Sorting history from hysteria

Rereading German History 1800-1996
December 19, 1997

Academic book reviews are often seen as the wood-shavings of the scholarly craftsman: erudite ephemera, of no intrinsic value and certainly not worth republishing between hard covers. As a former literary editor of The Times, I dissent from this prejudice. The books pages are the first draft of intellectual history, and as such may well have enduring interest. The best reviewers are at least as painstaking - and as entertaining - as the authors reviewed. Macaulay's Essays, perhaps the most popular work of British history in the 19th century, all started life as reviews; and indeed the reviews of most great scholars and writers are very often sketches as suggestive or miniatures as masterly as any of their larger works. The more forgettable the book unfortunate enough to be scrutinised by a Dr Johnson, the more memorable the response.

It does not necessarily follow that even substantial review articles are worth collecting as grist for the mills of the academic publishing industry. There must be a minimum input of original thought, of challenge to convention, and of literary ability - in short, of wit - to justify risking comparison with the Macaulays. If even George Eliot's marvellous review essays have only recently been collected by A. S. Byatt, and George Orwell's are out of print, what right do ordinary mortals have to take up shelf space with their dull, derivative excogitations?

The latest volume from the prolific pen of Richard J. Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, passes the Macaulay test with flying colours. It presents a coherent, if contentious, left-liberal view of modern German history; it is critical of conformism, even the conformism of the "critical school"; alert to inaccuracy but more interested in the spirit than the letter; intolerant of intellectual lethargy; and above all it flows easily in a sprightly, jargon-free prose. Evans is not a scholarly wit but his writing is illuminated by flashes of academic aggression. Like revenge, historians' hatchet-jobs are best served cold. I doubt whether Immanuel Geiss, to take one victim, has yet forgotten Evans's description of his "unpolemical essay" on the German Historikerstreit (historians' dispute) of the 1980s, Die Hysterikerstreit, as "a bizarre mixture of pedantry and paranoia".

Much of this volume is neither laudatory nor excoriatory. Academics whose command of German will not suffice to read the thousands of pages of major recent general histories by Nipperdey, Wehler or Mommsen will be grateful for Evans's summaries of their arguments.

All the same, the status of these reviews is problematic. Written over the past decade, they have inevitably dated, as the tempo of academic research and revision has accelerated under the impact of German reunification. Evans is of course aware of this, and he appears to have rewritten some passages for republication. One such academic cold potato is his 1990 piece for Marxism Today. He admits that during the 1980s he "in common with virtually everyone else" had thought reunification would only happen in the distant future. Yet this article on "German reunification in historical perspective" concludes thus: "in the six or seven years since unification, the process of adjustment and merging has at last begun." One assumes that these words have been added recently - but how much else has he altered? If the chief interest of the article is now historical, as a document of the transition period, then "updating" amounts to distortion.

The 30-page article on the Daniel Goldhagen controversy, "Anti-Semitism and 'ordinary Germans"', forms the most sustained argument in the book. It is also, to my mind, the least persuasive. Like Evans, I find the argument of Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners to be exaggerated, his treatment of evidence often superficial, his methods vitiated by the defects of American political science. But I would not characterise as "a pretentious piece of bad scholarship" a book which has inaugurated the most fruitful German debate of the decade. This judgement is unfair on several counts. First, Evans misrepresents Goldhagen's argument. For example, he suggests that it was only in response to his critics that Goldhagen conceded that the Holocaust would not have happened if Hitler and the Nazis had not come to power during the slump. Yet in the foreword to the German edition, Goldhagen states plainly: "So without the Nazis, and without Hitler, the Holocaust would not have occurred." Similarly, Evans claims that "Goldhagen's subsequent declaration that the Germans had changed since the coming of democracy after 1945 lacked all credibility in view of his overall stress on the unique depth of German anti-Semitism". Again, the original book made clear that there was nothing immutable about German culture, and that present-day Germany was in no sense anti-Semitic. Had Evans been less partisan in his account of the controversy, he might have wondered whether modern Germany, with its virtual absence of Jews, is really so innocent. The allergic reaction of some German historians to Goldhagen, implying that as an American Jew and a non-historian he had no right to participate, certainly gave some observers pause. Not, it seems, Evans; for him it is impossible that respectable German authorities of the "second generation" might harbour residual resentments towards a figure like Goldhagen. Instead, he trivialises the tumultuous reception given to Goldhagen in Germany as a mass media phenomenon, comparable to the "Hitler Diaries" affair.

Second, Evans is less than fair in rejecting out of hand Goldhagen's account of the "eliminationist" culture of pre-Nazi Germany. One-sided and often inaccurate it certainly is; but Evans no less certainly paints too rosy a picture of the Social Democratic culture of imperial Germany. The role of Jewish leaders, from K. Marx and F. Lassalle to P. Singer, E. Bernstein and R. Luxemburg, should not blind us to the existence of anti-Semitic undercurrents on the left as well as the right, deriving from the identification of Judaism and capitalism, going back to the Enlightenment and the early Marx himself. In the Weimar Republic the feeble response of Social Democratic politicians to anti-Semitism (in contrast to their energetic enlistment of anti-Semitic Freikorps to suppress the extreme left) was striking.

As Evans rightly points out, the postwar Weimar generation primarily responsible for carrying out the Holocaust was a brutalised one, peculiarly susceptible to the kind of propaganda used by the Nazis, which demonised enemies and offered violent solutions. But the "eliminationist mind-set" that interests Goldhagen was older. While true, it is not enough to say (as Evans does) that the Nazis played down their anti-Semitism in certain areas, or that they never won a majority in a free election. Plenty of non-Nazis, even anti-Nazis, including even some Jews, had this mind-set. Perhaps Evans's next book, which one gathers from this volume will be a wide-ranging history of modern Germany, will come up with better answers to the disturbing questions which Goldhagen has posed.

Daniel Johnson is writing a history of Germany.

Rereading German History 1800-1996: From Unification to Reunification

Author - Richard J. Evans
ISBN - 0 415 15900 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £15.99
Pages - 256

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