Uproar in Clio's Library: The Case Of Dr. David Abraham And 'The Collapse Of The Weimar Republic'

Keith Stimely

A lengthy page-one, six column article in the Sunday, 23 December 1984 New York Times (Colin Campbell, "History and Ethics: A Dispute," pp. 1, 35) brought to the attention of the general public for the first time the facts about a controversy within the halls of mainstream historical scholarship that has proceeded with mounting bitterness for almost two years -- and will receive fresh impetus early in 1985 with the publication of major articles/rebuttals/counter-rebuttals in the historical journals Central European History and German Quarterly of Social and Economic History. The case has already drawn in dozens of professional historians (among them some of the most prominent names in the historiography of modern Germany), been publicized in the American Historical Review, and resulted in a formal protest to the American Historical Association's committee on professional affairs. It involves nothing less than charges of massive scholarly fraud, distortion, fabrication and lying, in a book about the fall of the Weimar Republic and the financial sources of the Nazis' rise to power. It has caused a number of historians to question publicly what has become of standards of scholarship, verification, and ethics in their profession. And it has raised the question whether a closer examination of other texts of modern history might yield results as disconcerting as have come up in this case.

The charges revolve around Dr. David Abraham, whose book The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis was published by Princeton University Press in June 1981. Dr. Abraham is currently an untenured professor at Princeton. (His application for tenure has been turned down, although his employment was extended for another year.) The book grew out of his 1977 Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Chicago. Submitting it to Princeton for publication in 1979, he revised it somewhat after it was sent around to two scholars for a reading -- a standard practice. One of those scholars, Prof. Gerald Feldman of the University of California at Berkeley, adjudged the revised version "vastly improved" and "very sound."

Initial reviews of the book were favorable or respectful. Its thesis was the neo-Marxist one that German Big Business as a group sought to sabotage the late Weimar state by supporting Hitler and the Nazis, the faction they saw as best representing their economic interests, especially in the face of a rising threat from the Left. This thesis -- Nazism or "generic" Fascism as anti-proletarian reaction, the last resort and tool of monopoly capitalism -- is an old one, stated many times over the years in such well-known works as Arthur Rosenberg's Der Faschismus als Massenbewegung, Daniel Guerin's Fascism and Big Business, Robert Brady's The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, R. Palme Dutt's Fascism and Social Revolution, and, perhaps the most sophisticated example, Franz Neumann's Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism. Known as the "classical Marxian interpretation" of Fascism, it retains, in its numerous variations, many adherents on the Left today. In support of his variant, Abraham cited and quoted from many primary sources which seemed to show just how ardently pro-Nazi and anti-Weimar, for their own narrow ends, were some of Germany's most important business and financial leaders.

It was when Abraham's quotations and sources were subjected to a searching look. however, that serious questions began to be raised. Prof. Henry A. Turner. Jr., of Yale, whose own book German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler was published by Oxford University Press in January 1985, took the lead in checking out Abraham's scholarship. Turner had reviewed the book for the Political Science Quarterly in October 1982, focusing there on a critique, not of its veracity as to sources, but of its analytic logic and what he saw as an over-reliance on dogmatic Marxist theories about Nazism. (Turner is one of those scholars who reject the Marxian analysis as politically-motivated, narrow, and unsupported, ignoring the broader "populist" appeal of the Nazis and the importance of the anti-capitalist element and attraction in their ideology.) Commenting later that had Dr. Abraham's quotations all been accurate, he would have had to tear up a chapter of his own work-in-progress, Dr. Turner set to examining those quotations and their sources.

What he found so shocked and angered him that he sent communications to colleagues in America and Europe warning them that the Abraham book was, as he put it in one cover-letter, a "farrago of misinformation." With his letters went photocopies of Abraham's page 320, which directly quoted a 1932 exchange of letters between Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, former president of the Reichsbank, and Paul Reusch, a heavy-industry leader, seeming to show not only a heretofore-undocumented high degree of sympathy for the Nazis, but plans actively to assist them to power. With this page Dr. Turner sent copies of the original referenced letters of Schacht and Reuss. The comparison revealed that Abraham had invented out of thin air whole sentences, phrases, and sentiments in his "quotes." This was but one example. In a letter to Abraham, Turner charged several other misquotations, misdatings, and, most importantly, misattributions of documents dating from around Christmas 1930 that were a key part of Abraham's supposed documentation of pro-Nazi business machinations. Turner circulated this letter to other historians, and composed a letter to the American Historical Review which challenged Abraham to prove that certain documents relating to that Christmas 1930 period "exist now or ever existed." He pointed out that a book and a journal article cited by Abraham were nonexistent. The letter, together with Abraham's reply, was published in the October 1983 issue.

In his reply, Dr. Abraham developed the defense that he has hewed to ever since: while conceding a number of errors and a degree of carelessness, due partly to the pressure of time in preparing the book, he had not deliberately invented anything; there was no intent to defraud. But Dr. Turner in fact was charging that there obviously was such an intent; such discrepancies as he had found between Abraham's versions of things and what the documents actually said could not be explained away as mere "mistakes." It was Turner's insistent voicing of this charge that led a number of scholars to come down against him for being too vehement about it all. These, conceding that Turner had a case against Abraham on points of fact, criticized him nevertheless for concluding that Abraham was a faker -- as opposed to just a sloppy researcher. And they raised questions about Turner's ethics in so quickly and publicly making his charges. Some even speculated openly that Turner's motivation in discrediting the Abraham book was to drum up interest in and support for his own forthcoming book with the opposite thesis. These considerations formed the basis for a protest by several scholars, among them Carl Schorske of Princeton and President Hanna Grey of the University of Chicago, to the American Historical Association. Early in January 1985, the AHA's professional affairs committee declined to act on this protest, holding in effect that the time-honored academic system of open professional criticism and exchange should be allowed to run its course.

Dr. Turner was not at all without allies in making the case against Dr. Abraham. One supporter was Dr. Gerald Feldman -- the same Gerald Feldman who had reviewed the book for Princeton before publication. After looking into the work much deeper, he now said that it seemed "a terrible, terrible distortion of the documents," and readily admitted being embarrassed by his initial recommendation. One development that particularly infuriated him was that Abraham had picked up some scholarly supporters who were minimizing his errors (by calling them just "errors") and attacking Dr. Turner for his efforts at exposure. Said Feldman: "Everywhere you went, people were saying that Turner was operating for political and personal reasons." He was disturbed that Abraham's appalling scholarship could be condoned or excused by his peers -- and that those peers could engage in a sustained attack on the man largely responsible for directing the light of day onto such scholarship, an attack which called that man, in effect, a victimizer. In a letter to colleagues, Feldman expressed his shock at the sympathetic portrayal of Abraham in some quarters as "a victim of something other than his own sloppiness, incompetence, tendentiousness, and untruthfulness."

A former graduate student of Feldman's, Dr. Ulrich Nocken of the University of Dusseldorf, had meanwhile been spending much time in the same archives consulted by Abraham. He found numerous further errors, inventions, and distortions, and composed a lengthy indictment against the author of The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Of the 70 footnotes he had checked, only four were "unobjectionable." (It is this review which appears in the current issue of German Quarterly of Social and Economic History.) The Nocken report, circulated in manuscript, sufficed to change the minds of some who had initially been supportive of Abraham. Among these was Prof. Gordon A. Craig of Stanford -- perhaps the "dean" of American scholars of modern Germany. Craig's original "instinct," he told the New York Times, was to be lenient, since some mistakes and the temptation to "strain the evidence" are not uncommon in younger scholars. But Craig's "instincts after reading Dr. Nocken's piece told him the errors went beyond carelessness."

One criticism levelled at Dr. Abraham has been that the "misinformation" in his book begins with its very dedication: "For my parents, who at Auschwitz and elsewhere suffered the worst consequences of what I can only write about." His parents happen to be alive. Abraham condemns as "contemptible" the charge that by "worst consequences" he meant to suggest that they had been killed -- "even apart from the question whether death was the worst horror Auschwitz could inflict."

Since the controversy over his scholarship began, Abraham has been turned down for jobs at the University of Texas, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Tel Aviv -- this last for the post of director of the Wiener Library, a major resource center on anti-Semitism and the Nazi era. In reaction to that prospect, Dr. Feldman remarked that handing David Abraham a research library would have been "like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank."

The Abraham controversy dominated the end-of-year convention of the American Historical Association held in Chicago. Time magazine, reporting on the affair in its issue of 14 January 1985 ("Stormy Weather in Academe," p. 59), quoted AHA Executive Director Samuel Gammon as saying that "It's almost impossible to get involved and be neutral." Another AHA official, not speaking for attribution, said: "I feel an immense sadness. We have not shown our best face to the world." Abraham himself was at the convention, defending his reputation against the charges of fraud -- and continuing to claim that his book's thesis is essentially sound. His admitted mistakes "do not distort reality," he said. "The truth, the argument, wasn't based on the errors. Like all historians, I interpreted a mass of material in a way that is most truthful."

Dr. Feldman will present the case against Dr. Abraham in a 40-page article in the Spring 1985 issue of Central European History. That issue will also contain Abraham's lengthy response, a reply to that response by Feldman, and a reply to the reply by Abraham. Where the case will go from there is an open question. It has certainly shaken up enough historians already. Dr. Feldman, for one, is stunned that there could remain defenders of Abraham, who persist in trivializing his errors. He and others on his side had earlier raised volatile charges of a "cover-up" and "academic Watergate" engaged in by the Abraham partisans. Now Feldman wonders whether a "revolution" in historiography is not taking place: historical documents must be treated as practically "sacred." If they are not so treated, and errors like Abraham's are or become common, "We should be put out of business."


From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1984 (Vol. 5, Nos. 2,3,4), pages 440-444.