Year XXX, 1998, Number 3, Page 196



In an article written in 1986, Ernst Nolte, a historian of the Fascist era, explained his ideas on the links between Bolshevism and Nazism which still cause controversy[1] and on which Federalists must express their opinions, however briefly.
There are two basic theories emerging from these ideas. Firstly, Nolte thinks that Bolshevik left-wing extremism was the major factor that allowed Nazi right-wing extremism’s rise to power. The practice of “class extermination” carried out by the Bolsheviks in Russia at the time of the civil war and of compulsory collective farming and the fear that the very same thing would happen in Germany, where a strong Bolshevik party had been established, favoured the decisive victory of Nazism, which seemed to be the force that would most effectively wipe out the danger, against which liberal-minded political forces were powerless. Secondly, the crimes committed by the Bolsheviks acted as a precedent for the Nazis. For the first time since the Enlightenment, the principle that a person is guilty simply because he belongs to a particular group, which is considered collectively guilty and not for his own individual actions, was applied massively in a European nation. “Race extermination” carried out by the Nazis proceeded in this way; moreover, it was applied in a highly planned and systematic manner, unlike the case of the Bolsheviks, which was often characterized by a lack of planning and organisation.
It should be pointed out that Nolte does not have the slightest intention of clearing the Nazis of all blame for their crimes. If their reaction to the Bolshevik threat and its criminal nature was genuine up to a certain point, they ended up replying to those crimes with even worse crimes, justifying them with a barbaric ideology, which, without reason or justification, placed the blame for all the evils of the age, even for Bolshevism, on the Jews. On the other hand, if the connection that exists between Nazism and Bolshevism does not wipe out the guilt of the Nazis for their actions and beliefs, nevertheless attention must also be focused on the Bolsheviks’ guilt and on the serious limitations of their ideology.
Nolte does not equate Bolshevism with Nazism. He recognises that there is a difference between the two ideologies. The first is characterised by the values of the emancipation of the oppressed and universal brotherhood. That is why many communists have seen the crimes of the Bolsheviks as a betrayal of their ideology. On the contrary, the crimes of the Nazis are consistent with their ideology, which is based on the anti-Enlightenment principles of the inequality of men and of nations, and racial supremacy. The fact remains that Bolshevism, with the idea of group guilt, introduced brutalities into the political struggle that led the way for the even more brutal ideas and practices of the Nazis. Nolte thinks that the lesson to be learnt from this century’s experience of totalitarianism is to free ourselves from the “tyranny of collectivist thought” and to work for the strengthening of the liberal system.
In his opinion, both the theory of the collective guilt of the Germans for the crimes of the Nazis and the theory, normally linked with this, that the roots of the rise to power of Hitler lay in the basic nature of the German people are examples of collectivist thought. Nolte answers this first theory by saying that blame can only be attributed to individuals or groups within political classes and not to the people as a whole, who are widely manipulated by the political classes. In answer to the second theory, he says that, however, one nation reacts according to the objective circumstances and, more specifically, as Germany reacted to its own situation in the 20’s and 30’s, any other nation would have reacted in the same way.
Going over to an assessment of Nolte’s arguments, I agree with his ideas about guilt and in particular refute the idea of the collective guilt of the Germans and the evil nature of the German people. This journal has pointed out the inconsistency of these ideas many times and also that they are used by non-Germans as a cover for anti-German feelings and by the Germans themselves as a way of showing the failure to understand the real causes of their imperialist and totalitarian experience.[2] Unfortunately, this failure even affects a great scholar like Habermas, who, in the controversy developing around Nolte’s ideas, has stated that all Germans, even the post-Nazi generations, must be deeply ashamed of the crimes of Nazi Germany.[3]
Having said that, I am not totally convinced by Nolte’s theory on the cause-effect relation between Bolshevism and Nazism. This theory, which is by no means new, is not incorrect — no serious historian could question the fact that Bolshevism and the repercussions it had outside Russia, was a major factor in the rise to power of Fascism, first in Italy, and then in Germany and a large part of Europe — but it does not give an adequate explanation for this phenomenon until it is seen in the wider perspective conceived by Federalist thought,[4] i.e. until the crisis of the nation state is seen as the key to what took place during the World Wars and the Fascist era.
This refers to the contradiction, that began to become apparent at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, between the development of the mode of production, which with the growing interdependence of the world’s nations encouraged the creation of state bodies on a continental scale and potentially of a united human race, and the size of the European nation states. The only sensible solution to this problem was a federal Europe, as the first step towards a united human race: a solution that the political classes of Europe, bound as they were by the idea of national sovereignty, did not seriously consider, as long as the nation states were able to maintain the status of first-rank powers. Thus the first response to the problem of nation states’ decadence was an imperialist one, i.e. the attempt to create a united Europe under the leadership of the most powerful European state. The First World War was the first phase of Germany’s attempt to bring Europe under her leadership, and its end did not bring a long-term solution because Germany’s defeat was not followed by a policy of peacefully uniting Europe, but by a settlement that made the crisis of the European nation states worse. While the creation of new, smaller states increased by thousands of miles the length of internal European economic barriers, the break-up of Europe’s economy was accelerated by the increase of protectionism in an economic crisis which was caused by the increasingly inadequate size of European nation states. Germany was worst affected by this situation, because she had lost important territories and economic markets. However, she had conserved enough resources to try again to win power.
If we consider the position of Germany between the wars, we can see why an extremely strong communist challenge emerged which paved the way for the victory of the Fascist reaction. This did not happen in other countries with a similar level of social and economic development, such as the United States, Great Britain or France. While the size of the USA meant that it was not affected by the crisis of the nation state (and had therefore been able to emerge from the crisis of 1929 with a strengthened liberal system), this phenomenon produced a catastrophic social and economic instability in Germany, which reinforced its extremist anti-democratic tendency. The reason this did not happen in France and Great Britain is that they declined as European nation states more slowly because their colonial territories acted as a “life jacket”.
Discussing the phenomenon of the crisis of the nation state, and particularly its severity in Germany, allows us, on the one hand, to understand the expansionist plan, which was the fundamental idea of Nazism, and, on the other, the link between this plan and the totalitarian system and its racist ideology. Indeed, the Nazi regime was the most radical and coherent attempt to give an expansionist-hegemonic solution to the crisis of the nation state. The totalitarian structure of the state, on the other hand, was ideal for such an attempt, because it took to their extreme consequences the tendencies towards centralisation, authoritarianism and nationalism typical of all continental European states, that were organised on a more military and centralised basis than insular states like Great Britain, because they needed to defend their land borders and were therefore more vulnerable. These tendencies grew in intensity with the sharpening of power struggles within a system of states becoming more and more interdependent, yet unable to establish an effective supranational legal system capable of coping successfully with such interdependence. The same racist ideology, which could justify genocide when carried to its extreme, justifies the plan of one European nation ruling all other European nations.
Placed in this context, Hitler should not principally be seen as an anti-Lenin, but as the most radical and coherent expression of opposition towards the extinction of the sovereign nation state and towards the peaceful unification of the human race. On the other hand, the discovery of a link between the crisis of the nation state and Nazism allows us to see, besides the guilt of this movement’s backers, the great responsibility of the political classes of Western Europe’s democratic countries, which have taken the path of nationalism instead of the path of a unified Europe, especially with the increase of protectionism after the crisis of 1929. Thus they aided the victory of Fascism in the country which was most affected by the crisis of the nation state because of its objective condition. We can draw a lot more from this interpretation of Nazism than from Nolte’s rather limited one. It is not enough to simply reject totalitarianism in all its guises, it is also necessary to reject the principle of the sovereign nation state, which opposes the trend towards peaceful supranational unification and revives irrationalism.
Sergio Pistone

[1] Nolte’s article “Vergangenheit die nicht vergehen will”, appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6th June 1986; it was republished together with the main contributions of the debate that followed (Habermas, Hildebrand, Fest, Kocka, H. Mommsen, W. Mommsen, Broszat, Hillgruber and others) in A.A. V.V. Historikerstreit, Piper, Munich, 1987. Nolte has subsequently developed his theories in Der europäische Bürgerkrieg 1917-1945. Nationalsozialismus und Bolschevismus, Propyläen, Frankfurt-Berlin, 1987. In reconstructing Nolte’s theories I have also taken account of statements contained in this book.
[2] Cfr. on the subject: M.Albertini, Lo Stato Nazionale, Giuffré, Milano, 1960; Id., “La colpa della Germania (a proposito del processo Eichmann)”, in Il Federalista, III (1961), pp. 178 et seq.; S. Pistone, La Germania e l’unità europea, Guida, Napoli, 1978.
[3] In Historikerstreit, (see above) Habermas rightly says that nation states must not consider themselves the privileged pole of collective identity; instead collective identity must have a multidimensional character in the post-nation era, i.e. referring to supranational and infranational communities. However, his essay on the collective shame of the Germans (really he would have to speak of the collective shame of all Europeans and, in short, of the whole human race for every crime ever committed) shows that he is not completely emancipated from the limits of the nationalist ideology.
[4] Cfr. in particular M. Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1979 and L. Dehio, Gleichgewicht oder Hegemonie, Scherpe Verlag, Krefeld, 1948.

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