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History Writing and the Politics of

Historiography: the German

Martin Travers

The Historikerstreit: Context and Background

Historical confrontations with history also have their own history. Events that form and
deform, stabilize and de-stabilize societies and nation states, whether these be of a
political, social or military nature, are not only perceived and reconstructed by different
historians in different ways, they are also subject to variable time-scales within which
they become assimilated into the official histories of those nations. This is particularly
true of those events that are destined to cross the boundaries between academic historical
writing, with its necessarily limited audience, and the wider popular consciousness of
such events that constitutes the identity and memory of a nation. In the early part of this
century, the first world war was such an historical event. In spite of the extensive
scholarly activity that took place immediately after 1918, it was not until the late 1920s
and early 1930s that the catastrophe of the First World War, its physical destructiveness
and emotional trauma, as well as its origins and effects on the civilian population,
emerged as a specifically public issue, as a phenomenon of immediate relevance to the
political direction and national identity of the English, German and French peoples. It was
only well after the war that the dynamics and iconography of the Great War [acquired]
crucial political, rhetorical, and artistic determinants on subsequent life.1
What the Great War was for the generations who lived between 1918 and 1939, the
Third Reich has become for those born in the post-war period. It is not just that the events
of the Third Reich have come to occupy the popular imagination with the same dramatic
force as those of the Great War; their assimilation into the public consciousness of
contemporary Germany has followed a similar time scale, and has been accompanied by
similar psychological mechanisms of evasion, displacement and repression.2 This process
of historiographical confrontation has reached a critical point in the most recent attempt
by German historians to come to terms with their Nazi past: the Historikerstreit, or
Historians Dispute. Although this began in 1986, and lasted in the pages of the major
newspapers a mere five months, it succeeded in raising to the surface a deeply-seated
emotional ambivalence towards the Third Reich that even the most distinguished German
historians have nurtured towards the trauma of their recent past, and allowed a number of
previously repressed assumptions and dispositions towards the Third Reich to emerge into
the public domain for the first time.3
For this reason, the debate marked a new departure in postwar historiography, at least
as it has been conducted in Germany. Historical writing about the Third Reich was born in
the very midst of crisis. Friedrich Meinecke sat down to write his seminal The German

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24 7

Catastrophe in 1946 in the midst of the boundless disillusionment and collapse of a

devastated Germany, and painfully aware of how a reading of Nazism could influence
Germanys present and future.4 But the ohne mich (without me) mentality of the
immediate post-war period largely prevented the pessimistic undertones of Meineckes
analysis from impinging upon the wider reading public. Meineckes essay stayed, like
many other scholarly studies that were to follow Meineckes, such as Karl Dietrich
Brachers The German Dictatorship (1955), Ernst Noltes, The Three Faces of Fascism
(1963), Martin Broszats, Hitlers State (1969), or Henry Ashby Turners Fascism and
Capitalism in Germany (1972) firmly within the highly eclectic realm of German
What first enabled the subject to transcend the boundaries of the Academy and enter
public consciousness was the advent of two important media phenomena: the American
television series, Holocaust, broadcast in 1979, and a French documentary film, Shoah,
directed by Claude Lanzmann in 1985 (and later made available as a transcript in English,
French and German).6 The reception of both works clearly revealed that the vast amount
of historical research into the Third Reich, its causes, its leadership and its culminating
horror in Auschwitz, had not succeeded in penetrating the consciousness of the nation,
that ignorance about the Third Reich was still widespread, particularly amongst the
younger generation. In the words of one commentator, the German public was in need of
a process of enlightenment that needs to be conducted on a massive ~ c a l e If. ~these two
media events put the Third Reich back on the agenda, two subsequent political events
showed, however, that this agenda was capable of being dealt with in different ways. The
first event was President Reagans visit to the war cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. Ostensibly
planned to mark the fortieth anniversary of Germanys unconditional surrender, the event
turned into a solemn ceremony commemorating all who had died in the war, including
those members of the S.S. buried at Bitburg. Reagans refusal to visit the near-by
concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen reenforced the impression that Germany was being
forgiven here, symbolically at least, by the Americans for the role that it played in the
war. There was even a hint of a tacit recognition, fuelled by Reagans speeches, that the
real enemy had been Russian Communism, after all.* The second event (apparently
unrelated to the Bitburg ceremony) arose out of plans to establish two new museums in
West Germany: a museum of German History in Berlin and a House of the History of the
Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn. The controversy centred both on what aspects of
German history should be represented in the two museums, and who should select the
material. The fact that the Federal Government only drew upon the advice of conservative
historians, those precisely at the centre of the revisionist camp in the Historikerstreit,
confirmed suspicions that the period of the Third Reich would not receive particular
attention, but would be treated simply as one episode amongst many in German history: a
procedure that ran the risk, according to many dissenting historians, such as the late
Martin Broszat, of minimizing the horror of the events perpetrated under the National
These two apparently unrelated events were themselves expressions of a larger
development in German politics at this time: the movement towards the consolidation of a
neo-conservative ideology in Bonn. This ideology was evident as early as 1983, in which
year Helmut Kohls Christian Democratic Party first won power. With Kohlts victory
(repeated in 1987), a new conservative political climate (a Tendenzwende), which
sought to encourage a recognition of the economic, political and even military centrality
of the Federal Republic on the European stage, came to make itself felt in Bonn. We can
now see that the Tendenzwendewas the first step along the path towards a much greater
goal: the unification of Germany. For this to take place, Germany, it was argued, had to


The German Historikerstreit

acquire a more positive and less introspective attitude towards its immediate past; it
should cease its debilitating practice of moral self-scrutiny and look to its strengths:
historical revision had become a political necessity. The argument was made with some
force by Alfred Dregger, a conservative member of the Bundestag: We are concerned
about the lack of history and the lack of consideration towards our own nation. Without an
elementary patriotism, which is quite natural to our people, our people too will not be able
to survive. Whoever misuses the so-called overcoming of the past
(Vergungenheitsbewiiltigung)- which was certainly necessary - in order to make our
people incapable of a future, must meet with our opposition.10
It was within this context that the Historikerstreit emerged. We can now see that the
debate was much more than simply an academic dispute amongst historians. It brought to
the surface fundamentally diverging attitudes towards the political direction of the
German nation, and about the degree of moral responsibility that this nation should take
for its past crimes. What began initially as an acrimonious exchange between two
prominent academics came to acquire the status of a representative struggle between
competing political camps for intellectual hegemony within the academic, publishing and
media institutions of West Germany, a struggle which began before the dispute and which
have continucd unabated since its momentary resolution. It is part, as one cornmentator
has noted, of the larger controversy about the political uses of history and the
relationship between historical consciousness and identity.ll
Revising a Negative Past: Nolte, Hillgruber, and Sturmer
The immediate origins of the debate lay in a public exchange of letters between Ernst
Nolte, Professor of Modem History at the Freie UniversiUt in Berlin, and Jiirgen
Habemas, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. Noltes reputation was
largely founded on the basis of his comparative study of the rise of Fascist groupings in
Europe, Faschismus in seiner Epoche, published in 1963, and translated into English as
The Three Faces of Fascism in 1965. Nolte followed that work with two further major
publications: Deutschland und der kalte Krieg (Germany and the Cold War) published
in 1974, and Marxismus und industrelle Revolurion (Marxism and the Industrial
revolution) in 1983. Both works gave evidence of a growing anti-Marxism in Noltes
thinking, as he came regularly to cite the evils of Communism, particularly under
Stalin, as a context in which to view the dramatic political events of the twentieth century,
including the rise of National Socialism,The consequence of this position when applied to
the subject of the Holocaust was fully evident in an paper Nolte contributed to a collection
of essays on the Third Reich published in English in 1985: Auschwitz is not primarily a
result of traditional anti-Semitism. It was in its core not merely a genocide but above all
a reaction born out of the anxiety of the annihilating occurrences of the Russian
Revolution. The copy was far more irrational than the original.12
It was this position that Nolte elaborated in a short article sent on 6 June 1986 to one of
Germanys most influential newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, entitled
Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht gehalten
werden konnte (A past that will not go away: A Speech that was written but could not
be given). The subtitle refers to the fact that Nolte had originally intended to give the
paper at the annual meeting of German historians in R(lmerberg, but had been persuaded
at the last moment not to attend, and, perhaps, with good reason.13 The paper repeats, in
the form of a rhetorical question, the assertion made in the 1985 essay that the Nazi
extermination of the Jews followed a similar treatment of the dispossessed Russian

Martin Travers


peasants by Stalin in the early 1920s: Did not the Gulag Archipelago precede
Auschwitz? Was not the class murder of the Bolsheviks the logical and factual
precondition for the genocide of the National Socialists?The only the thing separating
the two acts of mass extermination was the differing technical means employed. It was
this Asiatic deed which, together with certain torture tactics employed by the Russians,
such the infamous rat cage, persuaded the Germans, including Hitler, to countenance
equally barbaric methods in their treatment of their enemies, providing, hence, a casual
nexus in which we must place the atrocities perpetrated later by the Nazis.14 To many,
Nolte simply added insult to injury by suggesting that those who wished to keep these
memories alive did so because they wished to enjoy the privilege of having the status of
The effect of Noltes comparison of the Bolshevik Russian treatment of its enemies and
the Nazis treatment of the Jews was clearly intended to relativise the moral outrage of the
latter by showing that it was not the unique phenomenon it was initially thought to be.
Just as the Soviet Union, particularly in its new Glasnost guise, has been allowed to
rehabilitate itself and rejoin the league of civilized nations, so too should Germany be
granted the same rights. A SchluBstrich (a final line) should now be drawn under that
period in German history, so that the German p a t will cease to be fundamentally
different from the past histories [of other nations].l5
Noltes essay relativises the German treatment of the Jews both by making it causally
dependent on the Russians treatment of their political minorities and by arguing that it
was no more morally reprehensible than the latter. A similar technique is evident in the
second major protagonist within the revisionist camp: Andreas Hillgruber. Hillgruber,
until his death Professor for Political History at the University of Cologne, had been
known for his impressive Hitlers Strategie: Politik und Kriegsfiihrung, 1940-1941 (1965)
(Hitlers Strategy: Politics and the Conduct of the War, 1940-1941). He had shortly
before the appearance of the Nolte article published a slim volume, consisting of two
short essays relating to the German conduct of the war in its latter stages, and to the recent
history of anti-Semitism in Germany.16 In the first of these essays, entitled Der
Zusammenbruch im Osten 1944/45 als Problem der deutschen Nationalgeschichte under
der europaischen Geschichte (The Collapse in the East in 1944-45 as a Problem for
German National History and European History), he argues that Hitlers extermination
policy towards the Jews was simply part of a series of genocidal actions taking place in
the early part of the twentieth century, and he cites the Turkish treatment of the
Armenians in the wake of the First World War, as well as Stalinsambition to eradicate
Germans from Eastern Europe. It was against the latter threat that the German Army put
up resistance in the final phase of the Second World War, even though this led to a
prolongation of the process of extermination at Auschwitz, which Hillgruber registers. as
an unimaginable crime.17
There is no denying Hillgrubers condemnation of the German treatment of the Jews;
but the language of genuine pathos, of personal sorrow, is reserved not for the Jewish
victims of the Holocaust but for the German population on the Eastern Front, who are
about to experience an orgy of revenge exacted by the advancing Red Army. Aware of
what might happen to the civilian population should the Russians be successful, the
German Army put aside any misgivings they might have about Hitler and his war aims,
and, through a series of desperate and selfless exertions commit themselves to the
defense of the Fatherland. Even high-ranking members of the Nazi Party proved
themselves in this defensive struggle, acting out of a position of ethical responsibility
(which Hillgruber juxtaposes to the attitude of purely personal conviction embodied by
the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944).18 The ultimate failure of


The German Historikerstreit

the former must be viewed as tragic, because this spelt the end for the German
inhabitants of that region, who are seen less an individuals than as representatives of what
Hillgruber terms Deutschtum (Germanness) in Eastern Europe, and particularly that
part of it that was recognized as legitimately German by a treaty signed two years before
the war in 1937. What the German Army was fighting for on the Eastern Front in 1944
was, then, no more or less than a defensive war to preserve Germanys independence as a
great power in central Europe, to the destruction of which, Hillgruber adds as an
interesting rider, not only the Russians but also the American and British Allies were
committed as a part of their global policy of world d ~ m i n a t i o n . ~ ~
Hillgrubers reading of the role of the German Army on the Eastern Front is
constructed purely from the point of view of the German participants. But far from seeing
this as a weakness in his approach, likely to produce a prejudiced or partial explanation of
events, he raises this procedure to the level of a methodological principle. Whoever
wishes to understand history cannot restrict him or herself to the realm of the ideal of
objectivity; the historian is confronted with the problem of identification,of grasping
the subjective experience, intentions and desires of the participating subjects. In this case,
Hillgruber argues that since the historian (for reasons which he regards as self-evident)
cannot identify either with Hitler, or the advancing Army, or even with the July
conspirators back in Germany, he is left with the only other subject of this drama: the
German Army and the German population it is attempting to defend.Z0 As Hillgruber was
later to make quite clear, the expulsion of the German People from the Eastern territories
and the loss of the latter forms the most serious consequence of the lost war.21 Nowhere
in his account does Hillgruber mention the fact that the Red Army, irrespective of whose
territory it was legally on, was responding to the unprovoked attack by a three million
strong German Army in July 1941. Hillgrubers essay represents the point where
methodological selectivity merges into a travesty of historical reality, and the reader can
only suspect that there are political or misplaced moral considerations at play in such an
historiographical practice.
Michael Sturmers intervention in the debate was neither as substantial as Hillgrubers
nor as provocative as Noltes; but precisely because it foregrounded the civic and political
function of history writing, his contribution had the effect of making visible the
ideological premises that underscore the writings of the other revisionistsin the debate.
Stiirmers main concern (who is Professor of Modem History at the University of
Erlangen) could be formulated as the question: What do we, the German people, hope to
achieve by continually stressing the negative aspects of recent German history? It is a
question that Stiirmer has posed on a number of occasions and in a number of
publications.22 He is at his most trenchant in his short essay, Geschichte in
geschichtslosen Land, which has been seen as his contribution to the Historikersfreif.He
paints here an almost apocalyptic picture of a society that has come adrift from its ethical
moorings, of a nation condemned to live without a firm and positive image of its past. His
critique of his contemporary Germany is neatly summarised in his conclusion to the
essay: In country without memory anything is possible. The opinion pollsters tell us that
amongst all the industrial nations West Germany shows the greatest lack of
communication between the generations, the least self-confidence, and the most rapid
change of values. How will Germans see their country, the West, and themselves
tomorrow? We can assume that there will be a certain amount of continuity. But we
cannot be certain.23
What Stiirmer is describing in this rather drastic pen-sketch is a crisis in national
identity brought about by the process of modernization whose social and political effects
Germany has still not come to terms with. Throughout its recent past, Sturmer argues,

Martin Travers


Germany has stumbled from one crisis to another, experiencing agrarian, political,
industrial, and constitutional changes that have produced amongst the population at large
a loss of orientation and a futile quest for security. The rise of Hider and National
Socialism can be seen as both a symptom of this on-going crisis and an attempt at a
solution. Germany, in short, has a history of permanent upheaval.24
Stiirmers thesis is not new in the historiography of twentieth century Germany.
Conservative philosophers and historians have consistently over the past two hundred
years viewed social change as a dislocating and de-stabilising experience, the destroyer of
consensus and the producer of anomic individualism. The terms of Stiirmers thesis are
familiar: it combines elements of the verspatete Nation thesis (belated nation),
developed by Plessner, with the traditionally conservative idealization of the values and
structure of the social community, an idealization which is at least as old as Ferdinand
T6nniesbook Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, first published in 1872 .25
What Stiirmer adds to that conservative nostalgia, and what makes his intervention into
the debate of such decisive importance, is his concern for the consequences of this
collective crise didentite upon the Realpolitik of West Germany, upon its status and
sphere of influence in Europe: This search for a lost history is not simply a matter of
academic striving: it is morally legitimate. For what is at stake here is the inner continuity
of the German Republic and its dependability in the eyes of its allies. The continual
harbouring of guilt about recent history, being forced to live with a purely negative past,
ultimately exerts a debilitating and inhibiting influence over a nation whose material
successes and geopolitical centrality offer it the opportunity of playing a decisive role
(however that may be construed) in Europe in the not too distant future.
Neither Auschwitz nor the Holocaust are mentioned. What bestows upon Stiirmers
brief contribution its Aktualitiit in the present context, and its relevance to the
Historikerstreit in particular, is his insistence that it is the duty of historians to provide the
medium through which a new positive national identity can be achieved. This process of
providing meaning, which he terms Sinnstiftung, became something of a catchphrase
during the debate, and Stiirmer has had occasion to use it many times in his occasional
writings76 It is one of the achievements of Stiirmers contribution to the debate, that it
allows us to see that the Historikerstreit is as much about the political role that history
writing plays in society as it is about substantive issues such as the uniqueness or not of
the Holocaust. Paradoxically, by concluding that the latter is inextricably tied to the
former, Stiirmer comes close to the position adopted by the foremost antagonist of the
revisionistgroup Jiirgen Habermas, who entered the debate precisely with an insistence
on the public use of history.
Concerning the Public Use of History: Jurgen Habermas

In a recent account of the debate, Imanuel Geiss has renamed the Historikerstreit the
Habermas Controversy, because, according to Geiss, it was Habermas initial response to
Noltes letter which actually began the debate. This is clearly a strategic re-naming; by
constructing Habermas as the initiator and aggressor in the debate, the revisionist camp
of Nolte, Hillgrubex and Stiirmer emerge as a group of historians forced to defend
themselves against a critique launched by Habermasand his left-wing sympathizers.28
There is a sense, however, in which Geiss is correct in foregrounding Habermas
contribution to the debate, for it is the latter who established the terms of reference in
which the major issues of the debate emerged. Noltes letters, Hillgrubers book and
Sthners articles were provocations, but they did not (with the exception of Stiirmers


The German Historikerstreit

writings) explicitly seek a direct public response. They hoped to effect a revision of the
academic and popular view of the crimes of National Socialism without raising
controversy. It was only with the publication of Habermas two essays on the topic, Eine
Art Schadensabwicklung: Die apologetiscen Tendenzen in der deutschen
Zeitgeschichtsschreibung and Vom Offentlichen Gebrauch der Historie: Das offizielle
Selbstversttlndnisder Bundesrepublik bricht auf, (published in Die &it on 11 July and 7
November respectively) that the strategic implications of the publications of the
revisionist camp became evident.29
Habermas attempts, in these two essays, to refute the substantive claims advanced by
the revisionist historians regarding the relativity of the crimes committed under
National Socialism. Hillgruber is taken to task for his adoption of the perspective of the
German Army in 1944-1945,and for his concomitant methodotogical refusal to offer a
retrospectiveevaluation of the actions of the latter. Hillgtuber, Habermas argues, wishes
to put himself in the position of the fighters of the period who are not yet framed and
devalued by our retrospective knowledge.30 For retrospection would open up the
possibility (if not necessity) of moral judgement. and that could, according to Habermas,
only be a negative one. Instead, by adopting the perspective of the German Army,
Hillgruber can dramatize and elevate their military action into a tragic struggle that was
to be eventually smashed by the advancing Russians. Habermas points out how this
Cdtterddmmerung reading of the fate of the German Army is inscribed into the very
subtitle of Hillgrubers book, where the abrupt and violent destruction (Zerschlagung)
of the resistance of the German fighters on the Eastern Front is juxtaposed to the
matter-of-fact end (Ende) suffered by the millions of Jews in Auschwitz. In the final
analysis, Habermas concludes, Hillgruber relativises the Holocaust by moving the
narrative sympathy of the reader as far as possible away from the Jewish experience of the
war. Nolte achieves the same effect by different means, by replacing Hillgrubers
synchronic point of comparison with a diachronic one: he reconstructs a prehistory for the
Nazi Holocaust which stretches back via the Gulag to the early socialists and the
English agrarian reformers of the early 19th century. These can all, Nolte argues, best be
seen as uprisings against the threat of cultural and social modernization, and were driven
by the illusionary longing for the restoration of a self-contained, self-sufficient world.
Within this scheme of things, the Holocaust is simply one point amongst many in a
chronology of violence and personal suffering that has accompanied the major political
and social upheavals in the history of the modem world. And, the implication is clear, just
as we have come to accept the excesses perpetrated during the English, French and
Russian Revolutions as deplorable but understandable moments in the darker side of
European history, so too the excesses committed by the Nazis will lose their singularily
and emotional effect.31
Such historical judgements must be confronted, Habermas argues, on their own
ground, and he devotes much of his first essay to a refutation of the substance of the
pronouncements of Nolte and Hillgruber. But, as the sub-title of the two essays indicate,
Habermas is also, and, perhaps, primarily, concerned to understand and highlight the
political strategy that underwrites such misreadings of the Third Reich, and the political
effect that a public enunciation of such views will have, for it is only when a daily
newspaper publishes an article on the subject that the question of the singularity of Nazi
crimes assumes the significance for us which makes it so explosive in the given context. It
is precisely through the channels of popular instruction that history comes to acquire a
public use. It is to explaining this public use of history that Habermas devotes himself
in his second essay. Building upon tentative conclusions drawn in his first essay
concerning recent attempts to establish a neo-conservative consensus in West Germany,

Martin Travers


Habermas poses two questions: how and why has this revisionist vein of historiography
emerged at this particular juncture, and do contemporary Germans share a liability for the
crimes perpetrated by earlier generations?
Habermas begins to answer the first question by pointing to a number of recent events
in the political life of the nation, such as the Bitburg ceremony, that indicate that a
significant change is taking place in the historical appropriation of the Nazi period. He
then attempts to locate the deeper sources of this change, identifying them in the already
discussed phenomenon of Sinnstiftung: the political need to create a more positive
image of the past in order to confii Germanys image as a secure and reliable force in
central Europe; this also entails rehabilitating the reputations of many of the neoconservative figures of that age, such as Martin Heidegger, Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt
by denying their affinities with Nazism; and finally, Habermas advances, less
convincingly perhaps, the psycho-analytical thesis associated with the work of Edith
Jacobson, that, just as children have difficulty in reconciling their positive memories of
their parents with critical opinions provided by others, so too German citizens cannot
emotionally accept that their recent history was totally negative. The historiographical
parallels are clear: Obviously it is a long and painful process, Habermas concludes,
during which we learn to combine the at first competing images of the good and the bad
parent to make complex images of the same person.
Habermas venture into the collective psychology of Vergangenheitsbewultigung may
seem less convincing than his other explanations regarding the immediate geopolitical
agenda which exists as a sub-text in the neoconservative call for a revision of the past.
But his emphasis upon the traumatic consequences of coming to terms with guilt does
allow him to pose one final question: Can one continue the traditions of German culture
without also assuming historical liability for the form of existence in which Auschwitz
was possible?. Habermas forms his reply by, paradoxically, taking on board a number of
the assumptions of the conservative camp, and employing them to produce different
conclusions. Guilt for the Holocaust is carried over from the past into the present
precisely because it was a German act; it grew out of traditions, values, and world views
that were part of the conventional identity of being German. The Holocaust is still with us
because we are still Germans, and because even those born later have grown up in a
form of existence in which those things were possible. Our own life is linked inwardly,
and not just by accidental circumstance, with that context of life in which Auschwitz was
Habermas achieves a final coup against the revisionists and their conservative
supporters by arguing against their thesis that the retention of guilt over Auschwitz can
only have a debilitating effect upon the collective self-confidence of Germany. On the
contrary, he concludes, we do not need such a narrowly selective and myopic
understanding of our past; recognizing the negativity of our national heritage liberates
the power of reflective memory and help(s) loosen the hypnotic paralysis.33In the place
of a collective national identity only achieved as the result of self-interested selectivity
about the past, Habermas pleads for the adoption of what he terms here (and elsewhere) a
post conventional identity, one that involving a commitment to universalistic
constitutional principles does not look passively to the past to provide the path into the
future, but recognizes the necessity of actively choosing values (whatever their national
origin), in the present, in order to lay the basis for a future direction.34


The German HistoriRerslreit

Revision or Revisionism?: The Broszat FriedUlnder Debate.

Habermas critique of the revisionist camp contains both a substantive historical

component (a repudiation of the specific re-readings of the origins and causes of the
Holocaust, and of the defensive nature of the German war effort in Russia), and an
ideological-critical component (centred on making visible the neo-conservative political
agenda that occasioned the substantive historical re-readings). What links these two
components is yet a third aspect of this neo-consemative campaign: the insistence that
history writing should be the medium through which a new, more positive national
identity can be formed and disseminated. As a number of their most vocal defenders have
argued, the revisionisthistorians do not dispute the fact of Auschwitz or the extent of its
horror; nor do they deny the German responsibility for it. What they are trying to do is to
minimize its position in the historical identity of contemporary Germany. This is what is
meant by the phrase Abrechnung, which has come to replace the concept of
BewWigung as the key phrase in German appropriation of the past. Abrechnung
means to pay back the debt or settle the account, with the implication, in this context,
of wiping the slate clean so that it can receive a more positive inscription of the German
heritage. It is this shared sense of the therapeutic potential of a revised German history
that justifies references to these neo-conservative historians as a group or a band,
rather than any convergence in the detail of their re-readjngs of National Socialism or the
As we saw above, Habermas has criticized the neo-conservative revision of the
function of history writing from a number of angles, and he has been supported in his
critique by a variety of other historians, most recently by Hans Ulrich Wehler. Where
Habermas has been less convincing is in his treatment of the pragmatic component of that
neo-conservative re-reading, their insistence that, in spite of the disinterested aims of
historians, history writing has always possessed a larger social or political function. For,
as Stiirmer and others query, has not history writing always been useful in the
construction of national identities, and selective in the very-same process? Do not all
nations re-write their past from the point of view of the interests of the present?
Habermas response to these implied questions has been equivocal. In his initial essay, he
dismisses the idea that historical consciousness can be a substitute for religion, and
leaves the reader with the rhetorical question: 1sntt this old dream of historicism asking
too much of hi~toriography?.~~
By the time the second essay takes shape, a more
extended treatment of the question has become possible. Habermas now realizes that, if
contemporary Germans are to retain a knowledge of Auschwitz and keep alive a sense of
German guilt for this crime, then national identity must be seen as a trans-historical
phenomenon, as something that links a nation together through succeeding generations:
Our form of existence is connected with the form of existence of our parents and
grandparents by a mesh of family, local, political and intellectual traditions which is
difficult to untangle - by an historical milieu, therefore, which in the first instance has
made us what we are and who we are today. No one among us can escape unnoticed from
this milieu, because our identity both as individuals and Germans is inextricably
interwoven with it. This extends from mimicry and physical gestures through language
right up to the subtle capillary ramifications of our intellectual habitus. National identity
is, then, a part of our contemporary self-understanding as historical subjects, and,
precisely because this is the case, there is both an individual and collective need to be
clear about the historical past and which of its traditions we are appropriating. Once again,
Habermas on this point comes to a familiar line of thinking: After Auschwitz, we can

Martin Travers


only create national self-consciousness from the better traditions of our history, traditions
which we must appropriate critically and not blindly.36
There is, then, a certain tension in Habermas treatment of the neo-conservative plea
for an historical revisionism. On the one hand, Habermas wishes to argue for the values of
a post-conventional identity founded on the recognition of absolute values (inscribed in
the constitution), and this can only be made possible by liberating oneself from national
identity inherited from the past; on the other hand, Habermas wishes to build in a
component of historical guilt into his model, and this is only possible if we can posit the
on-going impingement of traditions on the experience of the present. In the final analysis.
there is a fundamental agreement between Habermas and the revisionist camp that
national identity is an important fact of the contemporary experience of the world, and
that this identity can be formed through a selective engagement with the past. Where the
two camps differ is in their choice of traditions, and in the political goals that the
implementationof these traditions will achieve.
The tension within Habermas treatment of the revisionist position might well be
explained by reference to a number of heterogeneous elements in Habermas philosophy,
which is drawn both from an enlightened neo-Kantianismand from the humanist Marxism
of the Frankfurt School. A full understanding of the line of argumentation he adopts in the
Historikerstreit would require contextualisation within the elaborate framework of
German Idealist thought.37
The complications within Habermas critique of neo-conservative revisionism might
also be traced back to a much broader set of changes that have been taking place within
German historiography over the past decade or so, namely the various initiatives
undertaken by a number of recent historians to historicise ow view of National
Socialism and life in the Third Reich. This new direction was championed by the late
Martin Broszat, erstwhile Director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich,
but it is also associated with the work of Hans Mommsen, whose essay National
Socialism: Continuity and Change constituted one of the first pleas for a fresh look at
Nazi Germany.38 Their pioneering work has helped produce the latest direction in
German historiography, that of Alltugsgeschichte (Everyday History).39
There are differences of emphasis and political priority between the historians working
within this new framework, but most share the essential aims which are to dedemonisize the received image of life in the Third Reich, to remove its identity of
otherness, by showing how German fascism worked at a variety of levels, personal and
institutional. The goal of the Alltugsgeschichtler is to re-create the subjective experience
of life in the Third Reich. To do this means suspending, for the meantime, easy moral
judgements upon this period in German history. By studying this period simply in terms
of the culminating horror of the Holocaust, we are constructing an emotional and
psychological blockage for ourselves, which prevents a more complex picture of that
period from emerging. In order to understand how the Holocaust came into being, we
must understand, these revisionist historians argue, the mentality of the minor officials
and petty colluders who were largely responsible for that tragedy, and this requires an
elaborate act of Verstehen.
It is these important methodological overlaps between the neo-conservative
revisionists and the Broszat school which have come, in the context of the
Historikersfreit, to acquire ominous connotations, and have given rise to the suspicion
that the neo-conservatives are but the most forceful spokesmen for a whole generation of
German historians who wish to escape from the discomfort of perpetual guilt. Such
suspicions have been voiced by one such commentator, the Ismeli historian, Saul


The German Historikerstreit

Friedliinder, whose deeply-felt exchange of letters with Martin Broszat can be seen as
perhaps the concludingcoda to the Historikerstreit proper.@
Friedlanders basic criticism is that the postulate that a black and white, postwardetermined, moralistic history of the Nazi period [has] now to be approached without any
forbidden questions and without any pedagogical aims [is] indeed some kind of starting
point for both conservative as well as more progressively oriented historian^".^^
Irrespective of their different political premises, the relativisation undertaken by Nolte
and the historicisation undertaken by Broszat produce, in the final analysis, the same
effect: they serve to distance the reader of history from the full import of the genocidal
crimes of the National Socialist, replacing moral outrage with historical insight. He draws
particular attention to Broszats concept of Verstehen, through which the internal values
systems of historical actors are reconstructed. Where, asks Friedlbder, are the limits
of the Verstehen? Where does the critical distancing intervene. What, in short, is the
difference between this methodology and that employed by Hillgruber in his sympathetic
portrayal of the verantwortungsethisch mentality of the German soldier fighting the
Russians in 1944? In fact, Broszats resort to a specifically narrative approach to his
subject, as opposed to a conceptual history writing, which would describe and analyse
from the retrospective point of view of the non-participant, is singled out for criticism.
The historian cannot, Friedlgnder argues, simply allow the contours of his subject to be
dictated by the subject itself; he must choose the central elements around which his
unfolding narrative is implicitly built.42 In other words, not any Alltag (everyday
reality) will do, but only that one that encapsulates the protagonists who made the
decisions which produced the final horror of the Holocaust, for even if you show the
normalcy of everyday life, even if you stress the split consciousness, the main thrust of
your narrative progresses towards an end that you know very well, but do not, it is
implied, sufficiently rec0gnize.~3In the final analysis, Friedlilnder argues, aware of the
politics of historiography that surfaced in the Historikerstreit, Broszats work also was not
without its political pay-off, for it is naive to assume that Broszat was following a purely
theoretical historiographical path. What he was actually doing, nolens volens, was
restoring for the readers, i.e. for German society, a continuity in historical selfperception, not at the level of political institutions,but at that of the permanence of social
There is a sense in which Friedlbders critique of Broszat, irrespective of its truth
content, could not have been possible before the Historikerstreit, or would not have been
inflected in quite that way: a covert political agenda is now assumed to lie within all
reassessments of the recent past.45 For Friedbders conclusions were reached in the face
of a simultaneous refutation by Broszat of their major premisses. Broszat agrees that the
concept of the historicisation of National Socialism had provided a dangerous catchphrase
for a false normalization of historical consciousness in the Federal Republic, and that a
step had thus been taken down the path leading toward a moral levelling of perspectives
on the Nazi period.46But he also makes it clear that whilst the concept of historicisation
is open to abuse, and could be confused with the argumentation advanced by the
revisionist camp, its integrity as a competing historiography aimed at achieving a fuller
and more complex rationale of the political history of National Socialism remains intact.
Historicisation like revisionism does indeed imply a distance from the events
described; but this distance is not intended to displace interest in the crimes committed in
the Third Reich, but, on the contrary, to provide a vantage point from which they can be
dispassionately and scientifically analysed. Historicisation is an attempt to break up
and dissolve ... stereotypes,embarrassment constraints and over generalizations ,which
attend conventional readings of Nazi Germany, and to remove some part of that barrier

Martin Travers


which would make this period in history appear to be a completely strange and alien
It is a question of understanding rather than apology. For that reason, the
method of Verstehen is used, not to evoke sympathy in the reader, but to allow the
comprehending, subjective appropriation and empathetic reliving (Nachvollzug) of
past achievements, sensations, concerns and mistakes, so that the historian knows what
he or she is judging.48The place in which this real knowledge is excavated is, indeed, the
everyday history of the participants involved in the historical action, the full array of
whose responses must be canvassed before a ranking into essential categories can take
place, and this is done not to prove surreptitiously that there was a world of decency
untouched beneath the facade of the totalitarian state, but precisely to show how
criminality can install itself into the half-knowledge of the little people not directly
involved, and to make such people subjects of a new moral enc0unter.~9If the final
effect of the employment of these new standards of scholarly investigation is the removal
of myths, even positive ones, such as the ritualized, almost historical-theological
remembrance that many Jewish people regard as indispensable, then we must be
courageous enough to confront that possibility as well.50

Conclusion: The Historikerstreit Today

There is no doubt that the Historikerstreit brought to the surface a fundamental political
and ideological schism within the Academy of post-war German historiography that had
been slumbering for several decades. In particular, it provided the opportunity for
historians of a conservative hue to confront what they saw to be a left-wing hegemony in
the institutions of higher learning in West Germany. Indeed, we can now see that the
debate was part and parcel of a re-awakening national self-consciousness that led amongst
other things to the re-unification of the two German states during a remarkably short time
in 1989 and 1990, and part of a process of national re-formation that has by no means run
its full course. 51
In spite, however, of the obvious political motivation, and the innuendo, rhetorical
questioning (and question begging) and argumenta ad hominen that characterised the
Historikerstreit, the debate did engage with both substantive and methodological issues
relating our historical understanding of the Holocaust and the Third Reich. The differing
factions evinced, of course, differentresponses to these issues; but it should be noted that
they also came to a certain agreement, albeit in the most indirect way, upon two vital
matters of historical concern: firstly, an insistence that the contemporary historian must
come to terms with the possibility that the Third Reich contained at least an element of
normalcy, that the serious moral transgressions perpetrated under the Hitler regime
were carried out by individuals convinced of the justness of their cause and the
acceptability of their actions. If we close our eyes to the motives that inspired such
individuals, if we continue to construe them as beasts or psychopaths, we will
necessarily fail to understand the intimate but extremely fine line between normalcy and
deviation that exists at the centre of modem civilised societies. The second point of
agreement between the two groups in the Historikerstreit concerns the political function
of historiography. In spite of the insistence of both groups that they were simply trying to
get to the facts behind the burning issues that they were addressing, it soon became clear
during the course of the dispute that neither camp believed in the scientific impartiality of
the business of historiography. Since the days of Treitschke, history writing has played a
part in the political self-understanding of nations, and to this function we can now add a
further pragmatic service: the formation of national identity and self-consciousness.Here


The German Historikerstreit

both Sturmer and Habermas were in agreement: regrettable or otherwise, when a

contemporary historian writes about the history of his nation, he or she is providing either
a positive or negative role model for the reader, a set of characteristics and values that
help define what it is to be German, or English or Australian. It is this fact which
accounts for the unavoidable political ambit of historiography.
The Historikerstreit itself may have ended, but the issues it raised have continued to
impress themselves all practitioners of history writing in the recently unified German
nation. As Ernst Noltes recent defence of Heidegger has shown, even five years after the
end of the debate, it is still possible to hold to the same mechanics of evasion,
displacement and moral exculpation that originally characterised the debate from its
beginning52 What Noltes engagement for Heidegger (and the controversy it gave rise to)
also shows is that historians and historical writing has come to enjoy a high profile within
the intellectual life of the German nation. Paradoxically, it is precisely that abandonment
of its claim to be a purely scientific discipline that is responsible for confirming the
status of historiography as one of the most potent civic discourses of the modem period.

See Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 19751, p. ix. For a similar
assessment of the German context, see Martin Travers, German Novels of the First World War
and their Ideological Implications, 1918-1933 (Stuttgart, 1982); and for France, see Frank
Field, Three French Writers and the Great War: Studies in the Rise of Communism and
Fascism (Cambridge, 1975).
These mechanisms have been well summed up in the phrase given to this process,
Vergangenheitsbewultigung, which means both to come to terms with but also, in a
psychologically important sense, to defeat and dispense with the threatening object that is the
past. The major attempts to provide an overview of German historiography on the Third Reich
include Pierre Aycoberry, The Nazi Question: An Essay on the Interpretations of National
Socialism (1922-1975). (New York, 198l), pp. 109-232; Klaus Hildebrand, The Third Reich
(London, 1984), originally in German in 1979; Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems
and Perspectives of Interpretation (London, 1985); and John Hiden and John Farquharson,
Explaining Hitlers Germany: Historians and the Third Reich (London, 1983). Few of these
studies, however. place any emphasis upon the real historical context in which the dominant
interpretations of the Third Reich have been formed.
For a rather rare example of this more open type of historical confrontation prior to the
tiistorikerstreit, see Theodore S . Hamerow, Guilt, Redemption, and Writing German History,
American Historical Review, 88 (1983), 53-72.
See Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catartrophe (Boston, 1950), p. xi. This was fist
published as Die Deutsche Katartrophe: Betrachiungen und Erinnerungen (Wiesbaden, 1946).
A comprehensive account of the assumptions and strategies at play in the Historikerstreit
would require placing that debate within the context of the major trends in post-war German
historiography on the Third Reich, and analysing the complex relationship between this
historiography and the development of West Germany as a nation state in the same period. A
fully comprehensive account of West German historiography since the war has as yet to be
written, although useful starts have been made. See V. R. Berghahn, West German
Historiography between Continuity and Change: Some Cross-Cultural Comparisons, German
Life and Letters, 34 (1980-1981), 248-259; and Georg Iggers. ed., The Social History of
Politics: Critical Perspectives in West GermanHistorical Writing since 1945 (Learnington Spa,
See Claude Lanzmann, Shah: An Oral History of the Holocaust (New York, 1985).

Martin Travers





Norbert Schneider in Peter Mtirthesheimer and Ivo Frenzel, eds. Im Kreuzfeuer: Der
Fernrehfilm Holocaust:Eine Nation ist betroffen (Frankfurt am Main, 1979), p. 301. Unless
otherwise specified, all translations from the German are by the author.
The speeches. dong with other important documents, have been collected by Geoffrey Hartman
in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective (Bloomington, 1986).
See. Zur Errichtung eines Hauses der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn,
in Martin Broszat, Nach Hitler: Der schwierige Umgang mit unserer Geschichte (Munich,
1988), pp. 256-262. The controversy has been analysed by Beatrice Heuser in her Museums,
Identity and the Warring Historians: Observations on History in Germany, Historical Journal,
33 (1990), 417-445.
Quoted in JUrgen Habermas. Concerning the Public use of History, New German Critique, 44
(19881, 40-50 @. 42). The political background of the debate has been well examined in
Charles Maier. The Immoral Equivalence: Revising the Nazi Past for the Kohl Era, New
Republic (December 1986), 36-41. Kohls own assertion, during his visit to Israel in 1985, that
since he enjoyed the blessing of being born after the events [of Nazi Germany]. he (and his
generation) did not bear the guilt of his fathers, simply added insult to injury.
See Mary Nolan, The Historikerstreit and Social History, New Germon Critique, 44 (1988),
51-80 @. 53). The Historikrstreit proper has come to an end, but the polemical nature of many
of the issues it raised adheres to a number of the retrospective accounts. See Hans-Ulrich
Wehler, Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit?: Ein polemischer Essay zum
Historikerstreit (Munich, 1988). and Imanuel Geiss. Die Habermas-Kontroverse: Ein
deutscher Streit ( B e r b 1988). Hans Mommsen, Auf der Suche nach historischer Normalitat:
Beitriige zum Geschichtsbilhtreit in &r Bundesrepublik (Berlin. 1987). Hilmar Hoffmann, ed.,
Gegen den Versuch, Vergangenheit zu verbiegen: Eine Diskussion umpolitische Kultur in der
Bundesrepublik aus A d $ der Frankenfwter RherberggesprLche 1986 (Frankfurt am Main,
1987); and Christian Meier, 40 Jahre nach Auschwitz: Deutsche Geschichtseriwrung heute
(Munich, 1987). In English the major accounts are Gordon Craigs review essay, The War of
the German Historians, New York Review of Books. 15 January 1987, nos 21 and 22, 16-19,
Walter Grab, German Historians and the Trivialisation of Nazi Criminality,AJPH, 33 (1987),
273-278, and Richard Evans, The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the
West German Historikerstreit, Journal of Modern History, 59 (December, 1987), 761-797,
which formed the basis for his full-length monograph In Hitlers Shadow: West German
Historians and the Attempt to Escapefrom the Nazi Past (New York, 1989). Finally, for a very
systematic account, see Charles S. Maier, The Unmusterable Past: History, Holocaust and
German National Identity (Harvard, 1988).
Ernst Nolte, Between Myth and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of the
1980s, in H. W.Koch, ed.,Aspects of the Third Reich (London, 1985). pp. 3-38 @. 37).
Noltes letter, along with the other major contributions to the debate, is printed in its entirety in
Historikkrstreit: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der
nationalsozidistischen Judenvernichtung (Munich, 1987), pp. 39-47.
Ibid, p. 45.
Ibid. p. 40.
See Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschen Reiches und das Ende des
europiiischenJudentwnr (Berlin, 1986).
Ibid, p. 64.
Ibid, pp. 20-21.
Ibid, p. 61. Klaus Hildebrand in his contribution to the debate also talks of the farreaching wa
aims of the British Higher Command, but, like Hillgruber, offers no supporting evidence for
this assertion. See Das Zeitalter der Tyrannen. reprinted in the Pijier anthology, p. 87.
Ibid, p ~23-25.
See So schwer nachzuvollziehen?, first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 29
November 1986, reprinted in Reinhard Kiihnl, ed.. Streit ums Geschictsbild,p. 163.
See Geschichte in geschichtslosem Land. in Piper anthology, ibid, pp. 36-38; Suche nach
der verlorenen Erinnerungen, Das Parlament, 36,20/21, (1986). p. 1; and Kein Eigentwn der
Deutschen: die deutsche Frage. in Werner Weidenfeld, ed., Die Identitiit der Deutschen









The German Historikermeit

(Bonn, 1983), pp. 84-91. The note of cultural despair that can be clearly heard in Stiirmers
contribution to the Historikerstreit pervades even his most serious scholarly writing, such as
Die Weimarer Republik: Belagerte Civitas (Dtisseldorf, 1980), and Das ruhelose Reich (Berlin,
Geschichte in geschichtslosem Land, p. 36.
Ibid, p. 37.
See Helmuth Plessner, Die verspiitete Nation: Uber die politische Verfuhrbarkeit biirgerlichen
Geistes (Stuttgart, 1959). Plessner, it must quickly be added, does not approach the issue of the
belated formation of Germany as a nation from the conservative point of view of Stilrmer.
These have been collected under the highly indicative title Dissonanzen des Fortschritts
(Munich, 1986).
See Geiss, Der Habermas Kontroverse, p. 16.
Geiss identifies Habermas and his friends as part of an irrational reaction from the Left.
Ibid, p 165.
Habermas has now collected these essays, and others, in a single volume: Eine Art
Schadensabwicklung (Frankfurt am Main, 1987). They have also been translated into English
as A Kind of Settlement of Damages (Apologetic Tendencies), and Concerning the Public
Use of History, in New German Critique. 44 (Spring/Summer, 1988), 25-39, and 40-50.
See A Kind of Settlement of Damages, p. 30.
Ibid, p. 34.
Concerning the Public Use of History, p. 43.
Ibid. p. 37.
Ibid, p. 39.
See A Kind of Settlement of Damages, p. 38.
See Concerning the Public Use of History, p. 45.
For an attempt to do precisely this, see Rick Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of
Critical Theory (London, 1986), pp. 1-61.
Mommsens essay is reprinted in Walter Laqueuer, ed., Fascism: A Readers Guide
(Harmondsworth, 1979), pp. 151-192. Martin Broszat is best known for his major study of the
Third Reich, Der Staat Hitlers: Grundlegung und Entwicklung seiner inneren Verfassung, fust
published in German in 1969, and translated into English as The Hitler State in 1981. The
direction of this new historiography is well outlined by Richard Bessel in his Life in the Third
Reich, History Today, 35 (October 1985), 8-14.
A good account of the methodology and goals of Alltagsgeschichte is offered by Detlev Peukert
in his Volksgerwssen und Gemeinschafsfremde: Anpassung, Ausmerze und Aujbegehren unter
dem Nationalsozialismus (Cologne, 1982). For an excellent review of this branch of recent
German historiography, see Roger Fletcher, History from Below comes to Germany: The New
History Movement in the Federal Republic of Germany, Journal of Modern History, 60
(1988). 557-568.
The exchange was published as A Controversy about the Historicization of National
Socialism,New German Critique, 44 (Spring/Summer 1988), 85-126.
Ibid, p. 122.
Ibid, p. 107.
bid, p. 125.
Friedliinder has explored the cultural manifestations of this revisionism in his essay Reflections
of Nazism: An Essay on Death and Kitsch (New York, 1984).
Ibid, p. 86.
Ibid, pp. 98-99.
Ibid. p. 87.
Ibid. pp. 115-116.
Zbid. p. 101.
Two recent essays have explored the implications of the Historikerstreit within this broader
political turn to the right in Germany. See Roderick Stackelberg, 1986 v. 1968: The Turn to
the Right in German Historiography, Radical History Review, 40 (1988), 50-63; and Anson

Martin Travers


Kabmach, The German Historians Debate and the Nazi Past: A Dress Rehearsal for a New
German Nationalism, Dissent (Spring 1988), 192-200.
52 Emst Nolte defended Heidegger against accusations made by the French historian Victor Farias
(in his book Heidegger et Ze nazisme (Paris, 1987) that the German philosopher had been a
fellow traveller of the Nazi Party and a supporter of Hitler. For a discussion of this controversy,
see Zeit und Geist oder Vergangenheif die einen immerzu einholt: Ernst Nolte als Pionier
ekes grossdeutschen Revisionismus?,Einspruch, 24 (December 1990), 45-50.