alltagsgeschichte', which had begun by investigating the grass roots of opposition but had increasingly revealed the extent of complicity in Nazi racial policy, also played its part.

The result was the explosion, in the Historikerstreit (‘historians' dispute) of the mid 1980's, of the divide between the warring camps of West German historians, now with the question of the uniqueness of comparability of the Holocaust as the central terrain of debate. It was a debate involving almost all the Third Reich experts of the ‘Hitler Youth generation', and practically no one else. But it was their last fling. As Edouard Husson so plainly shows, the divides of the Historikerstreit were not repeated at the time of German unification of 1990. Their conflicts, to which the issue of the identity of the old Federal Republic had been the constant backcloth, now seemed to lose relevance in the context of the challenge of identity of a new nation-state - something that had seemed an impossible dream for some, for others an entity thankfully confined to the past.

In a further way, too, the divides of the 1970s and 1980s appeared passé. The more the younger generation of historians, now able to explore east European archives, investigated the unfolding of genocidal policy, the more they rendered redundant the older point of division. They were able to show that the complexity of the processes involved cannot be captured by the simple ‘intentionalist' arguments, though at the same time they have upheld Hitler's centrality, his inspiration and authorisation of all the key steps into outright genocide. And in restoring the lost emphasis upon the driving-force of a lethal anti-Semitic ideology permeating practically all areas of the regime, they have eliminated the often exaggerated stress which the ‘structuralists' often placed upon the dysfunctionality of the governmental ‘system' as an explanatory factor, combined with playing down the role of ideology.

As research into the Nazi past has passed out of the hands of the ‘founding father' generation, new perspectives of interpretation, built upon highly impressive empirical findings, have replaced those, which for so long seemed so important. Most significantly, the focus has gradually shifted throughout the 1980s and 1990s to the very heart of the Nazi rule: extermination policy and the planned eradication of ‘inferior' peoples -at their forefront, of course, the Jews.

Two other historiographical developments, arising in the 1980s and continuing into the 1990s, have, however, proved to be paths leading into cul-de-sacs. The potentially dangerous or misleading implications of these approaches, though far from eradicated, have largely subsided. The first of these new tendencies was the attempt to look away from the destructive racial dynamic of National Socialism to emphasise its ‘positive', modernising components as part of a German national history in which the Hitler regime could be fitted as a not wholly negative part. Edouard Husson's book is particularly good in its analysis and criticism of this strain of thinking among the intellectuals of a new ‘national' (though not neo-Nazi) Right. It seems, however, to have lost ground substantially since the early 1990s and to have been largely discredited.

The second tendency has much greater support. - not just among German historians - but is nevertheless unlikely to lead in a fruitful direction. This is the rehabilitation since 1990 of the concept of ‘totalitarianism'. Again, Edouard Husson shows in some excellent passages how this concept has been utilised for political purposes in defining identity, both in the old Federal Republic and in the new Germany. He examines with notable clarity the development in the historical writing of Ernst Nolte (whose work appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance, almost uniquely, in France). He shows how, from providing a formative influence on the development of comparative fascism in the 1960s - seen as the ideological counter to Marxism - Nolte turned into an arch-exponent of totalitarianism, holding the view that National Socialism was the response to the threat of Soviet Bolshevism, its race genocide the reaction to the primary class genocide of the Bolsheviks. He also exposes with rigorous clarity some of the weaknesses of the ‘totalitarianism' theorem - its essential descriptiveness, the superficiality and limits of much of its comparison - as well as the more recent political instrumentalisation of the concept.

Naturally, it remains right and proper for historians to highlight the crimes of Stalinism. For that matter, they could also do a service in uncovering the crimes of Mao's China, and other dictatorships. These seldom figure, however, in any debates on totalitarianism, whereas unending attention is paid to the ‘totalitarianism' of the German Democratic Republic when, apart from existing on German soil, comparison with the Nazi regime reveals little more than fundamental differences. A rigorously defined concept of ‘totalitarianism' might still have residual uses of analytical categorisation in political science. But it is unlikely to lead to notable insights into either the Soviet regime or the contrasting regime of Hitler. Similarly, the empirical research carried out into the behaviour of ordinary soldiers on the eastern front enables us to see more clearly than before how anti-Bolshevism could be utilised to reinforce stereotypes - amount to genocidal imagery - of Jews. But genocidal imagery about the Jews predated Bolshevism. To see it as caused by, as opposed to reinforced by, anti-Bolshevism remains a false deduction.

‘Know your historians and you will know their history' is an old maxim. This applies with particular emphasis to the German historical profession since 1945. The historiographical debates, which I attempted to examine in The Nazi Dictatorship, were the product of complex processes at work on the historians, especially, of the ‘Hitler Youth generation'. It is the great merit of Edouard Hussons's study that he has been able to analyse, on the basis of a more profound and thorough investigation than has ever been conducted before, the influences which shaped the historical writing of this generation. His command of the issues in such a vast outpouring of scholarship, covering almost five decades, that experts could be forgiven for not keeping pace with it, is admirable in the extreme. The analysis is invariably judicious, balanced, full of insights, and commendably unemotional in tone. It is difficult to imagine a more exhaustive analysis of these important intellectual currents being undertaken. The exploration of the shifting patterns of thought during the 1980s and 1990s is particularly excellent. The book deserves to be read by all who have an interest in how the history of the Nazi era has been constructed by Germany's leading historians. I am delighted to have been offered the opportunity to contribute this foreword, and I wish the book and its author every success.

8. August 2001

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