Germany’s best-known antisemitic and anti-Zionist historian Ernst Nolte is dead

Germany’s best-known revisionist, antisemitic and anti-Zionist historian, Ernst Nolte, is dead. Many German authors honor the historian. Any substantial – if any – analysis of antisemitism is rejected. I will show why it is important to remember what Ernst Nolte stood for.

Journalist Bernhard Schulz honors Nolte in the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel. Not a word about antisemitism. Then, the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and its author, historian Christoph Jahr, mentions in passing Nolte’s rejection of the Holocaust as the core element of National Socialism and as a phenomenon sui generis. Still, Jahr honors the German historian without dealing in detail with Nolte’s antisemitism, and he omits his anti-Zionism entirely. For historian Jahr, who mentions antisemitism as part of his research in his CV, Nolte was a respectable historian and not a leading antisemitic agitator ever since the 1970s.

Even worse, The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the leading conservative daily and its editor Lorenz Jäger, honor Nolte as a historian and student of philosopher Martin Heidegger. Not a single word why Nolte became notorious and why this man was an antisemite. Instead, Jäger also emphasizes that the communist threat preceded the National Socialist or Nazi threat. This emphasis is crucial. I will explain why.

Not one German newspaper understands the importance of Ernst Nolte and his role in mainstreaming antisemitism via rejecting the uniqueness of the Shoah, the unprecedented character of both Auschwitz and Babi Yar, and his anti-Zionist approach.

In June 1986, German historian Ernst Nolte (1923–2016) started de facto the Historikerstreit (“dispute of historians”) by publishing an article in the leading conservative daily of the FRG, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.[i] Nolte has to be seen as just one, though a leading voice in the nationalist wing in the Federal Republic under Helmut Kohl, who became chancellor in 1982. National identity became a core element in the latter’s policies.

The national(ist) wave had already begun in the 1970s with the infamous wave of Hitler films, and with the emergence of the New Right and its German agitator Henning Eichberg and authors such as Martin Walser in 1979 who argued to “overcome Auschwitz” in order to restart “national politics” in Germany (which was “divided” at the time).

Just a year prior to Nolte’s piece, in May 1985, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the unconditional surrender of the Germans on May 8, 1945, Kohl and US President Ronald Reagan gained worldwide notoriety by their joint visit a cemetery in the city of Bitburg,[ii] where SS members were buried. Reagan publicly said in advance that he had no interest in visiting the former concentration camp of Dachau, because he did not wish to deal with German history and did not want to blame the Germans, but rather supported forgiveness and forgiving.[iii]

Nolte when speaking about “German guilt” equated it to Nazi rhetoric about “Jewish guilt.” He attacked those who called antisemitic slurs of Germans at the time, antisemitic themselves. His main focus, however, was (and is) Stalin and Communism. He asked if the “Asian deed” wasn’t prior, if the “Gulag Archipelago” did not precede “Auschwitz?”[iv]

In 1994, historian Alfred D. Low published a study of The Third Reich and the Holocaust in German Historiography and ana­lyzed the highly problematic tropes of Nolte and his followers.[v] Low referred to the fact that Nolte, several years before the Historikerstreit, in his 1974 book Germany and the Cold War (“Deutschland und der Kalte Krieg”), wrote that until 1939 Nazi Germany the “rule of law” was still predominant and the regime “a liberal idyll,” compared to the Stalinist Soviet Union. Nolte even wrote that the American war in Vietnam was a “more evil”[vi] “incarnation of Auschwitz.”[vii]

It has to be remembered that Nolte was not just playing into the hands of hard-core Holocaust deniers. He was also agitating for a trivialization of the Holocaust as early as 1974 (and maybe before), when he said that the America’s war in Vietnam was “worse” than Auschwitz. Interestingly, this antisemitic slur went almost unchallenged in 1974; there was no outcry and no Historikerstreit about this. Nolte also wrote in that book that he follows a Yugoslavian author, Mihajlo Mihajlow, who said that “not Hitler, but Stalin has invented genocide” as early as “1920/21 in Crimea.”[viii] With some pleasure Nolte quoted Soviet antisemites who compared Israeli actions in 1967 with the “methods of Hitler,” the German Democratic Republic (GDR) defamed Israel as “fascist,” and he himself claimed that “Zionism and National Socialism” had very similar “roots and political aims.”[ix]

These aspects of Nolte’s ideology are completely denied in today’s German language publications about him. Nolte denied the unprecedented character of the Shoah and precede today’s bestselling author Timothy Snyder from Yale, for example (“Bloodlands”). Nolte succeeded in denying the unprecedented character of Auschwitz, Treblinka and the woods in Lithuania or Belarus. This goes mainly unnoticed by historiography, with some exceptions like Yad Vashem’s Dan Michman, historian of the Holocaust and Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz (Vilnius), Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff (Jerusalem), German historian Jürgen Zarusky and a few others.

As early as 1978, historian Peter Gay criticized Nolte’s book on the Cold War in his study Freud, Jews, and other Germans as well.[x] Gay was among the first scholars who dealt with the trivialization of the Shoah. He exemplified this with a reference to Nolte’s book and called the equation of American warfare in Vietnam with Auschwitz a “comparative trivialization.”[xi] This is a very useful term and today we are facing many more examples of “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust and Auschwitz, as I document and analyze in this book. In particular, Peter Gay criticized Nolte’s anti-Zionism, his distortion of the history of Zionism and the antisemitic comparison of Zionism with National Socialism. Gay emphasized that Nolte’s “countrymen” played a crucial role in the persecution of the Jews, which in turn led to the development of Zionism.[xii]

Finally, Gay pointed to the fact, that Nolte’s words echo anti-Zionist “propaganda” from “the Arabs and Soviets.”[xiii] It is of tremendous importance to recognize the connection between the downplaying of the Holocaust and the comparing or equating of Auschwitz with completely distinct crimes committed by other countries. Gay’s analysis did not lead to many follow-ups from other historians and scholars in related fields. Rather, “comparative trivialization” of the Holocaust has become a kind of sport today; everyone joins in the game, from Yale professors and members of the American Academy of Arts and Science to Arabs, Muslims, German right-wingers as well as left-wingers and the mainstream. The sheer amount of different types of “comparative trivialization” of the Shoah is astounding.

A core element of the Historikerstreit of 1986 and later was the claim by Nolte that the “Gulag Archipelago” was prior to Auschwitz. This argument was already a basic trope in Nolte’s study in 1974. He wrote that “systematic eradication of complete groups of the population” was “first mentioned in Soviet Russia.”[xiv] Several times he referred to supposed “threats of eradication” of the “bourgeoisie” in order to emphasize that annihilation or eradication was not at all specific to the Shoah. Nolte was obsessed with pointing to these mostly left-wing (or Soviet) ‘threats,’[xv] he referred to dozens of examples of alleged “destruction” (or eradication) throughout his book.[xvi] The aim was obvious: he denied that Auschwitz was a “rupture of civilization” (Diner). In addition, he said that the “destruction of European Jews” was “nothing but the second attempt” “to solve problems of industrialization by eliminating a big group of people.”[xvii] The Holocaust was a “modern attempt,”[xviii] not at all unique to the fate of the Jews, he claimed.

Historian Low highlighted the “singularity of the Holocaust” and mentioned that his colleague from the FRG, Jürgen Kocka, had a similar view. Consequently, Kocka criticized Nolte and contrasted the Holocaust and “the Pol Pot practice of outright killings in Cambodia,” the “Turkish annihilation of Armenians,” and the “Stalinist mass terror.”[xix] One of Alfred Low’s arguments was particularly interesting: he analyzed Nolte’s anti-Zionism from 1974 in Nolte’s book on the Cold War. There, Nolte wrote that the “Zionism” of “Moses Heß, Leon Pinsker and Franz Oppenheimer” had “similarities” with the “antisemites.”[xx] He saw the threat of a “racial state” in Israel from the very beginning, when Jewish mass emigration was allowed. Low analyzed:

“Nolte also claimed that Zionism would lead to a ‘racial state’ – a repetition of the extremist Arab and anti-Semitic Soviet propaganda. The latter found expression by the U.N. Following racist attacks on the Jews by the Nazis, Nolte became engaged in denouncing Jewish regeneration taking the form of Zionism. In Nolte’s view, Zionism in its alleged fight against the ideas of Enlightenment belonged unmistakably to ‘the national-socialist movements.’”[xxi]

There are remarkable connections between Ernst Nolte, his allies, and contemporary anti-Zionism. We find, for instance, a young anti-Zionist Jew, German historian Tamar Amar-Dahl, giving up her Israeli passport in protest and then publishing an anti-Zionist dissertation under the auspices of right-wing Horst Möller at the University of Munich. Her thesis attacked President Shimon Peres from a left-wing position.[xxii] Möller is an ally of Nolte’s and he lauded him for the Kon­rad-Adenauer-Prize in 2000. He also worked with Moshe Zuckermann of Tel Aviv University, another left-wing anti-Zionist academic. Amar-Dahl was then employed as a lecturer by German mainstream historian Michael Wildt,[xxiii] while he is in support of Timothy Snyder. Snyder applies many of Nolte’s tropes without framing them as such.

In recent years, historians have tried to portray revisionist Nolte as a poor victim of “political correctness.” Historian Thomas Mittmann from Bochum University said that Nolte and his colleague historian Andreas Hillgruber, who compared the “end of the German Reich” with the “destruction of European Jews,” were the first “victims” of “political correctness” in the Federal Republic.[xxiv] He went so far as to claim that political correctness is a “matrix” for “antisemitism and nationalism,” following stage director Daniel Levy.[xxv] In 1987, revisionists like Grabert Publishing House, a leading right-wing extremist publisher in Germany until today, was outraged about criticism of Nolte. Grabert publishing house attacked Jews and Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel and Ralph Giordano for their being shocked about antisemitism and Nolte. Grabert’s co-worker Rolf Kosiek, a member of the neo-Nazi party NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) found it terrible that the FRG was still “occupied” (by the US in particular) and that a Nazi like Rudolf Hess was still in prison.[xxvi]

The crucial point to bear in mind is that Nolte claimed that the Soviet Gulag was first, that Nazi Germany had a point in ‘defending’ itself against the ‘Asian threat,’ and that he referred positively to the claim that Jews declared war on Germany in 1939 and the internment of Jews by Nazis was justified.[xxvii] If the Gulag and the “class murder” (or class warfare) were prior to the “racial murder” of Auschwitz, then there was nothing specific about the Shoah. I will now turn to a 21st century bestselling author and the way he focuses on Auschwitz.

As I have shown, Ernst Nolte’s antisemitism is mainstream in today’s Germany. Three leading German language dailies embrace and honor Nolte, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the Berlin based Tagesspiegel and the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). They are silent about Nolte’s antisemitism from 1974, his anti-Zionism and his anti-American and Holocaust distorting equation of Vietnam to Auschwitz (as shown, for him, Vietnam was even worse than Auschwitz).

These forms of antisemitism and rewriting of history go unchallenged in today’s Germany or Switzerland, respectively.

Nolte was a typical right-wing extremist German insofar as he combined hatred of Jews, flirting with Holocaust deniers, explicit denial of the unprecedented character of the Shoah and hatred of Israel.

Today’s Germany is in denial of Nolte’s antisemitism and this speaks volumes about mainstreaming of the New Right and antisemitism, Holocaust distortion and anti-Zionism in the biggest and most influential European country in 2016.

[i] Ernst Nolte (1986): “Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will. Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht gehalten werden konnte,” June 6, 1986, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

[ii] For a comprehensive overview see Geoffrey Hartmann (ed.) (1986): Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[iii] Alvin H. Rosenfeld (1986): “Another Revisionism: Popular Culture and the Changing Image of the Holocaust,” in: Hartmann (ed.), 90–102, 93: “Most troubling about Mr. Reagan’s word, though, was something else: the sense that what he was saying, as bizarre and objectionable as it seemed, might not be idiosyncratic but might actually represent the sentiments of large numbers of people. The president of the United States is not unintelligent, and he certainly is not out of touch with the popular feeling and common aspirations. (…) Americans on the whole have a difficulty with history, most of all someone else’s history, especially if it is unpleasant. In this respect their president represents them very well indeed. One of his aides in the White House, questioned about the prospects of a visit to a concentration camp, recalled the president saying. ‘You know, I don’t think we ought to focus on the past. I want to focus on the future, I want to put that history behind me.’ Another administration official explained, ‘The President was not hot to go to a camp. You know, he is a cheerful politician. He does not like to grovel in a grisly scene like Dachau.” The man behind the very idea to go to Bitburg and to honor former SS-men was of course FRG chancellor Helmut Kohl. His nationalism was based on trivializing the Holocaust while embracing German history.

[iv] “Vollbrachten die Nationalsozialisten, vollbrachte Hitler eine ‘asiatische’ Tat vielleicht nur deshalb, weil sie sich und ihresgleichen als potentielle oder wirkliche Opfer einer ‘asiatischen‘ Tat betrachteten? War nicht der ‘Archipel GULag’ ursprünglicher als ‘Auschwitz’? War nicht der ‘Klassenmord’ der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des ‘Rassenmords’ der Nationalsozialisten?,” Nolte 1986.

[v] Alfred D. Low (1994): The Third Reich and the Holocaust in German Historiography. Toward the Historikerstreit of the Mid-1980s, Boulder: East European Monographs (distributed by Columbia University Press).

[vi] Ernst Nolte (1974): Deutschland und der Kalte Krieg, Munich/Zürich: Piper, 528; see also Low 1994, 129. The analysis of Low is very interesting and his critique of Nolte timely; there a some minor mistakes in this book, for example several references are not complete, and Nolte’s year of birth is indicated as 1893, although it is 1923, cf. ibid., 126.

[vii] The German reads: “Diesmal gab es keinen Kreuzzugsgeist, und mit allen Sensorien der Wohlfahrtsgesellschaft nahm Amerika den weltweiten Vorwurf wahr, daß die Vereinigten Staaten der Sache nach in Vietnam nichts Geringeres ins Werk setzten als ihre im Grunde noch grausamere Version von Auschwitz,” Nolte 1974, 528.

[viii] Nolte 1974, 728, footnote 166.

[ix] Nolte 1974, 607.

[x] Peter Gay (1978): Freud, Jews, and other Germans, New York: Oxford University Press; Peter Gay (1986): Freud, Juden und andere Deutsche. Herren und Opfer in der modernen Kultur, Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe.

[xi] Gay 1986, 14.

[xii] Gay 1986, 17.

[xiii] Gay 1986, 18.

[xiv] Nolte 1974, 119.

[xv] Nolte 1974, 132.

[xvi] See his index, Nolte 1974, 740, entry “Vernichtungsprinzip, – forderung, -praxis“.

[xvii] Nolte 1974, 159.

[xviii] Nolte 1974, 159.

[xix] See Low 1994, 168–169.

[xx] Nolte 1974, 607.

[xxi] Low 1994, 132.

[xxii] Tamar Amar-Dahl (2010): Shimon Peres. Friedenspolitiker und Nationalist, Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

[xxiii] (visited July 24, 2012).

[xxiv] Thomas Mittmann (2008): “Vom ‘Historikerstreit’ zum ‘Fall Hohmann’. Kontroverse Diskussionen um Political Correctness seit Ende der 1980er Jahre,” in: Lucian Hölscher (ed.), Political Correctness. Der sprachpolitische Streit um die nationalsozialistischen Verbrechen, Göttingen: Wallstein, 60–105, 66–67.

[xxv] Mittmann 2008, 105. For an overview about the historians involved in the Historikerstreit, from Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber, Klaus Hildebrand and Michael Stürmer on the one side to Habermas and Hans-Ulrich Wehler on the other, see Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1988): Entsorgung der deutschen Vergangenheit. Ein polemischer Essay zum “Historikerstreit,” Munich: Beck; a not so profound overview can be found in Klaus Große Kracht (2005): Die zankende Zunft. Historische Kontroversen in Deutschland nach 1945, Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 91–114. Neither Wehler nor Große Kracht dealt with antisemitism, though.

[xxvi] Rolf Kosiek (1987): Historikerstreit und Geschichtsrevision, Tübingen: Grabert, 124–125.

[xxvii] For Nolte and that claim, see the report for the Irving/Lipstadt/Penguin Books trial by historian Richard Evans (2000): Expert Report by Professor Richard Evans. Irving VS. (1) Lipstadt and (2) Penguin Books. Expert Witness Report by Richard J. Evans FBS, (visited October 10, 2012); “ Nevertheless, Nolte clearly continued to be sympathetic to Irving’s interpretation, and has come back to it several times in recent years. For instance, in 1994 he argued that Chaim Weizmann’s statement might indeed be interpreted as a ‘declaration of war against the German Reich’ by the Jews,” ibid., 363. “Nolte also argued that Weizmann’s statement, as a declaration of war, could be used to justify the internment of Jews by the Nazis, a point he had first made in 1985. Thus, he commented that Weizmann’s statement ‘might justify the consequential thesis that Hitler was allowed to treat German Jews as prisoners of war and by this means to intern them.’ Nolte again claimed that this interpretation was based on Irving’s work. In 1987 Nolte commented on the Weizmann note that ‘this statement possibly, as Irving also hints, justifies Hitler interning the German Jews as civil internees, just as it is well known that the French interned the Germans and the English the Germans on the outbreak of war.’ Nolte repeatedly drew attention to what he described as Irving’s thesis that ‘Chaim Weizmann’s letter to Chamberlain at the beginning of September 1939 is possibly to be regarded as a kind of declaration of war which gave Hitler the right to intern the German Jews as enemy aliens,“ ibid. 365. A list of material and documents related to that trial can be found online, “Holocaust Denial on Trial. Using history to confront distortions,” (visited October 10, 2012).

The author, Dr. Clemens Heni, is a political scientist and Director of the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism

About the Author
Dr Clemens Heni is director of The Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (BICSA)