H-Soz-u-Kult Review-Symposium:

Versäumte Fragen. Deutsche Historiker im Schatten des Nationalsozialismus

Social Consensus and Germany's Educated Elite in the Shadow of Nazism

von Robert Gellately, Clark University, Worcester, MA - Email: <rgellately@clarku.edu>

The book needs to be seen in the context of recent historiographical trends in the work on the Third Reich. In the last decade or so, a number of historians have studied the nature and extent of Germans' participation in the establishment and functioning of the Third Reich. It has turned out that the notorious Gestapo could hardly have operated without the cooperation of citizens who provided essential information. In addition, researchers working on the Holocaust have shown that many of the killers in the East were by no means restricted to hardcore SS members, but also included many "ordinary" people in the police or the Wehrmacht. On balance, therefore, we are beginning to discern something in this recent work that suggests a social consensus emerged in support of Hitler and many of the most brutal aspects of Nazism. To suggest that there was such a consensus is not to claim that everyone accepted everything Hitler and his associates wanted, because the consensus was fluid rather than fixed. There were also pockets of resistance, but these did not seriously threaten the system. I endeavor to explore these themes in my forthcoming book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, February 2001).

By and large most of these new accounts have focused on the "little people" who participated in the Nazi system and thereby enabled it to function inside Germany and abroad. At the same time, we have several investigations of German academics in the planning institutes, as well as studies of the professions, artists and musicians, business concerns, and so on. These studies show that the social elite (notwithstanding some notable exceptions) largely came to accept and support the dictatorship and its policies, though more research is needed on the extent to which specific individuals and groups knew about and/or advocated inhumane measures that culminated in the war of annihilation, concentration camps, and the Holocaust.

Despite the general historiographical context I have just outlined, historians of the Third Reich inside and outside Germany generally did not closely examine the behavior of Germany's historians in the Third Reich. That issue arose as an emotion-laden one at the 1998 Historikertag. The assertion contained in several fiery papers -- (since then all of them have been published and enlarged in a collection of essays edited by Winfried Schulze and Otto Gerhard Oexle) -- was that during the Nazi era prominent historians had been involved in Nazism as planners and advisors. It is beyond doubt that some historians in the Nazi era spoke and wrote in favor of what they called "Umvolkungsmaßnahmen" in central and eastern Europe, and in their reports, evaluations, and recommendations they used phraseology that was deeply colored by Nazism. Götz Aly and others claimed that such academics were "Vordenker der Vernichtung". Such charges had been made before 1998, but what gave the Historikertag its drama was not only the large audience of historians, but the fact that the allegations concerned Werner Conze and Theodor Schieder, both prominent former officers of the association. These two well-known historians had influenced the study of history in western Germany after 1945 and had trained many of the leading lights in the profession, people who had gone on to sterling careers. From what we know today, and the questions we are now raising, it might seem difficult to understand why this second generation of historians did not question their mentors about their political past. However, we need to give more consideration to the actual lifeworld context of university life thirty or forty years ago. We all know from our personal experience that it is difficult, at the best of times, to ask one's mentors about their social or political involvements. Many of the people we have studied our history with in North America or Great Britain also had roles in the Second World War, and I wonder how many of us ever asked them probing questions about what they had done. Under the circumstances in post-1945 Germany, we should not, therefore, be overly surprised that few if any of the "younger" historians in the Federal Republic asked Conze or Schieder or others about their involvement in National Socialism.

Although one wishes that more attention could have been paid in the volume under review to the personal and historical complexities, and although there is a troubling accusatory subtext to the volume, nonetheless, Hohls, Jarausch, and their student interviewers provide us with useful snapshots of more than a dozen contemporary German historians as they come to terms with their personal and professional relationship to the history of the Third Reich. Among other things, we can see from the interviews how the social elite was reformed after 1945. At the very least, as Winfried Schulze's interview makes clear (though some disagree with him in the book), there was considerable continuity within the discipline of history, from the Nazi period into the Federal Republic. (422) Those who taught at universities immediately after the defeat either had done so in Nazi Germany or were partly socialized in that period. For historians of Germany like me, the individual routes by which each of the interviewed persons came to the study of history makes for interesting reading in their own right.

Many of the interviews provide evidence that the broad social consensus that formed in Nazi Germany in favor of many of Hitler's plans and actions also had extended into the intellectual elite. Gerhard A. Ritter's interview suggests that now that the investigators have really started looking at the academics, including the historians who offered advice about resettling the populations in countries like Poland, he expects more revelations. (132) Furthermore, as Hans-Ulrich Wehler says, many intellectuals needed no orders to get involved in various crimes as they were already "radikal, völkisch und antisemitsch". (263) There is a great deal of hair-splitting when it comes to Götz Aly's charge against Conze and Schieder, that they were "Vordenker", -- a word with no equivalent in English. Still, it is difficult to deny that many within the technocratic and academic elite fostered and helped to plan for the racist utopia that was to be created in the East. Many of the interviewed disagree with Aly's use of the concept to characterize the role of these intellectuals for what eventually happened to the Jews and others who did not fit into Nazi plans. Indeed, some of those interviewed suggest the direct influence of people like Conze and Schieder has been exaggerated, and, like Wolfgang Mommsen, they insist such a characterization is totally wrong. Nevertheless, as Mommsen points out, Conze, Schieder, and certainly many more in academia found "die NS-Politik ganz agreabel, weil in der Tat die Innenstädte Ostpolens mit dem jüdischen Bevölkerungsteil ein soziales Problem von erheblicher Größenordnung darstellten." Mommsen suggests that to a greater or lesser extent, these intellectuals were interested in "social engineering", the (re)creation of a peasant culture, and welcomed "daß diese Juden - vorsichtig gesagt - 'ausgesiedelt' würden". (200) Immanuel Geiss notes also that it was these experts, including the historians, who in fact provided much of the raw data about the populations that was needed by the occupation forces and the death squads. (235)

Rudolf Vierhaus (the eldest of the interviewed) may be correct in concluding that only in the broadest sense of the term do historians like Conze and Schieder deserve the label "Vordenker der Vernichtung". (85) Winfried Schulze (the youngest of them all) rightly points out, that the historians contributed in their own way to the formation of the larger discourse about German settlement and social planning for the East and much more. (420) That such experts as Conze and Schieder penned their own inhumane plans -- even when these were not taken up -- shows not that they were somehow unnecessary, but that their ideas were part of a much larger political, social, and racist consensus. What is remarkable of course is that it has taken so long for historians to investigate themselves and this side of the problem.

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