Right-wing historian Ernst Nolte receives the Konrad Adenauer Prize for Science

By Stefan Steinberg
17 August 2000

In Munich on June 4 right-wing historian Ernst Nolte, the main figure in the “Historians debate” of 1986, was awarded the Konrad Adenauer prize from the Germany Institute. The latter was set up in 1966 and has close links to the right-wing of Germany's Christian Democratic Party (CDU.)

The prize was handed over to Nolte by Horst Möller, the director of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, which has traditionally had a good reputation as a centre of serious historical research. Möller fulsomely praised Nolte's contribution to historical studies, while at the same time attempting to distance himself somewhat from Nolte's most controversial theses.

Other historians, such as the Berlin-based Heinrich August Winkler, acknowledged their deep concern at the prize ceremony for Nolte. Even current CDU party head Angela Merkel commented that she had “personal difficulties” with the award for Nolte. It is of note that in his speech acknowledging Nolte's work Möller emphasised the importance of the publication of The Black Book of Communism in confirming many of Nolte's theses. Möller himself has published a volume entitled The Red Holocaust which takes up similar themes to those advanced in The Black Book of Communism.

The 1986 “Historians' debate”

Ernst Nolte first came to the attention of the general public in 1986 when he published an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and in the same year his book The European Civil War. The article and book drew parallels between the fascist death camps and the Stalinist Gulag from the standpoint of relativising the crimes of the Nazis. Nolte's thesis was that the rational core lying at the heart of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was a defensive reaction on the part of the fascists to the threat of Bolshevism in the East. He wrote in 1986: “Is not the case that the Archipelago Gulag preceded Auschwitz? Was not the class murder [according to Nolte ... of the bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union—S. Steinberg] the logical and factual precedent for the race murder conducted by the National Socialists?”

Nolte deliberately obliterated the distinction between genuine communism embodied in the initial strivings of the Bolshevik Party in the October Revolution and the counterrevolutionary crimes of Stalinism. He was unable, of course, to account for the fact that the principal victims of the Stalinist show trials and Gulag did not belong to the “class” of the Russian bourgeoisie, but were rather left oppositionists and old Bolsheviks—precisely those who inaugurated the October Revolution.

Nolte's article and book constitute the opening shots in what was to become known in Germany as the “Historians' debate”, initiated when other historians and philosopher Jurgen Habermas took issue with Nolte's position and opened up a discussion on the origins of National Socialism and the Holocaust.

Since 1986 Nolte has made unmistakably clear his role as an apologist for Hitlerite fascism. Nolte was a pupil of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who for a period in the thirties was himself a member of the Nazi Party, the NSDAP. Nolte's defence of his mentor has already been dealt with in a recent WSWS article [see link below].

A comment by Nolte in 1994 in defence of Nazi policies is typical: “When the propagation of a soldier-like nature in the people [Volk] is a legitimate highest aim, then one must concede that the SS with its positive population policy [i.e., the mass deportations and murder carried out by Hitler's Schutzstaffel—S. Steinberg] represents the first serious attempt to prevent a development which today appears overpowering” (Streitpunkte, 1994).

In his own speech to the assembled historians as he accepted his prize in Munich Nolte repeated his main thesis in the usual roundabout formulations that he reserves for public occasions: “Whoever takes seriously the world historical phenomena of Bolshevism as the most violent form of appearance of socialism, cannot reduce the most powerful of counter-movements [i.e., fascism—S. Steinberg] to merely ‘crazy ideas'.” Nolte then declared that it is wrong to think that the “opposite of national socialism” must always be correct, and finally expressed his opposition to plans to build a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazi dictatorship. His comment: “To remember completely is just as inhuman as to forget completely.”

Nolte's most consistent advocates are periodicals such as the newspaper Junge Freiheit which describes itself as a newspaper in Germany for “patriotic right-wingers.” In tones reminiscent of the NSDAP, recent editions of Junge Freiheit have criticised German politicians as “decadent windbags” who “no longer possess an ounce of honour”. In its columns Junge Freiheit calls for “an end to the self-hatred on the part of the Germans”. The same article goes on to hope for “better times” in which notorious right-wingers such as Franz Schönhuber (former head of the extreme right Republican Party) and Horst Mahler (a former left-wing radical associated with the German Red Army Faction, now an extreme right-winger) can “emerge from the back room to political centre stage”.

In a recent article the paper applauds the professional recognition of Nolte involved in the award ceremony in Munich and makes the same point as Horst Möller, i.e., the crucial role of The Black Book of Communism in rehabilitating Nolte's theses.

Ernst Nolte, Stéphane Courtois and the Black Book of Communism

Le Livre noir de communisme (The Black Book of Communism) was published in 1997. Its chief editor is Stéphane Courtois, a former Maoist who, together with a number of other authors, published an 800-page diatribe against Marxism and the Russian Revolution. Based on the supposition of an unbroken continuity between the Russian Revolution, Leninism and Stalinism, Courtois lumped together in a completely ahistorical fashion the victims of diverse Stalinist, Maoist and national liberation movements. Together with victims of various wars Courtois assembled a total sum of 100 million dead which he argued could all be attributed to Communism. His conclusion: the Communist movement was even worse than fascism.

Drawing on parallels already made by Nolte in 1986 Courtois described Communism and fascism as forms of mass murder aimed in the first case at a class (the bourgeoisie,) in the second at a race (the Jews). Despite the hysterical way in which he posed many of his arguments, involving such an abuse of historical method that some of the collaborators of the Black Book sought to distance themselves from Courtois' conclusions, implicit in his 1997 book was a hostility towards fascism and Hitlerism.

This antipathy towards fascism on Courtois' part now appears to be a thing of the past. In the spring of this year Courtois collaborated with Nolte on the occasion of the first French edition of the latter's The European Civil War. The new introduction to the French edition was written by Courtois.

In his own introduction to the French edition Nolte returns to Courtois' thesis of the Black Book. “Marxism,” Nolte writes, “is an ideology of destruction” and “Bolshevism is its practical realisation”. Nolte and Courtois not only agree in their assessment of Marxism. Both of them trace what they regard as the evils of the twentieth century to the French Revolution. Nolte writes: “It was the French Revolution which for the first time turned into reality the concept of the destruction of groups and classes.” The Bolsheviks were inspired by the “therapy of destruction” which had been previously worked out in the French Revolution. In his own introduction Courtois agrees that the Jacobin “mass murder” of counterrevolutionary elements in the Vendée in 1793 was the model for Bolshevik policy in the civil war following the October Revolution.

A review of the writings of Ernst Nolte reveals that already in 1986 he had worked out most of the fundamental theses which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were to be most explicitly laid down in The Black Book of Communism. Now Nolte's award in Munich and his recent collaboration with Courtois reveals the thoroughly reactionary stance of a layer of French and German intellectuals.

There is an inexorable logic to the pathological anticommunism of such figures as Courtois and company. Whether he and others are completely aware of it or not, their ideas are being taken up and used by the most consistent opponents of democracy and progress. After all, it was no less than Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels who commented after the fascist taking of power in 1933: “With a stroke we have now obliterated 1789 from the history books.”