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Ernst Nolte and Holocaust Revisionism

To the gen-mus list:

July 10, 2000

Last month we were discussing the women's orchestra in Auswchwitz and it was suggested that more emphasis should be placed on the "gray areas" of the Holocaust. I think this comment might have seemed strange to some, and so I would like to provide information about the intellectual background here in Germany from which the suggestion -might- have derived. There have also been some recent controversial developments in Germany related to the Holocaust and historical research that might be of interest to historians on this list. 

In June, one of Germany's most prestigious literary prizes went to historian, Ernst Nolte, (a Professor at the Free University of Berlin) who has sought to partially justify the Holocaust by asserting it was in essence a riposte to Bolshevism[1]. He received the Konrad Adenauer Prize for literature, causing an uproar that has filled German newspapers with invective and divided one of Germany's leading historical institutes.

The prize is awarded by the Munich-based Deutschland Foundation which is conservative, but had not been considered reactionary or revisionist. 

Accepting the prize, Mr. Nolte said, ''We should leave behind the view that the opposite of National Socialist goals is always good and right.'' He added that because Nazism was the ''strongest of all counter forces'' to Bolshevism, a movement with wide Jewish support, Hitler may have had ''rational'' reasons for attacking the Jews[2]. 

_The New York Times_ writes that the timing of the prize is particularly delicate because this is a "period of some intellectual ferment in Europe." The success of Austrian rightist Jorg Haider in steering his Freedom Party into government has emboldened the right in other regions of Europe. "In Germany and France," the Times writes, "a conservative reaction is evident against what the French call 'the angelic left,' which is accused of imposing a stifling political correctness on debate and of backing a multi-cultural tide that will sweep away the European nation state." 

Unease and anger in Germany over the prize has been accentuated by the fact that another prominent historian, Horst Moller, the director of the distinguished Institute for Contemporary History, chose to make the speech honoring Mr. Nolte. Perhaps this intellectual climate might help list members understand why they would be asked to examine the "gray areas" of the Holocaust, a notion that in many respects seems an invitation to revisionism.

For those interested, historian Benjamin B. Weber, provides a criticism of Nolte's writings in an article entitled "Shades of Revisionism: Holocaust Denial and the Conservative Call to Reinterpret German History[3]." Weber suggests that the appeal of Nolte's writings stems from the desire of some to believe that "the roots of the Holocaust do not lie in German antisemitism, but rather in the Bolshevik revolution," a view that would "shift the blame from the German people to the communist Soviets." Most scholars scoff at Nolte's notion that the revolution of 1917 created a situation in which the German people were locked in a struggle to the death with European Jewry. Weber, however, asks us to imagine the effect Nolte's ideas could have on young Germans today "who have difficulty accepting that their relatives belonged to a flagrantly criminal society[4]." Nolte's distinguished reputation and academic credentials help lull young people into thinking the Holocaust was a defensive action. 

Similar ideas have also shaped US politics. Unfounded concerns about "Jewish Bolshivists" caused anti-Semiticism to influence the "House Un-American Activities Committee" in the USA during the 1950s. Two of the most active McCarthyites, Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan, later became highly influential US Presidents.

Perhaps this helps explain why Nolte has a following among the far-right in the USA. In an article entitled "Nazifying the Germans," Ralph Raico, a rightist Professor of History at Buffalo State College, reiterates and extols Nolte's work. Raico agrees with Nolte that, "Keeping the Nazi period constantly before our eyes serves the ideological interests of a number of "influential groups" including "Zionists" and "American globalists." Raico also complains that Hitler is used as a case against Americian isolationism [5]. His views are widely represented in the American far-right.

Like many authors, including both Nolte and members of the more moderate-right, Raico feels we are in the "midst of a vast campaign to delegitimize western civilization" (a criticism also often leveled at the "new musicology.") Racio suggests that, "The obsession with the never-ending guilt of the Germans...advances the ends of those who look forward to the extinction of the nation-state and national identity, especially in the West." 

Nolte agrees, and provides an even more specific theory. He asserts that radical feminism joins Third World anti-Occidentalism and multiculturalism to "instrumentalize" the Holocaust for political purposes. He feels these groups place the Holocaust in the context of "various genocides by the predatory and conquering West, so that 'homo hitlerensis' ultimately appears as merely a special case of 'homo occidentalis.'" According to Nolte, the purpose of this leftist portrayal of the West as genocidal is to strike at "the cultural and linguistic homogeneity of the national states, achieved over centuries, and open the gates to a massive immigration," so that in the end the nations of the West should cease to exist. The trouble with Nolte's thought seems to be that it trivializes atrocities Western nations have indeed committed.

In the mid 1980s, Jürgen Habermas, a professor of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, attacked Nolte's views. A lively public debate evolved in Germany known as the "Historikerstreit" ("The Historian's Conflict.") in which Nolte was represented by the conservative _Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung_ and Habermas by the liberal weekly _Die Zeit_. Habermas suggested that Nolte's revisionism was primarily a political issue stemming from the fact that many Germans born after 1945 are irritated at being held responsible for the crimes of their parents. Habermas criticized the revisionists for attempting to provide Germans with a history that would alleviate their sense of guilt. Rather than providing a more palatable interpretation of the German past, he demanded that historians leave it intact and that Germany face up to the horrors of Nazism. Habermas further suggested that revisionism would ultimately only discredit Germany.

Nolte's writings, however, are widely applauded and represent themes that helped fuel Jorg Haider's rise to power in Austria. As the _New York Times_ notes, "With Haiderism thriving in neighboring Austria, the ground has become fertile in Germany for a nationalist and right-wing intellectual awaking. It is fed by weariness, even anger, at what is seen as Germany's eternal victimization for the Holocaust, and irritation at the multi-cultural message from a Red-Green government[6]." 

In any case, Nolte and other members of the German right question the "intellectual tyranny" of the left and demand it recognize rational motivations for the "gray areas" of the Holocaust. Nolte's critics, however, feel he and his followers advocate a dangerous and politically motivated historical revisionism.

William Osborne
(You may forward this post. Please include the endnotes.)

[1] For a full report on the award to Nolte and the controversy surrounding it see Roger Cohen, "Hitler Apologist Wins German Honor, and a Storm Breaks Out" _The New York Times_ (June 21, 2000.) A copy is available on the web at <http://www.osborne-conant.org/nolte.htm>
[2] ibid.
[3] Benjamin B. Weber, "Shades of Revisionism: Holocaust Denial and the Conservative Call to Reinterpret German History" _History Review_ (vol. 6, December 1994.) The journal is published by the University of Vermont. The article is available on the web at <http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/histreview/vol6/weber.html>
[4] ibid.
[5] Ralph Raico, "Nazifying the Germans," July10, 2000 <http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig/raico1.html>
[6] Roger Cohen, "Hitler Apologist Wins German Honor, and a Storm Breaks Out" _The New York Times_ (June 21, 2000.)