Monday, June 18, 2018

The Historikerstreit by Kristen Ghodsee


I’m lucky I’m not a scholar of Ukraine. If I wrote books about Ukraine like the one’s I’ve written about Bulgaria, they would now be illegal. My articles would be illegal too. In fact, my thoughts and opinions would be illegal. My observations and arguments, based on years of historical and anthropological research, would be illegal. Even asking the kinds of questions I ask, posing the kinds of thought experiments I pose, would be illegal . . .

This official de-communization process began in April 2015 when Ukrainian lawmakers proposed to erase all physical vestiges of their Soviet past. On May 15, President Petro Poroshenko signed a new law calling for the removal of all Soviet-era statues and symbols, and the renaming of towns and villages saddle with names deemed too communist by the government. Across the country, demolition crews dismantled  World War II monuments commemorating the Red Army victory over the Nazis.  Public questioning of the criminal character of the communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine was outlawed. Even more disturbing was the companion law “On the Legal Status and Honoring of the Memory of the fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the 20th century.” This statute criminalized public critiques of certain organizations that fought for Ukrainian independence, including the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), both organizations demonstratively guilty of mass murder. In Volhyn and eastern Galacia, historians estimate the UPA massacred up to 100,000 Poles. It collaborated with the Nazi occupying regime at the onset of the invasion of Russia in 1941. It also took part in anti-Jewish pogroms.  Laws passed in spite of the strenuous objections The Kharkiv Human Rights Commission, 69 North American and European academics,  the OSCE and the European  Commission for Democratic Institutions through Law.

These laws followed the infamous Prague Declaration of June 3, 2008 in which a coterie of right-leaning East European politicians and intellectuals proclaimed that “the millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized” and that  there should be “an all-European understanding that many crimes committed in the name of communism should be assessed as crime against humanity . . . in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.”

To explain how the Ukrainian law grew out of broader European memory, politics, it is instructive to go back and revisit something called the Historikerstreit, or the Historians’ Battle. This was a major public debate  between right-leaning and left-leaning historians in West Germany in the late 1980s.  The conflict was sparked by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s May 1985 visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery. Together with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Reagan spent eight minutes in a graveyard that contained the final resting places of forty-nine Waffen SS soldiers.* The Bitburg visit, and Reagan’s explicit commemoration of Nazi soldiers and Holocaust victims on the same day, set off a firestorm of controversy.


The West German  historian Ernst Nolte launched the first salvo in the Historians’ battle on June 6, 1986, with an article in the center-right newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, titled “The past that will not pass,” an abridge version of his forthcoming book. In his book and article Nolte asserted that Hitler’ embrace of National Socialism was an understandable reaction to Russian Bolshevism. Nolte catalogued early Soviet crimes, and he employed traditional right-wing terms such as “Asiatic deeds” to do so. He proposed that fascism was a counterrevolution against communism- that communism was the original totalitarianism. He wrote, “Wasn’t the gulag archipelago more original than Auschwitz? Wasn’t Bolshevik ‘class murder’ the logical and actual predecessor to National Socialist ‘race-murder?” According to Nolte, the Nazis only made more efficient the mechanisms for mass murder previously invented by the Soviets.

An immediate rebuttal came from the sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas . . .for almost three years, fierce barbs were traded in West Germany’s mainstream papers. Nolte’s continued insistence that Hilter’s anti-Semitism was a rational extension of his anti-Marxism (because Marxists were supposedly Jews), an his unwillingness to distance himself from right-wing activists eager t use his arguments to to exonerate Hitler, swayed the debate in favor of Habermas.In an  earlier lecture (1980) it was discovered Nolte said that the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann’s statement in the first days of September 1939 – ‘ in this war the Jews of all the world would fight on England’s side’ justified Hitler treating German Jews as prisoners of war and thus interning them.

Nolte emerged from the Historikerstreit isolated in his opinions and Habermas believed that the extended public debate had permanently subverted the historiographical exoneration of Adolf Hitler. But neither Habermas nor Nolte could imagine that the Berlin Wall would fall before the end of the decade. The terms of the debate would suddenly and unexpectedly tip in Nolte’s favor.


The second act in the Historikstreit drew in scholars from across the globe. In 1993, Francis Fukuyama claimed that the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes inn 1989 and the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented “the end of history.” In his view, liberal democracy and free market capitalism were the pinnacles of human achievement, and the collective dreams of the left were crushed in the maelstrom of anti-Marxist triumphalism. As the FRG swallowed the GDR, and Eastern European countries rushed headlong into the arms of the West, the once settled issues of the Historikerstreit were thrown open for a new round of debate.

Perhaps the best example of the Historikerstreit 2.0 was the conflict between two eminent historians in the 1990s, one British and the other French. In 1994 the unrepentant Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, an instant international success despite the scandal caused when Hobsbawm suggested in a 1994 BBC interview with Michael Ignatieff that the many crimes of the Soviet Union would have been forgiven if they had given birth to a functioning communist society.

Hobsbawm,’s defense of Stalinism initially prevented his book’s translation into French . . .it seemed clear that the French publishing establishment was trying to silence him: “the growth of vituperative anti-Marxism among French intellectuals; a budget squeeze in humanities publishing; and, not least, a publishing community either unwilling or afraid to defy these trends (Adam Shatz).

Hobsbawn’s book appeared just two years after Tony Judt’s Past Imperfect was published in France. Judt had eviscerated the left politics o Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Judt argued that their experiences in World War II and the French Resistance convinced them that the world was divided into communists and imperialist-fascist anticommunists and there was no space to occupy between. They believed that it was their existential imperative to make choice. Choosing the communist side of this dichotomy apparently reflected a fatal flaw in French intellectual culture, and Hobsbawm may have been seen as reproducing that flaw.

Pierre Nora, the editor of France’s most distinguished history series at Editions Gallimard, beside budgetary constraints and shrinking interest in scholarly history books, admitted to having ideological reservations about Age of Extremes. Nora argued that France was “the longest and most deeply Stalinised country’ in Europe and Hobsbawm’s book appeared at the moment French public opinion was just shaking off its attachment to communist idealism. This ‘decompression’ followed the collapse of the Soviet Union  and “accentuated hostility to anything that could from near or far recall the former pro-Soviet, pro-communist age, including plain Marxism. Eric Hobsbawm cultivates this attachment to the revolutionary cause, even if at a distance, as a point of pride . . .But in France at this moment, it goes down badly.”

Part of the problem was that The Age of Extremes was also published just before Francois Furet’s highly successful Le Pase d’une illusion, a book asserting that Nazism and communism were the twin scourges of the twentieth century. Furet dedicated an extended footnote to Ernst Nolte’s work, blaming the communist illusion for producing a romanticized culture of antifascism among European intellectuals. According to Furet, this lead to a misreading of the Spanish Civil War and prevented the acknowledgement of the fundamental similarities between fascism and communism.

The ongoing refusal to translate The Age of Extremes was further buttressed by the political storm unleashed in France after the 1997 publication of Le Livre noir du communism: Crimes, terreur, repression by Editions Robert Laffont. Thstome –over eight hundred pages – as a collection of essays attempting to produce a worldwide tally of communist victims. After his death I July 1997, the task of witing an introduction to the book fell to Stephane Courtois, who asserted that there were 100 million victims of communism worldwide, a number four times that of the victims of Nazism. Courtois inveighed against all twentieth century communist leaders and argued that the “single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide” had impeded the accounting of communist crimes. Given the revelations contained in newly opened Soviet and East European archives, Courtois argued that Le Livre noir du communism definitively exposed the criminal nature of all communist regimes and claimed that Western intellectuals who supported communist ideals were n better than “common prostitutes.”

Almost immediately after the book’s publication, however, two of the prominent historians contributing to the volume, Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth, attacked Courtois in an article published in Le Monde . . . saying that “death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union”*  In a 200 review theSoviet historian J Arch Getty pointed out that over half of the 100 million worldwide deaths supposedly attributed to communism were “excess deaths” resulting from famine. Regarding the numbers in the Soviet Union, Getty wrote, “The overwhelming weight of opinion among scholars working in the new archives is that the terrible famine of the 1930s was the result of Stalinist bungling and rigidity rather than some genocidal plan. Are deaths from famine caused by stupidity and incompetence of a regime . . . to be equated with the deliberate gassing of Jews?”

Despite the inhospitable climate in France for The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm did not back down. . . He fought for a French translation . . .five years after its publication in English, the French translation appeared and was an instant success with forty thousand copies in print and the book climbing to the top of best seller lists. Yet the book continued to spark debate. Michele Tepper argued in Lingua Franca  that the continuing backlash in Paris against Marist leanings that shaped French culture for most of the twentieth century may well continue to keep publishing house doors barred against the next Hobsbawm.

Indeed, in the same year (2000) the Germany Foundation – an organization associated with the center-right German Christian Democratic Union – awarded Ernst Nolte the prestigious Konrad  Adenaurer Prize, prompting Robert Cohen in the New York Times to proclaim “Hitler Apologist Wins German Honors.” An immediate controversy ensued in Germany, particularly given the context of the   .far right’s political ascendance in several local elections in the five states of the former GDR as well as increases in violent ne-Nazi activity against asylum seekers and other immigrants. With the National Front gaining popularity in France and Jorg Haider and the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs ascending in Austria, right-wing parties were creeping back onto the political scene across the Continent. Fierce accusations that Nolte was a Holocaust denier arose. Notle’s rehabilitation, many Jewish organizations argued, would embolden scholars who question the so-called cult of the Holocaust.

An excellent example of the far-reaching legacy of the renewed Historikerstreit is an article that appeared in the Journal of Historical Review in 2000. Mark Weber argued that Notle’s receipt of the Adenauer Prize might a portent for “greater historical objectivity”:

 A Jewish view of  20th century history – which includes what even some Jewish intellectuals call the ‘Holocaust cult’ or ‘Holocaust industry’ is obviously incompatible with a treatment that is objective and truthful . . .as the recent award to Ernst Nolte suggests, there are signs that the intellectual climate is changing. Not Just in Germany, but  across Europe, there is a growing acknowledgement that the historical view imposed by the victorious Allies in 1945, as well as the Judeocentric view that now prevails, is a crass and even dangerous distortion. Contributing to this ‘historicization’ has been the end of the Soviet empire, with its outpouring of new revelations about the grim legacy of Soviet Communism, and the collapse of a major pillar of the ‘anti-fascist’ view of  20th century history. Although powerful interests may succeed for a time in stemming the tide, in the long run a more ‘revisionist’ treatment of history, even Third Reich history, is inevitable.

Weber’s article was prescient of a later wave of American popular histories derived from Nolte’s revisionist position. For instance, the journalist Anne Applebaum’s two books Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56, both supported the idea that the horrors of communism were equal to or worse than the terrors of Nazism. It s no surprise, therefore, that Applebaum was awarded the Hungarian Petofi Prize at the Budapest Terror House Museum in 2010. One might say that Nolte’s positions in ten German Historikerstreit laid the intellectual foundation for the Prague Declaration and eventually paved the way for the Ukrainian government to venerate fascists by vilifying communists in 2015.

The European Union and the Visegrad Group- Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic- provided funding for anticommunist scholarship through the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. I museums such as the Hungarian House of Terror and the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims, more space was allocated to the victims of communism than to the victims of the Holocaust. Historical institutes, such as the Institute for the Studies of the Recent Past in Bulgaria and the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of Romanian Exile, focus on the crimes of communism against domestic Eastern European populations and downplay the effects of local alliances with Nazi Germany.

So was it a coincidence that the institutionalization of the twin totalitarian narrative occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis financial that began in  2008? As markets plunged and the Eurozone economies teetered on the edge of collapse, the European Parliament passed the resolution establishing the European Day of Remembrance for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. As neoliberal capitalism faltered, European leaders, facing devastated economies, a migrant crisis, and growing wealth inequality, gravitated toward the intellectual paradigm that linked leftist politics with the worst crimes of Stalinism and equated those crimes with the Final Solution. Not surprisingly, the renewed focus on the victims of communism allowed Eastern European governments to exonerate or rehabilitate known fascists, a process that.led directly to the 2015 Ukrainian laws making it a crime to criticize any national figure who fought for Ukrainian independence, even if these men collaborated in the slaughter or Poles or Jews.

Eastern European examples of this rehabilitation abound . . .a minister who personally signed the deportation orders for over eleven thousand Jews from Bulgarian occupied Thrace and Macedonia was honored. A Hungarian Court rehabilitated Balint Homan, one of the architects of Hungarian ant-Semitic laws and pushed for their murder by the Nazis. Homan claimed that the Jews did not belong in Hungary because of their “spirit opposing the ideas of Christianity’ and their “leading role in subversive movements and the spread of destructive ideologies. The Serbian high court rehabilitated Dragoljub “Draza” Mihaillovic, executed by the Yugoslav communists in 1946 for high treason and Nazis collaboration. The President of Croatia visited the Bleiburg cemetery where she laid flowers at the graves of Croatian Nazis-allied soldiers. In the two years I lived in Europe between 2014 and 2016, I witnesses political parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice, and Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland find mass support from populations suffering from years of stagnant wages and economic austerity, particularly after the onset of the European migrant crisis. In cities and towns in eastern Germany, angry mobs resist the resettlement of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The governments of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic staunchly rejected quotas for accepting Muslin refugees, and new fences were erected around many borders, jeopardizing the European Schengen free-travel zone.

While the European project imploded, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund continued to dismantle social supports in Europe’s periphery for the sake of stabilizing global financial markets. Faced with catastrophic youth unemployment, slashed pensions, and insecurity about the future, an increasing number of men and women gravitated to the far left and right. Since the evils of communism were, according to the now-dominant narrative, so incredibly grave, one need not worry too much about fascist elements, so long as ty opposed communism. On the twin totalitarian thesis, the extremes of fascism proved no worse than the supposedly inevitable outcome of leftist demands to nationalize banks, expand state employment and impose new global wealth taxes on the rich







*  Susan Woodward discusses Kohl’s role in the destruction of Yugoslavia in Balkan Tragedy
* At any rate  Stalin’s Gulags were far better than any got up by the Tsars.(J.S.)

Picture: abandoned headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party

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