A GERMAN HISTORY REINTERPRETED

Lucian Boia: Tragedia Germaniei 1914–1945 [The Tragedy of Germany 1914–1945]. Humanitas, Bucharest, 2010. 142 p.

For some years now, historians have been seeking new ways to interpret Germany’s 20th century history. In the 1960’s, the “Sonderweg” theory seemed unassailable. Its thesis: that Hitler and Auschwitz were the logical and necessary product of a historical development that represented a special path, separate from that of Western Europe. More recently, the equation “Auschwitz = Gulag” has been proposed as an alternative approach.

It is this hornet’s nest which Lucian Boia has confronted in his latest book. At first glance, we might assume that Boia has merely added a 36th book to the 35 already listed in his bibliography. In fact, however, he has written an elegant historical essay that rises above the level of the hornet’s nest. The university professor from Bucharest, who also resides in Paris, is a historian who writes in a literary style, and the magic of his style stems from the way in which he re-thinks old problems. All of his works are refreshing to read, a pleasant respite from products of historiography that laboriously try to construct a discourse, not to mention the type of writing whose tediousness is an affront to the reader’s mind and moral sensibility. So let us take a look at the questions raised and answers proposed in Boia’s newest book, The Tragedy of Germany 1914–1945.

The basic question: Did Germany, in fact, follow a “special path?” Was Germany an exception? Or was what happened in Germany no different than what happened in the rest of Europe? Characteristically, it was British and French historians who first came up with revisionist theories. According to British historian R.A. Evans, all the negative aspects of the world of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm were also present in other countries; the “exception” is only that these aspects were present in a stronger, more concentrated form in Germany than elsewhere. As for French historians, they no longer even consider Germany solely responsible for the First World War.

Was Germany more nationalist than the others? In this chapter of his book, Boia points out that the French and German models of nation-building – which define a nation as a political state or as an ethnic/linguistic community, respectively – become distorted if we consider them to represent a hierarchy of values. The statement by French historian E. Renan, that “a nation is a daily plebiscite”, sounds good – but Boia points out that, in fact, “the creation of France was not based on a plebiscite.” The peoples of Nice and Savoy were not asked to vote until the annexation of these territories was already decided. Nor were plebiscites held in Alsace and Lorraine after the First World War. “Perhaps the German model is more ‘primitive,’ but it is certainly more common,” Boia writes. Nations are based on the principle of ethnicity, and the key element of ethnicity is language. The expression “from the Dneister to the Tisza River”, as the geographical embodiment of an ideal Romanian state, echoes the German model of nationalism, “even if Hungarians are more numerous than Romanians as we approach the Tisza River.” Until 1918, Hungary espoused the French model, and after that date the German model. Every nation wanted a “greater” country; why should Germany’s wishes in this respect be considered particularly “outrageous”? The real problem, Boia writes, is that “if Greater Germany had indeed extended to its furthest ethnic borders, it would have been the largest and strongest country in Europe, thus threatening the European balance of power.”

Was Germany less democratic than the others? There is no doubt that Western European countries and the United States were more democratic. Germany’s governing authorities formed a unique complex: the Kaiser represented the absolutist tradition; the Junkers and aristocracy came from a feudal tradition; Prussian militarism came from the soldierly tradition; the Reichstag was a liberal-democratic creation. “Seen from our vantage point today, this seems a unique mixture. But at the time, Germany’s lagging political development was considered by some to be a virtue, by others just the opposite. It is a fact that democracy has its own weaknesses and risks, which today we tend to minimize, but which a century ago were over-emphasized. The risk of a populist-fueled deviation does exist, and, more dangerously, the risk that those who gain power will then appropriate it in the name of the people. The masses are easier to manipulate than the elites.” Totalitarian regimes were built on democratic principles. “Those who place responsibility for Nazism on the Bismarckian or Wilhelmine system gloss over the fact that Nazism was not a conservative phenomenon, but a revolutionary one.” It did build upon age-old traditions, but “would not have come about in the age of Bismarck and Wilhelm. It was not the German Reich of Kaiser Wilhelm that made Nazism possible, but rather the collapse of that system.”

England was protected by its liberalism, ensuring that authoritarian or totalitarian attempts did not succeed. As late as 1914, universal suffrage had still not been introduced; England gave the broader citizenry access to political power only gradually. In France, universal suffrage was introduced in 1848, but a few years later the authoritarian system, which accompanied a democratic dialogue between Napoleon III and the nation, emerged victorious. The French democracy between the two world wars “produced the Vichy regime.” “Germany was not predestined for Nazism, any more than France was predestined for ’Vichyism.’ In both countries, unique events propelled them in these directions.”

Was Germany expansionist? Yes – just like the other countries of Europe. “The struggle was for European hegemony, and it is pointless to ask which country was more or less responsible than the others.” In 1870, Germany annexed territories – but France would have done just the same, had it been victorious. “For the Iron Chancellor, finding allies for Germany was more important than alarming the other nations by excessive power grabs. History would prove him right: what good did it do Germany to be ‘the strongest’ against all the others?” Germany’s economic expansion was unparalleled, and its intellectual domination showed in the fact that it produced more Nobel Prize winners than France, Great Britain and the United States combined. But these successes brought feelings of frustration and insecurity – and this is “a dangerous mixture!” At the turn of the 19th century, many believed that Germany deserved more. Bismarck had no worthy successor; Wilhelm II, a theatrical and high-strung figure, showed no restraint in expressing his nation’s wish for respect in the international arena. “England’s mistake was in taking him seriously. Realpolitik is a German word – but the Germans seem to have forgotten that.” Finally: “Germany was no more aggressive than the rest, but its policies were worse, and for this it would pay.”

Were the Germans more racist? Why would this be true, when the French naturalist Quatrefages questioned Germany’s legitimacy on the basis of the “degenerate” Slavic influence on the Prussian race – to which the German Virchow responded by referring to the French model of the state. Felix von Luschan, in fact, questioned the validity of the very concept of race. The first proponents of racist theories were not Germans; the classic eugenist was an Englishman. Until Hitler took power, most adherents of eugenics rejected anti-Semitism and the cult of Nordic superiority. “It would be an unfair exaggeration to maintain that Germans were more prone to racism than Americans. In this respect, the Americans were hard to surpass.” Nor can the anti-Semitic component of Nazism be explained as the extension of a characteristically German tradition. Relations between Germans and Jews were, in fact, closer than anywhere else, if only because of the Yiddish connection. “The German paradox is that its initial, limited anti-Semitism (which was less than the European ‘average’) developed into extremist anti-Semitism. On the face of it, this is a bizarre logic, but it is still logical. Historical events often develop in contradictory tandem. Precisely because German society was not characterized by any overwhelming anti-Semitism that would have hindered Jewish mobility, Jews occupied positions of central importance, even key positions in some places. For the most part, they were assimilated, though not totally.” For this reason, says Boia, they could be made into scapegoats. (This may be so, but the question arises: how would a greater degree of assimilation have been possible, given that Rathenau was murdered so that Germany would not be saved by a Jew? Something was very wrong in Europe; there is much scope for discussion here. Perhaps Boia might have addressed the dialectic of anti-Semitism – that the anti-Semite takes his distorted image of the Jew and internalizes it in his own lifestyle – in fact, becomes assimilated to that distortion. A.C. Cuza, the key figure of Romanian anti-Semitism, looked in the end exactly like the caricature of a Jew from one of Goebbels’s pamphlets.)

As to the question of who was responsible for the outbreak of World War I, Boia leans toward the French revisionist standpoint, as against the Germans’ view of themselves as culpable. A number of French historians no longer accuse Germany at every turn, though they don’t absolve Germany of all responsibility– but they consider the military leadership of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to be the main culprit. Boia positions himself within this French camp, but places the emphasis elsewhere: “It goes without saying that Austria-Hungary was fully bent on going to war (more Austria than Hungary, which had enough problems of its own with the nationalities, including its own Serbian population; but the politicians in charge, and the Austro-Hungarian military leaders, were bent upon going to war… and in the end, that was the decision.)” Thus, the Habsburg monarchy was the main culprit… if we view the situation out of the context of developments in 1914. But we must emphasize, above all, that Sarajevo was not a ‘small’ mishap; in a symbolic sense, it was a blow against the very heart of the empire. If Austria-Hungary had not responded, it would have lost all credibility as a great power (for it was still a great power, even if an ailing one). It is not the Empire’s initial reaction we should criticize, which had to be a sharp one in any case, but rather the disproportion between the justified diplomatic response and the declaration of war. In other words, the whole thing would have been settled, to Austria’s benefit, if the response had been limited to the ultimatum, which the Serbs were prepared to accept almost in its entirety (this would have been the Dual Monarchy’s “grand diplomatic success,” as emphasized by the French historian Jean-Jacques Becker.) For his part, Boia emphasizes that Serbia was just as responsible as the Monarchy. Serbia was smaller, but just as committed to expansion – in fact was even more so, since the Monarchy had reached its limits, while Serbia had just whetted its appetite. From today’s vantage point, the Romanian Boia believes that “Austria-Hungary might have had a chance to transform itself into a federation of Central European peoples. It passed up on this chance, but perhaps would have deserved not to. The ‘national states’ which came into being on the ruins of the Monarchy were, in reality, national states only to a certain extent, or else not at all; it was almost impossible to draw clear borders between nationalities that had been intermixed by the course of history. In the Austrian half of the Monarchy, steps were taken toward a possible federalization: there were territorial autonomies; universal suffrage was introduced in 1907; ethnic Germans became a parliamentary minority. Hungary, however, adhered strictly to the principle of a Hungarian state and a uniform Hungarian nation: this was a grand failure to recognize the course of history, for which the Hungarians would pay dearly.”

This is true indeed, but we should add that there were attempts at compromise with Romanians, both “from below” and “from above”: on a cultural basis, as espoused by Ady and Bartók, and in the negotiations spearheaded by István Tisza, which however were undercut by those at the very top: the future “martyr” of Sarajevo and his circle. “The Austro-Hungarians discriminated, but they weren’t butchers,” Boia emphasizes, and continues bluntly: “It must be said that Serbia (as well as Croatia) evidenced a much greater than normal potential for violence, from the murder of Alexander Obrenovic and his wife to the bloodbaths of Bosnia and Kosovo; the assassination at Sarajevo was just one episode, which cannot be viewed in isolation from a century of history.” In Boia’s opinion, the United States war against Iraq was no more justified than the Monarchy’s declaration of war. “Clearly, it was a mistake, one for which Austria-Hungary paid with its own disappearance from the map, but if we are to be balanced in our judgment, then we cannot simply state that Austria-Hungary’s riposte was entirely unjustified.”

Sarajevo represents the beginning of Germany’s tragedy. Without Gavrilo Princip, there would have been no Hitler either. “Germany had to make decisions and take steps that followed almost inexorably from each other.” Germany was caught in a cross-fire and could count only upon the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. For Germany, Russia’s hegemony in Central and South-eastern Europe was intolerable. In the end, Kaiser Wilhelm leaned toward peace, but the Chancellor’s instructions to his envoy in Vienna were ambiguous. The Monarchy, of course, paid no attention to this and declared war. So did the Russian czar. Perhaps if Germany and Hungary had consulted with each other, there would have been a chance for peace; but Russia did not consult with France, either, though “it might not have been a bad idea to urge Russia to follow a more moderate course.” It is also true that neither side wanted the size and scale of war that was to follow. “Put briefly and none too scientifically, but perhaps approximating the truth: we can say that the war resulted from boundless, collective stupidity.” Germany’s responsibility is great, but appears greater than it was in reality. The Germans were no more brutal than the French. As for the U-boat war, “the only alternative would have been to do nothing, if they wanted to avoid making any mistakes at all.” “In fact, the Germans, like the other combatants, sought the best solutions in the interest of gaining a victory, but geopolitical realities favored their opponents and led Germany to pursue strategic plans that were in and of themselves logical, yet led to perverse results.” Military considerations trumped political ones, because military advantages were the most crucial at the time. It is not simply that the Prussian tradition won out; rather, faced with an extraordinary situation, Germany had to respond. According to Boia, it is in this unrelenting situation that “the dialectic of German guilt” is to be found. In the eyes of the West, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is the prime negative example of the Pax Germanica, but it did create national states on the territory of a former empire, states which naturally sought independence. The peace treaty with Romania was no milder than the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but “at least it regained Bessarabia [for Romania].” Of course, the Treaty of Versailles was not exactly benevolent, either. Turkey was to be carved up by the victorious powers in imperialist style. “Hungary’s borders were the most unfavorable; many ethnic Hungarians ended up outside of the Hungarian border.” Yet moral and material responsibility was placed upon Germany, which was supposed to pay reparations until 1988. “A more understanding post-war policy toward Germany, which is easier to conceive of today than it was at the time, might have had positive consequences. Without knowing or intending it, France contributed to Hitler’s rise and to its own defeat two decades later.”

In 1933, the Germans did not vote for the particulars contained in the Nazi doctrine; their vote was rooted in a combination of despair and hope. “We should examine Nazism not in and of itself, but in the context of a particular typology that is also found (though in a less well-defined way) in Mussolini’s Italy, and to a great extent in the Communist regimes.” People behave differently in totalitarian regimes than in parliamentary democracies. In such societies, “the concept of ‘collective responsibility’ does exist, but it is not a free and voluntary option, with the concomitant guilt in case of failure to meet this responsibility. Instead, collective responsibility exists in the sense of passive acquiescence, since there is no realistic or apparent alternative. It is not the Germans who are the problem. The problem is the mechanism of totalitarianism, in Germany and wherever such systems existed: the mechanism that is built upon the fragility of human convictions and behaviors.” The Munich Agreement violated the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia – but this was a country that was a product of Versailles. According to Wilsonian principles, the Sudetenland should have belonged to Germany. “This all looks very ugly, because we are talking about Hitler and his methods and goals, but there is no need to deny that, with respect to these territorial disputes, Germany was in some measure justified, viewed from its own perspective.” Boia immediately adds that he has no wish to “reopen files that have been closed for good.” However: “if Versailles had been done differently, we would not have reached this point, or Hitler, or the Second World War.” In Boia’s view, Hitler had a chance to win the war – or, at least, a chance to not lose it. In military logic, Hitler committed an error when he attacked the Soviet Union, but according to his own logic, it was not a mistake. We cannot say how far he would have gone in colonizing Eastern Europe, a process during which he would have treated the Slavs like Indians. As we can see, Hitler was inspired by America’s history of genocide and discrimination. Boia attributes Hitler’s interest in America, in part, to the effects of having read the novels of Karl May. We should add, however, that too many people claim the same thing without having a knowledge of these books, which also feature “good Indians” and “evil whites”; Hitler’s view of things was less complicated.

Boia dedicates a separate chapter to the “Final Solution.” In his view, “everything can be explained, but not with reference to a normal logic, but rather to the perverse logic of Nazism and, especially, of Hitler.” The mythology of race had its effect. What the Nazis carried out was the work of a minority, but the majority was silently complicit. Boia does not become embroiled in the disputes which continue to the present day, but he takes a clear stand. In its beginnings, Nazism did not take on as murderous an aspect as did the Communism of Lenin and Stalin. “Without a doubt, Stalin began his mass murders earlier, even though the thesis according to which Nazism learned from Communism is not convincing. Nazism was fueled by its own logic and momentum, in a Western-style society that still retained some remnants of the tradition of the rule of law, something which never existed in Russia.” At first, the Nazis just wanted to make the lives of Jews unbearable; the methodological extermination of human life began after the conquest of territories to the East. The Communists’ class war had more victims, but the method and industrial organization behind the crimes of the Nazis make the whole business more awful. The attempt to change the world, fueled by a quasi-religious, millennial conviction “brought about similar developments in Russia and in Germany – two societies which otherwise differed sharply, but in which contradictions and antipathies were present in equal measure.” The reader sees the similarities between class struggle (Klassenkampf) and racial war (Rassenkampf). Boia explains: The body of society, or of the race, must be cleansed; banal functionaries who commit murder do so not for fun, but to fulfill their duty. And, let us add, they also rob and pillage, sharing the spoils with as many people as possible, so that society’s complicity in the crime becomes ever more entrenched, and remains so for the long term.

Boia does not reiterate, though he might have done so, that the unique thing about Auschwitz in modern Europe, beyond its nature as a cynical experiment carried out on human beings, is in its planned liquidation of women, children and the elderly. He does not use the expression „Holocaust”, either – perhaps because he anticipates that this would elicit a Pavlovian reaction from some of his readers. But the simplicity of his description and the comparative nature of his analysis may well have an effect even on those who would deny the Holocaust. Boia deals more extensively with the errors that marred the trials at Nuremberg. He is in agreement with the judgments handed down and the assignment of blame, but also believes that the victorious powers should not have been the only ones sitting in judgment. He does not dispute the results, just the methods. The Soviets could well have been defendants as well as prosecutors. And when he writes about the crimes committed by the Soviet Army, Boia adds that the Germans behaved even worse when occupying the Soviet Union. However, the post-war redrawing of borders effected the largest ethnic cleansing in history. (We should add that British Professor C.A. Macartney warned his superiors at the time that the subsequent mass forced relocations of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe were reminiscent of Nazi tactics.) “Naturally, these things have to stay the way they are, but it doesn’t mean that the events didn’t happen the way they did.” Boia thus indicates that this chapter in history is closed. And he adds: the Japanese were no less racist than the Americans; the atom bomb can be justified by strategic reasoning, but some measure of guilt still remains, and “everyone has the right to form a moral judgment.”

Germany was not pre-programmed for its 20th century history, Boia emphasizes. But its actions in 1914 made it a participant in a tragedy whose events led inexorably to their final outcome. Its last chance was to prevent Hitler from coming to power; but the catastrophic vote [of 1933] was the final trick of fate. Without Hitler, the fatal chain of events would have been broken. “Many different scenarios can be imagined, many different explanations given. But in the end, the proof is in the chain of events that led from the assassination in Sarajevo to the fall of the Third Reich. In this light, the tragedy of Germany emerged not so much due to certain structural deficiencies, but rather out of the perverse combination of unexpected events and of decisions whose effects could not be fathomed.”

With this last sentence, Boia ends his book, leaving the reader alone with history and, perhaps, with the feeling that a person who can identify opportunities that arose in the past can do the same with present-day history. We have every reason to do so – on a European scale. Germany’s tragedy is Europe’s own tragedy. Boia’s work is proof that even on the continent’s periphery, a pan-European history can be produced that is neither pedantic nor imitative. His work is a pleasure to read and is, in the best sense of the word, scholarly. His heavy use of the subjunctive might be irritating, since we consider ourselves so “wise” that we disdain “what if” questions. In our part of the world, it is common behavior that instead of learning from history, we want to give it lessons! The “what if” formula might indeed be an illusory approach, but it also reminds us that history is an open book: history includes chains of events that follow upon each other inexorably, but it also consists of originating events which stem from human decisions. Boia reminds us of the responsibility that comes with making decisions; we might say that he is a practitioner of event-based history. This may be surprising coming from a historian who also writes in French, for French historiography has abandoned and rejected event-based history. Nevertheless, Boia’s history of events is the history of political and human responsibility – of the misfortunes and crimes of a century, and of the creation of scapegoats. These were misfortunes that caused us suffering. Who can know for sure that certain events had to happen a certain way? Who can know for sure that we cannot know anything? It is a great mistake to consider ourselves to be gods. Indeed, it is probably more difficult to be human. (As Churchill once blurted out, “the British Empire could not survive for one week if it had to adhere to the Beatitudes.”) In other words, in the Judeo-Christian world, the divine commandments are the measure of behavior; they assign us the duty to be responsible for ourselves. In contrast, the gods can be thoughtless and irresponsible in the postmodern quagmire. Boia’s book is a useful antidote to conceited historiography. It would be worth translating, and hopefully the era in which such a translation would have negative consequences for him (as did the Hungarian translation of his book about myths) has passed. We look forward to the book’s publication in the West and to the ensuing debate, if any. And why wouldn’t there be? Lucian Boia has raised crucially important questions about our European past and future. Whether Europe is willing to take an honest look at its own past remains to be seen…

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