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The Revisionist Scholar Ernst Nolte Provokes the Historikerstreit [“Quarrel of the Historians”] (June 6, 1986)

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One does not have to have read Melgunov's now-vanished book to ask such questions. But one fears to pose them. I have long feared to pose them. They are seen as bellicose anti-Communist slogans or as products of the cold war. They also do not quite fit into the discipline of history, which is often forced to choose narrower questions. But these questions rest on simple truths. To intentionally ignore truths may have moral reasons, but it also violates the ethos of the discipline.

This ethos would be violated if historians were to stop at such facts and questions and not seek to place them in a greater context—such as the qualitative ruptures in European history that begin with the industrial revolution and that have always inspired an agitated search for the "guilty parties" or for the "originator" of what is seen as a threatening development. Only in this framework can it become clear that despite all similarities the acts of biological annihilation carried out by the National Socialists were qualitatively different than the social annihilation that Bolshevism undertook. No one murder, and especially not a mass murder, can "justify" another, and we will be led astray by an attitude that points only to the one murder and to the one mass murder and ignores the other, even though a causal nexus is probable.

Those who desire to envision history not as a mythologem but rather in its essential context are forced to a central conclusion: If history, in all its darkness and its horrors, but also in its confusing novelty, is to have a meaning for coming generations, this meaning must be the liberation from collectivist thinking. That should also mean the decisive turn to a liberal and democratic political order that allows and even encourages criticism insofar as it takes aim at acts, ways of thinking, and traditions, and thus also at governments and organizations of all kinds. Organizations and governments, however, are obliged to stigmatize criticism of existing states of affairs as impermissible. Individuals can free themselves from these stigmas only with great difficulty. This means criticism of "the" Jews, "the" Russians, "the" Germans, or "the" petit-bourgeoisie. To the degree that the debate about National Socialism is characterized by this kind of collectivist thinking, one should draw a line. It cannot be denied that if this happens, thoughtlessness and self-satisfaction will have a heyday. But it does not have to be that way, and truth does not have to be made dependent upon utility. A more comprehensive debate, one that would have to mostly consist of thinking about the history of the past two centuries, might cause the past about which we are talking here to pass—as is suitable for every past. And this kind of a debate would also appropriate the past, making it our own.

Source: Ernst Nolte, “The Past That Will Not Pass: A Speech That Could Be Written but Not Delivered,” in Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? Original Documents of the Historikerstreit Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust. Translated by James Knowlton and Truett Cates. Atlantic Heights, NJ, 1993, pp. 18-23. [Originally published in German as “Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6, 1986.]

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