“The Past That Won’t Pass Away”; Ernst Nolte (1923–2016)

Tom Sunic, Ph.D.


On the occasion of the death of the renowned German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte on August 18, 2016, there has been quite a few of both laudatory and critical comments about his work in the mainstream media in Germany and France. Nolte’s work on the link between Communism and National-Socialism stirred a great deal of intellectual commotion in academic circles in the United States and Europe in the late 1980s. Although in his works Nolte prudently avoids discussing the body counts of Jewish victims of National-Socialism, his novel approach to the study of contemporary history earned him praise from nationalist-oriented scholars — as well as a great deal of criticism from liberal and Marxist scholars. What follows below is the reprint of my review of his famous book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg, 1917–1945; Nationalsozialismus und Bolschewismus” (The European Civil War, 1917–1945; National Socialism and Bolshevism), published in 1989 in The World and I.

Nolte

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In German national consciousness, the years since the Second World War have been marked by a painful process of suppressing the National-Socialist past, as well as by a prodigious effort to readjust Germany to the model of exemplary liberal democracy. In the words of one German historian, Germany has functioned over the last forty years as a “negatively privileged nation.” One the one hand, it could boast unparalleled economic performance; on the other, its margin of maneuvering in the realm of foreign politics has been virtually nil. With the Soviet threat receding, and with Germany becoming the main economic actor in European Community, a number of German public figures have suggested that Germany should seek an equally important role in the political arena. Moreover, some European scholars and historians have contended that recent German history deserved to be studied in a wider historical context, one that would include the critical assessment of the role of the Allies during the Second World War.

One of the central intellectual figures behind this effort to reconstruct German history has been Professor Ernst Nolte, whose name has been over the last several years in the center of what is known in Europe as the “historians’ debate.” Undoubtedly, many conservatives see in Nolte a brilliant theorist who is little by little succeeding in ridding Germans of their collective war guilt and in restoring German national consciousness to its pre-National Socialist level. By contrast, many leftist and liberal scholars — notably the Marxist scholar Jürgen Habermas and the editor in chief of Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein —have accused Nolte and other revisionist historians of attempting to relativize and historicize National-Socialist crimes.

By using the methods of dialectical comparison and contrast, Nolte describes the clash between Fascist and the Bolshevik ideologies and their chief protagonists, National-Socialist Germany and Bolshevik Soviet Union. His book is undoubtedly a fine primer for all those eager to learn about the main movers and shakers in the Bolshevik and National-Socialist movements, although from the thematic angle, its weakness consists of trying to sift through too much data. For that, of course, even a book of 599 pages does not suffice. Although Nolte’s title suggests the description of the civil war in the whole of Europe, it is obvious that his main focus is the German and Soviet ideological and military conflict.

In chronological order, Nolte reviews the political events in Germany and the Soviet Union, covering the period that stretched from the rise of the Bolshevik Soviet Union and the proclamation of Weimer Germany through the consolidation of Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. The book culminates with a description of the major war operations between Germany and the Soviet Union, the defeat of Germany, and the subsequent division of Europe into two opposing ideological and geopolitical blocs.

What is so controversial in Nolte’s analysis that some scholars find appealing and others offensive? Nolte’s main argument (which was already spelled out in his previous essays and polemics) is that the Fascist ascendancy to power, the National-Socialist terror, and finally the death camps must be viewed as a panic-stricken reaction of Europeans from all social strata to the preceding mass terror conducted by the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. In view of the Bolshevik terror in the Soviet Union, Hitler tried to respond in accordance with Lenin’s own principles, that is, to liquidate once and for all his opponents before they destroyed European civilization and installed the reign of “Tatar Communism.” In this sense Hitler strictly followed the principles set forth by the Bolsheviks, who had earlier declared that they would “wipe out the entire European civil society.” The assassination of 300,000 Russian aristocrats, the decapitation of the Russian intelligentsia, and the mass exodus of ethnic Germans from the Baltic nations and the Ukraine — of whom some, like Alfred Rosenberg and Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter — had quickly joined the fledgling National Socialist Party, convinced Hitler that failure to strike in a decisive and violent fashion against the rising tide of Bolshevism would sooner or later spell the end of Europe. Nolte speculates that under similar circumstances America too would have turned vicious — that, given the often primitive, populist nature of American anti-Communism, American politicians would have probably reacted the way the Germans reacted after 1933.

In Europe, during the rise of Bolshevism, the often-heard argument among anticommunists was that the illegitimate assassination of Louis XVI, and later of Russian czar Nicholas II, deserved to be countered with equally repressive measures. Many European anticommunists argued that, in contrast to Louis XVI, who was at least brought to a sham trial by the Jacobins, Nicholas II was denied even the travesty of a kangaroo court by the Bolsheviks. Instead, he, his wife, and even his pets were summarily shot. Moreover, inquires Nolte, what was the expected reaction of an average German to the words of the prominent German pacifist Kurt Tucholsky, who in 1927 wrote in the leftist journal Die Weltbühne: “Let gas enter into the bedrooms of your children. … I wish a general editor, a mother of a sculptor, a sister of a banker, a bitter and painful death.” It took little time to realize that such a cosmic hatred between the proponents of two opposing worldviews (communist vs. anti-communist) had to descend, sooner or later, onto a physical battlefield.

In his description of the war operations and the Final Solution, Nolte examines the uniqueness of National Socialism. As a movement, it combined a general struggle against Communism with Hitler’s private pathological fantasies; there was never any logical connection between the two. He notes that many German Jews, at least in the first years of the National-Socialist rule, were not alarmed by Hitler’s anticommunism. In fact, argues Nolte, had Hitler only been a Fascist and not a National Socialist, he could probably have counted on the ideological neutrality of German Jews, and even on some support (Mussolini enjoyed such support in the first years of his reign). But for Hitler, Communism was the most destructive offshoot of the global Jewish conspiracy that stretched from “Moses to Bolsheviks” and now aimed at destroying European peoples by means of “Versailles, Weimar, and Wall Street.” For Hitler, consequently, the only remedy with which to counter the “Judeo-Bolshevik” threat was the “preventive” destruction of the Jews.

Nolte remarks that as much as one could understand Hitler’s apprehension following the preceding Bolshevik uprising in Bavaria (in which some Jews (Eugen Levine, Iwan Katz, Pavel Axelrod) did play a prominent role), the allegation that Jews were the main factor behind all European and German radicalism was wildly exaggerated. In the German radical organization Spartakusbund, as well as among many Soviet revolutionaries, a considerable number of Jews were opposed to the Bolshevik terror and early on began staging assassination attempts against Bolshevik dignitaries (Dora Kaplan tried to assassinate Lenin, and Leonid Kannengiesser assassinated High Commissar Moisie Uritski).

In fact, writes Nolte, there is ample evidence indicating that the majority of Jews in the Soviet Union sympathized with the Mensheviks and not with the Bolsheviks. Finally, the expression Tatar communism, used frequently by Hitler in his diatribes, is known to have originated with the Marxist Karl Kautsky, who very early distanced himself from Lenin’s rule of terror. Hitler’s obsession with the Jews again came to the fore when one month after the invasion of the Soviet Union, he told the Croatian general Slavko Kvaternik, “If any state, for whatever reason, tolerates a single Jewish family, this family will become a new herd of microbes causing destruction.” Was Hitler aware that his interlocutor Kvaternik had a Jewish wife? In any case, it takes little effort to figure out what happens to those who are declared microbes.

It is a pity that Nolte has not accorded more space to an explanation of the spirit of the epoch that brought the Bolsheviks and, later, Hitler to power. As much as Nolte convincingly argues about the causal nexus between National-Socialism and Bolshevism, it is worth mentioning that National-Socialism, to some extent, was in a “casual nexus” with the theses developed earlier by Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich von Treitschke, Paul Lagarde, and other nineteenth-century thinkers, both right and left.

Undoubtedly, Nolte is correct reminding us that anti-Semitism was not a National-Socialist monopoly. Many prominent European leftists and “National-Bolsheviks” — for example, Otto Strasser in Weimar Germany — made hostile statements against “Jewish bankers and finance capital.” And even Thomas Mann and Winston Churchill once termed the short-lived Soviet Republic in Munich a “Jewish conspiracy” led by the “Jewish gang from the underworld.” Only by reviewing all opposing sides and by examining the feelings of all political contestants can one understand the mood of that painful “past that won’t go away.”

In the concluding chapters, Nolte briefly examines why the crimes of National- Socialism are today more often debated and analyzed than the crimes committed by the Bolsheviks. First of all, the Bolsheviks, along with the Allies, emerged victorious from the Second World War. To summon, therefore, Soviet leaders to a historical accounting in a precarious bipolar world appears rather difficult, not to mention politically dangerous (both sides have nuclear megatons in their arsenals, which de facto entitles each to its own version of history). Contrary to some previous allegations of his critics, however, Nolte admits that the Gulag cannot be equated with the Holocaust. The Holocaust, for Nolte, was the ultimate expression of National-Socialist nihilism, which from a strategic and military point of view did not further any German national goals. In contrast to the communist class terror, the biologically determined National-Socialist terror did not offer even a hope of survival to a declared anticommunist Jew.

Although Nolte’s book has been attacked as an example of historical relativism, it is also meant to be a stern warning against modern historiographers. Had Hitler won the war, Nolte observes, critical studies of his era would have become as unpopular as exposés of the Soviet Union are to the American history professors of today. Manipulating recent history for political purposes while removing it from a wider contextual meaning does a disservice to scholarship. Had the Germans won the war, “many of the late-born antifascists of today would have certainly become praised supporters of the new regime.” Are not these words the indictment against modern mandarins who never tire of dancing to a different ideological tune when new titans enter history?

Dr. Tom Sunic is author of several books and a Board member of the American Freedom Party.

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