Ernst Nolte, who died on 18 August 2016 at the age of 93, was the most controversial German historian of the 20th and 21st centuries. No other historian has published such a wealth of books and essays that have sparked not only controversy (as they should) but vitriolic hatred and unjust condemnation on the part of his enemies.
Nolte, a grammar school teacher of Greek before becoming a university professor of history, had always been a kind of ‘outsider’ in his field. He had come to history through his early interest in philosophy, particularly that of German Idealism as well as of Marx. (Incidentally, his earliest scholarly article dealt with Marx and Nietzsche in the young Mussolini’s socialist ideology.) Nolte was also deeply influenced by Martin Heidegger who had suggested to him that he write his dissertation on Plotinus — and had he done so, his scholarly career would almost certainly have taken a very different turn. So, in retrospect, it is hardly surprising that his indefatigable research into the complexities of 20th century totalitarianisms and their 19th century antecedents should have raised eyebrows among mainstream academics.
Nolte’s later fortunes (or misfortunes) were decisively influenced by the outcome of the so-called Historikerstreit of the 1980s, the “historians’ quarrel” (it could not really be called a “debate”!). This Historikerstreit followed in the wake of denunciations of Nolte and others as alleged “revisionists” and “relativizers” of the horrors of National Socialism.
Chief among his accusers was Jürgen Habermas, the main representative at the time of the Frankfurt school. Habermas and his friends — people like social historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler — subscribed to the typical left-wing anti-anticommunism that served them as the moral reason to polemicize against all detailed comparisons of the two great totalitarianisms as well as fascism. At the same time, an implicit theological conviction of the “absolute evil” of Hitler’s National Socialism was employed in order to prevent a more nuanced discussion of the interplay and interdependence of the Communist, National Socialist, and fascist regimes.
Nolte had argued for what he called a “causal nexus” between Bolshevism and National Socialism — in the sense that the latter developed its own conceptions on the basis of the perception of the former as a Schreckbild — that is, as an image of danger to which one has to react. Unfortunately, this reaction took a very radical form and was, in fact, an overreaction. This kind of contexualization was not meant to “relativize” any of the horrendous crimes committed by these totalitarian regimes in the course of their history. Rather it was an attempt to gain an almost philosophical understanding of the tragic element in world history and, more to the point, in what Nolte considered a “European civil war”.
Strangely enough, the historian’s quarrel of the late 1980s was publicised as the “controversy concerning the singularity of the National Socialist destruction of the Jews”, and Nolte was thereby charged with denying this very singularity. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as Nolte actually affirmed the singularity thesis (which as perceptive an observer as Armin Mohler clearly recognized).
In view of his later reputation as a ‘right-wing historian’, it should be noted that Nolte’s first major book, Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (1963), contributed decisively to establishing ‘fascism’ as a key term of historical analysis. Not only did Nolte regard German National Socialism as a form of fascism, but he also considered Charles Maurras and the Action française as fascist — both of which are actually rather doubtful claims.
Another controversial aspect concerns the relative importance of anti-Marxism and anti-Semitism for understanding National Socialism. Nolte considered his 1963 book as the first instalment of what would later be a trilogy, the other parts of which would deal with Germany and the Cold War (1974) after fascism and Marxism and the Industrial Revolution (1983). The latter book remains probably his least read work, although it stands as one of Nolte’s greatest scholarly achievements.
Nolte was in many ways a paradoxical intellectual. He did not confine his activities as a professor to scholarly discussions but actively played a role in founding the Bund Freiheit der Wissenschaft in 1970, one of the most important organizations to fight left-wing student rebels and their academic partisans. The Bund Freiheit der Wissenschaft quickly became the academic left’s chief bugbear and was invariably denounced as conservative or even reactionary. Nolte had experienced the onslaught of the radical left at the University of Marburg where the communist influence was comparatively strong, and he self-published an important and well-documented report about these developments already in 1969.
Despite this public role, Nolte was always more of a scholar in his habits and in his style, never going so far as to attack anyone in ad hominem fashion. His noble manners were not repaid in kind, however, for Nolte’s enemies did not even refrain from using violence to intimidate him (e.g., setting fire to his car). And after Nolte had become persona non grata in the German scholarly community, he was no longer invited to conferences in his own country.
In contrast, he was regularly invited to Italy where some of his later books had also been published — sometimes even before the German original. His so-called Italian Writings (2011) contain statements and comments on various subjects, and can therefore serve as very convenient entry into the intellectual cosmos of Nolte, whereas his last great book, Die dritte radikale Widerstandsbewegung: der Islamismus (2009), focused on the “third radical movement of resistance” [to modernity] and deals with one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: Islamism. That Nolte, in his old age, should even have made at least the effort to learn Arabic in the course of this project, is an indication of the remarkable intellectual curiosity and vitality of the man.
In general, Nolte’s productivity in the years after the Historikerstreit was awe-inspiring, leading to books about Nietzsche and ‘Nietzscheanism’, Heidegger and politics, controversies about National Socialism (Streitpunkte, published in 1993), the role of revisions and revisionism in historiography (Der kausale Nexus, published in 2002), and a study on the attitude of Germans to their past.
It was also in Italy that Nolte first got to know the great French historian and ex-Communist Francois Furet, with whom he engaged in a respectful exchange concerning fascism and communism, occasioned by a lengthy footnote in Furet’s Le passé d’une illusion (1995) on Nolte. Unfortunately, the mere fact of quoting and discussing Nolte without engaging in name-calling and moralizing denunciation was already too much for some of Furet’s allegedly liberal colleagues. Furet specifically mentions Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt, both of whom had complained to him about this. One need not deny that Nolte’s rhetoric and his particular way of thinking occasionally led him astray; but this cannot detract from the fact that his whole work was governed by an overriding concern — that of understanding, as best as possible, the motives and intentions of actors (and perpetrators, as the case may be) in history, especially Communists and National Socialists.
Nolte did not found a ‘school’ of historical interpretation. In fact, his phenomenological approach to history always remained at odds with the fashions of historiographical methodology in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Nolte would later publish a lengthy tome on Geschichtsdenken (1991), a term that is difficult to render in English, as it denotes a kind of thinking about history that is not as such philosophy of history. The book offered a comprehensive survey of 20th century “thinkers of history”. It was later supplemented by Nolte’s own contribution to the field, his true chef d’oeuvre, Historische Existenz (1998; new edition 2015). This was originally based on lectures he gave at the Freie University Berlin that took place in the early morning hours and which were as intellectually challenging as anything on offer during the 1990s. Nolte’s wide-ranging considerations of what it means for human beings to live historically encompassed not only ancient and modern history but also challenged the prognosis of a so-called “post-histoire” or an “end of history”. Nolte responded to this with clear misgivings about the prospect of a society of so-called “last men”.
Looking back on his life, Nolte said he was regarded as a kind of ‘leftist’ in the ’60s but had since been taken to be a ‘right-winger’. He did not think, however, that this was due to a change in his own outlook. Rather, he suggested, this divergence in the perception of his character was a reflection of the transformations in public opinion since the ’60s. There is certainly some truth to this, although one should not underestimate the fact that Nolte became intellectually much more daring as he grew older. This meant engaging in thought experiments and speculations that were in strong disagreement with the demands of ‘political correctness’ and, therefore, understandably avoided by mainstream historians and other scholars. All this is perhaps most evident in Nolte’s 2011 book, Späte Reflexionen: Über den Weltbürgerkrieg des 20. Jahrhundert, a collection of brief essays, reflections and aphorisms that extend beyond questions of historical interpretation and approach philosophy as well as theology.
Although there are two good books on Nolte by Volker Kronenberg (1999) and Siegfried Gerlich (2009), as well as two substantial Festschriften published in 1993 (Weltbürgerkrieg der Ideologien) and 2003 (Das 20. Jahrhundert: Zeitalter der tragischen Verkehrungen), one may surmise that the true significance of Nolte’s work as a thinker concerned about history has yet to be recognized beyond the confines of small non-conformist circles. Nolte’s main contributions to intellectual life concern his conception of history, his genealogical theory of totalitarianism, and his reflections both on the nature of the “liberal system”, as well as on the current challenge posed to it by Islamism. In addition, the German historian was an unforgettable model of intellectual freedom as a cornerstone of European identity.
Nolte’s personal example of a scholar who would neither yield to any collective ideology nor respect any taboo in the academy is well worth remembering. For it is perhaps particularly modern mass democratic society that is most governed by hypocrisy and political correctness to such a degree that freedom of thought and expression can no longer simply be taken for granted.
It was thus most fitting that the Catholic priest celebrating at Nolte’s funeral chose, as his motto for what turned out to be a remarkable speech, the Latin saying: Etiam si omnes, ego non: If all others act, speak, or think in the officially approved way, I will not. Nolte’s scholarly and political non-conformism could not have been better expressed.