The historian Ernst Nolte who passed away this week aged 93 was one of Germany’s most prominent historians. Aged 40 he published research comparing Italian Fascism, Russian Stalinism and German National Socialism. He not only instigated research into Germany’s recent troubled past but also opened the path for comparative history. This was ground breaking in the 1960s and fitting for the decade that saw Germany leaving the post war period and commencing a debate about the period between 1933 and 1945.
Ernst Nolte came to fame again in the 1980s when he postulated that the German Holocaust was nothing but a reaction to the Russian Gulag system. While there were similarities: the Gulag and the concentration camps were camps in which conditions certainly were not human. Yet the Holocaust is an entirely different matter. People died under the harsh conditions but more importantly people were murdered following a murderous plan executed in industrial fashion. It needed a sophisticated plan to organise genocide on such a scale.
By arguing that the German Holocaust was only a reaction to the Russian Gulag system, Nolte started a debate in Germany that has become known as the Historikerstreit, the historians controversy.
While the 1960s were a decade in which Germany faced its own history, the 70s were a decade of unrest and the 80s a decade of restoration. The argument about the Holocaust came a year after Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker made it clear that the end of the war was a liberation for Germany and Germans. When Nolte published his synthesis in 1986 he immediately saw himself in the centre of a debate about Germany’s history. Once again it was a vital debate. Despite his point of view, we have to be thankful for Nolte that he initiated the historians controversy. That will be his legacy.