Nolte is best known for his role in launching the Historikerstreit
(“Historians’ Dispute”) of 1986 and 1987. On 6 June 1986 Nolte published a feuilleton
opinion piece entitled Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte
(“The Past That Will Not Pass: A Speech That Could Be Written but Not Delivered
“) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
was a distillation of ideas he had first introduced in lectures delivered in 1976 and in 1980. Earlier in 1986, Nolte had planned to deliver a speech before the Frankfurt Römerberg Conversations (an annual gathering of intellectuals), but he had claimed that the organizers of the event withdrew their invitation.
In response, an editor and co-publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
, Joachim Fest
, allowed Nolte to have his speech printed as a feuilleton
in his newspaper.
One of Nolte’s leading critics, British historian Richard J. Evans
, claims that the organizers of the Römerberg Conversations did not withdraw their invitation, and that Nolte had just refused to attend.
Nolte began his feuilleton
by remarking that it was necessary in his opinion to draw a “line under the German past”.
Nolte argued that the memory of the Nazi era was “a bugaboo, as a past that in the process of establishing itself in the present or that is suspended above the present like an executioner’s sword”.
Nolte complained that excessive present-day interest in the Nazi period had the effect of drawing “attention away from the pressing questions of the present—for example, the question of “unborn life” or the presence of genocide yesterday in Vietnam
and today in Afghanistan
The crux of Nolte’s thesis was presented when he wrote:
In addition, Nolte sees his work as the beginning of a much-needed revisionist treatment to end the “negative myth” of the Third Reich that dominates contemporary perceptions.
Nolte took the view that the principal problem of German history was this “negative myth” of the Third Reich, which cast the Nazi era as the ne plus ultra
Nolte contends that the great decisive event of the 20th century was the Russian Revolution of 1917
, which plunged all of Europe into a long-simmering civil war that lasted until 1945. To Nolte, fascism, communism’s twin, arose as a desperate response by the threatened middle classes of Europe to what Nolte has often called the “Bolshevik peril”. 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 his 1987 book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945
, Nolte argued in the interwar period, Germany was Europe’s best hope for progress.
Nolte wrote that “if Europe was to succeed in establishing itself as a world power on an equal footing [with the United States and the Soviet Union], then Germany had to be the core of the new ‘United States'”.
Nolte claimed if Germany had to continue to abide by Part V of the Treaty of Versailles
, which had disarmed Germany, then Germany would have been destroyed by aggression from her neighbors sometime later in the 1930s, and with Germany’s destruction, there would have been no hope for a “United States of Europe”.
The British historian Richard J. Evans
accused Nolte of engaging in a geopolitical fantasy.
These views ignited a firestorm of controversy. Most historians in West Germany and virtually all historians outside Germany condemned Nolte’s interpretation as factually incorrect, and as coming dangerously close to justifying the Holocaust.
Many historians, such as Steven T. Katz
, claimed that Nolte’s “Age of Genocide” concept “trivialized” the Holocaust by reducing it to one of just many 20th century genocides.
A common line of criticism was that Nazi crimes, above all the Holocaust, were singular and unique in their nature, and should not be loosely analogized to the crimes of others. 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. Many were angered by Nolte’s claim that “the so-called annihilation of the Jews under the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original”, with many wondering why Nolte spoke of the “so-called annihilation of the Jews” in describing the Holocaust. Some of the historians who denounced Nolte’s views included Hans Mommsen
, Jürgen Kocka
, Detlev Peukert
, Martin Broszat
, Hans-Ulrich Wehler
, Michael Wolffsohn
, Heinrich August Winkler
, Wolfgang Mommsen
, Karl Dietrich Bracher
and Eberhard Jäckel
. Much (though not all) of the criticism of Nolte came from historians who favored either the Sonderweg
) and/or intentionalist/functionalist
interpretations of German history.
Coming to Nolte’s defence were the journalist Joachim Fest
, the philosopher Helmut Fleischer, and the historians’ Klaus Hildebrand
, Rainer Zitelmann
, Hagen Schulze
, Thomas Nipperdey and Imanuel Geiss
. The last was unusual amongst Nolte’s defenders as Geiss was normally identified with the left, while the rest of Nolte’s supporters were seen as either on the right or holding centrist views. In response to Wehler’s book, Geiss later published a book entitled Der Hysterikerstreit. Ein unpolemischer Essay
(The Hysterical Dispute: An Unpolemical Essay
) in which he largely defended Nolte against Wehler’s criticisms. Geiss wrote Nolte’s critics had “taken in isolation” his statements and were guilty of being “hasty readers”
In particular, controversy centered on an argument of Nolte’s 1985 essay “Between Myth and Revisionism” from the book Aspects of the Third Reich
, first published in German as “Die negative Lebendigkeit des Dritten Reiches”
(“The Negative Vitality of the Third Reich”
) as an opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
on 24 July 1980, but which did not attract widespread attention until 1986 when Jürgen Habermas
criticized the essay in a feuilleton
Nolte had delivered a lecture at the Siemens-Stiftung in 1980, and excerpts from his speech were published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
without attracting controversy.
In his essay, Nolte argued that if the PLO
were to destroy Israel, then the subsequent history written in the new Palestinian state would portray the former Israeli state in the blackest of colors with no references to any of the positive features of the defunct state.
In Nolte’s opinion, a similar situation of history written only by the victors exists in regards to the history of Nazi Germany.
Many historians, such as British historian Richard J. Evans
, have asserted that, based on this statement, Nolte appears to believe that the only reason why Nazism is regarded as evil is because Germany lost World War II, with no regard for the Holocaust.
In a review which appeared in the Historische Zeitschrift
journal on 2 April 1986 Klaus Hildebrand
called Nolte’s essay “Between Myth and Revisionism” “trailblazing”.
In the same review Hildebrand argued Nolte had in a praiseworthy way sought:
The philosopher Jürgen Habermas
in an article in the Die Zeit
of 11 July 1986 strongly criticized Nolte, along with Andreas Hillgruber
and Michael Stürmer
, for engaging in what Habermas called “apologetic” history writing in regards to the Nazi era, and for seeking to “close Germany’s opening to the West” that in Habermas’s view has existed since 1945.
In particular, Habermas took Nolte to task for suggesting a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge genocide
. In Habermas’s opinion, since Cambodia was a backward, Third World agrarian state and Germany a modern, industrial state, there was no comparison between the two genocides.
In response to Habermas’s essay, Klaus Hildebrand
came to Nolte’s defence. In an essay entitled “The Age of Tyrants”, first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
on July 31, 1986, he went on to praise Nolte for daring to open up new questions for research.
Nolte, for his part, started to write a series of letters to newspapers such as Die Zeit
and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
attacking his critics; for example, in a letter to Die Zeit
on 1 August 1986, Nolte complained that his critic Jürgen Habermas
was attempting to censor him for expressing his views, and accused Habermas of being the person responsible for blocking him from attending the Römerberg Conversations.
In the same letter, Nolte described himself as the unnamed historian whose views on the reasons for the Holocaust had caused Saul Friedländer
to walk out in disgust from a dinner party hosted by Nolte in Berlin in February or March 1986 that Habermas had alluded to an earlier letter
Responding to the essay “The Age of Tyrants: History and Politics” by Klaus Hildebrand
that defended Nolte, Habermas wrote:
In an essay entitled “Encumbered Remembrance”, first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
on August 29, 1986, Fest claimed that Nolte’s argument that Nazi crimes were not singular was correct.
Fest accused Habermas of “academic dyslexia” and “character assassination” in his attacks on Nolte.
In a letter to the editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
published on September 6, 1986 Karl Dietrich Bracher
accused both Habermas and Nolte of both “…tabooing the concept of totalitarianism and inflating the formula of fascism”.
The historian Eberhard Jäckel
, in an essay first published in the Die Zeit
newspaper on September 12, 1986, argued that Nolte’s theory was ahistorical on the grounds that Hitler held the Soviet Union in contempt and could not have felt threatened as Nolte claimed.
Jäckel later described Nolte’s methods as a “game of confusion”, comprising dressing hypotheses up as questions and then attacking critics demanding evidence for his assertions as seeking to block one from asking questions.
The philosopher Helmut Fleischer, in an essay first published in the Nürnberger Zeitung
newspaper on September 20, 1986, defended Nolte against Habermas on the grounds that Nolte was only seeking to place the Holocaust into a wider political context of the time.
Fleischer accused Habermas of seeking to impose on Germans a left-wing moral understanding of the Nazi period and of creating a “moral” Sondergericht
Fleischer argued that Nolte was only seeking the “historicization” of National Socialism that Martin Broszat had called for in a 1985 essay by trying to understand what caused National Socialism, with a special focus on the fear of communism.
In an essay first published in Die Zeit
on September 26, 1986, the historian Jürgen Kocka
argued against Nolte that the Holocaust was indeed a “singular” event because it had been committed by an advanced Western nation, and argued that Nolte’s comparisons of the Holocaust with similar mass killings in Pol Pot
, Joseph Stalin
‘s Soviet Union
, and Idi Amin
were invalid because of the backward nature of those societies.
, in an essay first published in Die Zeit
on September 26, 1986, defended Nolte, together with Andreas Hillgruber
, and argued that Habermas was acting from “incorrect presuppositions” in attacking Nolte and Hillgruber for denying the “singularity” of the Holocaust.
Schulze argued that Habermas’s attack on Nolte was flawed because he failed to provide any proof that the Holocaust was unique, and argued there were many “aspects” of the Holocaust that were “common” to other historical events.
In an essay first published in the Frankfurter Rundschau
newspaper on November 14, 1986, Heinrich August Winkler
wrote of Nolte’s essay “The Past That Will Not Pass”:
The political scientist Kurt Sontheimer, in an essay first published in the Rheinischer Merkur
newspaper on November 21, 1986, accused Nolte and his supporters of attempting to create a new “national consciousness” intended to sever the Federal Republic’s “intellectual and spiritual ties with the West”.
The German political scientist Richard Löwenthal
noted that news of the Soviet kulak expulsions and the Holodomor
did not reach Germany until 1941, so that Soviet atrocities could not possibly have influenced the Germans as Nolte claimed.
In a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
on November 29, 1986, Löwenthal argued the case for a “fundamental difference” in mass murder between Germany and the Soviet Union, and against the “equalizing” of various crimes in the 20th century.
The German historian Horst Möller
, in an essay first published in late 1986 in the Beiträge zur Konfliktforschung
magazine, argued that Nolte was not attempting to “excuse” Nazi crimes by comparing them with the crimes of others, but was instead trying to explain Nazi war-crimes.
Möller argued that Nolte was only attempting to explain “irrational” events rationally, and that the Nazis really did believe that they were confronted with a world Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy out to destroy Germany.
In an essay entitled “The Nazi Reign – A Case of Normal Tyranny?”, first published in Die neue Gesellschaft
magazine in late 1986, the political scientist Walter Euchner wrote that Nolte was wrong when he wrote of Hitler’s alleged terror of the Austrian Social Democratic Party parades before 1914, arguing that Social Democratic parties in both Germany and Austria were fundamentally humane and pacifistic, instead of the terrorist-revolutionary entities Nolte alleged them to be.
Another area of controversy was Nolte’s 1987 book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg
(The European Civil War) and some accompanying statements, by which Nolte appeared to flirt with Holocaust denial
as a serious historical argument.
In a letter to Otto Dov Kulka of 8 December 1986 Nolte criticized the work of French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson
on the ground that the Holocaust did in fact occur, but he went on to argue that Faurisson’s work had admirable motives in the form of sympathy for Palestinians
and opposition to Israel.
In Der europäische Bürgerkrieg
, Nolte claimed that the intentions of Holocaust deniers are “often honorable”, and that some of their claims are “not evidently without foundation”. Kershaw has argued that Nolte was operating on the borderlines of Holocaust denial with his implied claim that the “negative myth” of the Third Reich was created by Jewish historians, his allegations of the domination of Holocaust scholarship by Jewish historians, and his statements that one should withhold judgment on Holocaust deniers, who Nolte insists are not exclusively Germans or fascists. In Kershaw’s opinion, Nolte is attempting to imply that Holocaust deniers are perhaps on to something.
In Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, Nolte put forward five different arguments as a way of criticizing the uniqueness of the Shoah thesis. These were as follows:
- There were other equally horrible acts of violence in the 20th century. Some of the examples Nolte cited were the Armenian genocide; Soviet deportations of the so-called “traitor nations,” such as the Crimean Tatars and the Volga Germans; British “area bombing” in World War II; and American violence in the Vietnam War.
- Nazi genocide was only a copy of Soviet genocide, and thus can in no way be considered unique.
- Nolte argued that the vast majority of Germans had no knowledge of the ‘Holocaust while it was happening Nolte claimed that the genocide of the Jews was Hitler’s personal pet project, and that the Holocaust was the work of only a few Germans who were entirely unrepresentative of German society Contradicting the American historian Raul Hilberg, who claimed that hundreds of thousands of Germans were complicit in the Holocaust, from high-ranking bureaucrats to railway clerks and locomotive conductors, Nolte argued that the functional division of labour in modern society meant that most people in Germany had no idea of how they were assisting in genocide. In support of this, Nolte cited the voluminous memoirs of German generals and Nazi leaders, such as Albert Speer, who claimed to have no idea that their country was engaging in genocide during World War II.
- Nolte maintained that to a certain degree Nazi anti-Semitic policies were justifiable responses to Jewish actions against Germany, such as Weizmann’s alleged 1939 “declaration of war” on Germany.
- Finally, Nolte hinted at the possibility that the Holocaust had never happened at all. Nolte claimed that the Wannsee Conference never took place, and argued that most Holocaust scholarship is flawed because most Holocaust historians are Jewish, and thus “biased” against Germany and in favour of the idea that there was a Holocaust.
The British historian Richard J. Evans
criticized Nolte, accusing him of taking too seriously the work of Holocaust deniers, whom Evans called cranks, not historians.
Likewise, Evans charged that Nolte was guilty of making assertions unsupported by the evidence, such as claiming that SS massacres of Russian Jews were a form of counterinsurgency, or taking at face value the self-justifying claims of German generals who professed to be ignorant of the Shoah
Perhaps the most extreme response to Nolte’s thesis occurred on 9 February 1988, when his car was burned by leftist extremists in Berlin
Nolte called the case of arson “terrorism”, and maintained that the attack was inspired by his opponents in the Historikerstreit
The American historian Charles Maier rejected Nolte’s claims regarding the moral equivalence of the Holocaust and Soviet terror on the grounds that while the latter was extremely brutal, it did not seek the physical annihilation of an entire people as state policy.
The American historian Donald McKale blasted both Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber
for their statements that the Allied strategic bombing offensives were just as much acts of genocide as the Holocaust, writing that that was just the sort of nonsense one would expect from Nazi apologists like Nolte and Hillgruber.
In a 1987 essay, the Austrian-born Israeli historian Walter Grab accused Nolte of engaging in an “apologia” for Nazi Germany.
Grab called Nolte’s claim that Weizmann
‘s letter to Chamberlain was a “Jewish declaration of war” that justified the Germans “interning” European Jews a “monstrous thesis” that was not supported by the facts.
Grab accused Nolte of ignoring the economic impoverishment and total lack of civil rights that the Jewish community in Germany lived under in 1939.
Grab wrote that Nolte “mocks” the Jewish victims of National Socialism with his “absolutely infamous” statement that it was Weizmann with his letter that caused all of the Jewish death and suffering during the Holocaust.
Citing Mein Kampf
, Evans argued that Hitler was an anti-Semite long before 1914 and that it was the moderate Left SPD
, not the Bolsheviks, whom Hitler regarded as his main enemies
Nolte’s opponents have expressed intense disagreement with his evidence for a Jewish “war” on Germany
. They argue that Weizmann’s letter to Chamberlain was written in his capacity as head of the World Zionist Organization, not on behalf of the entire Jewish people of the world,
and that Nolte’s views are based on the spurious idea that all Jews comprised a distinct “nationality” who took their marching orders from Jewish organizations.
Because of the views that he expressed during the Historikerstreit
, Nolte has often been accused of being a Nazi apologist and an anti-Semite. Nolte has always vehemently denied these charges, and has insisted that he is a neo-liberal
in his politics. Nolte is by his own admission an intense German nationalist
and his stated goal is to restore the Germans’ sense of pride in their history that he feels has been missing since 1945. In a September 1987 interview, Nolte stated that the Germans were “once the master race (Herrenvolk
), now they are the “guilty race” (Sündervolk
). The one is merely an inversion of the other”.
Nolte’s defenders have pointed to numerous statements on his part condemning Nazi Germany
and the Holocaust
. Nolte’s critics have acknowledged these statements, but claim that Nolte’s arguments can be construed as being sympathetic to the Nazis, such as his defence of the Commissar Order
as a legitimate military order, his argument that the Einsatzgruppen
massacres of Soviet Jews were a reasonable “preventative security” response to partisan
attacks, his statements citing Viktor Suvorov
that Operation Barbarossa
was a “preventive war” forced on Hitler allegedly by an impending Soviet attack, his claim that too much scholarship on the Holocaust has been the work of “biased” Jewish historians, or his use of Nazi-era language such as his practice of referring to Red Army
soldiers in World War II
as “Asiatic hordes”.
Rudolf originally maintained conventional attitudes towards gas chambers at Auschwitz, but then began to challenge accepted history.
In 1991, he began work on a paper entitled Report on the formation and verifiability of cyanide compounds in the Auschwitz “gas chambers“
on behalf of the Düsseldorf
attorney Hajo Herrmann
, a former Luftwaffe
pilot. In 1993, this work was reported in the media, and Rudolf was told not to enter the Max Planck Institute again without permission. When he did so, his employment was terminated without notice. In 1994, this dismissal was converted into a termination by mutual agreement. In 1996, the University of Stuttgart
asked Rudolf to withdraw his application for a final PhD examination, or it would be denied, rendering his PhD thesis worthless. The legal basis for this is a German law which allows universities to deny or withdraw academic degrees where the candidate has used his academic credentials or knowledge to commit a crime. Rudolf subsequently withdrew his application.
Between 1991 and 1994, Herrmann and other lawyers used Rudolf’s Auschwitz report to defend several clients, among them Otto Ernst Remer
, a former Wehrmacht
officer charged with Volksverhetzung
(inciting hatred). Rudolf knew his work would be associated with a Holocaust denier
, but insisted that even Remer had a right to legal defense. Rudolf stated that his findings at Auschwitz and Birkenau “completely shattered his world view”. Among other things, Rudolf’s report claims that only insignificant traces of cyanide compounds can be found in the samples taken from Auschwitz. However, Richard Green
and Jamie McCarthy from The Holocaust History Project
have criticized the report, saying that like Fred Leuchter
in the Leuchter report
, Rudolf did not discriminate against the formation of iron-based cyanide compounds, which are not a reliable indicator of the presence of cyanide, so that his experiment was seriously flawed.