Ernst Nolte’s Grandson




O P I N I O N

by Clemens Heni

This edited and condensed extract is from the author’s forthcoming book (in press) and appears here with Dr. Heni’s permission. Clemens Heni is founding director of the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (BICSA).


In June of 1986 the German historian Ernst Nolte (born 1923) started the so-called Historians’ Dispute (Historikerstreit) by publishing an article in the leading conservative daily of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.[i]

Nolte has to be seen as just one of the voices, though a leading one in point of fact, in the nationalist wing in the Federal Republic under Helmut Kohl, who had become chancellor in 1982, with “national identity” as a core element of his politics. The national wave had already begun in the 1970s with the infamous “Hitler wave” films, and with the emergence of the New Right and its German agitator Henning Eichberg and authors such as Martin Walser in 1979.

Just a year prior to Nolte’s piece, in May 1985, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the unconditional surrender of the Germans on 8 May 1945, Kohl and US President Ronald Reagan were covered by the worldwide media for visiting a cemetery in the city of Bitburg,[ii] where SS members were buried. Reagan publicly said in advance that he had no interest in visiting the former concentration camp of Dachau, because he did not wish to deal with German history and did not want to blame the Germans, but rather supported forgiveness and forgiving.[iii]

Nolte, when speaking about “German guilt” equated it to Nazi talk about “Jewish guilt.” He attacked those who described antisemitic slurs of Germans at the time as — “antisemitic.” Nolte’s main focus, however, was (and is) Stalin and Communism. He asked if the “Asian deed” wasn’t antecedent, if the “Archipel Gulag” wasn’t before “Auschwitz”?[iv]

As early as 1978, historian Peter Gay, too, criticized Nolte’s book on the Cold War in his study Freud, Jews, and other Germans.[v] Gay was among the first scholars to deal with the trivialization of the Holocaust. He exemplified the trend by way of a reference to Nolte’s book and called the equation of American warfare in Vietnam with Auschwitz a “comparative trivialization.”[vi]

This is a very useful term and today we are facing many more examples of “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, as I document and analyze in this book. In particular, Peter Gay criticized Nolte’s anti-Zionism, his distortion of the history of Zionism and the antisemitic comparison of Zionism with National Socialism. Gay emphasized that Nolte’s “countrymen” played a crucial role in the persecution of the Jews which in turn led to the development of Zionism.[vii] Finally Gay pointed to the fact, that Nolte’s words echo anti-Zionist “propaganda” from “the Arabs and Soviets.”[viii]

It is of tremendous importance to recognize the connection between the downplaying of the Holocaust and the comparing or equating of Auschwitz with completely distinct crimes committed by other countries. Gay’s analysis did not lead to many follow-ups from other historians and scholars in related fields.

But nowadays “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust has become a kind of sport. And the  game is wide open to global participants, from Yale professors and members of the American Academy of Arts and Science to Arab commentators, Islamists, German right-wingers as well as left-wingers and worryingly, the mainstream. The sheer volume of different types of “comparative trivialization” of the Shoah is staggering.

Historian Timothy Snyder is a history professor at Yale University from the younger generation (born 1969). In 2010 he published Bloodlands.[ix] The prize-winning book has been translated into many languages. It has been translated into many languages and Snyder’s friend, the late anti-Zionist historian Tony Judt (see Chapter 4) called it “the most important book to appear on this subject for decades,” as quoted on the back cover.[x] Historians Christopher Browning[xi] and Timothy Garton Ash[xii] have equally uncritical views of the book.  […]

Snyder’s way of writing and his entire approach to history and the Shoah becomes crystal clear in the preface to his book:

“Hitler was an antisemitic politician in a country with a small Jewish community. Jews were fewer than one percent of the German population when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, and about one quarter of one percent by the beginning of the Second World War. During the first six years of Hitler’s rule, German Jews were allowed (in humiliating and impoverishing circumstances) to emigrate. Most of the German Jews who saw Hitler win elections in 1933 died of natural causes.”[xiii]

[Italics in the original]

First, let’s look at some facts. Hitler did not “become” chancellor, he was announced chancellor on 30 January 1933 by President Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler did not “win elections in 1933.” The National Socialist German Workers Party (National­sozialisti­sche Deutsche Arbeiter­partei, NSDAP) won  the elections on 5 March 1933 with some 44% of the votes. Readers from the United States, for example, who have no idea about the election system of Germany at the time, could be confused and think in terms of a direct election of Hitler as president. That was not the case.

That Snyder is totally taken with the “Great Men” theory  — an invention from the mid nineteenth century —  is just one relatively minor problematic aspect. Of much greater concern is the way Snyder talks about the destruction of German Jewry. The killing of some 165,000 German Jews, only because they were Jews, seems not to amount to much for the Yale historian. Just “one quarter of one per cent” in September 1, 1939. German Jews couldn’t believe and couldn’t imagine that their neighbors, Germans, would try to kill them to the last baby and last 85 year old.

Jews had struggled for emancipation from the eighteenth century until the 1870s, when they achieved political emancipation in Germany. Of course they knew about Jew-hatred in Germany, they had experienced it during the First World War, in the military; in academia, on the streets during the Weimar Republic; when the Storm Troopers (SA) attacked Jews and did not allow them to even look at events of the Nazi Party. But that kind of antisemitism was not the same as deporting Jews to Treblinka and gassing them; the gassing was beyond imagination, a “rupture of civilization” (Dan Diner).

Although many German Jews fled Germany after 30 January 1933, not all of them did. The 165,000 murdered German Jews Snyder refers to had been killed for no other reason but for simply being – Jews. For Snyder this is not at all remarkable. After all, they comprised “about one quarter of one percent” of the German population in 1939.

Maybe Snyder is not interested in Jewish life prior to 1933. There will never be German-Jewish life in a way it existed until 1933. It was a very specific cultural, philosophical, every-day experience. German Jewry was completely destroyed by National Socialism. The few German Jews still living are struggling to maintain distinctness in their tiny communities. The very same holds for European Jewry in Poland, the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, Greece, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, and just about anywhere the German had their hand on during the Second World War.

The Yiddish civilization, from Lithuanian (Litvak) to Galician (Galitsyaner) has been destroyed. This is not about numbers or percentage; it is about the fact that the Jews in all these countries had been killed for no other reason but for being Jews.

Snyder does not get this analysis and he is in that sense emblematic of today’s mainstream historiography. Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Soviet Union, all these extremely devastated countries — devastated by the Germans during the Second World War — could recover, because none of these countries’ people was a target as such. Not so with the Jews, they were killed specifically and without exception wherever Nazi forces took an inch of land.

Almost half of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were gassed in those extermination camps, the other three million Jews killed in the fields (mass murder sites, mass grave sites), ghettos, and concentration camps. But those three million who were gassed do not fit into a book entitled Bloodlands. Snyder wants to educate a Western audience to the notion that the Second World War transpired principally in Eastern Europe. The Western allies documented the liberated concentration camps in the Western sector, and did not talk much about the killing fields in the East. But Snyder, too, fails, when he talks about (eastern) bloodlands and does not focus on the specificity of Sobibor or Auschwitz, where there were not bloody killing fields initially. It was rather industrialized mass murder in an unprecedented way.

There is a huge gap between not stopping starvation or intentionally transporting children from Greece via train to Auschwitz. Snyder is not interested in differences or specificities; he prefers transnational, transideological similarities. This is understandable insofar as such unspecified scholarship is highly fashionable.

Snyder’s laid-back view of the rupture of civilization is evident in a 2012 article he penned in connection with this debate:

“The metonym of anonymity is of course Auschwitz, which Adorno once thought should prevent us from writing and presumably from citing poetry, and Diner faults me for underestimating. The gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau become widely known precisely because, unlike most important German killing sites, they were associated with a labour camp which Jews and others survived. Auschwitz is where Jews from (in Cold War terms) Western countries were killed, and thus Auschwitz was preserved as a memory during the Cold War. It helped that victims of Auschwitz were more likely to be bourgeois and thus suitable targets of comfortable identification, much more so, say, than Yiddish-speaking Jewish workers from Poland or Russian speaking Soviet Jews. But Auschwitz is in numerical terms only a fraction of the horror: five sixths of the Holocaust happened elsewhere, and, crucially, earlier.”[xiv]

Snyder accuses the West for remembering Auschwitz: the capitalist West, America in particular, remembers the killed Jews of Auschwitz because they had been the capitalist Jews from Western Europe, in his view. The Eastern, rather poorer Jews, who were killed in the fields and dumped in the mass graves, do not count much for these biased capitalist Westerners, says Snyder. “Auschwitz was only a fraction” for the Yale historian. One has never heard such an argumentation when it comes to Auschwitz: that  the Jews and the West (supposedly) remember Auschwitz because the (supposedly) rich Jews have been killed there.

One of the most forthright critics of Snyder is historian Jürgen Zarusky at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich (“Institut für Zeitgeschichte,” IFZ).[xv] He published one of the longest and most profound critiques of Snyder in 2012.[xvi]  […]


© Clemens Heni 2012. An edited and condensed excerpt from his new book in press. More information to be posted at the BICSA site.



[i] Ernst Nolte (1986): Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will. Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht gehalten werden konnte, June 6, 1986, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

[ii] For a comprehensive overview see Geoffrey Hartman (ed.) (1986): Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[iii] Alvin H. Rosenfeld (1986): Another Revisionism: Popular Culture and the Changing Image of the Holocaust, in: Hartman (ed.), Bitburg, 90–102, 93: “Most troubling about Mr. Reagan’s word, though, was something else: the sense that what he was saying, as bizarre and objectionable as it seemed, might not be idiosyncratic but might actually represent the sentiments of large numbers of people. The president of the United States is not unintelligent, and he certainly is not out of touch with the popular feeling and common aspirations. (…) Americans on the whole have a difficulty with history, most of all someone else’s history, especially if it is unpleasant. In this respect their president represents them very well indeed. One of his aides in the White House, questioned about the prospects of a visit to a concentration camp, recalled the president saying. ‘You know, I don’t think we ought to focus on the past. I want to focus on the future, I want to put that history behind me.’ Another administration official explained, ‘The President was not hot to go to a camp. You know, he is a cheerful politician. He does not like to grovel in a grisly scene like Dachau.” The man behind the very idea to go to Bitburg and to honor former SS-men was of course FRG chancellor Helmut Kohl. His nationalism was based on trivializing the Holocaust while embracing German history, including criminals like SS-men.

[iv] “Vollbrachten die Nationalsozialisten, vollbrachte Hitler eine ‘asiatische’ Tat vielleicht nur deshalb, weil sie sich und ihresgleichen als potentielle oder wirkliche Opfer einer ‘asiatischen‘ Tat betrachteten? War nicht der ‘Archipel GULag’ ursprünglicher als ‘Auschwitz’? War nicht der ‚Klassenmord‘ der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des ‘Rassenmords‘ der Nationalsozialisten?,” Nolte 1986.

[v] Peter Gay (1978) Freud, Jews, and other Germans, New York: Oxford University Press; Peter Gay (1986): Freud, Juden und andere Deutsche. Herren und Opfer in der modernen Kultur, Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe.

[vi] Gay 1986, 14.

[vii] Gay 1986, 17.

[viii] Gay 1986, 18.

[ix] Timothy Snyder (2010): Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books.

[x] “In his path-breaking and often courageous study of Europe’s ‘bloodlands,’ Snyder shows how very much more complicated the story was. His account of the methods and motives of murderous regimes, both at home and in foreign war, will radically revise our appreciation of the implications of mass extermination in the recent past. Bloodlands – impeccably researched and appropriately sensitive to its volatile material – is the most important book to appear on this subject for decades and will surely become the reference in its field.” http://www.bodleyhead.co.uk/book.asp?ean=9780224081412 (visited 22 June 2012).

[xi] “The stunning contribution of Tim Snyder’s book is to present a synthetic account by an East European historian in which the focus is on the geographic zone where the lethal policies of Hitler and Stalin interacted, overlapped, and mutually escalated one another. As Snyder vividly demonstrates, their combined impact on the people living in the ‘bloodlands’ was quite simply the greatest man-made demographic catastrophe and human tragedy in European history.” http://www.bodleyhead.co.uk/book.asp?ean=9780224081412 (visited 22 June 2012).

[xii] “Timothy Snyder has written a nuanced, original and penetrating analysis of Europe’s twentieth century killing fields between Russia and Germany, drawing on many little-known sources. History of a high order, Bloodlands may also point us towards lessons for our own time.” http://www.bodleyhead.co.uk/book.asp?ean=9780224081412 (visited June 22, 2012).

[xiii] Snyder 2010, viii-ix.

[xiv] Timothy Snyder (2012): The Causes for the Holocaust, Contemporary European History, Vol. 21, No. 2, 149–168, 154f.

[xv] http://www.ifz-muenchen.de/j252rgen_zarusky.html (visited June 22, 2012).

[xvi] Jürgen Zarusky (2012): Timothy Snyders „Bloodlands“. Kritische Anmerkungen zur Konstruktion einer Geschichtslandschaft, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 60, No. 1, 1–31.

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