The great Ernst Nolte is dead at age 93

Published by carolyn on Mon, 2016-08-22 00:52

Ernst Nolte in 2002.  Daniel Janin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


ERNST NOLTE, A GERMAN REVISIONIST HISTORIAN WHO BROKE ACADEMIC TABOOS by equating Nazism with Bolshevism and who was denounced as an apologist for Hitler and even the Holocaust, died on Thursday [Aug. 18] in Berlin. He was 93.

His family told the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that he had died in a hospital.

Professor Nolte, a respected scholar of fascism, provoked an ideological uproar in 1986 by suggesting in an essay that Nazisim had been a logical response in Germany to an “existential threat” posed by the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He also argued that Hitler’s extermination of Jews and other minorities was comparable to the mass murders engineered by Stalin in the Soviet Union, where victims were singled out by economic and social class as enemies of the Communist state.

“Did the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ not exist before Auschwitz?” Professor Nolte wrote in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Was Bolshevik ‘class murder’ not the logical and factual predecessor to the Nazi ‘racial murder’?” he continued. “Did Auschwitz not, perhaps, originate in a past that would not pass away?”

An intellectual firestorm ensued — his car, parked at the Free University in Berlin, where he taught, was set ablaze — but Professor Nolte was nevertheless awarded the Konrad Adenauer Prize for literature in 2000 by the Munich-based Deutschland Foundation, a conservative organization close to the Christian Democratic Party’s right wing.

The prize was awarded for works of literature that the group said “contribute to a better future.” Its winners include former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

“The award of the prize to Nolte was a clear political statement intended to promote the view that there is no particular stigma to Nazism in the light of what some Germans now call the Red Holocaust in the Soviet Union,” Charles S. Maier, a Harvard historian, said at the time in an interview in The New York Times. “It’s exculpatory in the German context. It’s also really scandalous.”

Angela Merkel, then the leader of the Christian Democrats and now the German chancellor, declined to speak at the ceremony.

Professor Nolte’s reasoning in the 1986 essay, “The Past That Won’t Go Away,” was embraced by Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. He maintained that by interning Jews, Hitler was responding to what he viewed as a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy and to a 1939 Zionist “declaration of war” urging all Jews to support Britain.

Professor Nolte had condemned Nazism and acknowledged that there had been “widespread liquidation” during the Holocaust, although he also referred to the “so-called” annihilation of the Jews and the bias of Jewish historians. In the essay, though, he argued that only “the technical process of gassing” was unique to the Nazis, that most Germans had been noncomplicit and that the moral line between the “social extermination” of the Soviet gulags and the “biological extermination” at Auschwitz was blurry.

The so-called “historians’ dispute” was waged in the context of a Germany still divided between the democratic West and the Communist East. Klaus Hildebrand, Hagen Schulze and a number of other historians rallied to Professor Nolte’s defense. Those of a larger contingent, including Ian Kershaw, the British biographer of Hitler; Andreas Hillgruber; and Michael Stürmer were appalled.

In an essay in Die Zeit, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas accused Professor Nolte of “grossly apologetic tendencies” and rejected the moral equivalence he drew between the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia decades later. Cambodia, in contrast to Germany, Mr. Habermas said, was a backward, Third World agrarian country.

In a 1974 book, “Germany and the Cold War,” Professor Nolte had also invoked the Holocaust when he wrote that the United States was being criticized for, “after all, putting into practice in Vietnam nothing less than its basically crueler version of Auschwitz.”

Horst Möller, another historian, said that rather than excusing Nazi atrocities, Professor Nolte was attempting to impose a rational explanation on “irrational” events.

Ernst Nolte was born on Jan. 11, 1923, in Witten in what is now the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to Heinrich Nolte, a primary school headmaster, and the former Anna Bruns, who raised him as a Roman Catholic. As he told the story, he became an anti-Communist when, while waiting in a doctor’s office at the age of 7, he read a German translation of a Soviet children’s book criticizing the church.

Excused from military service in 1941 because of a deformed hand, he studied philosophy, philology and Greek at the Universities of Münster, Berlin and Freiburg. In Freiburg, he was a student of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was an ardent Nazi in the early 1930s. Professor Nolte’s doctoral thesis was on Karl Marx.

He taught at the University of Marburg from 1965 to 1973 and at the Free University until he retired in 1991.

He married the former Theodore-Anneliese Mortier. Survivors include their son, Georg, a legal scholar, and their daughter, Dorothee-Elisabeth Nolte, a journalist.

In his book “Three Faces of Fascism,” published in English in 1965, Professor Nolte defined fascism as a backlash to modernity. After his 1986 essay was published, he told The Journal of Historical Review, widely considered an organ for Holocaust deniers, that to name Stalin and Hitler “in the same sentence was to break a taboo of the time.” He characterized it as “more a matter of courage, let us say, than of insight.”

In his 1991 book “Historical Thinking in the 20th Century,” he described Israel as one of three “extraordinary states” produced during the 20th century, along with Germany and the Soviet Union, but warned that it could become fascist and commit genocide against Palestinians. In 2006, he called Islamic fundamentalism a “third variant,” after communism and National Socialism, of “the resistance to transcendence” that characterizes fascism.

To the end, Professor Nolte was unrepentant, defining himself more as a philosopher than historian. Rather than “retire sulking and trust that in a few decades the simple truth is to have prevailed,” he exhorted visitors to read his works for themselves.


Ernst Nolte


Very sad. This was our ONE historian, who could be expected to keep a sense of decency. Target of the Frankfurt-School-Offspring Jürgen Habermas in that phony "Historikerstreit2