German foreign office taken to task by historian for attempting to wipe out Nazi history
Professor Dr. Hans Mommsen tackled aspects of Germany’s attempts to face its Nazi past when he delivered a lecture titled “Coming to terms with the Nazi past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Burden and Obligation” at Andrássy University last Tuesday.
Ellen Bos, head of the political sciences department at the university, expressed her delight at the historian’s visit: “It has been planned for many years and has finally happened.” She praised Germany’s honest and unsparing way of coming to terms with the past and pointed to its significance for Hungary.
The poster behind historian Dr. Hans Mommsen reads: “Coming to terms with the Nazi past in the Federal Republic of Germany. Burden and Obligation.” Mommsen accused modern-day historians of “starting again from scratch” in order to justify state funding.
The myth of passivity
Mommsen began by describing various aspects of facing up to the past, beginning with the post-war orientation phase when Germans developed a new national consciousness and prominent figures such as writer Martin Walser assumed that after a certain time had elapsed there could be a return to normality. Mommsen noted that the German population for a time saw itself as a passive part of the Nazi period.
He said that projecting guilt onto representatives of the Nazi period was a form of defence. “It is a myth that the population was neutral at that time,” the 80-year-old historian said. He highlighted the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961-62, which was seen as drawing a line under the past because from that time onwards no more Nazi perpetrators were to be pursued.
Historians’ debate in 1986
Mommsen described what has come to be known as the “historians’ debate” of 1986 as having the most marked impact on the process of dealing with Germany’s Nazi past. One German historian, Ernst Nolte, described Nazism as a defensive reaction to the threat of Bolshevism. Other historians took issue with that position, reawakening interest in the topic and leading to the Nazi period being addressed more extensively in schools. “It is always important to explain and not to judge,” Mommsen stressed.
Hitler did not work alone
He warned of “the moralising interpretation of the period by the media as a reversion to the 1950s”. And Mommsen criticised the excessive emphasis on the person of Hitler. He took Germany’s foreign office to task, describing the book it commissioned titled The office and the past: German diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic as an “attempt at wiping out history” and a setback in the process of coming to terms with the Nazis. Care should be taken that the government does not get too involved, he said.
Mommsen commented that the new generation of historians seems to have forgotten the work of the preceding generation. That barb was directed at the authors of the book, who made no mention of earlier studies. Mommsen described this approach of “starting again from scratch” as a way of justifying state funding. “Institutions close to the government commission historians in a targeted way. I think it would be better to leave such initiatives to independent research.”