The Historikerstreit, the historians’ dispute of 1986-8 over the comparability of the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism, now seems to have taken place decades ago. Looking back at it is like looking back on another world. For this was in essence a political rather than a historical debate. It was not about the content of the past so much as about its exploitation for political purposes in the present.
The political context was set by US President Ronald Reagan’s ‘Second Cold War’. Reagan described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. He sought to persuade the West Germans to accept a new generation of nuclear weapons and to back his ambitious Star Wars programme in which vastly expensive military hardware would be positioned in space, ready to shoot down any long-range missiles that America’s enemies might launch against the West. In order to do this, Reagan naively attempted to suggest to the Germans that the horrors of the Third Reich had now been forgotten and forgiven. Conservative politicians and academics in West Germany supported Reagan’s charm offensive. Some of them argued that Nazism’s crimes had in any case been no different from those of other twentieth-century dictatorships. One historian, Ernst Nolte, went further and alleged that Hitler’s antisemitism was in essence a legitimate response to the Communist threat to annihilate the European bourgeoisie, and that it had only taken on extreme dimensions when Hitler began to copy the example of Stalin’s extermination of the kulaks, the property-owning class in the Russian countryside.
Those, such as myself, who challenged these arguments were outraged by what we saw as a series of wilful distortions of the evidence. In some cases, this came close to denying the reality of Nazism’s crimes altogether; in others it presented them as being at least partly justified. 1 The historical record showed that Hitler’s antisemitism predated his anti-Communism, and that his comprehensive, mechanized annihilation of an entire ethnic group, without exception, had no parallel in the annals even of twentieth-century mass murder. At the same time, there is no denying that the critics of Nolte and those who thought like him, led by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas,