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."
William R. Doerner Reported by Rhea
Schoenthal/Bonn© TIME September 27