Year XL, 1998, Number 2 - Page 142

 

 

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AS INTERPRETED BY ERNST NOLTE
 
 
The historical research conducted by Ernst Nolte focuses essentially on the first half of the 20th century — in particular, on the period from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the end of the Second World War in 1945. However, he has also written about Germany during the Cold War and, following the end of the East-West conflict and the dissolution of the USSR, set forth in a number of essays, articles and book-interviews, succinct but nevertheless quite elaborate reflections on the second half of the 20th century which link up with his ideas relating to its first half. It can thus be said that he has developed a personal interpretation of the whole of the 20th century and, following its essential lines, it is this interpretation which I propose to set forth here.[1]
 
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There are two fundamental phenomena of the 20th century which any overall interpretation of it must seek to comprehend in depth. The first of these, relating to the first half of the century, is the National Socialist movement which generated the most finely honed and efficient fascist totalitarian regime the world has ever seen, and led to the horrendous genocide of the Jews as well as the crimes committed against the gypsy and Slavic populations and against minority groups. It also heightened the expansionist and imperialist tendencies which Germany had already shown at the time of World War I and triggered, in all its horror, the Second World War. The second phenomenon is the East-West conflict which clearly represents the main thread running through the period spanning the years from 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet System in the 90s. Despite the obvious differences between them, these two aspects are linked by the fact that the action of Hitler’s Germany was a crucial factor in the passage from the first to the second of the relative phases. Germany’s attack on the democratic powers of the West and on the USSR prompted an alliance between them; and with the victory of this alliance in the Second World War the USSR achieved the rank of a world superpower, a position which enabled it to challenge the Western world led by the other superpower, America.
If these are to be considered the two fundamental phenomena of the 20th century, the peculiarity of Nolte’s interpretation lies in his view that the origins, not only of the East-West conflict, but also of the Nazi movement lie, at their deepest level, in the Russian Revolution. He draws attention to the deep-rooted tendency to see Communism as the greatest and most fundamental affliction of the 20th century, a view which, despite leading to different conclusions, is also expressed by François Furet.[2]
In Nolte’s view, two fundamental lines of point to a connection between Bolshevism and National Socialism. According to the first of these, the left-wing extremism of the Bolsheviks can be seen as the decisive historical factor which allowed the rise to power of the radically and fanatically right-wing National Socialists. In short what Europe had witnessed in 1917, in one of its most powerful nations, was the seizure of power by a party which had started a civil war against the bourgeoisie. And this war, having as its ultimate and openly declared objective the assimilation of all national states into a system of socialist government on a world scale (not through the mere expropriation but, instead, through the elimination of the landowning classes), did not affect Russia alone, but had repercussions on Europe and on the world as a whole. Since this design based on “class extermination” was effectively put into practice in Russia at the time of the civil war, and followed by the collectivisation of agriculture, it was inevitable that a party resistant to Communism would emerge in those countries which had strong Communist parties (or strong extremist forces which pursued the Soviet model) and in which a similar evolution of events might be expected. National Socialism, whose main precedent had been Italian fascism, represented the strongest form of resistance to Communism, and its victory can be attributed to the fact that it gave the appearance of being able, in a radical manner, to eliminate a danger in whose face the political forces which favoured liberal-democratic political principles seemed impotent.
In Nolte’s view, therefore, Hitler’s position can be defined, essentially, as anti-Lenin, in that the main motivation for his political action was the defence of bourgeois society, together with a rejection of the universalism that sought to achieve the elimination of nations. In the context of this motivation, Nolte identifies two important, if subsidiary, elements: anti-semitism (based on the false conviction, which Hitler, among others, shared with people like Henry Ford, that Judaism represented fertile ground for the cultivation of Bolshevism) and expansionism (which, provided it also targeted democratic countries, would serve to increase Germany’s capacity to overcome the international danger which Communism represented). Although the birth of National Socialism (with rejection of Communism seen as its main motivation) can, up to a point, be deemed a sincere and legitimate reaction to events in Russia and go some way towards explaining the public support which the National Socialist movement enjoyed, Nolte stresses that this does not justify in the slightest the crimes committed by the Nazis, and in particular, the massacre of the Jews. And here, we come to his second line of reasoning.
Despite obvious differences in their ultimate objectives, the ideology constructed by the National Socialists, and that developed by the Communists, displayed the same totalitarian features — both promising to deliver, by bringing about a radical change in human nature, the definitive solution to all problems; indeed, it is precisely for this reason that the National Socialist movement proved able, in the ideological civil war triggered by the rise of Communism, to offer such strong and efficient resistance to this force. And because it involved the lifting of all restrictions on the power exercised by the political class, the passage from a totalitarian ideology to a totalitarian state inevitably resulted in the committing of crimes of the greatest atrocity. The crimes committed by the National Socialists had, furthermore, an important precedent: the “class extermination” carried out by the Bolsheviks earlier in the century represented application, on a massive scale, of the principle according to which guilt depends not on one’s actions as an individual, but on one’s membership of a group collectively deemed to be guilty — the first time since the Enlightenment that this principle had been applied in Europe. And the “racial slaughter” carried out by the National Socialists follows exactly the same logic, even though it was, in this case, applied in a much more carefully planned and systematic manner than it had been in Russia where, due in part to the backwardness of the country, it had often been disorganised and haphazard.
However, it is important to underline that the idea of Bolshevism as the logical and historical prius of National Socialism does not, in Nolte’s view, mean that the two can be considered equivalent. In fact, he acknowledges the qualitative difference that separates them: since Bolshevik Communism is characterised by universal values — the emancipation of the exploited and brotherhood among peoples — many of the crimes committed by the Bolsheviks can be seen (and indeed were seen by many Communists) to betray the very basis of the ideology which they professed. The crimes committed by the National Socialists, meanwhile, were perfectly coherent with their ideology, based as it was on the consciously anti-Enlightenment beliefs in a natural inequality among men and peoples and in the existence of a superior race. The fact remains that Bolshevism, by applying the principle of “group guilt”, barbarised the political struggle and prepared the way for the even more barbarous ideas and practices of the National Socialists. Hence the absolute need to free ourselves from the “tyranny of collectivist thought” and, with intransigence, to protect liberal-democratic ideals against any movement towards totalitarianism.
According to Nolte, this view of a connection between Bolshevism and National Socialism, and, in particular, the theory that the latter represented a comprehensible and, up to a point, a justifiable reaction to the former, is confirmed by the evolution of events after 1945. While the defeat of Nazi Germany signified the removal of a serious threat to the liberal-democratic world, it allowed the USSR to become a world superpower and Communism to assume dimensions enabling it, for a period lasting almost fifty years, to intimidate the West and even to threaten its very survival. The ideological civil war triggered the Russian Revolution which, until 1945, involved Europe — only becoming a world issue after that date — thus represents the main thread running through the history of the 20th century as a whole, a history which culminated in the irrevocable defeat of Communism. This defeat was made possible by the steadfastness of the political forces of the Western world which, recognising quite clearly the totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime, and denouncing the ambiguous nature of an anti-fascist movement which sought to conceal this essential fact, resisted Soviet attempts to remove, supposedly in the spirit of the “peace movement”, the American presence in Europe and thereby to “neutralise” the Western half of the continent.
 
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Nolte’s considerations on the post-1945 period represent a schematic continuation of his basic idea that there exists a connection, both logical and factual, between Bolshevism and National Socialism — an idea which is specific to his historical interpretation. And it is important to point out, in order to understand it more fully, that this interpretation contrasts with the view that the German people must be considered collectively guilty of the crimes committed in the name of National Socialism, and that National Socialism itself reflects the very essence of the German nation. Nolte opposes the first part of this interpretation, maintaining that the guilt can be attributed only to individuals or to well-defined sections of the political class, and not to the population as a whole, as a population is always easily manipulated by the political classes. He also points out that the idea that the German nation is collectively guilty of the crimes committed by the fascists is nothing other than a further manifestation of the “tyranny of collectivist thought” introduced by the Communist ideology. In opposition to the second part of this interpretation (that National Socialism must be an expression of the very essence of the German nation), Nolte points out that the idea of a connection between Bolshevism and National Socialism highlights the fact that the objective historical conditions in which a people finds itself are, in general, sufficient to explain the prevalence of certain behaviour, and stresses that any other nation, faced with the situation Germany experienced in the 20s and 30s, would have reacted in substantially the same way. Nolte believes, furthermore, that had a Communist party of the dimensions of the German one become established in America, it would have generated, in that country, an even more extreme form of fascism than that which actually emerged in Germany.
Nolte himself underlines the significance, in practical terms, of his interpretation: were the people of Germany collectively guilty, this would imply a need, within the framework of a European or world union, to exert a special control over the country, limiting substantially its sovereignty as a state. If, on the other hand, National Socialism is a consequence of Bolshevism, then the German people are entitled to feel that they belong to a normal nation, and need not labour under any form of inferiority complex. This does not, however, imply opposition to a form of supranational integration, only that such integration should be conceived along confederal lines (that is, without substantial restrictions on sovereignty, in accordance with the model of the German confederation of the nineteenth century to which explicit reference is made), and that provision should be made within it for an appropriate level of German hegemony, (i.e., a level which corresponds objectively with the dimensions, both economic and demographic, of the reunified Germany).
In Nolte’s considerations on what the post-Cold War future holds, this question is dealt with further. He feels that there are important lesson to be learned from the story of the 20th century, a century ravaged by Communism, violence and ideological civil wars played out on the European and on the world stage, a story which has culminated in the victory of liberalism. We must, in Nolte’s, acknowledge the absolute need to defend liberalism against all forms of totalitarianism and, in more general terms, against abstract ideologies which, in the belief that they can bring about a radical change in human nature, can, in reality, only trigger violence. But, unless two essential aspects of it are put right, the liberalism which has emerged victorious will not be able to cope with the problems which we now see emerging: while the days of general wars, fought among the most powerful of the developed nations, are over, there is a growing threat of aggression on the part of a section of the mass of underdeveloped countries denied the wellbeing achieved by the countries of the liberalised world.
On the one hand, the individualism whose sole motivation is the quest for a hedonistic form of happiness (and which leads, ultimately, to the crisis of the family and a decrease in the population) must be integrated with the ethos of solidarity. And in this context, Nolte supports the principle of the right to a minimum social standard of living which is guaranteed in advanced countries — a principle which, in the long run, should apply also in the relationships between developed and underdeveloped countries.
On the other hand, the “progressive” universalism embraced liberalism, (which realises the central issue contained within the “‘militant universalism” of Communism), needs to be integrated with what is the rational core of fascism, when the latter is seen as “militant particularism”. In short, we need, notwithstanding all the dreadful memories of the fascist era, to have the courage to accept a form of “national and cultural self-affirmation which, unlike the ‘nationalism’ of the past, is no longer in conflict with the rational core of universalism, with the commandment to men to live together peacefully in a planet which has become small and threatened (to live together, that is, free of the diktat of a form of ‘humanitarianism’ which has not grasped fully the real consequences of its excessively idealistic principles)”.[3] Thus, not only should the unification of Europe remain within the boundaries of confederalism, (otherwise, the states would be reduced to provinces and all sense of the nation destroyed), but also the objective of a world government would represent the very worst kind of despotism ever to exist in the world) must, on principle, be opposed.
 
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Having illustrated in an extremely concise but, I hope, faithful manner, Nolte’s interpretation of the 20th century, I will now express my own critical reservations on it. However, before beginning, I wish to stress that I support Nolte’s rejection — which constitutes the Grundmotiv that induced him to develop the interpretation set forth above — of theories based both on the idea that the Germans, as a people, shoulder a collective guilt and on the idea that the very essence of the German nation is, in some way, diabolic. Both are inconsistent concepts which, when put forward by non Germans, represent an ideological cover for their anti-German nationalism and, when adopted by German people themselves, betray only an inability to understand just what it was which, in the first half of the 20th century, gave rise to the imperialism and totalitarianism of the German national state.[4] This inability is even shared, sadly, by the eminent scholar Habermas who, in the controversy which grew up around the historiographical theories of Ernst Nolte, proclaimed that all Germans, even those belonging to post-National Socialism generations, should, still today, continue to hang their heads in shame over the crimes committed by Nazi Germany.[5]
Having said that, I do not consider convincing the arguments which Nolte uses to contest the incrimination and “demonisation” of the German nation. His theory that Communism represents the greatest affliction of the 20th century to which fascism is a reaction that can, up to a point, be justified, and that there is, therefore, within fascism, a rational core which must be held good, fails to clarify a number of important questions which I outline briefly below:
— First, it was not Communism which provoked the outburst of World War I, an event which was certainly crucial in the history of the 20th century and, indeed, rendered possible the Russian Revolution of 1917. (And here, we should ask ourselves why it is that Nolte takes 1917 as the starting point for his interpretation of 20th century history and not 1914, the year which saw the start of Europe’s new thirty-year war?)
— Second, the observation (certainly a not novel one) that Bolshevik Communism and its repercussions outside Russia favoured, in a decisive manner, the rise of fascism is quite valid, (any extremism is bound to favour the emergence of an opposing form of extremism), but it explains little unless it is inserted in a wider perspective which clarifies the fact that the growth and establishment of Communist extremism was also a reaction to the carnage provoked by the war, and to the authoritarian and tendentially totalitarian regimes which became established in the course of it. (This, in turn, explains why no strong Communist parties emerged in countries like America and Great Britain).
— Then, while it is true that the Russian Revolution brought “class extermination”, it must not be forgotten that all the major revolutions in history (and not only the French one) have been characterised by episodes of extreme violence. The Irish and the Scots suffered untold violence along the road towards the establishment of liberalism in Great Britain, (added to which, there were the horrors of the Industrial Revolution), and in the United States, the rise of liberalism was accompanied by the massacres of the Civil War.[6] The atrocities which characterised the Soviet experience must be connected, not only with the Communist but also with Russia’s “Asian” backwardness, and with its need, in order to conserve its power on an international stage plagued by conflict, for rapid industrialisation.
— Moving on to the period of the East-West conflict, while the anti-totalitarian steadfastness of the West was clearly a central factor in the defeat of Communism, two other highly important factors cannot be overlooked: first, the existence of arms capable of destroying the entire world removed the possibility of recourse to the extreme weapon of general war as a means of saving a despotic empire, and shifted the conflict essentially to the terrain of economic efficiency, on which the Soviet Union was, in the end, overcome; second, although it has still to reach its conclusion, the process of integration, founded on French-German reconciliation and embracing Western Europe, in an area previously plagued by instability, a climate of peaceful cooperation, and a situation characterised by economic expansion and the growth of democracy. Furthermore, it proved attractive to Eastern Europe and went a long way towards discrediting the Soviet ideology according to which liberal democracy and the market economy on which it is founded, can only lead to greater impoverishment and war.
In my opinion, these facts are best explained within the framework of the interpretative model which, going beyond Nolte’s vision, sees, as the main thread running through the 20th century, not Communism and the reactions which it provoked but rather, according to the theory developed in federalist thought, the crisis of the sovereign states, in reference to which,[7] I wish to underline several essential points.
The expression “crisis of the sovereign states” refers to the contradiction that exists between, on the one hand, the growing interdependence of all the peoples of the world, (produced by the Industrial Revolution and heightened by the more recent technical and scientific revolution), which renders necessary the creation of states of continental dimensions and, tendentially, the unification of the human species, and, on the other, the absolute sovereignty of the state. This contradiction became apparent in Europe in the period spanning the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century and is, according to federalist thought, the main thread running through the era of world wars and fascism, in other words, running through Europe’s new thirty-year war. On the one hand, the spread of interdependence outside national confines meant that supranational integration at continental level was indispensable if economic growth, security and the advance of democracy were to be guaranteed. On the other, the desire to preserve the absolute sovereignty of the state (which constitutes the guiding principle of nationalism and is the structural cause of international anarchy and conflict) obstructed the peaceful progress of supranational integration and ended up by leaving the way open for an attempt to unify Europe under the hegemony of what was, at the time, the continent’s most powerful state. World War I was, indeed, the first stage of Germany’s attempt to unify Europe under its own imperial dominion, and its conclusion produced no lasting solution as the defeat of Germany was followed not by a policy for the peaceful unification of Europe, but by an order which served only to heighten the crisis of the continent’s system of national sovereign states. Meanwhile, the creation of small new states lengthened, by thousands of miles, the economic frontiers within Europe, and this economic fragmentation of the continent became even more marked with the increase in protectionism (itself rendered possible by the unlimited sovereignty of the states) — all this occurring in the context of a crisis which, precisely because of the increasingly inadequate dimensions of Europe’s national states, had become endemic. However, even though the burden of this situation weighed most heavily on Germany, which lost territory and economic outlets of vast importance to it, the country still had enough energy left to launch, in a second attempt to achieve dominion, a further offensive.
 
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By examining, in this context, the history of Germany between the two world wars, we can begin to understand why it was that an opposition to Communism that was so strong as to favour, as a reaction, the victorious emergence of fascism, should emerge in Germany, and not in other countries characterised by the same level of economic and social development, such as the United States, Great Britain and France. In fact, while, due to its sheer size, the United States was not affected the phenomenon of the crisis of the national state (and thus was able to emerge from the crisis of 1929 with an even stronger liberal-democratic system), in Germany, this same phenomenon produocd a catastrophic level of economic and social instability which, in turn, led to a decisive strengthening of the deadly, extremist, anti-democratic tendencies at work in the country. And the reason why this did not occur in Great Britain and France is that these countries were cushioned by their vast colonial territories and thus their decline as national states was more gradual.
An understanding of the crisis of the national states in Europe, and of the particularly acute way in which this phenomenon manifested itself in Germany, favours in turn a deep understanding of both the expansionist design, which is the most fundamental characteristic of National Socialism, and of the systematic connection between this and the totalitarian system and racist ideology which the movement favoured. National Socialism represents, in fact, a highly radical and coherent attempt to provide an expansionist-hegemonic response to the crisis of the European national states. And, to this end, (alongside the progressive intensification of power struggles in a system made up of states which are increasingly interdependent and yet, still attached to the principle of absolute sovereignty, unable to set up an efficient legal system at supranational level), a totalitarian state structure is functionally perfect, as it takes to an extreme the centralist, authoritarian and fanatically nationalist tendencies characteristic of continental European powers (which are structurally more militaristic and centralist than an insular power like Great Britain, as, having inland borders which are difficult to defend, their security is more fragile). And the racist ideology which, taken to an extreme, entails genocide, is coherent with the design for the permanent dominion of one European people over the other peoples of Europe. From this perspective, Hitler appears not only, and not principally, as anti-Lenin, but above all as the most radical and coherent expression of an attempt to oppose the historical need for subjugation of the national sovereign state and for peaceful supranational integration. Furthermore, the detection of a connection between National Socialism and the crisis of the national state in Europe not only highlights the guilt of the Nazi political class, but also reveals the considerable level of responsibility which can be laid at the door of the political classes of the democratic countries of Western Europe which, instead of opting for the pathway towards European unification, preferred to take the path of national egoism, (demonstrated particularly by the increased protectionism following the economic crisis of ‘29), thus favouring to a decisive degree the victory of fascism in the country which was, objectively, the one hardest hit by the crisis of the national state.
Moving on to the period since 1945, just a few considerations, again extremely schematic, are sufficient to demonstrate that the crisis of the sovereign state also constitutes the main thread running through the second half of the 20th century. The era of world wars and fascism ended with the loss of autonomy of the European powers and their insertion in a bipolar system dominated, significantly, by two powers of continental dimensions. However, this very real decline in the sovereignty of the national states made way for the process of Western European integration which, although it has not yet culminated in federal unification of the continent, has nevertheless covered a considerable amount of ground in this direction and has already yielded extremely important results in terms of social and economic development and the progress of democracy, as well as prompting a number of imitative processes all over the world. In the meantime, the increase of international interdependence — linked to the advance of the technical and scientific revolution — is such that it has led to the emergence of challenges which place the question of the elimination of the absolute sovereignty of states on a world scale (in other words, the need for a gradual but effective unification of mankind) well and truly on the historical agenda. And these challenges relate not to the progressive globalisation of economic interdependence so much as to the existence of arms capable of mass destruction, to the ecological question, and to the North-South divide, issues which threaten the very survival of the human race. Moving on, we also need to look at how the end of the East-West conflict and the dissolution of the Soviet system fit into this wider context. If it is true that these major turning points in history are in fact linked to factors associated with the process of European integration and the impossibility for the Soviet Union to use its increasingly costly arms in a general war, as well as with the untenability of its closed attitude towards the world market, then it must be considered that the drive towards world unification, of which these factors are a manifestation, may be the guiding thread of the historical process in the period since 1945.
In conclusion, a practical imperative, quite different from that proposed by Nolte, derives from this interpretation of the 20th century not as the century of Communism and violence, but as the century which threw into crisis the unlimited sovereignty of the state and brought the start of supranational unification. It is not only a question of rejecting all theories based on incrimination of the German nation as a whole, or simply of refusing all forms of totalitarianism. These are positions which must be seen in the context of a crucial and much broader aim, which is to triumph over the absolute sovereignty of the state — and in this sense, the conflict between nationalism and federalism emerges as the crucial ideological conflict of our age — beginning with the federal unification of Europe (based, of course, on equality of rights and obligations, and thus with no form of hegemony) and ending with the federal unification of the world, an order which will have, as its supporting pillars, a small number of continental and subcontinental federations. And unless this is the course indicated by “the commandment”, of which Nolte talks, “…to live together peacefully in a planet which has become small and threatened”, then that commandment can be considered nothing more than mere rhetoric.
 
Sergio Pistone


[1] The works of Ernst Nolte fundamental to a reconstruction of his interpretation of the 20th century are: Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche, Berlin, 1963; Marxismus und industrielle Revolution, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1983; Deutschland und der Kalte Krieg, Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1985; Der europäische Bürgerkrieg und Bolschewismus, Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main 1987; Geschichtsdenken im 20. Jahrhundert, Berlin, 1991; Intervista sulla questione tedesca ieri e oggi, ed. A. Krali, Bari, Laterza, 1993; Lehrstück oder Tragödie? Beiträge zur Interpretation der Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, Cologne, Böhlau, 1991; Gli anni della violenza. Un secolo di Guerra civile europea e mondiale, Milan, Rizzoli, 1995.
[2] Cf. F. Furet, Le passé d’une illusion. Essai sur l’idée communiste au XXe siècle, Paris, Robert Laffont/Calman-Lévy, 1995. For a critical analysis of historical revisionism, cf. D. Losurdo, Il revisionismo storico. Problemi e miti, Bari, Laterza, 1996.
[3] Cf. E. Nolte, Gli anni della violenza, cit., p. 147.
[4] For a critical analysis of the theory of collective guilt on the part of the German nation, see my following works: F. Meinecke e la crisi dello Stato nazionale tedesco, Turin, Giappichelli, 1969; Ludwig Dehio, Naples, Guida, 1977; La Germania e l’unità europea, Naples, Guida, 1978; “A proposito delle colpe dei tedeschi e degli italiani”, in Piemonteuropa, December, 1987.
[5] Cf. Germania: un passato che non passa. I crimini nazisti e l’identità tedesca, ed. G.E. Rusconi, Turin, Einaudi, 1987, which examines the contribution of Habermas, and others, to the debate over the theory of Nolte and other revisionists.
[6] Cf. The book by Losurdo cited in Note 2.
[7] To examine in more depth the theory of the crisis of the sovereign state as the main thread running through the 20th century, see the following texts: M. Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993; L. Levi, Il federalismo, Milan, F. Angeli, 1987; L. Dehio, Equilibrio o egemonia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988; S. Pistone, “Ludwig Dehio e l’interpretazione federalista dell’epoca delle guerre mondiali e del fascismo”, in Piemonteuropa, December, 1988; Id., “Alcune considerazioni sulla riunificazione tedesca e lo sviluppo dell’integrazione europea”, in Piemonteuropa, October, 1990; Id., “Il ruolo internazionale dell’Europa, la società cosmopolitica e la pace”, in Piemonteuropa, May, 1997.

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