Ernst Nolte, the Holocaust and the AfD
Updated: Apr 21
Let's open with a short narration of a doctoral student at a Berlin university in 1988. Richard Evans, a British historian of 19th and 20th century Europe with a focus on Germany, talks about his friend who was doing his doctorate at that time. Evans writes that his friend was discussing his work with his thesis supervisor at Freie Universität Berlin in February 1988, when an explosion occurred in the parking lot outside.
His supervisor went to the window and saw smoke and flames rising. "Ah," he said, "someone blew up Professor Nolte's car," and returned as if nothing had happened. Who was responsible for this explosion and why? Nolte's car had been set on fire by members of the autonomous group, which can be roughly translated as anarchists.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War was a new opportunity for 21st-century conservative historians to build two agendas: first, trying to normalize the Nazi past and gently deny the Holocaust; and second, helping to build a new right-wing movement.
Till then, Ernst Nolte (1923-2016), a conservative historian had been isolated since the Historikerstreit (Historians dispute) of the mid-1980s, when Jürgen Habermas and many German historians accused him of rehabilitating the Nazi past. But now suddenly, he achieved a new legitimacy.
At the center of Historikerstreit was the conservative historian Nolte, a dazzling figure in German historiography who attracted conservative politicians and received applause from various right-wing directions. Here I write about some aspects of Nolte's conservative and right-wing revisionist historiography.
Nolte's life and works
Nolte was born in Witten, western Germany, to a Roman Catholic family, the son of a Catholic headteacher, Heinrich, and his wife, Anna (nee Bruns). He was excused military service because he was missing three fingers on one hand. He studied at Freiburg University with the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), an influential thinker who had, however, been a willing tool of the Nazis in the early years of the Third Reich.
In 1952, Nolte received a PhD in philosophy at Freiburg for his thesis Selbstentfremdung und Dialektik im deutschen Idealismus und bei Marx (Self Alienation and the Dialectic in German Idealism and Marx). Subsequently, he began studies in Zeitgeschichte (contemporary history). He published his Habilitationsschrift awarded at the University of Cologne, Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, as a book in 1963.
Between 1965 and 1973, Nolte worked as a professor at the University of Marburg, and from 1973 to 1991 at the Free University of Berlin. Let's say that he belongs to an intellectual tradition of nationalism and conservatism in the same tradition of the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, Friedrich Meinecke, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt. It was Carl Schmitt who legitimized National Socialist colonialism and justified it with the term "Lebensraum".
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new wave of anti-communism came into being and within this anti-communist wave, Nolte was a forerunner. His major works included Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (in English known as The Three Faces of Fascism), Der europäische Bürgerkrieg (The European Civil War), Fascism and Communism. In these Nolte tried to re-read the Nazi past as a reaction against the Bolshevik Revolution.
This is how he sees Nazism - only as an anti-Bolshevism. This revisionist tendency in historiography in the mid-1980s was opposed by many left-wing historians and intellectuals. This included Habermas, who in Die Zeit (11 July 1986) strongly criticized Nolte, along with Andreas Hillgruber and Michael Stürmer. He said they had engaged in “apologetic” history writing in regards to the Nazi era, and they sought to “close Germany’s opening to the West”, which in Habermas's view had existed since 1945.
For an extended period of time, Nolte fled to the margins and took refuge in silence until he was awarded the Konrad Adenauer Prize in 2000. Now he re-appears as a 'winner'.
Revolutions happen and they always have revisionist historians. In other words, their enemies. French and Russian revolutions are two main examples. Discussing fascism, for Nolte, initially means rewriting the history of communism. Nolte sees Nazism as a logical response to Communism.
Nolte, made concerted and flawed efforts to present Nazism and Stalinism as two sides of the same coin. This relied, as Enzo Traverso argues, on obscuring the links which bound Nazi repression and expansionism to the campaigns of colonial conquest and extermination waged by Western liberal powers during the nineteenth century.
Nolte in his book, The Three Faces of Fascism, argues that fascism functions at three levels,
1) namely in the world of politics as a form of opposition to Bolshevism,
2) at the sociological level in opposition to bourgeois values, and
3) in the "metapolitical" world as "resistance to transcendence" ("transcendence" in German can be translated as the "spirit of modernity"). Nolte defined the relationship between fascism and Marxism as follows:
Fascism is anti-Marxism which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy.
Nolte places the racist and fascist ideas of the Nazi movement and Hitler, at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. This reductionism deliberately omits the long-rooted and cultivated anti-Semitism in Europe.
But if we look at Mein Kampf, we understand that Hitler was an anti-Semite long before 1914; moreover it was 'formed' in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century. In other words before it could have been influenced by an anti-communism; or, fuelled by the role of Jews in the Russian Revolution and the political upheavals in Central Europe.
For example, Traverso in his book, The Origins of Nazi Violence, points out that in Nolte's analysis, the genocide of Jews is presented as the extreme outcome of a 'European Civil was' whose beginning he dates not to 1914; but instead to 1917 and the October Revolution. This led to the founding, two years later, of the Comintern, which as Nolte later would call it a 'world civil-war party'.
It is beyond doubt that the October Revolution deeply shook the European bourgeoisie as much as 1789 did it to the aristocracy. But the reduction of anti-Semitism and fascism, to a 'response to communism' - is something that serves fascism itself. That is the same task of Nolte's revisionist historiography of the 20th century.
He also believes that it was the Russian Revolution of 1917 which plunged all of Europe into a long-simmering civil war that lasted until 1945. That is why fascism, according to Nolte, arose as a desperate response by the threatened middle classes of Europe to what Nolte has often called the “Bolshevik peril”.
We should say that Nolte structures Nazism as a counterrevolutionary movement. One that emerged as a reaction against the Russian Revolution and German Spartacism, as a militant anti-Marxist and anti-Communist force. What Nolte does, therefore, is to put the 'blame' and responsiblity for the genocide, away from Nazism, and onto Bolshevism. We can simply label this effort as the "normalization" of Nazism. This revisits the past in order to normalize it and actualize it for the present. This is the very longstanding project of Nolte.
The Holocaust and the AfD
So could Nolte be branded as the forerunner of the AfD (the German right-wing extremist party)? Let's have a close look at it. On 6 June 1986 Nolte published a feuilleton opinion piece entitled "The Past That Will Not Pass: A Speech That Could Be Written but Not Delivered", in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In it, Nolte explained that the "Gulag Archipelago" had "the logical and factual Prius" before Auschwitz. That is, the National Socialists' "racial murder" was only the result of fear of the older "class murder" of the Bolsheviks:
It is probable that many of these reports were exaggerated. It is certain that the “White Terror” also committed terrible deeds, even though its program contained no analogy to the “extermination of the bourgeoisie”.
Nonetheless, the following question must seem permissible, even unavoidable: Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an “Asiatic” deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be the potential victims of an “Asiatic” deed?
Wasn’t the 'Gulag Archipelago' more original than Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the "racial murder" of National Socialism?
Cannot Hitler's most secret deeds be explained by the fact that he had not forgotten the rat cage? Did Auschwitz in its root causes not originate in a past that would not pass?
Here, he is not simply denying the Holocaust but, we can say, he has a soft denial towards the genocide. Deborah Esther Lipstadt, an American historian ( best known as the author of the book Denying the Holocaust -1993) calls this tendency a soft-core denial. Speaking of Nolte in a 2003 interview, Lipstadt stated that historians such as the German Ernst Nolte are, in some ways, even more, dangerous than the deniers.
The most likely comparison of Nolte is the kulaks, and some historians such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler were most forceful in arguing that the sufferings of the “kulaks” deported during the Soviet “dekulakization” campaign of the early 1930s were in no way analogous to the suffering of the Jews deported in the early 1940s.
Nolte is an anti-Semite of the first order, who attempts to rehabilitate Hitler by saying that he was no worse than Stalin, but he is careful not to deny the Holocaust. Holocaust-deniers make Nolte's life more comfortable. They have, with their radical argumentation, pulled the center a little more to their side. Consequently, a less radical extremist, such as Nolte, finds himself closer to the middle ground, which makes him more dangerous.
There is another attempt to gently and softly deny the Holocaust, which is to simply attribute it to the Industrial Revolution. In his book, Marxismus und industrielle Revolution, Nolte speaks here of the modern attempt to solve problems related to industrialization by eliminating a large group of people.
Here the specific German tradition of anti-Semitism is cut off and replaced by the general problems of industrialization. And he suggests that if one wishes to understand the Holocaust, one should begin with the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and then understand the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Habermas, in his assault on Nolte, took on the task to suggest a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide. Habermas argues that, since Cambodia was a backward, Third World agrarian state and Germany a modern, industrial state, there was no comparison between the two genocides.
Nolte simply wants to both softly deny the Holocaust and the normalization of the Nazi era in German history. Now is the time to move on to a very concrete matter on the spot: Nolte's influence on the AfD.
On June 6, 2016, Richard Herzinger published an article about Nolte in the Welt under the title He First Said What the AfD Now Thinks (Er sagte zuerst, was die AfD jetzt denkt), in which this matter is discussed. But we have to take a close look at that. Let's take an example from the up-and-coming boss, Björn Höcke, who is notorious for his comments against Jews, Africans, the Left:
'Christianity and Judaism are antagonisms. That is why I cannot comprehend the term ‘Christian-Judeo Occident'. Or, denouncing the monument to Holocaust victims in Berlin, Höcke said: 'We Germans, our people, are the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the center of their capital'. (Citing them from Grossman's Berlin Bulletin No. 173, February 7, 2020).
And then there is Alexander Gauland, who, like Nolte before him, aims to relativize the significance of the Holocaust for modern German national consciousness. In an interview with "Die Zeit", Gauland was quick to get to the point. "I believe that Auschwitz, even as a symbol, destroyed a lot in us," he said, referring to a supposedly abandoned German identity. Even Gauland plays down the Nazi era as a 'bird shit' in German history, "Hitler and the Nazis are just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history." Gualand said.
And the other AfD politician Alice Weidel once again caused a frown on Twitter. On Monday 13th January 2020 she posted a picture in memory of the victims of the so-called advance of the Red Army towards Berlin which brought the Germans to the borders. Users blamed her for not paying attention in history lessons. Even the Russian embassy took the floor.
It is not new that the extreme right talks about the victims. For instance, Nolte's interpretation of the `European civil war' puts Germany as a whole on the side of the victims including the Nazi regime; which was threatened first by a Bolshevik uprising directed from Moscow, and then by a war of extermination waged by both Soviet and Allied military forces.
As Herzinger points out that the realization that the Holocaust was a unique crime against humanity, which revisionists of all stripes would like to shake up, remains unaffected. We should add that the Holocaust is a unique phenomenon and cannot be compared with other crimes. Any attempt to do that, means to forget the Nazi past.