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Historicising the historians

Stefan Reinecke looks at the history of those who have told the history of the National Socialist era

It seems that Germany's climate of public debate surrounding the National Socialist era has become somewhat hysterical. Everyone wants to watch the drama of silence and guilt again, probably because the last actors are disappearing. This explains the weepy response to Günter Grass' admission that at the age of 17, he was a member of the Waffen SS for a few months (more). With the affair of the Habermas note and the membership in the Hitler Youth (more), the staging of guilt turned into a farce. When there's no guilt left, it has to be imagined as gossip. The Nazi elites lived for years unchallenged in prosperous postwar West Germany – and today, 60 years later, a teenager from the time isn't granted pardon.

Nonetheless, beyond the moral hyperventilating, the debate has a serious core, namely the question of what baggage the Flakhelfer generation schlepped with it from the National Socialist era. To what degree was the generation that shaped the old Federal Republic trapped in secessions and encapsulations?

Three years ago, the young historian Nicolas Berg (more) created a sort of passepartout for the debate, offering a comprehensive critique of the German historian's guild and Martin Broszat in particular. Broszat, who died in 1989, was a productive historian of the National Socialist era, a restless intellectual and, as Berg discovered, a member of the NSDAP at the age of 19. On the question of whether Broszat was aware of that or if he had simply been taken in in 1944, we have two historians and three opinions.

But the debate has to do with more than a possibly yellowed and hidden membership card. According to Volkhard Knigge, one of the historians invited by Norbert Frei to a symposium in Jena on Martin Broszat, it's in fact more of an "eerie suspicion" of the entire historian's guild. Its members have not only repressed their own participation in the National Socialist era, they have, consciously or not, contributed to its being excused. They have presented themselves as cool, objective solicitors and thus warded against anything that didn't fit into their own picture.

It's a tough accusation. It aims to destroy the self-image of historians like Hans Mommsen and Martin Broszat, who consider themselves to be explaining the facts but get caught hiding behind them. The fact that historians who present themselves as being responsible for the National Socialist era are thought have been deeply biased is more than an internal disciplinary issue. Nor is this debate an over-inflated meta-discourse through which researchers of the National Socialist era seek to compensate for their obvious loss in significance. At issue is the credibility of German research of the National Socialist era.

A key term here was "the un-articulated desire for exoneration." In Broszat's and Mommsen's attempts to explore the methodical structures and function of the National Socialist system, the perpetrators disappear in analytical abstractions. Indeed, motives and perpetrators were barely exposed in this functionalist view of history. In retrospect it becomes clear that the historians of the Flakhelfer generation assisted in clarifying the National Socialist era, but when it came to the exposure of ex-Nazis, the national consensus was that sleeping dogs were best left lying.

Seen from an academic perspective, it's ambiguous. The perspective adopted by Broszat & Co in the 1960s on the structures of the National Socialist system was enlightening at the time. It was therapeutic to correct the simplified notion of the demon Hitler who had seduced the people. At the same time, research on the perpetrators conducted in the 1980s by people like Ulrich Herbert built on this functionalism.

Dan Diner believes that the functionalists are asking the legitimate German question, namely: "How could it happen?" The Jewish questions, however - "Why did you do it? Why us?" - have been excluded from debate. This conclusion makes sense. But what follows from Diner's diagnosis is less plausible. Should German historians have been asking the Jewish question and not their own? Would they not have been accused of opening the wrong doors out of a need for exoneration? Was the identification with the victims not the cheap escape?

"Exoneration", when applied to the work of German historians, is a kind of dangerous magic word. It seems to explain a great deal and this makes it a trap. It functions as a universal key that somehow always fits.

But there is a blind spot with Broszat that's not to be retouched and which leaves his defenders at a loss: his extreme attitude towards Jewish historians. In a famous correspondence in 1987, ex-NSDAP member Broszat let the Holocaust survivor Saul Friedländer know that he was practicing rational, German historical research while Friedländer was more into mythic Jewish memory. This was a morally abysmal mix-up. Broszat was projecting his own bias on his Jewish counterpart.

Broszat's perspective, according to Norbert Frei in Jena, is "untenable". But that doesn't explain much. Broszat's coldness towards Jewish historians like Josef Wulf, who, despairing the stubborn German denial, killed himself in 1974, was not just a little mistake to be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. According to Sybille Steinbacher in Jena, it was without doubt a result of the "self-imposed empathy ban" that German historians had to observe in the 50s and 60s in order to be taken seriously as academics. And it was more: the dark side of the "pathos of sobriety" that Broszat claimed to possess and that was typical of his generation of Flakhelfers. By 1945, their belief in Hitler had gone up in smoke. The conclusion that many drew from that was never to believe again, only to know. This academic ethos was the centre of power of the German modern historians – and at the same time, a weapon with which to keep the annoying Jewish historians and their biographies at bay, if necessary.

Saul Friedländer took another wise look at the correspondence. His criticism of Broszat's divide was tough, his tone reconciliatory. One the whole, everyone tried to be objective. The showdown between Nicolas Berg, who could have played the role of the young rebel, and Hans Mommsen as resentful, insulted Donnergott, never happened. There was no damage done. Maybe the Oedipal revolts and the symbolic patricide have fuelled the culture of memory for too long.

Broszat pleaded for a historisation of the National Socialist era in 1985. Then, it was too early, but today it's precisely what's happening. The National Socialist era, which seemed to be drawing nearer in the 1990s, has become history, a part of the German self-image. The historisation of the National Socialist era is a fact. But the historisation of the research of National Socialism seems to have just begun.


This article originally appeared in the Tageszeitung on December 18, 2006.

Stefan Reinecke, born 1959, is editorial editor at the Tageszeitung.

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