'Mastering’ Germany's Difficult Past

Review by Mark Weber

Der Nasenring: Im Dickicht Der Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“The Nose Ring: In the Thicket of Mastering the Past”), by Armin Mohler. Essen: Heitz & Höffkes, 1989. (Revised and expanded edition published in 1991 by Verlag Langen Müller, Munich.) Softcover. 256 pages. Index.

Armin Mohler, the Swiss-born author who has lived for many years in Germany, begins this well-written look at the Third Reich and its historical legacy by telling the fascinating story of his experiences as a 22-year-old in wartime Berlin.

Following the German-led military attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941, the youthful author – then a student at the University of Basel – shared the enthusiasm of many Europeans of his day for the “European crusade” against Bolshevism. So intense was his passion that in early February 1942 he illegally crossed the border into Germany with the intention of volunteering for service in the Waffen SS. Mohler's “romantic break out” failed. He was not accepted into the SS, and after his return to Switzerland about a year later, was tried and sentenced to six months imprisonment. (Others were much less fortunate. A number of Swiss citizens who had acted similarly, Mohler reports, were shot by the Swiss authorities for their “treason” on behalf of the Third Reich. Others had to endure years in Swiss prisons.)

Although not permitted to serve in the German armed forces, he was allowed to live for a time in Berlin. In addition to study at the Prussian state library there, he thoughtfully observed the rhythm of life in wartime Germany.

Mohler writes convincingly about how people lived in National Socialist Germany during its third year of war. “The Third Reich was not as I had expected,” he recalls. Life in wartime Germany was much more complex and multifaceted than was portrayed by the official propaganda image put out by the Allies during the war, and since then in the western mass media. Mohler was struck, for example, by the self-confident style and attractive, even rather erotic appearance of Berlin’s women, who bore little resemblance to the dowdy “Gretchen” types portrayed in Allied wartime propaganda.

In contrast to the heavy-handed effort in Stalinist Russia to mold a uniform “new Soviet man,” no such effort was ever attempted in the Third Reich. Berliners very much retained their well-known sarcastic wit and spirited individuality.

Even membership in the National Socialist party did not imply a uniformity of thinking and behavior, as many today assume. “A Party member might be a pagan or a pious Christian; he was free to agitate for a free market economy or for state control of the economy. He was not even obliged to support racist views – Hitler's contempt for popular racialist views was well known ...”

“The greatest surprise for me was the intensity of the intellectual disputes ... Conversations were much more free than I had expected.” Indeed, Mohler contrasts the vitality of intellectual discussion in wartime Germany with the “monotone” character of discourse in Germany today.

Mohler was impressed by the perseverance and toughness of the Berliners in the face of the privations and sacrifices of war. “In this century,” writes Mohler, “the Germans have accomplished something that is unique in modern history: in the space of three decades – first for four years, and then for almost six years – they waged war against practically the entire world.”

Most Germans, Mohler explains, supported the regime. “The [Third Reich] leadership could count on two things from the great majority of the Germans: first, the basic feeling that `life goes on,’ and second on a consensus [of support] that went far beyond National Socialism ...” This consensus, writes Mohler, was never officially laid out, but could be determined from numerous conversations. It included almost universal rejection of the democratic “system” of the pre-Hitler Weimar period, and, a common feeling that the war must first of all be won, and that all problems and disputes would be peacefully and fairly worked out afterwards. This basic consensus, within which Germans could and did disagree on a wide range of issues, held up until the end of the war.

During the final years of the war, Mohler notes, a new generation of younger men and women assumed control of Germany's administrative and military apparatus. It was this tough and capable generation, which had come to maturity during the Third Reich’s pre-war years (including “incubation” in the Hitler Youth), that re-built Germany after the defeat of 1945, and was responsible for the postwar “economic miracle.”

During his stay in wartime Germany, Mohler once attended a summer camp of about 150 representatives of youth groups from various European countries, including Spain, Italy, France, Denmark, and Finland. Curiously, there were even three youths from Britain and Canada. These young nationalists, he recalled, shared a passionate idealism for a united Europe of fraternally-linked nations. Although Germany's wartime leadership encouraged this spirit of idealism, it never sincerely cultivated it. As a result, writes Mohler, many young non-German Europeans felt let down by the National Socialist regime.

Mohler's year in wartime Germany, “impressed me so much that, more than ever, I was not able to fit in to the `self-satisfaction’ of Swiss society.” He anticipated that Germany would play a decisive role in his future.

Most of this book is devoted to a forthright, dissident treatment of the highly emotion-laden issue of Germany's burdensome Third Reich legacy. Mohler argues persuasively that the seemingly endless emphasis on Nazi crimes, and on German efforts to “atone" for collective “sins,” is perverse, unjust and ultimately dangerous.

He cites a public opinion poll conducted some years ago, in which Germans selected at random were asked: “Who was guilty of the German-Hungarian war of 1893?” A decisive majority readily answered “the Germans,” confessing collective guilt for a conflict that, in fact, never took place. Only a small minority responded with “the Hungarians” or “don't know.”

“The legend of the `singularity,’ the uniqueness, of the German [wartime] crimes,” he writes, “is today’s expression of hatred of Germany.” In fact, he goes on, “World history consists of many pasts that have not been `overcome.’ The Germans must live with their victims just as the Americans must live with their exterminated Indians, and the English must live with their ravished Irish, not to mention the Russians, the Turks, the Serbs, the Iranians and the Cambodians.”

To point up the injustice and primitive sensationalism that characterizes so much of the hunt for “Nazi war criminals,” Mohler devotes 16 pages to the case of Ilse Koch, the wife of a concentration camp commandant who was castigated in the American media as the “bitch of Buchenwald.” She became internationally infamous for supposedly helping to make lampshades from the skins of murdered camp prisoners. Her husband, Buchenwald commandant Karl Koch, had been found guilty of murder and corruption by an SS court, and executed. (Mohler relies heavily on a book about the Koch case by California historian Prof. Arthur L. Smith, Jr. See also: M. Weber, “Buchenwald: Legend and Reality,” The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1986-87.)

A remarkable feature of Der Nasenring is the author's objective treatment of the history-making findings of American gas chamber expert Fred Leuchter, Jr. (On the basis of his 1988 on-site forensic investigation of the supposed “gas chamber” killing facilities at Auschwitz, Birkenau and Majdanek, Leuchter concluded that these facilities were never used, and could never have been used, to kill people as alleged. For more about Leuchter, his work and his impact, see the Winter 1992-93 IHR Journal.) At least one German author has credited Mohler for being the first to bring the Leuchter Report to his attention. (See: Ernst Gauss [Germar Rudolf], Vorlesungen über Zeitgeschichte, and the Nov.-Dec. 1993 issue of this Journal.)

Mohler insists that “This process of `overcoming the past,’ as it is practiced today, must come to an end because it hampers [worthwhile] policies and makes them impossible. Above all, the Germans themselves must bring this process to an end ... Most Germans living today were not alive during the Third Reich era (or only as children) ... It won't be possible to play out this same game for all eternity, portraying the German as singularly guilty, contrasted against the supposed normality of all others.”

As part of this seemingly endless process of “overcoming the past” – which, as Mohler points out, was imposed on defeated Germany by the victorious Allied powers in the aftermath of the Second World War – not only is the Third Reich simplistically diabolized, but along with it all “conservative” virtues, including order, honor, morality, homeland, loyalty, decency, are defamed and discredited as “fascist” or even “Nazi.”


From The Journal of Historical Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994 (Vol. 14, No. 5), pages 47-48.