Challenges with comparisons with Nazism

Comparative history is a powerful weapon in the historian’s armoury. The historian’s perspective in the present allows them to compare two or more phenomena in order to better characterise the essence of what is being studied. For example, Marwick has argued that ‘comparative study involving comparison within a single country or between different countries is of immense value, since in highlighting both similarities and differences it can be a source of new synthesis, new questions, and, sometimes, convincing answers’.[i] For these and other reasons, ‘similarity and difference’ is enshrined in the National History Curriculum as a second order concept which can be used to frame and drive rigorous enquiry questions.

Historians have encountered difficulties, however, when trying to apply these methodological apparatus to Nazism. Among historians and the public more generally, the Nazi regime is almost uniformly accepted to have been uniquely evil and destructive.[ii] Consequently, in many ways the historiography of Nazism is similarly unique in terms of the ferocity of the debates accompanying it: particularly when comparison is involved.[iii] To take one famous example Fritz Fischer’s research heavily implied similarities between the war aims of the Wilhelmian government before World War I and Hitler’s own expansionist policies. Despite Fischer’s work being ‘meticulously-documented’ and eventually precipitating a ‘paradigm-shift’ in German historical research in the 1960s,  it was so divisive that many prominent conservative historians refused to shake Fischer’s hand in public.[iv] The mere insinuation that the Nazis were in any way comparable to the conservative government of Wilhelm II and Bethmann-Holwegg was enough to elicit the fury of many German nationalists.

Fischer’s method was conventionally historicist, rigorous, and therefore eventually became widely accepted by the probative community of scholars. Due to Nazism’s horrific nature and the inevitable moral undercurrent of the debates, however, the methodology of comparative history designed to ensure some measure of disciplinary objectivity has often been discarded to enable moral, political or ideological claims to be made. Consequently, there is a greater tendency in the study of Nazism for comparative interpretations to ‘distort reality and (be) intellectually dishonest’.[v]

These arguments tend to take two forms. First, because the topic of Nazism is so morally-charged, if proper methodological fail-safes are not employed comparisons soon descend into thinly-veiled ideological propaganda. This argument tends to adopt the following logic. ‘This aspect of x is a bit like Nazism. Everyone knows Nazism is evil. Therefore x is evil.’ History devolves into a vehicle for brush-tarring. For example, some of the cruder Cold War proponents of totalitarian theory were only interested in cherry-picking similarities between Nazi and Communist states to discredit their Soviet enemies and shore up democratic liberalism in the west in the 1950s.[vi] A similar if more pronounced phenomenon can be seen in ‘fascism’ theory in East Germany where ‘similarities’ between the Nazi regime and its western capitalist successor state in the FRG were identified but the myriad differences were ignored to justify the new ‘antifascist’ state in the East.[vii] For these reasons, much of the scholarship of this type has now been dismissed by historians as ‘weapons’ of Cold War ideology.[viii]

The second type of argument is even more pernicious because it might be adopted by those who wish to exculpate Germans of Nazi crimes. The logic is as follows: ‘Yes Nazism was evil. But x which isn’t considered as evil also did something which can be compared to Nazism. Therefore Nazism can only be as evil as x’.  Fearing these sort of rationalisations some historians such as Saul Friedländer in his heated debate with Martin Broszat have argued that applying the ‘normal’ historicist methods of history to this subject risk normalising, relativising and trivialising the Nazi regime’s uniquely evil crimes.[ix]

Friedländer’s worst fears were to some extent realised during the vituperative Historikerstreit (Historians’ dispute) of 1986-87. Ernst Nolte latched onto and bastardised Broszat’s plea for the ‘historicisation’ of Nazism and argued that Nazism’s crimes needed to be ‘normalised’. He went on to argue that the Holocaust should be compared to ‘the Asiatic deeds’ of the Armenian genocide and the Stalinist Terror as well as to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. He then used such comparative analysis to posit a thesis that the Holocaust was an excessive, but logical, reaction to Stalin’s crimes and was in many ways modelled on them. He therefore heavily implied that the USSR had been worse than Nazism. In doing so, he had to ignore evidence that contradicted his thesis, such as Hitler’s genocidal claims in the early 1920s before Stalin came to power. Unlike Broszat who sought to apply ‘historicisation’ to achieve greater understanding of how the Holocaust could have occurred, Nolte clearly had practical purposes in mind. He wanted to end what he considered to be the left-wing, self-flagellating, and anti-national ‘pedagogical historiography’  of Nazism and allow the ‘past to pass away’.[x] To many observers such as Jürgen Habermas Nolte’s argument hid barely-disguised and insidious apologetic purposes to justify the crimes of and suppress the memory of Nazism.[xi]

These examples do not mean that comparison with Nazism is impossible. As Kershaw and Lewin have argued, ‘the ideological abuse of a comparative concept does not in itself invalidate genuine historical comparison’.[xii] In fact, in order to substantiate any claim of ‘uniqueness’ comparisons must be made.[xiii] I personally agree more with Broszat that only through the rigorous, disciplinary objective methods of history can even the most horrific of historical phenomena be truly understood. This approach does necessitate, however, that comparisons be made judiciously and by applying the proper historical method.

For example, comparisons must be initiated with an equal commitment to identifying similarities AND differences and their relative weight. At best, the problem with the exclusive focus on and cherry-picking of similarities to Nazism is that it has no analytical power. The ‘this aspect of x is a bit like Nazism so therefore x is evil’ line of argument can literally be applied to almost any ideology and system so that it becomes completely redundant as an interpretative framework. It does little to characterise the nature of Nazism or the thing that it is being compared to. At worst, a consequence of frivolous comparison is that it opens the door to pernicious relativism and the trivialisation of Nazism’s horrific crimes.

[i]Marwick, A. (2001). The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. London: Palgrave. p.92

[ii] Stackelberg, R. (2007) The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. London: Routledge

[iii] For example, the ‘Fischer Controversy’ of the early 1960s; the ‘structuralist’/’intentionalist’ debates at the Cumberland Lodge conference in 1979; the Historikerstreit of 1986-87; the ‘Goldhagen Controversy’ in the mid 1990s; Aly and other younger historians accusing structuralists of being Nazi apologetics at the German Historical Conference in 1998.

[iv] Evans, R. J. (1989). In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historian and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past New York: Pantheon p.113; Stackelberg op.cit.

[v] Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M. (1997). ‘Introduction: The regimes and their dictators: perspectives of comparison’. In Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M. (Eds.) Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorship in Comparison. (pp.1-25). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.3-4

[vi] Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M op.cit.

[vii] Kershaw, I. (2015). The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (4th Ed.). London: Bloomsbury; Jarausch, K. H. (1991). ‘The Failure of East German Antifascism: Some Ironies of History as Politics’ German Studies Review 14(1) pp.85-102

[viii] Caplan, J. (2006). The Historiography of National Socialism. In Bentley, M. (Ed.) Companion to Historiography (pp.526-544). London: Routledge

[ix] Broszat, M. & Friedländer, S. (1988). ‘A Controversy about the Historicization of National Socialism’ New German Critique 44 pp.85-126

[x] Stackelberg op.cit.

[xi] Evans, R. J. (1987). ‘The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German HistorikerstreitThe Journal of Modern History 59 (4) pp.761-797; Maier C. S. (1998) The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (2nd Ed.) London: Harvard University Press

[xii] Kershaw op.cit.; Jarausch op.cit.

[xiii] This criticism has famously been made about Daniel Goldhagen’s claim that Germany in the build up to the Holocaust was ‘uniquely’ ‘eliminationist’ in its anti-Semitism. Many historians have noted that Goldhagen did not substantiate his claim by comparing Germany to other examples of anti-semitism in Europe such as the Russian pogroms or the French Dreyfus Affair. E.g. ‘Rosenfeld, G. D. (1999) ‘The Controversy That Isn’t: The Debate over Daniel J. Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” in Comparative Perspective’  Contemporary European History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jul., 1999), pp. 249-273