German historians and tensions in contemporary history

German historians and tensions in contemporary history

I’ve been looking around for old journal articles that are available online and came across one by Prof. Dr. Mary Fulbrook.  Her name stood out to me, since I enjoyed her Anatomy of a Dicatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989 (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]), which will very likely be our Book of the Week soon.  This particular journal article, “Approaches to German contemporary history since 1945: Politics and paradigm“, is available at the website of the journal Zeithistorische Forschungen.  I found it interesting because it describes a few of the controversies among post-war German historians.  Fulbrook acknowledges that all histories come “with a baggage of political overtones”, but in the case of Germany the connection between politics and history is more obvious than in other countries:

[I]n reflecting on the development of contemporary history in Germany since 1945, it is striking just how closely particular historical approaches are linked to positions on the political spectrum. [p. 1]

Prior to 1989 there was obviously greater diversity among West German historians than among their eastern counterparts, since history within East Germany could not deviate from the party line.  Therefore professional historians within West Germany were more likely to stir things up amongst themselves. “Thus contemporary history in West Germany before 1989 was characterised by periodic violent controversies.” [p. 4]

Some of the controversies which she points out include:

  • “Intentionalist” versus “Structuralist” approaches to the Holocaust. [p. 5]
  • Whether the “history of everyday life” was “merely a left-wing form of romanticism; even perhaps, unintentionally, some form of apologia for Nazi crimes.” [p. 5]
  • “Whether one should seek to treat the history of the Third Reich as just another short period of German history, a mere dozen years to be dealt with in the same way as any other – or whether this would be beyond the bounds of the morally permissible.” [p. 5]

I also found interesting her point concerning a (perhaps) surprising similarity in the West German and East German historical narratives concerning the Third Reich:

Equally, on both sides of the Wall a version of ‘false consciousness’ could be found: in the western case, the emphasis on Hitler’s personal charm suggested that many Germans were ‘duped’ and fell under his spell; in the East German case, the Marxist notions of ideology and false consciousness (‘the ruling ideas of the age are the ideas of the ruling class’) could be explicitly appealed to in order to explain (away) the role of the complicit masses. Thus we see extraordinarily similar political functions with respect to the exoneration of ‘ordinary people’ in historical interpretations which in other respects are politically totally opposed to each other. [p. 7]

(The photo collage accompanying the article shows a few of the historians mentioned by Fulbrook in the article. From left to right: Hartmut Kaelble, Alf Lüdtke, Stefan Wolle, Hartmut Zwahr.)