Mortal Embrace: Germans and (Soviet) Russians in the First Half of the 20th Century

Article excerpt

Historical Debates Surrounding the German-Russian Relationship

This special issue of Kritika spotlights episodes from the primarily confrontational relationship between Germany and (Soviet) Russia in the first half of the 20th century. The multifaceted historiography to which it has given rise has significance beyond the specific context of the relationship itself, because the two countries' history and their ties with each other are paradigmatic cases of aberrant developments and threats from within that face modern societies. (1)

After World War II, there were two approaches--both of them decisively influenced by the Cold War but potent nonetheless--to the causes and phenomena of National Socialism and Stalinism. From the field of political science arose totalitarianism theory, which considered totalitarian dictatorships as variants of modern mass society. (2) From another perspective, drawing on theories of modernization, historians and historically oriented social scientists created master narratives determined by developmental determinants that today might be subsumed under the heading of path dependence. (3) Through the decades, both approaches grew internally differentiated and experienced periods of rejection. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they enjoyed a renaissance in a form enriched by cultural history. Beyond theories of totalitarianism, however, comparing the two systems remains a challenge. (4) Moreover, although rejected since the late 1980s, the thesis of a German Sonderweg continues to exercise great attraction in regard to particular spheres of activity, such as the continuities of German antisemitism (5) or militaristic organizational culture. (6)

The older theories of the German Sonderweg were entirely fixated on comparing Germany's development with the West--that is, France, Great Britain, and the United States. (7) Only since the late 1980s was this one-sided orientation questioned through the so-called Historikerstreit. Its initiator, Ernst Noite, launched a debate about the supposed causal nexus between Bolshevism and National Socialism--to use a catchphrase, the nexus between Gulag and Holocaust. The ensuing debates about the singularity of the Holocaust were marked by a lack of interest (as well as knowledge) among both West German historians and the wider public about events east of Germany's borders and German involvement in what occurred there. (8) That Germany had interacted economically, politically, and culturally not only with the West but with the East as well was never problematized in the Sonderweg discussions. Ernst Nolte's work on intellectual and political history forms an exception to the extent that his studies on fascism, and even more his monograph on the "European civil war," addressed Germany's relationship with Western as well as Eastern Europe. (This also revealed, however, the pitfalls of a narrowly intellectual- or political-history approach, which seemed a little old-fashioned even then.) (9) The Historikerstreit raised, avant la lettre, questions about mutual influences, about interactions, and about adaptations and transfers and transnationality that Ernst Nolte mostly answered wrongly or not at all.

The history of German-Russian and German-Soviet relations and interactions actually has a considerable historiography of its own, but in the historiographic mainstream it has always been received with only limited interest for "the East." (10) The reasons are manifold and cannot be discussed here. (11) The vast literature that could be cited includes, for the 20th century, the historiography on the debates and conflicts within the Second International and the communist and socialist movements after 1918, (12) on Berlin as "Europe's Eastern Station," (12) the role of the "fellow travelers" in the interwar period, (14) the commitment of German historians and social scientists to the creation of a "new order," (15) the history of prisoners of war in World War I (16) and, especially, World War II, (17) the German occupation in both world wars, (18) and lastly the "Russians in Germany. …

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