Right-wing German historian Ernst Nolte died on 18 August at the age of 93.
Nolte was born to a Catholic family in Witten, in western Germany, in 1923. He studied with phenomenologist philosopher and Nazi sympathiser Martin Heidegger, who would be a major influence. Nolte first came to prominence with his 1963 study Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (Fascism in Its Epoch, which was translated into English two years later as The Three Faces of Fascism).
This work downgraded social or class-based explanations of fascism, in favour of an idealist and philosophical approach, in which ideas in the “metapolitical dimension” determined world events. Taking the form of a comparative analysis of the ideologies of Hitler, Mussolini and the French proto-fascist, Charles Maurras, the book argued that though fascism functioned on the political level as “anti-Marxism” and sociologically in opposition to bourgeois values, it was first and foremost a reaction against “transcendence”, or the spirit of modernity, on the “metapolitical” level. It would be events in the 1980s, however, which made Nolte notorious.
In June 1986, Nolte wrote in an opinion piece in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung under the title of ‘Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will’ (‘The past that will not pass away’). In this essay, Nolte argued that it was necessary to draw a “line under the German past”. Nolte went further and rejected the singularity of the Holocaust and asserted that Nazism was in fact caused by the Russian Revolution, as a desperate response to the “Bolshevik peril”.
“The so-called annihilation of the Jews under the Third Reich,” he wrote, “was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.” These views would spark the Historikerstreit, or “historians’ dispute” in the late 1980s. An increasingly right-wing German nationalist Nolte came under fire from liberal and left critics such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jurgen Habermas.
Nolte’s views were expanded in his 1987 book The European Civil War 1917-1945: National Socialism and Bolshevism. As one prominent British critic of Nolte, Richard J Evans, wrote: “In The European Civil War, Nolte began to flirt with Holocaust denial, suggesting that it should be taken as a serious academic contribution and adopting some of the deniers’ arguments, though often in the form of innuendo. He hinted that many Jews were responsible for their own misfortunes by lending their support to communism, even though most Jews were politically liberal or conservative. He queried whether the Wannsee Conference of 1942, which organised the implementation of the Holocaust, had actually taken place.”
Nolte’s right-wing German conservatism was combined with an extreme anti-Zionism. Not content with legitimating Holocaust deniers in his works, Nolte indulged in the classic anti-semitic tropes of the “revisionists” of both the far-right and the “left”; for example, equating Nazism with Zionism: “Zionists basically wanted something similar to the national socialists, namely to conquer and colonise a vital space.”
In a 1980 lecture he speculated that Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was a logical response to the 1939 declaration by Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that Jews should support the British war effort. Weizmann’s letter “could lay the foundation,” he argued, in the cowardly and non-committal tone he used for contentious statements, “for the thesis that Hitler would have been justified in treating the German Jews as prisoners of war (or, more precisely, as civilian internees), thus interning them.”
Despite his temporary isolation in the wake of the Historikerstreit, Nolte was awarded the Konrad Adenauer prize by the Deutschland Foundation, a conservative think-tank close to the right-wing of the Christian Democratic party.
As Charles S Maier, a Harvard historian, said at the time in an interview in The New York Times:
“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…
“It’s exculpatory in the German context. It’s also really scandalous.”