H-Soz-u-Kult Review-Symposium:

Versäumte Fragen. Deutsche Historiker im Schatten des Nationalsozialismus

Much ado about something completely different?

von Mary Fulbrook, University College London - Email: <m.fulbrook@ucl.ac.uk>

This is a fascinating book, not so much because of the ostensible subject matter - the dubious engagements in the Third Reich of a handful of previously revered historians, and the alleged 'failure' of their former pupils, now the grand old men of the West German historical profession, to query this engagement - but rather because of the wider questions which it raises, if only tangentially.

The immediate Anlass for this book was the moralising indictment of the founder generation of post-war West German historiography for not having engaged in critical attacks on their mentors and Doktorväter. The accusations at the 1998 Frankfurter Historikertag were intended not only to draw attention to previously forgotten nationalist and in part racist writings of prominent historians whose post-war record had been relatively unsullied, but also - more importantly - to stir up widespread indignation at complicity in suppressing the murky pasts of some of those who made it over the big divide of 1945, and to sling a little mud in particular at prominent exponents of the Bielefeld school of Gesellschaftsgeschichte, who had occupied much of the moral high ground in previous controversies over relativisation of the Nazi period, most notably the Historikerstreit of 1986-7. A belated and displaced 'attack on the fathers' was thus to take place at one or two generational removes.

How important were these revelations and accusations? This particular observer has to admit that she was not terribly surprised to hear that yet another couple of conformist historians in the Third Reich had written things that did not look so good in democratic retrospect, but were not exactly, unless one stretches the term beyond useful distinction, really key proof of an active role as 'Vordenker der Vernichtung'. Nor was she terribly surprised to hear that such writings were scarcely trumpeted abroad or actively engaged with by their pupils and protégés in the post-war period. The sound and fury at the Frankfurter Historikertag looked, from the safe distance of London, a little like much ado about not very much: another episode, as another few pieces of an unsavoury past are identified, dusted down, examined and stored in an ever more differentiated and nuanced mosaic. Yet more professionals in the Third Reich are revealed to have had attitudes in large measure in line with at least some of the aims of the regime; so?

But this book is not really about these issues. It has more to do with the attitudes and experiences of the post-war historians who were collectively challenged by the revelations. And it is of value for two reasons: first, the collective portrait it offers of (at least select quarters of) the West German historical profession since 1945; and secondly, the fundamental questions it raises (but does not answer) about the relations between history and politics, both in post-Nazi Germany in particular, and in history as a discipline more generally.

First, a very distinct (if pointillist) picture emerges of the West German historical profession after 1945. The interviews which collectively comprise this picture are of course subject to all the usual methodological caveats about the selection of interviewees (largely the well-known names of contemporary history, and with only two exceptions male) and about how these highly sophisticated interviewees wanted or chose to represent their own biographical details; and there are predictable variations in attitude and experience across individuals. Much of the interest in reading this series of interviews comes from often surprising insights into previously relatively unfamiliar facets of the lives, experiences and opinions of well-known names. But - quite apart from the often desperately disruptive impact of war on private life as young people - some remarkable generalisations emerge.

Most importantly, perhaps: the structure of the profession has much to answer for in terms of both the general culture, and the substantive development, of the discipline of history in post-war West Germany. Once within the professional structure, common pressures and options emerge, provoking common types of attitude and response. Many interviewees appear initially to have wandered almost aimlessly into the study of history, via passing flirtations with other subjects - Germanistik, art history, even natural sciences - and often were only finally tempted into the service of Clio by what they experienced as inspirational teaching by one of the (now partially tainted) masters. Long periods of apprenticeship and financial dependence, entailing multiple tiny services to their masters (from writing Referate to cycling quantities of books across town for the master's perusal), usually evoked a high degree of personal loyalty, even if in some cases accompanied by vast and unbridgeable gulfs of disparate status and prestige. The German use of the word Zunft, with its connotations of the medieval guild, is all too appropriate to this hierarchical professional structure.

Such a structure of lengthy apprenticeship and dependence inevitably brought with it a culture of relative subservience or quiescence, in some cases reinforcing or imposing conservative-nationalist attitudes. We repeatedly hear anecdotes about the attempted, though not always successful, suppression of certain topics, arguments, or material, or attempted dissuasion from pursuing particular avenues of inquiry. Where uncomfortable topics or theses were 'permitted', this is taken as evidence of some supposedly laudable 'liberalism' on the part of otherwise rather conservative masters. There is also evidence of a surprising degree of self-censorship - even including the anecdote about Fritz Fischer's anodyne lecture in the USA, when he more or less suppressed his own radical thesis about Germany's role in unleashing the First World War, apparently not wishing to make critical remarks about his country while abroad.

These specific incidents raise wider questions about the relations between politics and history such as: the degree to which the sharp division between historical pursuit of the truth and political considerations can be sustained as firmly as some of the interviewees (and many others) suggest; the public role and responsibilities (or otherwise) of historians; and the very odd way in which methodological or theoretical approaches - in general, but particularly sharply in West Germany - seem to be closely attached to or strongly associated with specific positions on the political spectrum.

Several of the historians indicate that there should be a clear distinction between the 'disinterested pursuit of truth' on the one hand, and what the historian thinks of the upshot of research on the other. Several make a clear distinction between the role of historian as academic and as citizen (though some, such as Grebing, suggest that the contemporary relevance or importance of particular topics for historical research should be at least as much of an issue in a democracy as in a dictatorship - particularly where, as in post-Nazi Germany, there is an urgent need to build up a viable democratic system). But there are also innumerable indications of the complexity of the issues involved here, and of the ways in which a separation in principle between what one might call the pursuit of 'historical truth', on the one hand, and the context of research or broader political considerations on the other, did not and does not always take place in the way that, on this view, it should have done.

This is quite clearly the case in the Third Reich, where the pursuit of Ostforschung was in line with the general population policies of the regime, even if the underlying ethnic-culturalist assumptions were not as racist, nor even very relevant to policy any more once the brutal tactics of forcible removal and annihilation displaced notions of historically legitimated cultural hegemony. Research institutes were dependent on currying favour with those in power, sustaining status and income, and compliance was the norm rather than the exception.

It is often simply assumed that the 'contamination' of research by politics continued in the GDR, under the quite different political colours of Marxism-Leninism, but came to an end in the Federal Republic of Germany. The 'shock' of the revelations about the alleged 'brown roots' of West German social history, usually characterised as left-liberal in political connotations, was precisely in the challenge mounted to this picture of untainted historical research. Yet, as many of these interviews make clear, at least some forms of, if not exactly political contamination, then at least strong patterns of structural and cultural constraints and opportunities, were still immensely powerful: in the types of personal dependence and self-censorship mentioned above; in the powers of patronage and particularly of access to publication (or suppression from publication) in major historical journals or monographs; and in the placing of protégés in professional positions. And it is not only politics that is at issue here: as the interviews of the only two women included, Helga Grebing and Adelheid von Saldern, make clear, gender assumptions were arguably even more important as an exclusionary factor. For a 'generation without fathers' it is notable that there is a concomitant odd absence of much mention of family or children - with the exception of Adelheid von Saldern, the births of whose two children are curiously set in a disturbingly distanced and passive tense, in the context of obstacles to an orthodox career (finally having the chance of a job in Hanover 'ungeachtet der Tatsache, daß 1973 ein zweites Kind zur Welt kam'). We may be more in favour of the democratic politics of the Federal Republic than the racism of the Nazi dictatorship, but it would be absurd to pretend that we are not dealing here, again, with a historical profession that was and is a part of the society which sustains it, characterised by particular structures of inclusion and exclusion, promotion and marginalisation.

What then of the major accusation, that of the allegedly 'brown roots' of societal history? This is decidedly rejected by many of the prominent exponents of the latter, and quite rightly so. One has to ask more closely about what is meant by 'roots', or what precisely the connections are alleged to consist in. There are three possibilities, none of which actually stands up to closer scrutiny. First: there is the obvious question of the personal influence of the masters on the pupils. But, as many of these contributions make absolutely clear, there was a degree of freedom to think in terms which diverged, often radically, from the views of the master. Moreover, many of those interviewed place a lot of emphasis in their biographical accounts on the far-reaching impact of extended stays abroad during their intellectually formative years (for example: Wehler and Kocka in the USA, Schieder in Italy, others in Britain or France). There was no automatic inter-personal transmission of theoretical or methodological approach.
Secondly: a deracinated intellectual history does not stand up to closer scrutiny either. In my view (and despite Winfried's Schulze's excellent book on this topic), Gesellschaftsgeschichte owes a great deal more to pre-1933 traditions (particularly the work of Max Weber) than to Volksgeschichte. Clearly Volksgeschichte, with its focus on a composite social category (the Volk, or ethnic-cultural groups), registered a shift from 'traditional' political or diplomatic history couched in terms of narratives of individual motivations and actions in high places. But the ethnic categories and underlying nationalist-racist assumptions of now tainted historians in the Third Reich were not simply reproduced in the theoretical categories and frameworks of inquiry of the societal history which came to prominence in West Germany a quarter of a century later. Finally, the implicit accusation of Nazi political associations is quite absurd: it would on the face of it seem that in these particular cases (though not necessarily always and everywhere) 'failure to ask questions' cannot be interpreted as amounting to acquiescence in or approval of attitudes about which no questions were asked. However, these revelations and accusations do raise a couple of more interesting general points to do with the relations between politics and history.

Most generally: why is it that 'schools' or 'theoretical approaches' or 'paradigms' tend to be associated with particular positions on the political spectrum? The 'shock/horror' quality of the Historikertag revelations would have been a great deal lower (if palpable at all on any scale of news-worthiness) if it had been revealed, instead, that certain traditional diplomatic historians had been taught by professors with compromised pasts. It is purely because societal history on Bielefeld lines has been denoted as 'left-liberal' that the news factor was so great, the apparent irony so striking. But it is hard to see why, in principle, this should be the case; indeed, is there any good reason why a died-in-the-wool conservative should not be able to accept a historical analysis couched in terms of socioeconomic structure and class interests? If there is a good reason in principle, what does this do for any notion of history as the pursuit of generally valid accounts about the past, beyond what is appealing to particular political subcultures? Any notion of the possibility of the academic 'pursuit of historical truth', as distinct from roles and responsibilities as a citizen, is seriously put in jeopardy. Without going into further detail here, this poses a rather serious problem for any Weberian notion of 'value neutrality' within the limits of the questions and concepts of a particular age. And more specifically; why is it that German historians, in particular, are so readily involved in vitriolic controversies, with - from an outsider's point of view at least - desperately little clarity about any shared criteria for drawing dividing lines between personal, political and professional attitudes and activities?

Personal polemics can be invigorating, but also destructive; and attempts to compensate for perceived sins of omission on the part of the fathers by melodramatic accusations of pusillanimity on the part of the sons are misplaced. What really is at issue here is not so much the views of individual members of the profession, past and present; but rather the fundamental theoretical premises of that profession, in which it seems to be almost axiomatic that particular theoretical approaches or paradigms of inquiry are intimately linked to particular political views; and the particular professional culture and institutional structures which sustain, accept, indeed take for granted as a fact of life which needs little or no further examination, such close connotations.

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