It has been claimed that the Historikerstreit was not a scholarly but rather a political struggle for cultural hegemony. Do you agree? Did the controversy have lasting political and cultural consequences? What do the Historikerstreit—and the Goldhagen debate—tell us about the evolving relationship among scholarship, politics, and the public sphere?
Wendy Lower: The historians' debate in Germany was, in essence, an attempt by a few of the more senior scholars of Nazi Germany to orient the field in directions that would largely resist the shift to a popular and academic interest in the Holocaust as the central legacy of the Third Reich. For this wartime generation of German academics, that legacy was difficult to accept. In the waning years of the Cold War, scholars such as Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, who had matured into eminent experts on fascism and German diplomatic-political history, respectively, became more outspoken in their defense of German national identity and a minimization of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. In Nolte's case, he asserted that the strength of German nationalism hinged on a distancing from the burden of guilt associated with the Holocaust; he supported Hillgruber's sympathetic view of the German army and German people who had resisted the Bolshevik enemy and suffered during the Allied bombings in Germany proper. Victim studies at this time did not focus on Jews, but on Germans. Once again history was deployed to serve a national cause. It smacked of similar currents as those at the turn of the century, when Heinrich Treitschke and others—whom Gordon Craig once characterized as the “intellectual bodyguard” of the kaiser—became champions of German nationalism.
That said, the Historikerstreit was more than an academic debate about tendentious comparisons and patriotic modes of historicization. It was struggle over the dominant legacy of Nazism in German political culture. Academics, journalists, and public intellectuals were not the only ones engaged in this controversy. For example, Jacob Eder's recent study, Holocaust Angst, documents the resistance—indeed, the neuralgic reaction—of West German political leaders to the creation and opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
Gerrit Dworok: The Historikerstreit may indeed be considered to be the climax of a struggle in West Germany for political and cultural hegemony. The chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, had received a doctorate in history before starting his nationwide political career, and Michael Stürmer, Kohl's political advisor in the 1980s, became one of the conservative protagonists in the historians' quarrel. Referring to the political conflict between left and right that had shaped the Federal Republic of Germany in the aftermath of “1968,” Kohl tried to use the politics of history (e.g., the sixtieth commemoration of the 1916 Battle of Verdun; US President Ronald Reagan's controversial visit in 1984 to a military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Schutzstaffel [SS] were interred; relations with Israel; plans for the new German Historical Museum) in order to overcome, in his words, an “intellectual and moral crisis [geistig moralische Krise]” allegedly caused by leftist politics.
It was in this vein that Stürmer emphasized the political importance of gaining political power to define a dominant narrative of national history. Left-wing liberals, led by Jürgen Habermas and politically represented by Social Democratic (SPD) politicians like Freimut Duve and Renate Lepsius, had similar ideas as well, of course. It was former chancellor Willy Brandt who had asserted in 1983, after all, that the SPD had to fight conservatives in order to regain cultural hegemony in West Germany. The SPD was subsequently the only party in the Federal Republic that founded, later that year, an official Commission for Historical Issues (Historische Kommission).
Habermas had, of course, already created a powerful image of the “enemy” by focusing his political and cultural criticism on so-called neoconservatives, including Kohl and Stürmer, as well as Nolte, Hillgruber, Klaus Hildebrandt, Joachim Fest, Franz Josef Strauß, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), and others, who had all seemed to be influenced by politicians like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. According to Habermas, this group of neoconservative apologists was a severe threat to liberal Western society, and it had to be defeated.
Both sides thus had in common a propensity to refer explicitly to German history in order to achieve their political aims. Conservatives affirmed the concept of a national narrative that stressed positive aspects of German history without denying the horror of the National Socialist era. By contrast, left-wing liberals criticized this kind of positive affirmation of the past. They postulated a post-national era and advocated a democratic system based on a critical commemoration of Auschwitz.
All of that said, the Historikerstreit clearly focused on strictly scholarly topics as well. It is obvious that key historic debates—including the relationship between totalitarianism and fascism, the narrative of a German Sonderweg (special path), the process of nation-building, and, in particular, a more scientific approach to an explanation for and interpretation of genocide (especially the Holocaust)—were all discussed and intensified during that debate.
Timothy Snyder: This has to be a difficult set of questions for a scholar to answer, since the first impulse is always to extract what is scholarly from what is actually read. The Historikerstreit involved, in some sense, everything that its participants had written beforehand, thus an immense amount of scholarship. If we limit the discussion to the two participants most remembered, Nolte and Habermas, then we do indeed have before us an essentially normative political discussion. The Habermasian critique of Nolte was not that Nolte was wrong, as a thinker, to try to guide the historical discourse of the Federal Republic of Germany. It was that Nolte was proposing the wrong kind of historical discourse. Thus Habermas more or less explicitly claimed that the purpose of history is to provide the “right” sort of discourse, from which it follows that the judges of rightness need not be historians.
My problem with the Habermasian perspective is that it takes the national framework for granted. Nolte went beyond Germany and claimed to find causality; Habermas argued that the goal of any such search can only be exculpation. The consequence of accepting that proposition is that historiography itself becomes impossible, since almost no meaningful topic, and certainly not the Holocaust, can be understood within a framework of national history alone. If one accepts, then, that history is meant to be instructive, as Habermas does, there is no actual history from which to draw instruction.
Richard Evans: The Historikerstreit was essentially a political debate. The backdrop was Reagan's tough stance toward the Soviet bloc, which some labeled a “second cold war.”
In this view, West German confidence needed to be boosted in order to stiffen its backbone against a supposed threat from the East—among other things by making West Germans feel better about the German past. Thus Reagan, commenting on SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery during his visit to the Federal Republic, remarked that the SS were victims of the war in their own way. Right-wing historians in West Germany went along with this initiative by relativizing the Nazi past: Ernst Nolte not only blamed the Russian Bolsheviks for pioneering the kind of mass murder that was then followed by that of the Nazis, but suggested that the Jews had brought it upon themselves by “declaring war” on Germany in 1939 (a misreading of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann's declaration of support for the Allies in Palestine).
In different ways, Andreas Hillgruber, a far more serious historian than Nolte, and Michael Stürmer, one of the few academic historians in Germany who had crossed the line into popular historical writing, both backed the general drive to “draw a line (Schlußstrich) under the past.”
It did not work: only a short time after the Historikerstreit, the Berlin Wall fell—not as a result of Reagan's pressure but as a consequence of the economic bankruptcy and unviability of the Soviet bloc—and the “normalizing” impulse behind the Historikerstreit was rendered irrelevant. Acceptance of responsibility for the crimes of Nazism became a cornerstone of the national identity of a united Germany, and, in the 1990s, a new wave of historical research into the active involvement in these crimes of the army, the medical profession, academics (including historians), and other key groups in German society was a consequence of generational change, rather than a result of the Historikerstreit—a topic we return to later in this forum.
Dworok: I agree with the idea that the “acceptance of the responsibility for the Nazi crimes became a cornerstone of the national identity of Germany.” Still, I strongly doubt that the historians whom Habermas and others attacked had intended to “draw a line” under the past. Whereas politicians like Brandt, Strauß, and the CDU's Alfred Dregger publicly debated the idea of a Schlußstrich, this would have been a disaster for Hillgruber, Stürmer, Hildebrandt, and Fest, since the historiography of Hitler's dictatorship represented a significant aspect of their primary scholarly and journalistic output. They did not demand a Schlußstrich, then, but instead revisited Germany's role in the history of twentieth-century Europe. That is a significant, and well-documented, difference.
Nolte was a special case. His turn-of-phrase “Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will” (a past that does not pass away) contained two ideas. On the one hand, it meant that the German way of commemorating the Nazi past could be compared with pseudo-religious mythology. According to Nolte, such black-and-white commemoration should cease and be replaced instead by a more critical historiography.
On the other hand—and this is something often overlooked—Nolte used this terminology to point to the ideological effects of Bolshevik terror. Given the delusion of “Jewish Bolshevism” at the core of Hitler's political thinking, Nolte stressed the fact that Bolshevik crimes during the Russian civil war had scared many people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. For many Germans, Nolte suggests, the Bolshevik danger was also a past that would not go away—and thus a threat to their lives. Both hypotheses are based on shaky argumentation and thus may be harshly criticized. But to suggest that Nolte supported a general Schlußstrich under Germany's fraught past is simply incorrect.
Jeffrey Olick: A cliché about the Historikerstreit has been that it produced no new historical knowledge about the German past. But that is precisely the point, for neither it nor the Goldhagen debate was, in fact, really about history as such; rather, both were about memory. Was earlier memory appropriate, repressive, or inadequate? Habermas's story was the standard one put forth by the left, according to which the early leaders of West Germany had repressed the past, and only the so-called sixty-eighters had finally worked through it properly. By contrast, Nolte's was one according to which that silence had been—in the words of another prominent conservative thinker (and yet another forerunner of the Historikerstreit), Hermann Lübbe—“communicative,” and thus fully justified, and in which the public discourse of guilt was a sort of “nose ring” by which German leaders were led around like cattle.
In both cases, the argument was again about the adequacy and appropriateness of earlier memory, not about the facts of the past.
It is also worth mentioning in this context that the Historkerstreit took place at a point in time when memory had become central to both scholarly and political debates in both Germany and elsewhere. In the first regard, it is now hard to remember how little good work there had been on the history of memory (German or otherwise) in the mid-1980s; in many respects, then, the disputants had little to rely on in their arguments about the history of memory—other than anecdote and polemic. More broadly, however, the rise of the so-called memory boom was both a cause and a consequence of the Historikerstreit and other similar debates elsewhere (e.g., over the legacies of authoritarianism in Latin America, of apartheid in South Africa, of communism in Central and Eastern Europe; over genocide in Rwanda, and over ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia). The questions raised in the historians' dispute, and some of the answers given, thus became emblematic of a wider discourse. There is no question that this wider discourse has been conducted in a language first conceived, and worked out in its most explicit and lasting form, in this crucial debate about memory in Germany. It is for this reason, rather than its historical arguments, that the Historikerstreit remains of decisive importance.
Mary Fulbrook: All historical accounts are situated in a web of relationships between past and present, and among differing political positions in both past and present. In a sense, whether intentionally or otherwise, all historical accounts contribute to cultural understandings of the past that have implications for a later present. In the case of the Historikerstreit, the relationship in particular between Stürmer and Kohl made quite clear the explicit desire to find a “usable past” that would have political impact—a past with which Germans could identify, of which they could be proud, one that would help to define national strategies and aspirations for the future. In this sense, it was more obviously and explicitly part of a “political struggle for cultural hegemony” than many historical controversies are, and certainly more than the Goldhagen debate was.
Both the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen debate nevertheless brought to attention more subtle ways in which all historical works have contemporary significance. First is the question of language. The simple choice of words, concepts, and terminology inescapably indicates and transmits a position. This was often pointed out with respect to Andreas Hillgruber's telling use—in the title of his two contiguous essays published as one book—of the emotive and active word destruction (Zerschlagung) with respect to the defeat of the German Reich, and the more neutral word end (Ende), with its lacking implication of agency or perpetration, for the willed extermination of the European Jews. Similarly, Goldhagen's construction of a supposedly persistent German mentality of “eliminationist antisemitism” conveyed a particular understanding that went way beyond the empirical evidence that he explored.
Related to the use of words is a second issue, that of empathy as a historical tool. The question of “with whom to empathize” seems to have quite explicitly exercised Hillgruber, and it is clear that his own choice—the soldiers engaged in the “historic fight against Bolshevism” on the Eastern front—related very closely to his sense of connection with his brother, who had been among those soldiers. Similarly, Goldhagen's evident empathy with the victims, inflecting his work's focus on the perpetrators, directly arose from his close relationship with his own father, Erich Goldhagen, a survivor of Nazi persecution. In both cases it is more a question of personal sympathy than professional empathy in the Weberian sense of “interpretive understanding.” The relative failure, in different ways, on the part of both Hillgruber and Goldhagen to explore the relevant empirical evidence on all sides comprehensively and analytically—particularly ironic in the case of Goldhagen's work on perpetrator mentalities—simply points up the significance of this aspect of historical research.
But it raises, too, the third aspect of significance here: the relative accessibility and appeal of historical accounts to a wider audience, and the resonance of scholarly works in the public sphere in changing contexts. Both sets of debates had wide impact. The Historikerstreit was indeed constituted and largely fought out in the public sphere, in newspaper articles and related publications, whereas Goldhagen's scholarly work (originating in a Harvard University PhD thesis) was—unlike many historical monographs—written in a highly readable style, which allowed it to gain a mass market and readily become the subject of televised debates and public discussion.
In some respects, Goldhagen's work broke with traditional disciplinary boundaries—using, for example, the novelistic technique of free indirect speech (what the Germans term erlebte Rede) when there was little or no empirical evidence to substantiate what was being conveyed in that way. It had, in consequence, a far wider readership than the drier academic style of one of his most notable interlocutors and critics, Hans Mommsen (also a key voice in the Historikerstreit), and not all lay readers would be able to identify the problematic issues with the construction of Goldhagen's account that were evident to specialists in the field.
To make a larger point: all historical knowledge is inevitably situated in a distinctive field of forces, defined in terms of three key relationships: those between dominant voices in a later present and selected issues rooted in a relevant past; between a particular historian and the elements of the past in which he or she is interested; and between the historian and the contemporary audiences for which he or she is writing.
Issues of generation and character, of personal connection or identification with selected aspects of the past, will color both the production and reception of historical accounts. The two controversies sharply highlighted patterns that can be observed more broadly. By the 1990s, the so-called Hitler Youth generation (including people on both sides of the Historikerstreit, notably again Hans Mommsen as a vocal opponent of the Nolte/Hillgruber group) was gradually giving way to—or at least increasingly being challenged by—younger scholars and younger audiences. Mommsen's own views and, in particular, his attempt to defend a structural-functionalist version of Third Reich history in which there was little place for the kinds of individual actions and ideology made so vivid in Goldhagen's writing, were, by then, far less well received by a wider public.
The circumstances of reception also differed markedly. In the 1980s, a generation that had itself lived through the Third Reich continued to have a personal stake in the way the regime was interpreted and signified (even if many were supposedly blessed, as Kohl claimed to be, with the “grace of late birth”).
The Cold War was as yet unresolved, the fight against Communism continuing. The apparent breaking of taboos and expressions of desire to construct a past of which Germans could be proud was also part of a context in which heated debates were still being fought—from the courtroom to cultural representations—about “overcoming the past.” But, by the mid-1990s, a significant percentage of the, by then, adult population had little or no personal memory of the war; the questions of a younger generation tended to circle instead around the suspected guilt or hoped-for innocence of their parents and grandparents—as evidenced, for example, in public responses to the exhibition on the “Crimes of the Wehrmacht” that took place at much the same time as the Goldhagen controversy. Communism had collapsed, and many West Germans felt a desire to expiate national guilt through identification with victims. This was visible, too, in the heated debates at the time over the founding of a national Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
A. Dirk Moses: The political domain, on the one hand, and the social scientific and humanistic domain, on the other, have always overlapped when truth claims about national traditions are made—in Germany as elsewhere. Such claims are particularly acute when academics make them in the public sphere—e.g., in newspapers—to influence public opinion. As we know, and as Wendy Lower suggests, academic-political disputes had saturated Germany well before the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen debate. In The Decline of the German Mandarins, Fritz Ringer showed that German academics were already arguing about major political stakes in the nineteenth century.
Ten years before him, in 1959, Wolfgang Mommsen had laid bare Max Weber's political advocacy in Max Weber und die deutsche Politik.
This book was itself an intervention in postwar German discourses—one thinks of the Fritz Fischer Controversy—by demonstrating how a liberal icon like Weber could have been implicated in chauvinist, frankly racist, politics.
German professors were thus continuing a venerable practice of political advocacy during the 1980s and 1990s in the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen debate. The former had lasting consequences because it brought debates that had been simmering in academic circles since the 1960s, if not before, to the surface. Those issues now had to be resolved because all players thought the future of the republic was at stake. Some think that the dispute was little more than a victory for the left-liberal camp in the republican Kulturkampf, yet the effects were more complicated than such a cultural/intellectual, civil-war perspective allows.
The Federal Republic's founding “forty-fiver” generation—born in the 1920s and growing up in the Nazi regime—had to come to terms after the war with their varying experiences. They did so in two ways, and their political emotions were the key driver. Members of one generational unit, whose members I have previously called “non-German Germans” (think of “non-Jewish Jews,” to invoke Isaac Deutscher's term), were so disgusted by the Nazi regime and its crimes that they resolved to refound the republic on the universalist principles of the Enlightenment, which German Counter-Enlightenment traditions had traduced.
Jürgen Habermas, who was born in 1929 and was the unit's most articulate spokesperson, called this ideal “postnational.” Germans in the other generational unit, whom I clumsily refer to as “German Germans,” rejected the stigma that the victorious Allies had imposed and laid the blame for Nazism on the Enlightenment, on the corrosive effects of modernity, and on Bolshevism (this was especially true of Nolte, who was born in 1923). Because German traditions were not uniquely compromised, they further argued, the theory of totalitarianism demonstrated the equivalence of evil in the twentieth century. These debates culminated (again) in the debate about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and, of course, in Martin Walser's notorious speech about the Holocaust as a “moral cudgel.”
No more should he and other Germans have to wear a perpetual hair shirt of inferiority, he declared. Many agreed with him then, as they do now. It is easy to forget how much talk there had been, since the 1980s, of German identity and collective emotions like guilt, shame, and pride.
Even so, the political class, including its center-right wing in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), understood that the Atlantic consensus demanded adherence to the thesis that the Holocaust was uniquely evil. In fact, learning from the “non-German Germans,” its members gradually understood that positive political, even national, emotions like pride could be reengaged by proclaiming that Germany was the best at overcoming terrible pasts: “world champions” at Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Since there was no escaping the stigma imposed from without, it could be converted into stigmata by intense identification with the murdered Jews, even rendering the Holocaust into a sort of sacrificial drama in which the Jews died for the rebirth of a new, better Germany. I don't think this subjectivity is widespread beyond the political class, but it influences education curricula and is clearly hegemonic in the public sphere.
To turn to more recent developments: the effusive, if naive, welcome of Syrian refugees by so many Germans in the summer of 2015 was a classic “non-German German” gesture that purported to apply the lessons of history and show other Europeans how to resist the ugly ethno-nationalism gripping Hungary and England at the time. By contrast, one can perhaps estimate how many “German-Germans” remain in the country by examining the debate within and about Alternative für Deutschland with regard to Syrian refugees—and Holocaust memory. The fact that Thuringian party leader Björn Höcke was expelled for his criticisms of Germany's public Holocaust remembrance attests both to the powerful hold of this remembrance even on an anti-system party, as well as to the alientation of the party base from it: Höcke remained popular in the ranks.
Dworok: What were the intentions of the participants in the Historikerstreit? To answer this question, Dirk Moses proposes categories that divide the opposed factions into “non-German Germans” (like Habermas and Wehler) and “German Germans” (like Hillgruber and Nolte). That is useful, but I do not agree with the idea that “German Germans” laid the blame for Nazism on the Enlightenment and should therefore be classified as anti-modern. I would prefer to put it this way: conservatives such as Nolte, Hillgruber, Hildebrandt, Fest, and Stürmer resolutely criticized historiographic approaches based on an ideological perception of the Enlightenment.
Conservatives indeed attacked narratives that intended to illustrate the negative outcome of the German Sonderweg or that emphasized a need to overcome the idea of nations and the nation-state. But when Hildebrandt called Habermas and his supporters “Verwalter der Aufklärung” (administrators of the Enlightenment), he was assuming that left-wing intellectuals and politicians would try to monopolize the ideas of the Enlightenment in order to delegitimize conservative approaches in general.
The members of the so-called Viererbande (gang of four) certainly did not deny modernity and the values of the Enlightenment more generally, but rather the idea of a teleologic course of history based on the values of equality and universalism.
This argument carries weight if one takes into account one of the most disturbing aspects of the Historikerstreit, namely, the neglect of Central Europe and the strong desire of East Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and others to achieve political freedom through national sovereignty. To a certain extent, it was Habermas's faction in particular that ignored the fact that the concept of the nation-state was a means for the peoples of Central Europe to escape from political and economic oppression. As the Hungarian philosopher Mihály Vajda complained about Habermas in 1988, “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West has, on the flipside, the unreserved opening of the GDR to the political culture of the East. And that concerns not only the GDR, but also all the countries of eastern Central Europe.”
In the mid-1980s, no one could have anticipated, of course, what would transpire in 1989–1990. Still, it is obvious that leading left-wing intellectuals involved in the Historikerstreit simply denied the notion of freedom embraced by their neighbors in the East. By contrast, Hillgruber and Stürmer, but even Social Democrats like politician Egon Bahr and journalist Peter Bender, at least broached the idea of a united Germany exisiting within a peaceful and united Europe.
Which attitude conforms more to the values of the Enlightenment and the needs of modernity is open to debate.
Olick: Let's step back for a moment and turn to a different issue raised by Wendy Lower and Dirk Moses. It is still necessary to make the case for singling out the Historikerstreit, and the Goldhagen affair ten years later, for commemoration from the long series of scandals in the history of German memory—for that history provides a rich series of commemorable scandals, as well as a continuous discourse among them. Within the debate itself and in commentary on it, many discussants made explicit reference to earlier controversies, perhaps most notably the debate about German responsibility for World War I (and arguably about German national character) begun by Fritz Fischer in 1961. And, in many ways, the Goldhagen controversy was seen—and perhaps even promoted—as a Historikerstreit redux, though this time for a more popular rather than scholarly audience (one is tempted here to quote Karl Marx on tragedy and farce).
The point is that commemoration is always an ongoing dialogical process, with each moment responding to prior ones, whether explicitly or implicitly, consciously or not. No commemoration is an island in time, so to speak, and it is indeed a mistake to prize the historians' controversy from the extremely dense commemorative period in which it was but a single moment. Did this period begin with the alleged “Tendenzwende” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which included the first controversy involving playwright Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1976, the broadcast of the Holocaust miniseries in 1978–1979, the rise of Helmut Kohl and the CDU/CSU to power in 1982, the debate between Saul Friedländer and Martin Broszat about the Historisierung of Nazism, Reagan's visit to Bitburg, as well as Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker's famous speech of May 8, 1985, commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II?
Or were these events merely late entries in a very long history of German memory?
It is, of course, easier to mark an event or controversy than it is to mark an entire epoch—to say nothing of overstating the clarity of epochal transitions: not all ruptures, after all, are as literal as November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell. The point is that singling out particular events for commemoration entails not only a valuation of that event, but, in a sense, the forgetting of others as well. The history of German memory is rife with such forgettings, as it has continually forged and reforged the memory of its memory itself.
It is nevertheless clear that there is something tangible about the temporal structure of the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen affair, and about the epochal transformations they shaped—and that shaped them. As Charles Maier noted many years ago, the historians' controversy was “a last reveille for those whose lives might have turned out otherwise.”
And herein lies one crux of the difference between the Historikerstreit and the Goldhagen debate: whereas the participants in the Historikerstreit had existential “skin in the game,” neither Goldhagen nor his audiences did—at least not in the same way. In a similar regard to that in which the generation that came before Goldhagen's main audience, sixty-eighters, were able to claim that they were finally “mastering” the past in the appropriate manner, they were, in part, only able to do so because it was not really their own pasts that they were mastering. Of course, the complexities of these self-righteous claims were demonstrated decades later when, for example, Günter Grass revealed his own suppressed memory of complicity, or when Jörg Friedrich, who had earlier written in outrage against what he called the “cold amnesty” for the Nazi perpetrators of the 1950s, made a much bigger name for himself by writing in even more vivid outrage against German victimization in Dresden and elsewhere.
The enthusiasm of Goldhagen's young supporters was surely based, in part, on the fact that Goldhagen was not an old man lecturing them, but was himself a young man trying to make sense of something incomprehensible—not only sociologically, as it might have been to the older generations whose members had lived through it, but historically to those for whom the Nazi period was just that, history, and which thereby posed different challenges. The pathos of the Tätergeneration (perpetrator generation) and of their rebellious children thus contrasted with the bathos of their grandchildren, whose moral engagement can produce a kind of pride in repentance (Sühnestolz). With respect to that pride, these generational considerations cannot be separated from the changed political context in which, in the decades since 1989, a widespread “politics of regret” has taken hold.
Indeed, it has been easy to forget—or misconstrue—the extent to which even extreme alternatives have persisted in the Federal Republic of Germany. This is why it is somewhat misleading to highlight the Fritz Fischer controversy as the most salient predecessor to the Historkerstreit. It is also why it is misleading to take The Black Book of Communism as its most significant successor.
As important as these comparisons are, it is the moral question of how to respond to one's own crimes—whether unique or comparable—that is more important.
Indeed, if one must identify models for and from the Historikerstreit, Karl Jaspers is a much more relevant intellectual spirit, and the debate between Martin Walser and Ignaz Bubis a much clearer after-image, than either Fischer or the Black Book. That Jaspers was a key referent for Jügen Habermas is well documented. But Jaspers's position on the need to acknowledge shame for Germany to avoid becoming a “pariah nation” (itself a complex turn of phrase, given that this was the term Max Weber had used to refer to the Jews) was forged in opposition to—and was vigorously rejected by—other figures in the postwar discourse, most prominently Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Ernst Jünger.
The persistent power of that alternative view has not, in my view, received as much attention as it deserves. One example is how Schmitt put it in his diaries: “If you want to make a confession, go find a priest and do it there.”
An echo of this can be seen in the Walser-Bubis debate, in which Walser maintained that a key problem of the culture of guilt was its very publicness. The demand for more public rituals of repentence as a yardstick of political suitability was, he infamously suggested, a “moral cudgel.”
While the “politics of regret” has seemed dominant in recent years—manifest, for instance, at a 2000 conference in Stockholm, where leaders of nations not complicit in the Holocaust sought to demonstrate their righteousness by assuming a guilt that was not truly theirs—that dominance has never been total. As Jan-Werner Mueller has written, “Two cultures opposed each other in early postwar Germany. On the one side, there was an official public culture of guilt …. On the other side stood an obstinate culture of silence, in which honor was preserved by taboos …”
But this was true not only of the early postwar period, up to and following the Historikerstreit. In this light, Nolte's claim during that debate to have been breaking a taboo was not all that novel, nor was the line of continuity in his thought from that of perhaps the greatest avatar of silence, Martin Heidegger. By the same token, Habermas's claim that something indisputable was now under attack was not completely accurate: the debate was merely one instantiation of a difference that had underlain the political culture of the Federal Republic of Germany for its entire history, from the time of Jaspers, and that arguably still does.