A Prominent German Historian Tackles Taboos of Third Reich History
Prof. Nolte's Controversial New Book
- Streitpunkte: Heutige und künftige Kontroversen um den Nationalsozialismus ("Points of Contention: Current and Future Controversies about National Socialism"), by Ernst Nolte. Berlin and Frankfurt: Propyläen, 1993. Hardcover. 492 pages. Notes. Index. ISBN: 3-549-05234-0.
Reviewed by Mark Weber
Almost half a century after its dramatic demise, the Third Reich continues to fascinate millions and provoke heated discussion. Historians, sociologists, journalists and educated lay persons debate such questions as: How was German National Socialist regime possible? How deep was popular support for Hitler and his government? Was the National Socialist regime "reactionary" or "modern," or some combination of each? Did the Third Reich represent aberration or continuity in German history? What is the origin and precise nature of the wartime "final solution of the Jewish question"?
Few persons are as qualified to tackle such questions as Dr. Ernst Nolte, emeritus professor of history at Berlin's renowned Free University. Best known for his acclaimed study of the phenomenon of fascism -- published in English as Three Faces of Fascism -- Nolte is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles. (Three books by him have been published since 1990 alone.) No stranger to controversy, it was Prof. Nolte who touched off the furious intellectual debate during the late 1980s about the legacy of Hitler and German National Socialism known as the "historians' dispute" or Historikerstreit.
Nolte continues the discussion in this, his latest and most controversial book, a work packed with arresting observations and insights, and written in a readable narrative style meant for both the specialist and the educated lay reader. This attractively produced book is issued by one of Germany's most prominent and respected publishers.
What is most strikingly new in this book is Nolte's informed and open-minded treatment of the work of what he calls the "radical revisionists." With candor that is very rare among prominent scholars, Nolte confesses (pp. 7-9) in the foreword:
... I must acknowledge that, without more closely examining them, I accepted as true the factuality of events, including the figure of six million [Jewish] victims and the primary importance of the gas chambers as an instrument of extermination, as claimed by the perpetrators and victims in the large-scale trials of the 1960s, and which were not questioned by the defendants' attorneys.
Only much later, in the late 1970s, did I become aware of the doubts and counter-claims of a new school, that of the "revisionists." During this same period, the research of historians of contemporary history of the stature of Martin Broszat (who founded the so-called "functionalist" school), called into question the assumption that the extermination events were the result of an intention of Hitler, and thus of an ideolog.
At the same time, the more radical thesis, most effectively expressed by Frenchmen such as Paul Rassinier and Robert Faurisson, that there never was a "final solution" in the sense of an ideologically based mass extermination, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands in camps and ghettos, or as a result of shootings by the Einsatzgruppen [security police forces], must be viewed in the context of the demands and circumstances of the time and certain excessive desires on the part of the military leadership. This thesis can no longer be rejected as merely nonsensical or wicked.
... I soon came to the conviction that this [revisionist] school was being opposed in the establishment literature in an unscholarly way, that is, by simple rejection, by imputing the outlook of the authors, and, above all, by treating it with silence.
But even a quick look is enough to show that the outlook of the left-wing Socialist and former member of the French National Assembly, Paul Rassinier, although anti-Zionist, is also humane. And no one can accuse Robert Faurisson or Carlo Mattogno of a lack of specialized knowledge.
In the chapter entitled "The 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question' in the View of the Radical Revisionists," Nolte deals at length with the writings of prominent Holocaust revisionists, including Rassinier, Faurisson, Carlo Mattogno and Arthur Butz. Nolte also reports -- unpolemically and with some respect -- on the work of the Institute for Historical Review and this Journal.
Defending the validity of the work of these scholars (p. 308), he writes:
The widely held opinion that any doubts about the dominant view regarding the "Holocaust" and the Six Million must be treated, from the outset, as the expression of a wicked and inhumane outlook, and, if possible, banned ... is absolutely unacceptable, and indeed must be rejected as an attack against the principle of scholarly freedom.
... The questions [raised by revisionists] about the reliability of witnesses, the value of documents as evidence, the technical feasibility of certain operations, the credibility of statistical estimates, and the importance of circumstances are not only permissible, but, on scholarly grounds, are unavoidable. Moreover, every attempt to suppress [revisionist] arguments and evidence by ignoring or prohibiting them must be regarded as illegitimate.
Notwithstanding his serious and respectful attitude toward revisionist scholarship, and his rejection of a number of once widely accepted Holocaust claims, it would be a mistake to count Nolte as a "Holocaust revisionist."
He accepts, for example, that between five and six million Jews perished as victims of German wartime policy, and that hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and other camps. (pp. 289-290)
Characteristic is his view of the well-known "confession" of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss. While acknowledging that this key piece of Holocaust evidence was extracted by torture, and that key portions are "exaggerated," Nolte nevertheless accepts it as "qualitatively" valid. (pp. 293-294, 310)
Similarly, Nolte is skeptical of at least some portions of the widely quoted "testimony" of "gas chamber" witness Filip Müller, and he regards Elie Wiesel's "eyewitness report" (in his well-known book Night) as "not very credible." (pp. 311, 476) Still, Nolte contends, there must be a core of truth to the "gassing" story because it has been confirmed -- in its essence, if not in its details -- by several "witnesses."
Nolte accurately summarizes the findings of American engineer Fred Leuchter, who examined the supposed "gas chambers" of Auschwitz in 1988 -- and concluded that they were never used to kill people as alleged. More recently, Nolte has commented favorably on the detailed report of German chemist Germar Rudolf, who likewise carried out a forensic examination of the purported Auschwitz "gas chambers." (Rudolf re-affirmed the essential conclusions reached by Leuchter. See the Nov.-Dec. 1993 Journal, pp. 25-26.) In a January 1992 letter, Nolte praised the Rudolf Gutachten as "an important contribution to a very important issue," and expressed the hope that it will provoke wide discussion. "The final word in this exchange among the technical specialists," writes Nolte," has not yet been said." (p. 316)
With regard to documentary evidence, Nolte notes: "The fact that so many Nuremberg documents exist only as copies, and that the great majority of the 'originals' have never been made available is a further argument that cannot be lightly dismissed." (p. 314)
As he makes repeatedly clear in this book, the Berlin professor is certainly no Nazi or "apologist for Hitler." (Nolte might best be characterized as a skeptical traditionalist.) At the same time, though, he attempts, throughout this book, to come to grips with the meaning of Hitler, presenting a complex view of the German leader that contrasts sharply with the popular media image.
Contrary to the widespread view of Hitler as a person of no real education or deep understanding, the transcripts of the German leader's freewheeling "table talk" remarks to colleagues alone show him to have been a man of extraordinary intelligence, perception and wide-ranging knowledge. Hitler understood English and French, and some Italian. He read widely, and had an astonishing knowledge in many fields. A reading of the transcripts of his conversations with minister Albert Speer, for example, shows that Hitler had a specialist's understanding of armaments. (p. 163)
Nolte takes note of the work of Rainer Zitelmann, a young German historian who has assembled compelling evidence to show that Hitler was a remarkably more far-sighted, subtle, intelligent and "modern" leader than historians have understood or acknowledged. (pp. 131, 150) As Nolte observes, English historian Alan Bullock argues that in the military field, Hitler's ideas and innovations were far more advanced and progressive than those of any other statesman of his time.
Far more accurately than Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, Hitler foresaw the shape of the world that would emerge in the aftermath of the Second World War. He rather clearly foresaw the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the place of Germany in the postwar world.
A real understanding of the Third Reich, Nolte maintains, requires an acknowledgment not only of Hitler's failures, but also of his undeniable achievements as a political leader and statesman.
Perhaps Hitler's "greatest achievement" -- in the view of one historian cited here -- was his success in winning the support of the great majority of the German people. This was due in no small part to another achievement: Hitler's success in bringing Germany out of the worldwide Great Depression, and in creating an "economic miracle" with full employment and prosperity with stable prices.
An "incredible achievement" was Hitler's success, within just five years, of transforming a forcibly demilitarized nation into Europe's strongest military power.
After a visit to Germany in 1936, David Lloyd George -- who had been Britain's premier during the First World War -- praised Hitler as "the greatest piece of luck that has come to your country since Bismarck, and personally I would say since Frederick the Great."
Hitler's Third Reich fostered an image of itself as a totalitarian, "monocratic," and authoritarian Führerstaat ("leadership state"). Regrettably, contends Nolte, too many historians have uncritically accepted this misleading image.
Echoing arguments that have been made by others, including British historian David Irving, Nolte points out that authority and power in the Third Reich was actually far more widely diffused than many realize. With Hitler's indulgence, political leaders and a bewildering array of state and party agencies competed with one another, frequently working at cross purposes.
Commenting (perhaps with some exaggeration) on this state of affairs, a frustrated Joseph Goebbels confided to his diary in 1942: "Everyone does and permits whatever he wants because there's no strong authority anywhere ... The Party does its own thing, and won't permit itself to be influenced by anyone." Entire Third Reich government ministries remained practically "Nazi free," notes Nolte, and while many younger officers were dedicated National Socialists, the German armed forces remained largely free of NS party influence.
Sir Neville Henderson, Britain's ambassador in Berlin in 1939, regarded Hitler as an essentially reasonable and moderate man, while German propaganda chief Dr. Goebbels complained during the war about Hitler's lack of decisiveness. As Nolte observes, historian Hans Mommsen has characterized Hitler as a "weak dictator." (p. 179)
In cultural and intellectual life, the numerous official rivalries contributed to fostering a surprising degree of "plurality." Church affairs minister Kerrl sharply criticized the "neo-pagan" views of party ideologue Rosenberg who, for his part, denounced the writings of education minister Rust as ideologically wrong-headed. (p. 175)
Drawing parallels between the government style of Hitler's Third Reich and Roosevelt's New Deal, Nolte suggests that a degree of "chaos" of governmental authorities and agencies may be an integral feature of every modern liberal democratic state. (p. 384)
Reactionary or Modern?
Frequently portrayed as the quintessential "reactionary" regime, Nolte marshals considerable evidence here to show that the Third Reich was, in many regards, a pace-setting "modern" society. In recent years, Nolte and other (generally younger) German historians have more and more strongly emphasized the "modernistic" tendencies in the Third Reich, which presaged developments in the United States and other liberal-democratic societies. "In its essence," one female historian has recently concluded (p. 150), German National Socialism was "an anti-traditional, modernizing force."
Nolte takes note here of the Third Reich's innovative large-scale urban planning and environmental policies, its promotion of modern housing for the general population, education of gifted children from poor families in progressive but elite schools, a strong democratization process within the German armed forces, the character of the National Socialist party as a broad-based, non-sectarian "peoples party," and the elimination of mass unemployment and job creation through programs that can be called "Keynesian."
Even Dr. Goebbels' much-maligned propaganda machinery might more accurately be described as a "modern instrument of government on an American model, through which the democracies seek to continue their rule in the post-bourgeois society and to perpetuate their technocratic system." (pp. 150 f.)
'European Civil War'
A central premise of this book is the author's view that the core of 20th-century European history is the era from 1914 to 1991 -- that is, from the outbreak of the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nolte characterizes this period as a great European Civil War, a life and death struggle between the forces of Communism, on the one hand, and the rest of Europe and the West, on the other. He writes (p. 11):
The great civil war of the 20th century was the life-and-death struggle between chiliastish [millennial] Communism, which first came to power in a large state [Russia] in 1917, and all other forces, which it was convinced were doomed to failure as "capitalist" or "bourgeois," but which were concentrated in surprising strength and decisiveness in German National Socialism ...
The high point of this struggle was the titanic clash between the armies of Soviet Russia and National Socialist Germany.
Red Star or Swastika?
Turning to "future controversies," Nolte deals at length with the nature and impact of Soviet Communism (Bolshevism). Even more than has been the case with National Socialist Germany, he suggests, historians have too readily accepted the Soviet regime's propaganda image of itself. Far too many western historians have failed to appreciate the bloody reality of Soviet Communism, or the very real threat it posed to Europe.
At the time of his death in 1953, Nolte observes, Stalin was mourned by millions around the world, even though he had already put to death in peacetime more people than Hitler would later cause to be killed as civilians during war. Stalin imposed the greatest and bloodiest social revolution in history -- the so-called "collectivization" of agriculture -- which meant the extermination of millions of Soviet Russia's most productive farmers. (p. 158)
As Nolte points out, more and more evidence has come to light in recent years to show that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany and Europe in 1941, and that Hitler's "Barbarossa" attack of June 22, 1941, had the character of a preventive strike. This thesis, which if true demands a drastic revision of the generally accepted view of the entire Second World War, has been most persuasively presented by Russian historian V. Suvorov (Rezun) in his book Icebreaker. (pp. 269-271).
For millions of Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s, the Red Star and the Swastika represented the only realistic alternatives for the future of Germany, and indeed, of the entire West. Hitler was by no means the only European leader who took seriously the Soviet danger to European order, culture and civilization. Without the reality of this threat, the "fascist" response of Germany (and other European nations) is hardly imaginable.
Hitler, in Nolte's view, was an anti-Communist of "Communist" decisiveness and spiritual energy. Alone among his contemporaries, he fought Communism with radical, "non-bourgeois" ruthlessness. (pp. 349-367). Nolte writes (pp. 366 f.):
Twentieth century world history is only understandable when one is willing to acknowledge the connection made by the enemies of Bolshevism between a fear of annihilation and an intention of annihilation, and to recognize the simple truth that the statements of anti-Communists about the misdeeds of Bolshevism were, in fact, well grounded. Since 1990, at the latest, these are facts that no longer be seriously disputed, and that even the propagandistic exaggerations [of anti-Communists] reflected a rational core ...
One day the question of the hierarchy of motives of Hitler and National Socialism will become a matter of dispute in the scholarly literature, and the thesis of the primacy of anti-Communism is likely to be a main point.
The Jewish Taboo
Fully conscious that any frank discussion of the Jewish role in 20th century history is fraught with danger, Nolte nevertheless boldly grabs hold of this taboo-protected "hot iron." For example, he approvingly cites words of Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer: "The National Socialist view was accurate insofar as it regarded the Jews as a foreign element in European society, with a different religion and ancestry." (p. 376) At another point, Nolte writes: "For the Zionists, including Herzl and Weizmann, anti-Semitism was an entirely natural reaction of the 'host nations' to the abiding separateness and the aggressive activity of the Jews, which was based on intellectual superiority." (p. 419)
Taking note of the ancient Jewish tradition of zealous opposition to any regime that seems to threaten Jewish interests, Nolte points out that within weeks after Hitler's coming to power, influential Jewish leaders were already calling for economic warfare against Germany.
At the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann issued a kind of declaration of war against Germany, and in August 1941 leading Soviet Jews issued a passionate appeal to the Jews of the world to join in the life-and-death struggle against National Socialist Germany. (p. 396)
While rejecting talk of "Jewish Bolshevism" as misleadingly simplistic, Nolte points out the "undeniable fact" that Jews played a highly disproportionate role in the Bolshevik revolution. "Nothing was more understandable than that Jews and members of other minority peoples would play a major role in the February and October  revolutions [in Russia]: Of the ten men who met with Lenin on October 23, 1917, and agreed to launch the [Bolshevik] revolution, no fewer then six were Jews." Referring to the Jewish role in the critical early years of the Soviet state, Nolte comments: "It is indeed doubtful whether the Bolshevik regime could have survived the [Russian] civil war [of 1917-1920] without men such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Uritsky." (p. 418)
Consistent with the author's strong plea for a more thoughtful and objective look at the phenomenon of Hitler and National Socialism, Nolte presents his often highly unorthodox views without polemics, indeed with a certain reserve and tentativeness. Unlike those who incessantly insist that "we" must "never forget" the "lessons of the Holocaust," Nolte calls for an evaluation of the Hitler era as free as possible of strident, emotion-laden polemics and self-serving purposes. Any truly useful understanding of the Third Reich, Nolte argues persuasively, requires an informed awareness of the historical context.
While Nolte would not regard this book as any kind of final word on the "points of contention" dealt with here, he concludes (p. 431) with words of optimism:
I confidently expect that in the future real thinking about the National Socialist era will play a greater role in the scholarly literature, and that the controversies to which the final portion of this book is dedicated will therefore become specific themes for discussion.
Although the skewed mass media image of 20th century history that currently predominates is certain to continue to influence many for years to come, books such as this one give reason for hope that truth and common sense can and will eventually prevail.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Jan.-Feb. 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 1), pages 37 ff.