Saturday, February 22, 2014

Getting historical controversies, or rather, not getting them

Am I just having a bad hair day today? Or does this Spiegel International article turn out to be a real stinker? World War I Guilt: Culpability Question Divides Historians Today by Dirk Kurbjuweit 02/14/2014.

I generally like their articles on history, which are more substantive than what you expect from American news magazines. And I guess this one is, too. It's a pretty good discussion of two major German discussions over history, the "Fischer controversy" over the First World War and the "Historikerstreit" of the 1980s.

But when Kurbjuweit reports on his interview with the ancient Nazi apologist Ernst Nolte, it pretty much goes off the tracks and into the canyon far below.

After quoting Nolte blaming Britain and Poland for starting the Second World War, he shares this on Nolte: "In his last book 'Späte Reflexionen' (Late Reflections), he insisted on ascribing to the Jews their 'own share of the 'gulag,'' because some Bolsheviks were Jews. Based on his logic, the Jews were partly responsible for Auschwitz. This has long been an argument of anti-Semites."

I'm guessing an editor made him add the last sentence, because Kurbjuweit sounds pretty clueless at best. Saying the Holocaust was the Jews' own fault? That's "long been an argument of anti-Semites"? Gol-lee, who would have guessed?

In their photo display #8 of 9, the caption says:

The crimes of the Third Reich were vast and it remains controversial in Germany to suggest that Hitler was anything but a murderous maniac. Historian Baberowski does anyway. "Hitler was no psychopath, and he wasn't vicious," he says. "He didn't want people to talk about the extermination of the Jews at his table. Stalin, on the other hand, delighted in adding to and signing off on the death lists. He was vicious. He was a psychopath."
Baberowski sounds in the article like someone who's encourage a the-Commies-are-to-blame-for-everything position.

But that caption is also a bit goofy. Hitler was obvious murderous. But to what extent he was psychotic or otherwise mentally disturbed is certainly a matter for discussion. Someone can be evil and destructive without being clinically insane.

On the other hand, the example Baberowski is quoted as using is a pretty trivial matter to hang such a sweeping judgment on. Assuming Kurbjuweit quoted him in a representative way.

Dirk Kurbjuweit did an interesting column last year about Angela Merkel's political style and what he called the "Second Biedermeier" era in German politics. Good description of Angie's style, shaky on the broader era concept.

Maybe he's a competent journalist who would be better off staying away from Big Picture efforts. In the article linked, he writes, "History is not open in the same way as the future is, but it is open nonetheless. In both debates, the combatants behaved as if there were historical truths, but they don't exist. All that exists is a state of research that includes gaps, which are filled with speculation and interpretation." [Bangs head against wall. Ouch!]

If this guy's English is good, he has career opportunities in the US as a climate denier, or a creationist, or a neo-Confederate. Or as a booker for Meet the Press. Some people say the world ended yesterday, others claim it didn't. Opinions differ. Yeah, he could make some serious money in the US media market.

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