The views of Andreas Hillgruber on the Final Solution


From Time magazine, September 22, 1986



Name-Calling over Aufrechnung

A scholarly work sparks an op-ed debate on the Holocaust


The event, an all-day public hearing in Bonn on plans for a new national historical museum, had been called by the opposition Social Democratic Party and seemed to have all the potential for controversy of a Rotary meeting. But that was before the appearance of Frankfurt University sociologist Jürgen Habermas, best known as the intellectual mentor of the student revolts that swept through West German universities in the late 1960s. Waving a 110-page volume before the audience, Habermas angrily declared, "This book is a scandal."

The offending work turned out to be a book based on two lectures by Cologne University historian Andreas Hillgruber. It bore the breathsapping title Two Kinds of Destruction: The Shattering of the German Reich and the End of European Jewry. In the months since Habermas' outburst in early July, Destruction has been at the center of an academic debate over whether some of West Germany's leading social scientists are beginning to study the Holocaust through revisionist lenses, and whether in doing so they are seeking to minimize German responsibility for the murder of 6 million European Jews. Conducted largely through the op-ed and letters pages of leading national newspapers, the sparring contest indicates the emerging determination of some intellectuals to reject the notion that Germany's Nazi past was historically unique and uniquely evil, the conventional judgement that has prevailed for 40 years. Moreover, since two of the participants have ties to Helmut Kohl, who has pointedly called himself the first West German Chancellor of the postwar generation, the issue has gained salient political overtones.

Hillgruber argues that the Allied "liberation" of Nazi Germany in the Winter of 1944-45 was perceived as anything but that by most of the population. While occupants of the Nazi concentration camps were "fully justified" in welcoming the invaders, he says, many others -- particularly those in the path of advancing Soviet troops in the eastern provinces -- justifiably feared a "threatening orgy of revenge." Historians contemplating this period, he says, should thus "identify" with the terrified population and view the determined last stand of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in the context of the "overflooding of the home country by the Red Army." He makes this argument, even though the Wehrmacht's action allowed the death camps to continue operating at peak capacity right up to the end of the war.

Hillgruber insists that his analysis results in no lessening of German responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust but simply in "getting the whole picture." But in a scathing rebuttal published in the respected liberal weekly Die Zeit, Habermas called Destruction "grossly apologetic" and scoffed at Hillgruber's penchant for viewing the Third Reich's collapse through the "'eyes of the brave soldiers."' Habermas maintains that I am not objecting to comparative research" or to arguments that do not necessarily presume the Nazi era was unique But he objects vehemently to what he sees as the growing practice of Aufrechnung (the balancing of accounts) the automatic totting up of mitigating circumstances for every Nazi atrocity. That, he says, amounts to a "break in the dam" of popular revulsion against the Nazi era that could "fully undermine the critical attitude [we should have] toward our recent past."

Habermas also criticized an article in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Ernst Nolte, an internationally renowned historian and author of the classic 1963 work, Three Faces of Fascism. In the newspaper piece, Nolte suggested that the Holocaust is best seen as the historical reaction to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and contended that the Nazis employed basically the same coercive methods used earlier by the Bolsheviks: mass deportations, executions, torture, death camps and the extermination of entire ethnic groups. The sole punitive innovation of the Third Reich, he argued, was the "technical gassing" of the Jews. Declared Nolte: "The Gulag Archipelago was earlier than Auschwitz."

Other historians judged overly "apologist"' by Habermas include the University of Bonn's Klaus Hildebrand, a close associate of Hillgruber, who in a scholarly article praised Nolte's "trailblazing" approach to Nazism as merely one of many forms of totalitarianism, and the University of Erlangen's Michael Stürmer, who has written that an unprejudiced examination of the past is "morally legitimate and politically necessary." Both Hildebrand and Stürmer are consultants on the museum project, a favorite of Kohl's, and Stürmer occasionally writes speeches for the Chancellor dealing with historical topics.

No stranger to the thrust and parry of public life, Stürmer notes that West Germany is scheduled to hold national elections next January "This is pre-electioneering, not a scholarly debate," he says "A show trial " Besides, he adds impishly, Habermas "is still licking his wounds" from the collapse of the far-left student movement nearly 20 years ago.

The sustained round of op-ed name calling has generated a modest amount of mail and other reaction, but the debate has largely been conducted over the heads of most readers. What it primarily shows, says Joachim Fest, co-publisher of the Allgemeine Zeitung, who came to Nolte's defense in an article that ran nearly a full page, is the difficulty of conducting public discourse in a nation with so many dark recesses in its recent past. Both sides view issues in black-or-white terms, says Fest, and "each suspects the other of bad motives." - By William R. Doerner Reported by Rhea Schoenthal/Bonn

© TIME September 27 1986

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