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The "Third Reich"

History and Historians

"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.

By Ian Kershaw

The annual gathering of German historians - the ‘Historikertag' - in 1998 was more than usually significant. It marked, in fact, the end of a historiographical era. It indicated that a kind of paradigm shift in intellectual approaches to the Nazi era had taken place. The grail of historical orthodoxy was passing from one generation of historians to another. It was the point at which the ‘Hitler Youth Generation' of historians - born in the late twenties or early thirties, old enough to have experienced as teenagers the gathering whirlwind of destruction during the death-throes of the Nazi regime, trained in historical scholarship during the 1950s, and gradually producing the leading figures in the profession during the 1960s and 1970s - gave its valediction and conceded the dominant position it had held to a generation which had been born in the 1950s or 1960s, long after the collapse of Nazism and the end of the war.

What had happened at the Historikertag is fully explained in Edouard Husson's splendid book, to which I have the honour to add this foreword. In brief, the leading representatives of the ‘Hitler-Youth generation' of historians were put in the position by the younger generation of having to confront serious allegations about the complicity in the racial policies of the Nazi regime of their revered ‘Doktorväter' - their teachers, mentors, and supervisors of their dissertations - who were themselves dominant figures in the post war historical profession. The readiness to defend in certain ways, through evoking empathy with the circumstances, such collaboration in the direst aspects of race-policy in the hyper-nationalist Nazi State was intensely ironic in the generation which had so vociferously made the post-national values of a liberal state, drawing its identity from the break with Nazi crimes against humanity, its hallmark. It was hardly guaranteed to uphold and strengthen the credentials of an intellectual position, which had held sway since the 1960s but had already been severely shaken by the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The moral vigour with which the younger generation of historians condemned the Nazi past of the early post-war doyens of the historical profession, and the undermining of the moral authority of the ‘Hitler-Youth generation' was striking. It fitted the climate in which, on a more popular level, too, the debates about the Germans as ‘Hitler's willing executioners' unleashed by Daniel Goldhagen's book of that title (analysed by Edouard Husson in exemplary fashion in an earlier study) and about the behaviour of the Wehrmacht in the genocidal war in Eastern Europe had been so intense. It was a sign that the debates had moved on from those which had preoccupied the ‘Hitler-Youth generation' for so long to the defining characteristic of the Nazi era, so important to the inhabitants of the newly unified Germany after 1990: the involvement of population of the German nation-state in a ‘war of annihilation' and the Holocaust.

It is a truism that concerns of the present determine historians' approaches to the past. Nowhere has this been more obvious than Germany, a country whose very division for almost half a century was the seemingly permanent legacy of the Nazi past. When I prepared the text in the early 1980s for the first edition of the Nazi Dictatorship, which was published in 1985, the debates I surveyed and evaluated were those which reflected, for the most part, the prevailing values in the separate parts of Germany during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s - decades dominated by the ‘Hitler Youth generation' of historians. I felt it necessary to draft a first chapter which endeavoured to explain the peculiar flavour - as it seemed to me, writing as a non-German - of the debates, combining different accentuation of political and ideological positions, varying strands of historical-philosophical or methodological approaches, and, not least, the inescapable moral dimension of writing on the Third Reich. Most of the conflicting interpretations I explored arose among ‘liberal' historians of one kind or another in the Federal Republic. The relatively monochrome Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy in the German Democratic Republic remained a constant - though one which influenced to some degree the flavour of the debates in West Germany.

In the fifteen years or so since my book was originally published, major changes in the historiography of the Third Reich and, specifically, in the approaches of German historians to that era, have taken place. Some of the debates, which featured so prominently between the 1960's and 1980s, have lost much of their vibrancy. In other cases, the character of the debate has altered fundamentally.

The most important external impulse to these changes has been the demise of the Soviet bloc and the unification of Germany, which took place in its wake. This coincided with the arrival at retirement age - or in some cases the death - of those historians who had dominated the debates about the Third Reich since the 1960s: the Hitler-Youth generation'. Within a relatively short time, the opening up of important new archival resources in eastern Europe (offering opportunities for the first time to undertake detailed empirical research into the unfolding of unprecedented genocidal war and the emergence of the Holocaust), accompanied by the new perspectives which a lengthier distance of time as well as the fall of the Iron Curtain brought, has changed the historiographical climate.

Certain debates have lost all or much of their earlier heat. The decline in interest in Marxist analysis of all kind since the collapse of the Soviet system has been responsible for some of this. Old conflicts about the ‘primacy of economics' or ‘primacy of politics' seem tired and dated. The deepest complicity of ‘big business' in the most terrible forms of Nazi humanity is by now generally accepted, as is the part played by economic imperatives in Nazism's ideological drive, without it seeming necessary to reduce that drive to little more than an expression of capitalist interests. Similarly, the ending of any serious Marxist input into debates on comparative fascism has, though not truncating all discussion of the concept, helped to cool intellectual exchanges almost to freezing point. Few today would deny that Nazism falls within the family of European fascisms (even if it formed an untypical member). But it seems equally obvious that saying this is hardly to utter the last word on what constitutes the essence of Nazism, whose most important characteristics have to be located in the particular development of German politics, culture and society, not in some lowest-common-denominator checklist of what defines European fascism. In a third way, too, the end of the Cold War has had an effect, this time at the level of social history: as the interest in ‘class' as an analytical concept has declined since the collapse of Communism, the fascination with the history of the industrial working class under Nazism has subsided, giving way to studies on women, gender and the family.

Some of the debates upon which I focused had, however, little - at least in a direct sense - to do with the coexistence of competing German states, but were a reflection of deep divides within variants of liberal thinking among the Federal Republic's historians - for the most part among those of the ‘Hitler Youth generation'. These had studied in the 1950s, when there was little public discussion of the Nazi past, when apologetics were rife, when the tendency to demonise Hitler prevailed, and when the historical profession showed marked continuities with the ‘historicist' traditions of the pre-Hitler era. As they were beginning their own research, the returned mass of captured documents from the beginning of the 1960s opened up new possibilities of empirical research into the history of the Third Reich. And at the same time, Fritz Fischer's controversial claims about German expansionist aims in First World War were ending once and for all the historicist hegemony. The up-and-coming historians now consciously broke with historicism, looking to the recent past for moral and political lessons for a future in a post-nation-state whose commitment to western liberal democracy and rejection of the ‘totalitarian' alternative - whether Nazism or Communism - was the fundament of its identity.

While some of this generation turned to explore foreign policy and war leadership, where Hitler's role seemed so self-evident, others examined the internal workings of the regime, party-state dualism, or the functioning of specific government ministries or agencies, to reveal a picture of gathering governmental and administrative confusion in which Hitler's direct hand was often far less visible. The roots of the interpretational divide between the so-called ‘intentionalists' and ‘structuralists' (or ‘functionalists') are to be found in this simple division of labour. But they flourished in a climate of increasing moral and political preoccupation with the Third Reich (after the early post-war years of relative neglect), and became completely polarised in the wake of the extreme politicisation of German universities at the end of the 1960s. Clashes of method between outright empiricists and those who insisted on applying the theories of social science also played their part. By the end of the 1970's, the rapid expansion and challenge of Alltagsgeschichte (the ‘history of everyday life'), looking at history ‘from below', was adding a further component to the great divide between those who wanted to see the regime as essentially following a consistent program laid out by Hitler ‘s ideological intentions and those who saw Hitler as a ‘weak dictator' at the head of a regime whose structural chaos and functional competition drove it increasingly to self-destructive radicalisation.

(to be continued)


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