Friday, January 24, 2014

To Impugn a People - A Historiography of the Crimes of the Nazi Regime

The following is one of my current assignments for World War II History in Context.  It's a short historiography of how historians have dealt with culpability for the Nazis since 1945.

To Impugn a People - A Historiography of the Crimes of the Nazi Regime


After originally being tasked to construct a historiographical overview of the home-front in World War two, the author chose to concentrate this endeavor upon the German home-front in general and in particular the level of understanding or even culpability of the Deutsche Volk in the crimes of the Nazi regime. This specificity however, came at a price as the author found the depth of scholarly literature devoted to this particular subject to be rather shallow, recent, and monolithic in interpretation. The author therefore chose to broaden the topic to incorporate the historiography of the path to Naziism. The author believes the average German played an integral role in this rise and has incorporated the examined historians’ views of this subject to attempt to keep with the specific theme of the assignment.


In 1945, as the entire world began to see the horrific photographs coming out of the Nazi concentration camps following their liberation by the victorious Allied armies, the instinctual response was a collective, guttural cry of “Why?” How could a modern, civilized people perpetrate such horrific crimes? Who was responsible?

1945 marked a significant turning point in how European historians viewed modern Europe. Instantly, every historical study was seen through the lens of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. The problem, however, was that the still palpable emotional reaction to the horror heavily influenced historical study. To further complicate matters, the descent of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe severely muddied the waters of objectivity.

Immediate Post-War Schools

At the close of the war, the first works published on the conflict, at least on the German side were biographical accounts of various generals’ experiences in the war. Nearly all blatantly falsified history in order to cover up personal tactical error or simply omitted the less palatable incidents that would not come to light for another fifty years. Von Manstein, for example, outright lied about his orders in the Battle of Stalingrad to remove his culpability in that German disaster.[1]  There was little serious scholarship from German historians save the eminent, but aged Meincke who’s The German Catastrophe showed Hitler as a natural, but not altogether unalterable consequence of the early 1930s.

The victorious allies initially condemned the entirety of the German population, dramatically demonstrated by the orders of the various military commanders following the liberations of the concentration camps; in which they forced the local towns’ populations to tour the camps and help with the ‘clean up’. This conventional wisdom, however, was tempered with a desire to rebuild, move on, and not repeat the vengeful mistakes at Versailles, which were still accepted as a causus belli for this Second World War. With this desire to move on while still punishing the guilty, the Nuremburg Trials provided a catharsis for not only the Allies in measuring out justice to the Nazis, but it provided a means of escape for the average German. By offering up the tangible faces of the architects of the regime’s crimes, the trials had a way of shifting the totality of responsibility upon the tried in the most public of ways. The condemning and sentencing of the war criminals had, for better or worse, appeased the guilty conscience of a guilty people. Certainly this is not to say the average German was as culpable as the architects of the Final Solution, but the trials served to provide scapegoats for the collective whole.

The sub current of the Cold War also severely affected the nascent scholarship of the question of the culpability of the German people. To deal with the past in an open and honest way was detrimental to the more important and at hand task of rebuilding the present. In the face of Communist belligerence, the fledgling post-war West Germany could ill afford to devote serious attention to dealing with unresolved issues of unrepentant Nazis within their midst.[2]

Marxist historians painted the rise of Nazism not as a peculiar trait of German history, but through the all too familiar rose-colored lens of class conflict. Alfred Sohn-Rethe indicted the fascist flavor of capitalism as responsible for the crimes of the Nazi regime. The lust for profit of the German captains of industry was enabled and empowered by the National Socialist government foreign policy of organized theft and slave labor.[3] Liberal historians meanwhile viewed the war and the crimes of the Nazi regime as solely attributable to Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party.

Some, like A. J. P. Taylor and Lewis Namier saw the rise of the National Socialists as a natural endpoint of modern German history. Taylor rejected the liberal’s easy dismissal of Nazism to Hitler being a peculiar phenomenon of German history. He claimed casting the preponderance of the blame upon Hitler appeased the victorious Allies but more so, provided the German people a far too simple explanation. With Hitler dead, “the blame for everything – the Second World War, the concentration camps, the gas-chambers – could be loaded on to his uncomplaining shoulders. With Hitler guilty, every other German could claim innocence.”[4] Dissatisfied with this simplistic explanation, Taylor became one of the first revisionist historians of the war, and a precursor of the Sonderweg school. Never completely absolving Hitler, nor the Nazi party, Taylor did however, spread the blame for the war across all parties; from the punitive measures of the Versailles treaty, to the enabling of the British appeasement policy of the mid 1930s. Taylor, however, was quickly largely discredited by contemporaries; not for his thesis necessarily, but for his shoddy scholarship and discounting of key evidences supporting Hitler’s primary culpability such as Mein Kampf and the designs for Europe he himself had published.[5]

Nuanced Theories

 With the benefit of nearly 15 years of hindsight, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most historians took on a slightly more nuanced view of culpability. No longer content with a simplistic explanation, historians saw the need to examine the role of business, culture, and other German social institutions in war-time Germany, significantly broadening the scope of inquiry from beyond the Nazi party in general and Hitler in particular. Certainly the most familiar of the contemporary histories published falling into this camp is William L. Shrier’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.[6] As a foreign correspondent, Shrier covered the Nazi regime following their rise to power in 1932 all the way up until the conquering of Western Europe in 1940. Shrier explored all aspects of the rise of the Nazis to include uncompromising looks at the complicity of business magnates with the Nazi regime. Shrier’s most valuable contribution to history was his narrative, first-hand accounts of life under the Nazi boot. Even though distasteful, one feels sympathy with the German businessman, who, forced to comply with endless government interference and out of necessity, finally submits to the Nazi program in order to make his business profitable.

Der Sonderweg

 Initially, these nuanced looks were confined to non-German western historians, but following Fritz Fischer’s 1960 groundbreaking work on the links between the First World War and the Second, German historians took on the odious task of examining their own history more closely. Out of this introspection arose the Sonderweg, or “Special Path” theory. Fischer expanded upon Taylor’s work by extrapolating the thesis back to the First World War.[7] This Sonderweg period spurred German historians to look back into the 19th Century to explore where in the rise of the modern German state had the path to modernity diverged from the one taken by France, Britain, and the United States.[8]

In 1980, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley deconstructed the Sonderweg interpretation by questioning the classification of Germany’s path as especially unique. They used several essays to demonstrate that England’s path to modernity and France’s were just as unique and different as Germany’s. They questioned what qualifies the United States’, French, and British experiences as normal to measure against Germany’s.[9]


The Historikerstreit, or “Historian Debate” period took place against the backdrop of a conservative Kohl government, the Reagan-led nuclear arms race, and the benefit of forty years removal from the death camps. In the 1980s, German historians were poised for a shift from the Fischer Sonderweg back towards more dissociative theories. The 1986 publication of Ernst Nolte’s speech describing the Holocaust as a defense mechanism against the barbarism of the Bolsheviks ignited a firestorm amongst German historians. Michael Stürmer and Andreas Hillgruber similarly painted parallels between the totalitarianism of Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet system of both the World War II period and the contemporary Cold War.[10] Opposing this view and still holding to the Sonderweg School were Jürgen Habermas and Hans Mommsen among others, who accused Nolte and others of minimizing the Nazi crimes. Both sides in the debate fell victim to contemporary politics and polemics, significantly cheapening the impact and marginalizing the valid points made in their respective arguments.

Goldhagen and the Evasive Versus Destructive Theories

Goldhagen’s 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust pushed the pendulum back toward the Sonderweg school.[11] Though it had great commercial success and seemed to open a door to an open and honest debate on the subject, now unencumbered by the politics of East versus West, Goldhagen fell very short in the eyes of contemporary historians. In 2002, Gellately rightly decried “monocausal” explanations for the sins of the German people and severely criticizes Goldhagen’s description.[12] Gellately argues that racial hatred for the Jews was a relative latecomer to the Nazi effort to propagandize its people. He does not discount Hitler’s hatred for the Jews, but claims the hatred was not one that was widely shared by the average German at the dawn of the Third Reich.[13]

In 2000, fulfilling the desire of most historians to easily package the complex into neat and tidy boxes, Peter Bergmann proposed a historiographical discriminator of the various theories regarding culpability. These theories he claimed would be classified as either Destructive, or Evasive. Destructive theories included the Sonderweg School, Intentionalists, and any that viewed Nazism as a necessary product of the time.  Evasive theories sought to minimize the particular culpability of the people, concentrating on individual villains in the regime or on spreading blame upon Western appeasers or Soviet tyrants.  Published shortly after Goldhagen’s very successful book that implicated the previously unimpugnable Wehrmacht and the German people as a whole, Bergmann successfully described the pendulum shifts in historical theory of the evasive theories posed by West German liberals in the first years after the war, to the destructive theories of the Fischer Sonderweg school; from the evasive Nolte and the Historikerstreit period, to the Goldhagen destructive one. Bergmann’s classification system is very organized and presents a useful tool for understanding the evolving thoughts on the rise of the National Socialists in Germany.

Final Thoughts

 The culpability and level of knowledge of the average German will most likely never be fully understood. How could it? How can one lay blame upon a nation of millions of individuals? How can one absolve the same nation of individuals for the crimes of a few that took place in their midst? Certainly the answer lays in the gray area betwixt the two. As with most historical debates, the farther removed chronologically, or, as the Historikerstreit demonstrated, the farther removed from contemporary politics, the clearer, less subjective, and less emotionally charged the study will become. And although Goldhagen’s book was chided by historians, its reception demonstrated the German willingness to plump the depths of darkness existing in their collective history.

Works Cited

Bergmann, Peter E. “An Exploration in German Historiography.” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 26, No 1. Spring 2000, 141-159.
Blackbourn, David and Geoff Eley. The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth Century Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
Gellately, Robert. Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Schweitzer, Arthur. “Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism by Alfred Sohn-Rethel: Review.” The Journal of Economic History 40, No. 4. December 1980, 886-887.
Shrier, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.
Sontag Raymond J. “The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor: Review.” The American Historical Review 67, No. 4. July 1962, 992-994.
Taylor, A. J. P. Origins of the Second World War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.
Torpey, John. “Habermas and the Historians.” New German Critique, No. 44. Spring – Summer 1988, 5-24.
Weinberg Gerhard L. Germany, Hitler, and World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Works Consulted

Cuomo, Glenn, ed. National Socialist Cultural Policy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Echternkamp, Jörg, ed. Germany and the Second World War, Volume IX/I, German Wartime Society 1939-1945: Politicization, Disintegration, and the Struggle for Survival. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008.
Ferguson, Niall. The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Hancock, Eleanor. The National Socialist Leadership and Total War 1941-5. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Nolte, Ernst. “Die Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will.” Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6, 1986. Accessed January 24, 2014,
Peukert, Detlev J. K. Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life. Translated by Richard Deveson. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1987.
Sorge, Martin K. The Other Price of Hitler’s War: German Military and Civilian Losses Resulting from World War II. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Steinert, Marlis G. Hitler’s War and the Germans: Public Mood and Attitude During the Second World War. Edited and Translated by Thomas E. J. de Witt. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1977.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. World in the Balance. Behind the Scenes of World War II. London: University Press of New England, 1981.


[1] Gerhard L. Weinberg, Germany, Hitler, and World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 307-308.
[2] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War (New York: Penguin, 2009), 747-748.
[3] Arthur Schweitzer, “Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism by Alfred Sohn-Rethel: Review,” The  Journal of Economic History 40, No. 4, (December 1980), 886-887.
[4] A. J. P. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), 12.
[5] Raymond J. Sontag, “The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor: Review,” The American Historical Review 67, No. 4 (July 1962), 993.
[6] William L. Shrier, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959).
[7] Peter E. Bergmann, “An Exploration in German Historiography,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 26, No 1 (Spring 2000), 145.
[8] Ibid.
[9] David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 10.
[10] John Torpey, “Habermas and the Historians,” New German Critique, No. 44 (Spring – Summer 1988), 5-6.
[11] Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996).
[12] Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 4.
[13] Ibid.

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