Heirs to a contested past

April 26, 1996

Hans Mommsen's once groundbreaking arguments about the Holocaust are now accepted. Jennie Brookman profiles him.

He is one of Germany's most eminent historians. Yet throughout his career people have always asked him: "Aren't you related to I ?" For Hans Mommsen, the specialist in the Weimar Republic and Third Reich who takes up a visiting chair at St Anthony's, Oxford in the autumn, is from a dynasty of historians as famous for their ability to attract controversy as for their historical work. His great grandfather, Theodor Mommsen, won the Nobel prize for literature for his work Romische Geschichte (History of Rome). Theodor was a founder of the progressive party in Prussia and a critic of Bismarck. Hans's father, Wilhelm, was a leader of the democratic youth movement in the 1920s and a professor of history who fell foul of the Nazis and the postwar conservatives.

But it is his identical twin brother Wolfgang J. Mommsen, former director of the German Historical Institute in London and professor of history at Dusseldorf University, with whom Hans has been most often compared and confused. "People were always mixing us up because we were so similar. It was difficult when we both applied for a chair. People felt they couldn't favour one over the other," he says.

The family connection has always been more of a burden than a benefit, Mommsen claims. "You don't share your friends, you share your enemies," he says, with an air of regret which seems to belie the fact that there has hardly been a dispute over contemporary German history in the past 30 years to which Hans Mommsen has not added his voice. "There's a certain family tradition for that," he says wryly. "But anyone involved in the history of the Third Reich necessarily becomes involved in political conflicts."

Although Mommsen's father was an active democrat, he had been compelled to join the Nazi party in 1940 and lost his professorship at Marburg in 1945. The twins were 14 at the end of the war and their school and student careers coincided with their father's long battle to restore his professional position. Hans Mommsen describes it as a combined attempt by local conservative powerbrokers to prevent his father gaining any political influence after 1945. "He became the victim of many denunciations. He put his whole energy into restoring his professional esteem and that had a very negative influence on us twins. It may have influenced the low opinion of authority that we both have."

The experience at first led Hans Mommsen to seek escape from contemporary issues by planning a career in medieval history. But he soon switched to modern history after meeting Hans Rothfels, a leading historian. It was while working as an assistant to Rothfels at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich in 1961 that Mommsen had his first taste of historical controversy. He was asked to evaluate a theory by the amateur historian Fritz Tobias about the Reichstag fire, the burning down of Germany's parliamentary building by the Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe in 1933. In postwar Germany most historians believed that van der Lubbe had been put up to it by the Nazis to fan the flames of public opinion against the Communists and give them a pretext to introduce emergency laws to help them seize power.

But Tobias claimed the Dutchman had acted alone. And the young Mommsen became convinced Tobias was right. In 1964 he published The Reichstag Fire and its Political Consequences, which caused uproar because it attacked the proposition that was more comfortable to postwar Germans, that the fire had been a Nazi conspiracy. "It ran contrary to the assumption that Hitler was the main culprit and the poor German people had been seduced by him," Mommsen says.

Soon he became a leading figure, along with his brother Wolfgang, in a new generation of historians who challenged the idea that National Socialism could be attributed simply to Hitler and the support of a small clique of fanatical SS members. Instead, they sought to explain the wider conditions that allowed the Nazis to take power. Mommsen explains: " Future generations will not accept that the destruction of Europe can be blamed on the rotten biography of one individual. We have to look for more objective factors which made Hitler possible."

He elaborated on this theory soon afterwards with the publication of his book Beamtentum im dritten Reich (The Civil Service in the Third Reich) published in 1966. This contained the controversial assertion that in some respects Hitler had been a "weak dictator" who had often hesitated in making important decisions. "Everybody thought I was crazy," he says. "But I didn't say he was not influential. He had unlimited power, but that doesn't necessarily mean he made strong decisions."

Mommsen gained more support from other historians in his contribution to the debate on the causes of the Holocaust. He disputes that Hitler ever gave an order to kill Jews. Rather than a systematic rational plan, he argues that the "final solution" came about by a process of "cumulative radicalisation" - a chain of megalomaniacal misplanning, unclear command and uncoordinated action by the National Socialist power holders and the readiness of non-Nazi elites to cooperate.

Mommsen therefore rejects the analysis in US sociologist Daniel Goldhagen's new book Hitler's Willing Executioners, which claims that the Holocaust was motivated by widespread German anti-Semitism. "It is a really old-fashioned position. It is misleading to think this was the main reason for the Holocaust. At the time anti-Semitism was no less strong in France or eastern Europe."

Yet Mommsen's interpretation of the Holocaust is an unsettling one. He describes it as a frightening example of how otherwise normal individuals can be seduced if they exist under permanently exceptional circumstances, including the dissolution of legal and institutional structures and continuous public justification of criminal acts.

Mommsen's retirement from Bochum will not mark a departure from the historical scene. Quite the reverse: he has just completed a history of the German company Volkswagen and his year at St Anthony's will give him the time to write his long-awaited history of National Socialism.

Characteristically, this has triggered controversy before it has been written. It was to be the ninth volume in the Propylaen History of Germany. But a disagreement over the deadline prompted the publisher to commission another historian to write it. The book was panned by critics, and the series editors, who had not been consulted about the switch of author, demanded a publisher's note distancing them from the views expressed. Loyal readers have reportedly returned their subscriptions to the publisher - deciding the Mommsen version will be worth waiting for.

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