In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape From the Nazi Past by Richard J. Evans (Pantheon: $16.95, 187 pages; also available in paperback, $6.95)
Shortly before the defeat of Germany in 1945, three American generals--Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton--witnessed the liberation of a Nazi labor camp near the small town of Ohrdruf, where they found a few emaciated survivors, several thousand corpses and a shed full of instruments of torture. Patton, we are told rather delicately by Richard J. Evans in "In Hitler's Shadow," was "physically ill." And yet Ohrdruf hardly prepared these men of war for what they would find at Auschwitz or Belsen, Nordhausen or Dachau.
But history is not \o7 always\f7 written by the victors. Here is what German historians have begun to say about the Second World War:
The Holocaust, according to Eric Nolte, was prompted by German fear of the Soviet Union and the excesses of Bolshevism. "Auschwitz was above all a reaction born out of the anxiety of the annihilating consequences of the Russian Revolution." The Nazi "internment" of the Jewish population of Europe is justified "in the same way as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor justified American internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese origin." And Nolte "goes some way toward entertaining the view that the 'Final Solution' never happened at all."
The expulsion of Germans from portions of Eastern Europe after World War II, according to historian Andreas Hillgruber, is morally equivalent to the mass murder of 6 million Jews: "Both catastrophes belong together."
The worst excesses of Nazism, according to Hillgruber, Klaus Hildebrand and Karl Dietrich Bracher, were the fault of Hitler alone. "Thus Nazism could more properly be termed 'Hitlerism,' " as Evans explains their arguments, "the product of one man's ability to manipulate beliefs and forces present in interwar Germany and turn them to his own purposes."
All of these points of view have been seriously--and passionately--argued by distinguished West German historians in a red-hot historical debate that has raged in German academic and political circles since the mid-1980s. "In Hitler's Shadow" is a fascinating and alarming survey of the work of these German scholars, most of whom appear to be more interested in polishing up German patriotism than in pursuing historical truth. As interpreted by Evans, a professor of European history at the University of East Anglia, the effort to rewrite recent German history is directed, ominously, toward the resurgence and even the reunification of Germany.
Indeed, the whole point of historical revisionism among West German scholars is the purging of German war guilt by calling into question the motive, the meaning, the scale and even the existence of German war crimes. "For if the Germans did not commit a crime that stood out from all others in its horrors," Evans explains, "then they have no more to be ashamed of than any other nation, and so it becomes possible for them to tread the international stage unburdened by a degree of guilt that no other nation can share."
Evans explores--and, in most instances, repudiates--the moral and intellectual contortions of the German scholars who try to explain away Nazi aggression and criminality. To help us understand the nuances of the historical debate, he gives us a brief but perceptive reading of recent German history and historiography. And, along the way, he points out that some German historians are still capable of speaking plainly and honestly about the Holocaust and its moral significance.
"The Nazi murder of the Jews was unique," insists German historian Eberhard Jackel, "because never before has a state decided and announced, on the authority of its responsible leader, that it intended to kill in its entirety, as far as possible, a particular group of human beings, including its old people, women, children and infants, and then put this decision into action with every possible instrument of state power."
To help us feel the cutting edge of what might appear to be a sterile academic controversy, Evans recalls two emblematic moments in postwar German history. When German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees at a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, his gesture "was widely understood to symbolize Germany's obeisance before its historical victims." Now, he reminds us, the minister-president of Bavaria, Franz Josef Strauss, has called upon his fellow Germans to "get off their knees and learn to 'walk tall' again."
The West German historians whose ideas are scrutinized in "In Hitler's Shadow" are heeding the example of Strauss, not Brandt--and we are entitled to be alarmed at the prospect of Germans "walking tall." The world once ignored such ominous noises out of Germany at its grave peril, and Evans' important book reminds us why we must not do so again.