Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

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“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.

Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:

Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.

Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.

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Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”

Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.”

Domenico Losurdo, the Italian Stalinist philosopher, explored the theme of revisionism in a pair of essays written about a decade after the Historikerstreit. German reunification had in the meantime taken place, and despite a wave of xenophobic nationalism that swept the country in the early nineties, issues of identity no longer felt as urgent. Moreover, the Soviet archives had been opened, revealing the full extent of Stalinism’s atrocities. In retrospect, it appeared that Nolte and his colleagues had won out. Losurdo set out to correct this faulty image. Unlike Mommsen and Habermas, he had no qualms with the comparative approach adopted by these revisionists. Quite the opposite: Losurdo’s main complaint was that Nolte did not pursue it thoroughly enough. “Relativization of the horror of the Third Reich occurs through a series of comparisons with the horrors of Stalinist Russia. Historical revisionism’s analysis finds it hard, however, to go beyond comparing Hitler’s Germany with the country that emerged from the Bolshevik Revolution.” Instead, what Losurdo has looked to do is to relate fascist crimes to a different set of phenomena. On this score, he has even taken issue with Nolte’s adversary, pointing out: “Habermas’ sharp polemic against historical revisionism proceeds under the sign of the celebration of ‘Western life forms.’ Without intending to, he coincides here with Nolte, more zealously committed than anyone to demonstrating… the Oriental, Asiatic character of Nazism, and in both we again note repression of the influence of the Western colonial tradition, especially its Anglo-American variant, on Hitler’s imperial plans and war of extermination in the East.”

According to Losurdo, then, the real inspiration for the Nazis’ genocidal Generalplan Ost was not communist but colonialist violence. This thesis has been advanced numerous times, most famously by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she warned of the blurred “line between colonial methods and normal domestic policies, a ‘boomerang effect’ of imperialism upon the homeland.” Here a common interpretive trope can be seen operating in both arguments, the facile presentation of apparent opposites as “two sides of the same coin.” Nolte, the neoconservative liberal, relied on this exact metaphor to explain alleged isomorphy between fascism and communism. Losurdo, the Stalinist sophisticate, has done likewise with respect to fascism and liberalism. Fascists and assorted anti-Semites have seen capitalism and communism as the right and left wing of international Jewish conspiracy. Even the anarchist Bakunin asserted that “world is presently at the disposal of Marx, on the one hand, and the Rothschilds, on the other.”

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Ultimately, Losurdo has been concerned to keep another revisionism at bay — the one which, since 1956, has discredited Stalinism. In fact, Losurdo’s anti-revisionism (with respect to Stalin) bears a striking resemblance to Nolte’s revisionism (with respect to Hitler). Still, it must be stressed that this parallelism only pertains to their historiographical strategies. For it is in their apologism alone that Losurdo and Nolte are alike.

After all, Nolte was a peculiar sort of “revisionist.” Most of the time, the term connotes negationism when used in connection with the Holocaust. Yet Nolte repeatedly made clear that he disagreed with outright deniers such as his friend, Robert Faurisson, who he felt was misled by feelings of antipathy toward Israel and sympathy for Palestine. “Is the latter always an unworthy motive?” he wondered in a December 1986 letter to the Israeli historian Dov Kulka. Nolte never denied the Final Solution was an awful ordeal, or that gas chambers and ovens existed, or that estimates of those killed were accurate. Generally, he maintained the genocide was utterly illogical and unjustifiable, although in the 1990s he became increasingly strident (e.g., stating in interviews that there were “well-founded reasons” to view the Jews as enemies and “adopt appropriate measures” given their overrepresentation in communist circles). Oddly, however, despite admitting to these “errors” and “excesses,” Nolte was not content to let the matter rest there. Though many scholars attempted to portray someone like Heidegger as simply naïve during the 1980s and 1990s, Nolte aimed to vindicate rather than exonerate his former teacher: “Insofar as Heidegger resisted the [communist] solution, he, like countless others, was historically correct… By committing himself to the [National Socialist] solution perhaps he became a ‘fascist,’ but in no way did that make him historically wrong to start with.”

Losurdo’s anti-revisionist line vis-à-vis Stalin has followed a similar logic. Unlike his fellow Stalinist and occasional ally Grover Furr, author of Khrushchev Lied, Losurdo has consistently maintained that Stalin made major mistakes during his premiership. At no point did he claim that the brutality of the Gulag system had been exaggerated, or that no innocents had been swept up during the bloody purges and show trials of the 1930s. Nevertheless, Losurdo has situated these crimes in relation to the threat of fascism, as if this somehow excused Stalin’s regime. Enzo Traverso, an Italian leftist less inclined to defend the orthodox narrative, surely had Losurdo in mind when he remarked: “Marxist scholars have sometimes been tempted to reverse Nolte’s scheme by presenting Stalinism as the response to the colossal threat to the USSR’s existence embodied Nazism, whose 1941 Blitzkrieg invasion proved its project of extermination. Stalinism’s crimes were a regrettable, but inevitable, consequence of this menace. Of course the response was grossly disproportionate, this but was a derivative and exogenous politics.” Traverso emphatically affirmed that “this approach is the symmetrical, Marxist version of Nolte’s historical revisionism.” Furthermore, he challenged the thesis of a “boomerang effect” of European colonialism:

Domenico Losurdo [interprets] the Nazis’ violence and genocide during the Second World War as the introduction to Europe of all the exterminationist methods used in the classical colonial wars of the nineteenth century. He suggests the Lebensraum in Eastern Europe was conceived by National Socialism as the Third Reich’s Far West or Africa. But Losurdo does not analyze the consequences of this approach. First, a colonial war carried out in Europe, in the midst of the twentieth century, using the modern tools of destruction of a developed industrial society, generated a new dimension of violence: tens of million of victims, and a genocide perpetrated not for a century or over several decades but in a few years. Second, the Jews were not, like Africans or Native Americans, a colonial people, but a people at the origins of Western civilization, who participated in German culture from the Enlightenment onwards and whose members had been German citizens. Obviously this doesn’t introduce a hierarchical scale into the history of genocide, but it does indicate a new stage attained by the violence of capitalism: no longer destruction by a conquering imperialism that imposed rule of Western civilization on the extra-European world, but the beginning of the collapse of this very civilization [Zivilisationsbruch] (or what Adorno and Horkheimer called “the self-destruction of Reason” [die Selbstzerstörung der Vernunft]).

Despite his clear abhorrence of Nolte’s “ideologically insidious comparison” of communism and fascism, undertaken with the “aim of normalizing, even rehabilitating, the German past,” Traverso found there was more than a modicum of truth in his characterization of 1917 to 1945 as a European civil war. Traverso was so impressed by this, in fact, that he dedicated a book to the topic, entitled Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945. Like Losurdo, he considered it telling that Nolte chose October 1917 and not August 1914 as the start of this civil war: “Nolte’s ‘European civil war’ begins not in 1914, with the collapse of the old imperial order and outbreak of the First World War, but in 1917 — at the moment of the October revolution. This reduces Auschwitz to a byproduct of a clumsy attempt to imitate the ‘Asiatic’ tortures practiced by the Cheka.” All the same, revising the timeline somewhat, Traverso upheld the interpretation of this period as a “civil war.”

PARIS - 1937- International Exhibition of 1937 in Paris. (Photo by- Roger Viollet_Getty Images) The Paris World Exposition 1937 has closed its gates. In the back left- the 'German House', on the right- the Soviet Pavilion, in between- the Eiffel Tower. Paris. Photograph. 29.11.1937 copy 2

“Civil war” here is used in a very precise and technical sense. Karl Marx once described the June Revolution in the streets of Paris 1848 as “civil war [Bürgerkrieg] in its most terrible aspect, the war of labor against capital.” What he meant by this was that a war [Krieg] now raged within civil society [bürgerliche Gesellschaft], the class struggle [Klassenkampf] between proletariat and bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels also spoke quite often of an impending “world war”: “Europe has taken on a form which makes every fresh proletarian upheaval… directly coincide with a world war, forced to leave its national soil and conquer the European terrain, on which alone the social revolution of the nineteenth century can be accomplished.” Thus Engels in 1887, remarking that “the only war left… to wage will be a world war — a world war, moreover, the violence of which has been hitherto unimagined… a universal lapse into barbarism.” Few could have predicted that world war and civil war would overlap beginning in 1914. As Chris Cutrone recently explained:

Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky regarded this period as confronted by a choice between “socialism or barbarism.” Or, more specifically, the civil war of the workers against the capitalists as opposed to the world war between imperialist states. That was the prognosis. Both predictions, of civil war and world war, came spectacularly true. Up to then Marxists understood this as either one alternative or the other. As it happened, it was both a world war and a civil war from 1914 to 1919, in which the Second International collapsed over the imperialist world war and the class-struggle civil war that followed. So the crisis of Marxism not only concerned world war, but also civil war [i.e., Weltbürgerkrieg]

Lenin’s slogan about the duty of Marxists to “transform world war into civil war” expressed nothing other than this dialectical need. And thus Losurdo took Nolte to task on this point: “Transformation of imperialist war into a civil war was a tendency that the Bolshevik leader did not create, but on which he was able to confer conscious, organized form… Nolte, who presumes to compress the interpretation of such a complex, contradictory century into the category of civil war, ends up forgetting or repressing it where it is self-evidently necessary.” Fascism was only the most pernicious product of this conflict at the heart of capitalism. Max Horkheimer wrote in 1939 that “whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.” But he forgot to add that fascist politics took shape not simply as a result of capitalism, but the failed attempt to overcome capitalism. Walter Benjamin’s dictum comes to mind: “Every fascism is an index of a failed revolution.” Or as Heinrich Heine said before him, “a revolution is a misfortune, but a still greater misfortune is a failed revolution.” Nota bene — it does not follow that revolution ought to be avoided, as if the danger were too great.

Here our sketch of “revisionism” reconnects with the foundational use of the term, as it applied to Eduard Bernstein and his followers in the early 1900s. Bernstein is even rumored to have invented the term, referring to his own worldview. Revolution was declared by him an antiquated doctrine, impossible or undesirable, especially since the proletariat’s lot in life was improved more reliably through reform. Karl Kautsky and other Marxists led the charge against Bernstein, and revolutionary orthodoxy eventually prevailed. Defeated at the level of theory, revisionism nevertheless triumphed at the level of practice. “Officially condemned at party congresses, this revisionism was in the end accepted no less officially by trade unions,” wrote one dialectician. “At the beginning of the century, a new period of development put the question of social revolution back on the agenda as a realistic and terrestrial question in all its vital dimensions. Purely theoretical orthodox Marxism — until the outbreak of world war the established version of Marxism in the Second International — collapsed completely and disintegrated.” Georg Lukács acerbically commented on Kautsky’s rapprochement with Bernstein shortly after that war: “The man who did it without saying so, the man who didn’t preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, turning revolutionary dialectics into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky… Whereas Kautsky scores over Bernstein in his apparent recognition of revolutionary moments in the world situation, he puts a theoretical construction on this recognition that unintentionally leads to the same ultimate consequences in practice as Bernstein’s approach.”

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Revisionism in this last sense may therefore have played a part in the ultimate defeat of world revolution between 1914 and 1919. Civil war only spread up to a point, and stopped short of reaching the most advanced industrial countries. It was in the final analysis encircled and contained, but not before the seeds of counterrevolution had been sown in places like Germany, Italy, and France. Arno Mayer documented this extensively in his masterful survey Why did the Heavens not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History (1988), published only a year after the Nolte-Habermas controversy had wrapped up. Mayer saw the rise of fascism as a mass movement as inextricably bound up with the defeat of Marxism as a mass movement. Even Traverso remarked that the German revisionist unwittingly hits upon the truth. “Nolte does genuinely grasp an essential feature of Nazism: its counterrevolutionary nature, that of a movement born in a reaction against the Russian Revolution and German Spartacism, as a militant anti-Marxist and anti-communist force. This is true of fascism, Mussolini’s as well as Hitler’s… October 1917 provoked a frightening trauma amongst the European bourgeoisie, comparable in many respects to the shock experienced by the [European] aristocracy after 1789… Proletarian dictatorship, together with the ephemeral Soviet republics that appeared in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919-1920, struck fear into the ruling classes.”

Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian theorist, brought these insights to bear on his 2008 tome, In Defense of Lost Causes, an often uneven work. Reviewing the Historikerstreit, Žižek observed that “the standard left-liberal reaction to Nolte consisted in the moralistic outcry that he relativizes Nazism, reducing it to a secondary echo of communist evil. But how could one compare communism, this thwarted attempt at liberation, with the radical evil of Nazism? In contrast to this dismissal, one should fully concede Nolte’s central point: Yes, Nazism was in fact a reaction to the Communist threat, and it did indeed just replace class struggle with the struggle between Aryans and Jews. The problem, however, resides in the ‘just,’ which is by no means as innocent as it appears. We’re dealing here with displacement [Verschiebung] in the Freudian sense of the term. Nazism displaces class struggle [Klassenkampf] onto racial struggle [Rassenkampf], and thereby obfuscates its true site. Hence Nolte was right: Nazism was a repetition, a copy of Bolshevism, a profoundly re-active phenomenon.”

2 thoughts on “Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

  1. Even Traverso remarked that the German revisionist unwittingly hits upon the truth. “Nolte does genuinely grasp an essential feature of Nazism: its counterrevolutionary nature, that of a movement born in a reaction against the Russian Revolution and German Spartacism, as a militant anti-Marxist and anti-communist force. This is true of fascism, Mussolini’s as well as Hitler’s… October 1917 provoked a frightening trauma amongst the European bourgeoisie, comparable in many respects to the shock experienced by the [European] aristocracy after 1789… Proletarian dictatorship, together with the ephemeral Soviet republics that appeared in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919-1920, struck fear into the ruling classes.”

    Fascism was a reaction to the successes of the Bolshevik political revolution. That the Bolsheviks failed to establish a change in the mode of producing and distributing wealth, that they failed to abolish wage slavery and commodity production was and is not a reason to reject the social revolution promoted by Marx and Engels, a revolution which they claimed could only be made by the class conscious workers themselves, not by a vanguard party assuming State power for itself.

  2. Pingback: Сталин и Гитлер: возможно ли сравнение? | The Charnel-House

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