Continuing Debate on German History

Has the reunification of Germany changed the perception of its History?

Richard J. Evans: Rereading German History 1800-1996 (from Unification to Reunification). 1st ed., Routledge, London/New York, 1997, 256 pp. ISBN 0-415-15900-8.
Review published in Perspectives 19 Winter 2002-2003
(Institute of International Relations, Prague).

Formally, the book of the historiography essays by Professor R.J. Evans (Birkbeck College, University of London) covers the range of the decade of 1986 - 1996, however, in reality there are only three contributions out of the twenty-one that were written in the 1980s. All the other ones have been founded after the year 1990, and they reflect a new dimension of unified Germany, its old and new role of continental power produces an intense contention inside Germany itself and even more so in the international community. It does not go without interest to review a book that has been constituted together from the original book reviews of significant publications and magazine articles (some of which were originally published only in German). Their range does interject in certain aspects but their time and thematic arrangement makes them a structurally surprisingly comprehensive paper, illustrating the development of the debate about the so-called German question after the dissolution of the bipolar ordering of international relations.
The title of the paper Rereading of German History suggests the author's initial position embedded in his remark that Germany, once and again united in the years 1989 - 1990, brings a big challenge due to the necessity of yet another reinterpretation of her modern history with the aim of understanding it in the new context. The book examines in what and why do American, German, British and French historians differ so much, often even fully diverge, in the interpretation of German historical events of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Besides that, Evans also asserts that these reinterpretations of the German past do not only reflect dramatic political changes of late years but also the development of the historiography alone. What is meant by this is, of course, the traditionalistic view on German high politics, foreign policy, political parties, organization and pressure groups. The every-day life of her citizens and their experiences, social and cultural history of German men and women, subjective elements of social perception of the time era in which they lived all belong to the German historical past. Evans notices that some historians noted certain negative phenomena in the German past about which it can be said, with much longer time period, that these phenomena actually were ideological roots of nazism.
However, the title of the book also has another meaning, which included the rise and fall of the German Democratic Republic, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany. The dusk of the division of the country dramatically signaled the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the period within the years 1989 - 1990. The author remarks that only a few people were prepared for such a development, including himself. He believed, just like the majority of professional experts and commentators, that the existence of divided Germany would last longer and did not expect such a fast rate of events.
However, the fast unification of both parts of the country brought a challenge to the German society in the form of searching for new identities that were for decades so well kept up in West Germany. Its contents were, however, perceived differently by different parts of the political spectrum. While the right wing perceived anti-communism as a definition symbol of identity, the left wing shared the opinion that the division of the country is the part and parcel of the price that the country must pay for the crimes of the Third Reich. Nonetheless, both opinion strands had to deal with the problem of the need to redefining the identity of newly constituted Germany in the new distribution of power structures and interests. This meant, however, especially for historians, to ask newly formulated questions planting the repeated unification into the wider historical context of German history.

In the first place there was the question: Does the return of the great Germany really mean the re-birth of the aggressive German nationalism? Does the history of modern Germany have more interpretative scopes? And if so, in terms of its contents, to which one of them (if at all) is most likely connected the debate about the re-unification?
Another significant question: In what way and to what extent has the unification influenced the manner in which historians write about the German past. Can the new situation reproduce the renowned Historikerstreit (the dispute of West German historians) dating back to mid 1980s, which resulted in the relativism of crimes committed by the Nazi regime? Have the German historians by their departure from the previous evaluation of the "special way" to modernity, known as Sonderweg, caused the origin of the view that the roots of the nationalistic socialism reside deep in the German past? Has Germany definitely left the conviction about her uniqueness?
In the extensive debate, traced in Evans's book, a number of answers could be heard, none of which are, however, black and white and intelligibly formulated. The modern German history is too complicated and unclear for that.
The publication is divided into five parts, out of which each comprises chapters dealing with certain time and thematic field. The first one (Parade of the grand narratives) focuses on some of the new synthetic views on the "Story" of the first unification of Germany, which occurred during the reign of the Chancellor Bismarck. For instance, the German historian T. Nipperday is of the opinion that the then development of the unification was a "natural" and "inevitable" historical process, while at the same time he separates the consequences of this step from Hitler's accession to power sixty years later, and he attempts to deliver arguments legitimizing the unity of Germany.
The thesis that the roots of the Nazi dictatorship resided in the German "special path" to modernity is definitively abandoned (even by the individual protagonist of this view, Hans Ulrich Wehler). All historians writing about the era of the "Iron Chancellor", including Wolfgang J. Mommsen, admit that it was Bismarck who laid down the foundations for the "gray contours" of modern German histories that found a terrible culmination in the German political culture after his death. The last analyzed author of the first part is the French historian Joseph Rovan, by whom Evans finds a clear tendency of deliberate ignoring of unpleasant aspects of the German history in the interest of the harmony of the current European unity. "Rovan's work illustrates only too clearly the perils of an excessive subordination of historical scholarship to political ends." A similar impression about the use of some assertions was reached by a reviewer from the Professor Rovan's Prague lecture.
The problem of the theme of German history is encompassed here in a general position (it has to do with other countries as well), the problem of the selection of facts and events that are relevant, and scholarly discussed. It is not in the power of historians nor political scientists, sociologists and others to discuss all facts and events. A necessary reduction, however, also complicates the interpretative approach.
The second part (Patterns of authority and revolt)of the book concentrates on the role of the models of authority and revolt of modern German history, and the manner by which historians come to terms with these. Many point to the tradition of the powerful state, the roots dating back to the era of absolutism of 17th and 18th centuries. Evans says that it is this specific tradition and its possible revival that is so dear to the proponents of the "new right wing." Within this context we point out to the peculiar rigidity with which the German works depend on the methodological concept of Weberian interpretation of state, and ignore the more fruitful concept of the French historian and philosopher Michael Foucault.
This part also deals with questions of faith and religion. It points out the discrimination of Catholics that took place during Bismarck's protestant-oriented rule, and the role of liberals willing to sacrifice with immense enthusiasm civil freedom in the name of intellectual progress of Germany in the era of Kulturkampf.
The final chapter of the second part focuses on the assessment of multi-volume work of the German historian H.A. Winkler, who is considered an excellent expert of the post-war German histography. The study, published in the mid 1980s, deals with the labor movement and social history of the Weimar Republic. The analysis of the then events arrives at the conclusion that the German socialist democracy, due to its impotence to find a consensus with other political subjects, paved the way for the seizure of power by the Nazis. Winkler's attitudes were always close to the current SDP. The SDP meeting in Bad Godesberg in 1958 refused the fatal loathing as the inheritance of Marxism, and imposed the requirement of collaboration with anti-socialist political groupings, including winning over political proponents of others rather than of traditional labor stratum of the German society.
The third part (Ideological origins of Nazism) tackles the intellectual roots of the Third Reich. In its introduction Evans remarks that the topic of the thinking Nazi environment was in the period of the 1960s to 1980s neglected. At the same time he asks to what extent were these thoughts acceptable for the German society and her elites. He says that under the influence of Marxism and the socialist history he focused on detailed, often quantitative research of Nazi class foundation. By the end of the 1980s the theoreticians turned to the thinking structure and the ideas of Nazism. In the spirit of postmodern discourse they began to be interested in what people used to think and say rather than in how they used to behave. The rediscovery of the "forgotten victims of Nazism," like gypsies, "a-socials", mentally and physically handicapped who came to be the victims of euthanasia, all of this moved racism, eugenics, and social Darwinism to the center of attention at the cost of the so far predominant class analysis of repulsion on the labor strata and collaboration of elites with Nazi regime.
The fall of the public order at the beginning of the Weimar Republic caused the activities of semi-military divisions of Freikorps that came to be a very significant political factor of the new German state. The introductory essay therefore analyses the ethos of these pro-Nazi bands famous by their brutal handling of ideological adversaries, and he muses with the psychoanalytical interpretation of this phenomena, as produced by Klaus Theweleit in his study entitled Male Fantasies. This study is theoretically linked to the sexual-political Freudian revolution theory, as employed by W. Reich in the 1960s and 1970s. Theweleit also presupposed many of the later applied methods of feminist interpretations that helped to better understand the Third Reich.
Approximately from the 1960s there appeared at the center of attention of historians the doctrine of the nineteenth century socialist Darwinism, from which lead clear development link to aggressive morbid Nazi regime. Racism happened to be at the center of attention once again in the 1990s, especially in the connection with the skinhead movement and racially motivated violence committed on the Turks and other minorities.
The conclusion chapter of the third part focuses on the history of Herman anti-Semitism. In the year 1996 the book by the American political scientist Daniel Goldhagen Hitler's willing Executioners became a bestseller, and provoked a stormy debate at both sides of the Atlantic among professional German historians and its author. The main point of the dispute happened to be the thesis that men who carried out the extermination of Jews in the Third Reich did not perform this on the basis of the deeply embedded German tradition of acquiescence or fanatical devotion to Nazi ideology but carried this out out of fanatical anti-Semitism that found pleasure in long-term and systematical killing of Jews. Goldhagen accused the German 19th century political culture of being deeply soaked up by thoughts of elimination of the Jewish element, a factor that he believes would not be found in any other country. In the light of what was written after the reunification by commentators of the influential German newspapers like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the traumas of the past that will never be forgotten, it suddenly seemed that the repeatedly returning idea of the German fault is present for centuries. Evans, however, theorizes (similarly to his German colleagues) with Goldhagen's one-sidedness and points out to his unconvincing arguments that are, for example, confronted by the absence of anti-Semitism among the vast masses of the German labor class, fully ignored by Goldhagen. He declares that the real source of anger of historians (and not only of the German ones like S. Friedlaender, C. Craig, etc.) is the fact that for many years their scholarly facts, supported by research, have been fully ignored by media while making the book, and its expert qualities that display considerable gaps, the subject of mass interest and debate, especially in its methodology. Goldhagen, for instance, preponderates the predicable ability of memories living through victims of the Holocaust above decent analysis of the contents of other documents illuminating the character of decision-making of the then actors.
Evans also pauses at the enormous interest of the public in this book, especially in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Israel, where the book was sold in unexpected numbers. He sees the reasons in totally simplistic interpretation of dramatic and complex historical material (literally "stark simplicity"), black-and-white argumentation reducing the complex material by emotional perception and expressive employing of empirical details. However, it is possible to reflect on the conclusion that the terror of the Nazi past have not disappeared because they became the symbolical part of the post-war Western culture and the German political discourse. Distinguished British experts on German history like Ian Kershaw or A. Paucker have denounced the book for its simplification of the given material.
Despite numerous criticism and discord Goldhagen's work became a phenomenon also in Germany alone where hundreds and thousands of mostly young people came to his lectures in Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg and other cities - an unexpectedly extensive interest for such an expertise subject. He presented himself as an old-testament prophet warning the Germans on the basis of their recent past. Goldhagen's presentation of horrid details, rejected by critics like Hans Mommsen, was probably what spoke to the public. Expertise debates lead along the lines of abstract theories of "over-intellectual" reflection on the era of the Third Reich, and have faded next to the description of expressions of deep sadism and cruelty of personally identified conveyors of "final solution".
Part four bears the title Faces of the Third Reich, and, on the basis of examining of biographical facts, poses some controversial questions concerning such famous and at the same time complex characters of Nazi Germany like, for example, the renown conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose reputation absolutely outreached the area of Germany and Austria. In the years between 1925 - 26 he was the guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic and in the 1936 he replaced A. Toscannini in the post of permanent conductor. In USA he was, however, considered a part of the cultural scene of controversial character as a result of active support of Nazism. Therefore, he returned indefinitely to Germany where he conducted a great number of concerts that were part of Nazi ceremonies. For example, his rendition of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was performed in 1942 as a celebration of Hitler's birthday. Evans's essay published in 1992 in Times Literary Supplement provoked, even after so many years, (Furtwängler died in 1954), a bitter clash among his defenders and opponents who claimed that the however much-intelligent virtuoso occupying such a high post under the Nazi regime should not be considered a great artist. Evans offers the explanation that Furtwängler, kind of like many other conservative nationalists in Germany, welcomed the "nationalist revolution" in dating back to 1933, in which he saw the return to "normality". That is why he consciously collaborated with the Nazi establishment without realizing the tremendous destructive energy hidden in fanaticism and the cruelty of the nationalist socialist regime. Goebbels and Rosenberg have, in 1933 -35, severely manipulated him in their propaganda plans. Later on, the conductor attempted to keep a distance from the regime by modest gestures, their meaning was, of course, overlooked by the Nazi regime because of the acknowledgement that the presence of the distinguished conductor provides for Germany a certain respect in the cultural sphere. Tied down by his own ambitions, Furtwaelanger was not able to overreach the shadow of his limited resistance and to secure the course of resistance, Widerstand. Personal tragedies of people of this format consisted in the incapability of rejecting great opportunities, and the evil regime offered recognition of their such individual talents. In this light, it would be impossible not to recall the congenial novel Mefisto by K. Mann.
To a certain extent, a similar story offers the life of Hitler's personal architect Albert Speer, whose memoirs to the present day belong to the most frequently cited Inside the Third Reich. Speer was an intelligent, educated and cultivated man personifying the will of educated Germans to collaborate with the regime in the development of Germany. This, at the beginning. After a while, in the final critical phase they wished to maintain the regime alive. Since they saw in the Nazi regime the instrument of self-accomplishment that would not be otherwise offered by anybody else (there is the example characteristic over others - the rocket engineer, Werner von Braun).
Speer soon found himself in the circle of Hitler's friends and he dreamed along with him about the grandiose transformation of Berlin into a metropolitan city. In 1942 he accepted the post of the Reichsminister of Armament and with an immense exertion he kept increasing the war potential of the Third Reich. Evans confronts the views on Speer and he calls attention to the book-interview by G. Sereni who for several years upheld a never-ending debate with Speer, in which she uncovered new facts and viewpoints on the character who fascinated her by his ambiguity. In many instances she convicted Speer's memoirs of lies and manipulation of facts, thus breaking up the myth of the "honorable" Nazi. Besides that, she also found out, for example, that Speer entered NSDAP already in 1931, therefore, much sooner than he himself presented as an excuse. When in 1941 he needed accommodations for his laborers, he did not hesitate to "remove" the Jews from Berlin. He was also aware of the banishment of Jews from the ghetto in Bialystok for the purpose of "resettlement", and he also witnessed the brutal and murdering conditions in the underground factory Dora, producing the "revenge weapons", etc. In April 12, 1945, at the moment when the Soviet army was positioned at the outskirts of Berlin, Speer organized the performance of Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Dusk of Gods) performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, meant to serve as a requiem to the deceased regime.
Speer had to lie to himself in order to excuse himself. Despite of his attempts of repentance, until the final moment he remained in self-defense of his own share of guilt of the atrocious Third Reich's mechanism.
The last chapter of the fourth part is dedicated to contradictory views of historians on the famous British politician Winston Churchill. The critical reexamination of his person dates back mainly to the period of the 1970s and 1980s. Left-wing oriented historians cannot forgive him for his harsh move against insurgent coal miners before World War I, while the historian and Hitler's fan, David Irving sees in him as a drunken, egotistical warmonger who worked deliberately to bring the Second World War about. However, this assertion was not taken seriously by too many people in Great Britain, and Margaret Thatcher often familiarly appealed to "Winston".
Nevertheless, Irving's bizarre views (his denial of the Holocaust is well-known), seem to convene to some other, younger historians. J. Charmley, for example, blames Churchill of wasting British resources by fighting against Hitler, thus weakening the British Empire so much that the colonial system was not preserved. He states that territories like India, Kenya or Uganda would be much better off under British administration rather than being independent. Furthermore, he accuses Churchill of hindering the independent performance of Great Britain towards USA, and at the Yalta Conference he let himself to be outmaneuvered by indifferent Roosevelt whose only thought supposedly was to replace the British influence by U.S. dominance. By concentrating of forces and attention on the war-making effort, Churchill had to open up the path to power for the labor party and their socializing reforms.
Evans declares that the presented views of the young historian illustrate the classical attitude "hurray generation" of young professionals climbing upwards, characterizing the typical creation of the era of Thatcherism. The highflier who came from a Liverpool family of a dock worker who managed to rid himself of his regional dialect and customs of the family background in Oxford, was no fool. He wrote a thick book (Churchill: The End of Glory) backed by a solid research and in certain parts, for instance, the evaluation of Churchill's role in the Norwegian campaign sounds very convincing. In reality, however, the book alone did not cause as much upheaval as its book review in the Times, written by Alan Clark (the military historian and high official in the era of the Mrs.Thatcher administration) who on asserted that only Churchill's political radicalism alone caused that the peace talks in the spring of 1940 with Hitler were not yet initiated.
Evans declares that Charmley, just like other neo-conservative historians, firmly believes that individuality is the only moving force of history. Most historians are, however, of the opinion that the British empire was destroyed by the same impersonal force of historical development like all the other empires - and not an aggresive effort of a single individual. Churchill's aversion towards separate peace with Hitler was not an expression of his loathing of Nazism but symbolized the majority attitude of British political elites in the years 1940 - 1941.
The last, fifth part (Reunification and beyond) deals with the unification of Germany and subsequent development. It places the recurrent unification of both parts of Germany into historical context and warns against temptation, to which a great number of politicians and journalists from both right and left-wing of the political spectrum fall prey, that is, against the claim about the return of the traditional German nationalism or the birth of "Fourth Reich". Evans calls attention to certain reactions of political groupings on the British scene. Left-wing is traditionally mistrustful when it comes to its opinions concerning Germany, and in this light leftists also evaluated the process of the civil war that occurred on the territory of former Yugoslavia, which they perceived vis-a-vis the historical and political connection of Croatia and Germany. The British right-wing was looking at the unification of Germany with suspicion and unfriendliness, fearing German militarism and many appearances of Pan-German nationalism out of which only one peaked in the Third Reich. Until the outbreak of World War I, only a small number of German citizens shared Pan-German ideas, nevertheless, out of these idea roots came about after World War I a great deal of pseudo-academic and pseudo-historical publications explaining the historical mission of Germany in Central Europe, the inferiority of the Poles, the Russians, and the Jews.
The post-war identity of Germany after 1945 bore the footprints of the complex development. Firstly as a consequences of the necessity to get over the Nazi era, and secondly as a consequence of the Cold War (according to British historians the concept of "getting over the past", Vergangenheitsbewältigung, is carried out on the part of conservative German politicians and historians even with respect to the neighboring countries). The conservatively-oriented Neo-Nazi historians after the end of the war kept strengthening the shaken self-confidence of the Germans by relativist arguments about the fact that many other regimes throughout history committed crimes comparable to the Nazi ones. These assertions mostly appealed to the anticommunist identity of West Germany, which by all means formed the "front combat line" of the free world. However, this situation was in the late 1980s overshadowed by the enthusiasm brought about by the re-unification of the split country.
The new situation after the fall of the Berlin Wall reflected differently both the Right and the Left. The Left in West Germany openly opposed (to represent all let us present Günther Grass) the unification, fearing inspiration for re-birth of traditional nationalism. The new Right, on the other hand, accuses the leftists of abusing historical memories and victims of Nazism for historically justifying the ideology of multiculturalism and politically motivated campaign against the exaggerated distaste of Germans towards foreigners. The apparent expressions of racism of the young Neo-Nazists provoked doubts about the depth of the democratic transition of German society. The book of essays entitled Die Selbstbewusste Nation in the mid 1990s played an essential role in the attempt to establish a new authentic Right in the new circumstances, and was meant to represent a certain synthesis of traditional elements of right and left-wing thinking.
A number of authors (A. Graw, H. Schwilk, etc.) refused consumerism and hedonism of the present German society and demanded strengthening of the collective ethos together with strengthening of the role of the state. The media of the FRG are repeatedly blamed from the Left orientation and "intellectual terrorism", a consequence of the dominant intellectual position of the 1968 generation. Evans criticizes that they do not provide more specific proofs for their assertions. The historian Rainer Zittelman condemns feminism as a substitutive ideology in a situation when Marxism failed. Perhaps the most significant point of protest by most authors is the ongoing focus of attention historians and public debates about crimes of the Third Reich. Brigitte Seebacher- Brandt (widow after the Chancellor W. Brandt) demands that Germans finally separate from feelings of national guilt for Nazism. Germans cannot forever bear Kain's mark (U. Schacht). As a cure for the Osvetim syndrome the same author suggests unconditional support of Israel. Karl - Eckhard Hahn affirms that all at once Bismarck's empire is meaningful.
Only a small overview through the range of viewpoints implies that authors often find themselves entrapped by paradoxical assertions and contradictions. Actually they themselves diagnose German national identity as twisted and denied. Evans concludes that the debate provoked by the book indicates a viewpoint disorientation of the German Right caused mainly by the loss of integration factor of anti-communism.
Although the British historian, essay-writer and expert on Germany, Richard J. Evans, in the concluding section reproaches German historians that during the situation after the re-unification they failed to satisfy demands of readers and publishers for new (reinterpreted) works of societal values, attitudes and feelings, we nevertheless find a number of incentives for reflection on Germany in the book, something we notably lack in the Czech environment.
The views of our publishers are reduced only to the problem of the Sudeten-German issue and the professed necessity to reconsider the Presidential Decrees appear from this perspective as intentional, and understanding of contemporary Germany contributes only negligible. The Czechs need to understand Germany and her modern history, and this reviewed book embodies a valuable contribution in this sense.

Václav Houžvièka


1 Evans, Richard, J. Rereading German History 1800 - 1996. London/New York: Routledge 1997.s.3.
2 Evans mentions protests against simplified assessment of German political culture and national mentality that appeared in Israel. He furthermore blames S. Friedländer Goldhagen that while being a political scientist he ignores discontinuations and changes in German history in regard to anti-Semitism. See in detail p. 170 -171
3 Evans, Richard, J. Op. Cit., p. 168.
4 Similar speculative reinterpretations of history, however, always make an appearance with a certain time headway from historical events and Czech reader is thus offered in this connection some interesting parallels with the tendency to reconsider the post-war transfer of the Sudeten Germans.
5 In the book of the thirty essays Die Selbstbewusste Nation, published in 1995, Botho Strauss, Ernst Nolte, Rainer Zitelmann, Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt, Ulrich Schacht and others published their contributions. Currently, the formulation from the contribution of the publisher Peter Meier-Bergfeld, the Viennese reporter of Rheinischer Merkur who characterized Austria as a form of conservative Utopia representing all that contemporary Germany is not, is interesting.
Bergfeld discovers here a deficiency of market economy, the rejection of individualism and the leaning towards Christian ideals. In his opinion, Austria is a pre-modern society, which has successfully avoided the post-war "reeducation". His notion, preceded by damnation of the border on Odra and Nise as Stalinist creations and rejection of the Italian hegemony of Southern Tyrol ends in the final explicit declaration of the hope that the day of unification of Austria and Germany will come! Evans affirms that the given contribution represents the only extreme point of view in the whole work.
6 Evans, R.J., Op.cit., p.233.
7 See Evans, R.J., op.cit., p.240.