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The logic of horror

The time is ripe for a complete overhaul of the historical contextualisation of the Holocaust. By Götz Aly

Twenty years ago the "Historikerstreit", or "historians' dispute", flared up, a decisive conflict on the historical interpretation of the Holocaust and the Germans' understanding of themselves. In the article "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will" (the past that does not want to pass) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on June 6, 1986, historian Ernst Nolte maintained the Holocaust should be viewed in the light of the entirety of 20th century European history. Nolte further explained the murder of the Jews as a reaction to the mechanism of extermination in Soviet Russia: "Was not the 'Gulag Archipelago' prior to 'Auschwitz'?" In an answer in Die Zeit, philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused Nolte of playing down German guilt, and insisted on the singular nature of the Holocaust. The ensuing debate on German guilt and its historical interpretation involved all major German historians.

Historians, like journalists, ask their questions from a position in the present, but in the case of historians, these questions are directed backwards. Most history books quickly reach their sell-by date. Future generations will still be reading Goethe, Benn and Grass when Treitschke, Stürmer and Nipperdey are gathering dust. But Raul Hilberg's unwieldy three-volume work "The Destruction of the European Jews" will remain. The reason is simple: this book embodies the work of a man who has spent his entire life trying to see something that many of his contemporaries did not see and did not want to see. Hilberg does not judge, he reconstructs political processes.

For six years, until its publication by a small American press in 1961, his manuscript was suppressed. In 1958, the authorities in Yad Vashem had rejected it because it clashed with the Israeli state doctrine of the fighting Jew. In 1959, Hannah Arendt had penned a negative assessment because the work "was not significant enough as a case study," although later, nonsensically enough, she used it as a source. In 1967, Fritz J. Raddatz of Rowohlt publishers spoke against a German edition because the "burden" of non-fiction titles – i.e. the literary ammunition of the emerging student movement – was already weighing heavy.

When Hilberg's work was finally accepted, the author's empirical zeal did not wane. To this day, each new edition is brought up to date with the latest findings. As a result, the work too breathes the unbroken search for truth by its author, who celebrates his 80th birthday this 2nd of June. It is pure chance that this date coincides with the 20th anniversary of the "Historikerstreit" (historian's dispute) in the former West Germany, whose details now interest hardly anyone, but which left behind an important unanswered question: how is the outstanding mass crime of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, to be positioned within German and European history.

How this question might be answered is probably best explained using the example of Jacob Burckhardt's "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", which is also among those rare works of history that effortlessly survived the period of its original publication. Unlike Hilberg, Burckhardt lifted his gaze from detail to the larger context in order to analyze the rupture between the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. But he theorized his material without losing sight of the empirical base. He deftly used the example of the Italian as "the first-born among the sons of modern Europe" to explain the present. He showed, and he still shows today, how Europe freed itself from the tightly woven veil of "faith, illusion and childish prepossession."

Admittedly, the twentieth century forces us to assume that on the path towards emancipation, the Europeans succumbed to their own modernity, falling victim to more than just a new illusion. In World Wars, in revolutions and also in peace treaties, they put two old ideas into bloody practice: national and social homogenization. These two concepts – often together as an explosive cocktail – inspired the masses to free themselves from misery, from the constraints of tradition, and to speed their journey to a better life by means of violence. Sameness within a large, precisely-defined group promised security, individual liberty was considered a threat. The inviolability of the human individual and of entire groups considered enemies was sacrificed to collective regression.

In this light, the so-called Historikerstreit – begun not by a historian but by the philosopher, political scientist and sociologist Jürgen Habermas – revolved around a crucial subject: the positioning of the Holocaust within the wider historical framework. But the explanatory models proposed, especially those proposed by Ernst Nolte, had to be rejected as inadequate due to their lack of sufficient empirical substance.

In his essay on the past that refuses to pass – printed in the arts and culture pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper on 6 June 1986 – Nolte compared the class-based genocide of the Bolsheviks with the race-based genocide of the Nazis. There is nothing to be said against this in itself, but in the lightly veiled form of a question, he claimed: "Was the Gulag Archipelago not more original than Auschwitz? Was the class murder of the Bolsheviks not the logical and factual precursor to the race murder of the National Socialists?" To substantiate this, Nolte described the gas chambers as a mere technical appendage. In his 1993 book "Streitpunkte" (Bones of Contention), he even went so far as to put forth the grotesque theory that according to their own, perfectly credible statements, the inventors of the gas chambers had been aiming to create a "humane" procedure by which a "painless death was intended."

Such blatant nonsense, which also displayed outrageous callousness towards the survivors, ruined the essentially correct attempt to historicize the Holocaust comparatively. Furthermore, this attempt was launched too early, as the requisite knowledge of the facts was quite definitely lacking. The half-knowledge available in the 1980s was enough to repress or to theologize the historical fact of the "final solution of the Jewish question", but it was not enough to make conscientious statements about the nature of what actually took place. Even simple figures on how many people had been murdered when and where had yet to be established. And there was no research into the extent of the contribution made by accomplices. It was only the hundreds of individual empirical studies subsequently conducted in the spirit of Raul Hilberg that brought points of comparison to light.

The question of historical contexts cannot be answered with philosophical conjectures about some kind of historical nexus, but only with approaches grounded in fact. After 1945, it took historians six decades just to secure the facts – which points not to the incapability of the researchers, but to the gravity of the crime, that could only be processed slowly, layer by layer.

Raul Hilberg was unable to do this alone. Instead, his work brought forth a loose-knit, informal club of historians spread across the world who began to work in his spirit. Perhaps he was able to achieve this precisely because he never possessed academic power, never drilled a herd of PhD students in who they were and were not allowed to quote. His influence was and is based purely on his example. And since no question is taboo in the Hilberg camp, something can be learned there even from Ernst Nolte. Whom, incidentally, one should not judge in oversimplified terms. After all, in 1963 – as a 40-year-old secondary-school teacher of Latin and Greek – he qualified as a university lecturer with his still-respected study "The Three Faces of Fascism". In it, he interprets the Nuremberg Race Laws as "something entirely new in history," saying that their biological rigor and refusal to make exceptions meant they were not comparable with the measures devised in the Soviet Union to strip selected classes within society of their political rights.

Today, those who advocate a museum to the suffering of Germans expelled after WWII from their homes in former German territories which separates this issue from the German prehistory could take a lesson from Nolte: "Because National Socialism did not even grant the Jews the rights of a national minority, it also left the German minorities in Eastern Europe virtually defenceless." Nolte spoke of the "brutal campaign of expulsion and resettlement" in occupied Poland, adding that "all this was nothing compared with what was planned for the time after the war." He described the war against the Soviet Union as the "most monstrous war of conquest, enslavement and destruction in modern history".

More than 40 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Ernst Nolte spoke out clearly. At the time, posters still hung in every West German school proclaiming "Cut Into Three, Never!" (referring to the divide between East and West Germany and to the formerly German territories now in Poland, Russia and Lithuania); and the crimes of the Nazis were meticulously not talked about or unscrupulously exploited. Above all, however, "The Three Faces of Fascism" is worth reading on account of its approach. In it, Nolte compares Action française, Italian fascism and National Socialism, and he refers to various cultural spheres, to the Bolshevik revolution, and to the mass experience of World War I. Here lies his strength – and the weakness of his critics, who to this day have failed to describe historical contexts of this kind. The challenge now is therefore not to declare the 84-year-old an unperson, but to find different answers to the questions he raised.

Twenty years after the Historikerstreit, more than 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the time is ripe for a comprehensive new understanding of the age of violent nationalism, of the twentieth century's politics of ethnic segregation, expropriation and extermination. But contrary to Nolte's obsession, such attempts should not begin with the October Revolution in Russia, because that only leads to the historically optimistic illusion that the repugnant aspects of the twentieth century can be reduced to the major totalitarian dictatorships and that they can be cleanly distinguished from all that we now view as progress and success.

For example, it was in fact Republican France that invented the selection criteria later used as the basis for the so-called "Deutsche Volksliste" (German ethnic list) in the areas of Poland annexed by Germany. In 1919, the population of the reclaimed Alsace region were sorted into four groups: full, three-quarter and half French, and Germans. On this basis, Alsatians were accorded full, limited or zero civil rights. In the case of those belonging to Group IV (the Germans), the French authorities ordered expulsion over the Rhine bridge. This was followed in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated under the leadership of France and England, as the first major case of ethnic homogenization anchored in international law. It ended the Greco-Turkish War with the forced exchange of sections of the population.

The post-war order established by the Potsdam Conference of 1945 was merely an updating of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 along national lines, tacitly including the results of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In 1946, Chancellor Willy Brandt commented on the victorious powers' expulsion policy under the headline "Hitler's Spirit Lives On". In 1947/48, it was the ceding British colonial power in India which set in motion the process of population transfer based on religious criteria between the Indian Union and what was to become Pakistan. In south-eastern Europe, too, twelve million people were uprooted by a resettlement project devised by British strategists and codenamed "Operation Balkans". And the parallels continue. Without additional details, no one could say where and under which circumstances the following twentieth-century story told by a survivor took place: "The man in uniform ordered us to follow him to the station. My elderly father died on the way there, one of my five children froze to death during the journey." (It was in 1940 during the Sovietization of eastern Poland.)

The "Aryanization" of the assets and possessions of the Jews is another link in the secular chain of property revolutions. On close inspection, there is an obvious inner relation between concepts such as Aryanization, Polonization, Magyarization, nationalization or even socialization. Attributing the expropriation of the Jews – in Germany and later in many European countries – primarily to the anti-Semitic upbringing of those involved is highly questionable.

In his book "Anniversaries", in an entry dated 15 August 1968, Uwe Johnson describes a scene from East Germany: "Now I was obliged to watch in Gneez as the furniture from Elise Bock's bedroom was auctioned off. It had become the property of the state since Elise had moved to West Berlin. In the narrow, dirty courtyard, people crowded outside the open window of Elise's flat. In the opening appeared a man in a shabby suit, with the party insignia on his lapel, and held up pictures, a chair and some lamps to the gathering. The bidders, especially Alfred Fretwurst, yelled their humorous comments as if they were adolescents, or drunk."

This is reminiscent of the "Aryanization" of Jewish property. On 7 and 9 December 1942, as Victor Klemperer reports in his diary, "the auction of the Jakobys' property raged" through the "Jew's House" where he and other wearers of the yellow star were quartered in Dresden. Up for grabs were objects left behind by those who had just been deported: "One must keep one's rooms locked because everywhere there are crowds of people viewing items. On the first day, the auction was held in the hall – I watched (from the gallery) for the first time. The lots were small household items and the bidders were humble folk. Later more expensive objects and a slightly more well-to-do public."

In 1945 in Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes viewed the nationalization of German property "as the beginning of a great social upheaval." And in the Banat, even before the war was over, plans were being drawn up to dispose of the 637,000 hectares belonging to Germans as the principle stock for Communist land reform in Yugoslavia; they later benefited Serbs resettled from poor karst regions. In March 1945, while Jewish property was still being handed out to needy Hungarian refugees in Western Hungary, the already installed Provisional Hungarian National Government in Debrecen ordered the expropriation of the Germans. The order was implemented by the same officials who had recently expropriated the Jews, and it bore the signature of Imre Nagy, who was later to become the hero of the People's Uprising of 1956. The law expelling the Germans from Hungary was signed in December 1945 by the moderate leftwing politician Zoltan Tily, who was driven out by the Communists in 1948 and who was also among the leaders of the anti-Stalinist uprising in 1956.

A historiography that takes such facts into account should not relativize the Holocaust and the central responsibility of the Germans; distinctions must be made between specific cases: some fled to West Berlin, others were deported from the Sudetenland to Bavaria, but the Jews were murdered. Nonetheless, a historiography that takes itself seriously must recognize the patterns and pick up the threads of Europe's history of violence and progress in the first third of the twentieth century in order to localize Auschwitz in historical terms.

This will engender misunderstandings and fresh arguments. But that would be more productive than a policy that ignores connections and which keeps the different but discretely related histories of violence apart from each other and from supposed or actual progress. A small dose of Nolte will do no harm here, but it is likely to lead to results that are quite different to those dreamed of by the "historical thinker" with his monocausal fixation.

The answers to Nolte depend on a desire to ask questions and on solid empirical foundations of the kind laid down by Raul Hilberg. A comprehensive historical positioning would need to centre on the various forms of ethnically and socially motivated mass mobilization and "cleansing." They reached their most extreme form in Nazi Germany's wars of aggression and its murder of the European Jews. In historical terms, the Holocaust has its place within the field shaped by these political forces. Which is why it remains the touchstone for any analysis of the violent era of breaks and transition in the European history of the first half of the twentieth century.


The article orginally appeared in Die Zeit on 1 June, 2006.

Götz Aly currently lives in Frankfurt as a visiting professor for interdisciplinary Holocaust history at the Fritz Bauer Institute. Read other articles by Aly on here and here.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

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