Newsletter #92: “The Historians’ Dispute” and the German Question w/ Emily Dische-Becker

By Ben Mabie

Starting in the 1980s, a tremendous scholarly, public, and political debate surfaced in West Germany over how the Nazi period should be integrated into German historiography — and generally how everyday Germans should remember and consider the period in relation to themselves and to the present. This was called “the historians’ dispute.”

This debate forms the immediate backdrop to the German ideological scene analyzed in Emily Dische-Becker’s phenomenal interview. It also points less to a singular German perversion and more to the anxious tics of a latecomer to imperial power and a possible pariah state in a North Atlantic order — tics that say perhaps as much about that order they looked to ascend into as they might about undercurrents in German society itself.

In 1985, loud protests, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, were prompted by West German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan’s visiting the graves of German World War II veterans. At first, Reagan and Kohl’s memorial tour had neglected the sites consecrating the victims of the Holocaust. They only added a stop at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to their itinerary after controversy had erupted. Afterward, a debate broke out in the pages of West German daily papers, on the news, and in politics and popular culture: How should the Holocaust be remembered, and what place does it have in Germany’s history and identity?

The historians’ dispute, first kicked up by the historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte before involving the likes of Jürgen Habermas, not only concerned the status of the Holocaust as a unique event, or the degree to which Nazism may have been an understandable response to the Soviet Union, but also if and how Germans might rediscover sources of pride in their national community.

At the certain risk of oversimplification, what were the basic terms of this debate? The conservative position in the dispute — which, oddly enough, is typified by the movie Downfall, the film that produced a million memes of Adolf Hitler in his bunker — maintains that the Holocaust was not exceptional; in fact, it was merely a reflection of the terror exhibited by the Soviet Union, a terror that the Nazis perhaps plausibly believed might be perpetrated against them. The conduct of mass extermination by the Nazis was, in Nolte’s argument, “a punishment and preventative measure” for the possible “class genocide” of the Communists.

For Nolte, this left-wing liquidationist project was the more paradigmatic form of “annihilation therapy” that had typified so-called emancipatory solutions to social problems since the French Revolution, but that had grown to the apogee in the “Asiatic deeds” of the Bolsheviks. In this view, among the greatest victims of Nazism are the German people themselves, who became doubly subject to the terrors of the twentieth century. (We should not have to point out how dreadful this is at the level of moral or historical judgment, but we find ourselves in an intellectual climate supremely well primed for this unnerving revisionism. Let’s put it plainly: this is Nazi propaganda.)

In addition to rebuffing the most basic Nazi apologetics offered by the conservatives, and challenging the antisemitic logic that looked to partially justify the Shoah, the liberal position wanted to reaffirm Nazism as a unique event, shorn of any relativizing comparisons to the Russian Civil War or Jacobin terror. Figures like the Social Democratic historian Hans Mommsen meticulously rebuffed the historical claims of Nolte, detailing the much deeper racist foundation that the “final solution” rested on, one that preceded any reference to what Moscow was doing. Culpability for the millions dead traversed the whole state:

The anti-Bolshevism garnished with anti-Semitism had the effect, in particular for the dominant elites, and certainly not just the National Socialists, that Hitler’s program of racial annihilation met with no serious resistance. . . . To accept with resignation the acts of screaming injustice and to psychologically repress their social prerequisites by calling attention to similar events elsewhere and putting the blame on the Bolshevist world threat recalls the thought patterns that made it possible to implement genocide.

In other words, it was not just that the comparisons were between basically incomparable phenomena, but that the very act of comparison was what had rationalized then — as now — some of the most horrific acts in human history. The Holocaust was a singular event because of its scale, but also because, as Enzo Traverso puts it, “it was perpetrated for the specific purpose of a biological remodeling of the human race. It was conceived not as a means to an end but as an end to itself.”

German “memory culture” was pitched between these two poles of inexplicable irrationality and a reasonable defense to totalitarianism gone wrong. When compared to its alternative, it is impossible not to take up the torch of Habermas and Mommsen. But Traverso cautions, this overemphasis on “singularity” may blunt the modern technologies of race and state violence that the Holocaust grew out of, and may also transform the event into a “cataclysm without antecedents or caucuses, as if the executioners, their practices, means of action and ideology belonged neither to their age nor to their civilized context.”

Remarkably, both sides of the historians’ dispute shared a common appeal: a desire to establish, or shore up, Germany’s “Western” credentials. For the Right, with its war against a Soviet menace, and for the center-left, with its newfound commitment to human rights and liberal democracy — values Israel was purportedly a lonely outpost for in an autocratic Middle East. Fascinatingly, Jürgen Habermas, who occupied a center-left position in the historians’ dispute, worried that denying or downplaying the singularity of Nazism would, in the 1980s, “close the possibility of Germany’s reintegration into the West.” The conservative scholar Michael Stürmer had argued in similar terms, that this historical inquiry into the actual (read: apologetic) assessment of Nazi crimes was necessary for the “affirmation and development of the Atlantic and European ties to our country.”

This troubled exchange between the likes of Nolte and Habarmas revealed quite a bit about the price of entry into the US-led North Atlantic order, where membership is either about fighting the barbaric East or the endorsement of liberal democracy. The debate is about which of these criteria is primary.

Bue Rübner Hansen has argued in a forthcoming essay in Left East that Germany’s fealty to Israel is also in part rooted in the desire on the part of some in Germany, from the immediate postwar period through to the present, to establish their Atlantacist bona fides and credentials: support for Israel was also an extension of their desire to be a good partner to the West, specifically the United States in the “war on terror” or the US-led Cold War in Europe. Support for Israel, which similarly positions itself as a far-eastern outpost of the West against a non-European barbarism, is part of the standard price of entry into this North Atlantic world — one Germany pays a premium for due to its twentieth-century history.

In an early draft of the essay, Rübner Hansen wrote that “the repressive shift in German memory culture” became more intense after 9/11, as “changing geopolitical dynamics transformed the conditions for being part of the West.” All of this, he writes, challenged Germany’s previous anti-militarist commitments and green-lighted more extreme Islamophobia. I wonder to what degree Germany’s once-checkered status in the North Atlantic alliance has played out in this dynamic around Palestine and Israel. How much should we understand Germany’s anxious and racist attack on Palestinian solidarity, or even their philosemitism, as related to its uncomfortable history in relation to the dominant Atlanticist order of US hegemony?

It’s fascinating but perhaps not surprising that Germany’s relationship to this memory of the Holocaust, to antisemitism and Islamophobia, have been so closely related to its anxious status in the global imperialist chain, whether we’re discussing Nazism’s European conquest as compensation for frustrated overseas expansion, or Germany’s desire to shore up its Atlantacist credentials. One wonders if the focus on German nationalism would be better off if it were integrated into our understanding of various violent bigotries, be they antisemitic or Islamophobic, the sort of geopolitical or intraimperial tensions and pressures that prime nationalism — and placed in a specific historical context.

To put it another way: If an analysis of German racism needs to interrogate its place in the US- and previously British-led world order as much as it probes Germany’s own history of nationalism, and if we come to view the perversity of Germany’s response to the ethnic cleansing of Gaza as, at least in part, a symptom of the world order that Washington built, then what does all this reveal about antisemitism and its transformations in the modern and contemporary world? It would seem to caution against theorizing a transhistorical fear of otherness or a rooted national bigotry in favor of other kinds of historical and political analysis.

If the basic frame of this debate is animated by integration into the Washington-led global order, how should we alternatively understand this history of the world and the Holocaust, beyond the terms of the historians’ dispute? In his history of the European Civil War, Fire and Blood, Enzo Traverso offers another portolan:

The genocide of the Jews, perpetrated between the start of its military offensive against the USSR in June 1941 and the end of the war, lay at the heart of a double project of Nazi policy: on the one hand, conquest of Lebensraum by the German colonization of Slav territories; on the other, the destruction of Communism. In the Nazi vision of the world, Slavs and Communism were identified with a state controlled by a Jewish elite. The colonization of Lebensraum, destruction of Communism and extermination of the Jews were thus combined in a single war of conquest and extermination. It is true that anti-Semitism formed the ideological and cultural background of this genocide, its indispensable foundation, but it was only in the context of a total war aimed at reshaping the map of Europe that it was able to mutate into a policy of extermination. . . . In the context of the war, the Holocaust certainly revealed a specific dynamic bound up with the Nazi project of racial domination, but its premises were inscribed in the longue durée of European and German history. Despite its specific features, the Nazi war against the Jews belonged to this European and global civil war. While it would be wrong to try and deny its singularity, diluting it in the totality of violence of the war, it would be equally absurd to isolate it from this global context, which was its soil and its detonator.

Today, Germany’s xenophobic and bigoted impulses are similarly overdetermined by the problem of the color line and the pressure cooker of geopolitical competition. Those dark days of the last century do not seem so far from us now.