Back in the 1960’s, as a graduate student at Yale, I kept hearing that the Germans had still not confronted their past. They would do so only when they understood that Hitler, as explained by German leftist historian Fritz Fischer, was not a Betriebsunfall (operational accident) but emerged from Germany’s history, which went in a straight line from Bismarck to Auschwitz. Fischer, a Nordic-looking Hamburg historian who died in 1999 at age 91, had set out to prove, from archival sources supposedly made available to him in East Germany, that the German imperial government had launched World War I in a quest for world hegemony. Despite his argument having been largely refuted by the 1970’s, Fischer’s view of the Germans bearing exclusive guilt for World War I carried the day at home and abroad. Anglophone conservatives Paul Johnson and Donald Kagan have been as enthusiastic as the German left in embracing this thesis. Last year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder expressed shock when German literary historian Martin Walser stated the obvious: Believing in Fischer was intended as an act of German contrition for the holocaust and had nothing to do with scholarship.
Fischer’s critics, starting with the estimable historians Gerhard Ritter, Joachim Remak, and Golo Mann, had all been anti-Nazis. The SS arrested Ritter in November 1944 for participating in the plot to overthrow the Nazi government. These anti-Fischerites were not unqualified defenders of the imperial German government but made the once-conventional (and correct) case that both sides had behaved recklessly in 1914. It is also methodologically questionable, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, to blame the Central Powers exclusively for plans of territorial expansion or nationalist hysteria found among all the major belligerents. Significantly, the memorandum in which Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg set out provisional German war aims in September 1914 came from his confidant, Kurt Riezler (as German historian Hans-Dietrich Erdmann proved from Riezler’s diaries over 40 years ago). Far from being a proto-Nazi, this author of Fischer’s key evidence for German expansionism was an Anglophile classicist and the son-in-law of a Jewish expressionist artist. Riezler, who subsequently fled from the Nazis, helped to script Hollywood films and, in the early 50’s, became a cofounder of the New School for Social Research. Among his protégés was Leo Strauss, whose disciples would evolve into outspoken Fischerites. Even so, the Straussians would never acknowledge the responsibility of Strauss’s patron for the September 1914 program so savagely denounced by Fischer.
Equally important, as one discovers from Klaus Grosse-Kracht’s sprawling essay in the Zeitschrift für neuere Theologie-Geschichte (2003), Fischer became an honored Teutonophobe after having spent his youth as a Nazi booster. Before the Nazi seizure of power, and contrary to his later autobiographical cover-up, the youthful Fischer was involved in Nazi-like nationalist organizations. In 1933, he went to work as an SA propagandist and, in 1937, joined the Nazi Party outright. By then, he had joined his dissertation director at Berlin—an undisguised Nazi ideologue, Eric Seeberg—as an advocate for the Reichsbewegung der Deutschen Christen, an unsavory body of Hitlerian theologians who were planning a National Socialist Christian church. Fischer took pains in 1939 in his study of the Prussian Church reformer Ludwig Nicolovius to add conspicuously antisemitic comments. According to Grosse-Kracht, his subject hoped to advance his academic career on the coattails of party loyalists, a policy that resulted in his being named to a chair in Hamburg in 1942. (After the war, he would get back that chair as a darling of the German left.) The Americans imprisoned Fischer after the war, like the more talented Carl Schmitt, as an influential Nazi thinker; like Schmitt, however, he was never brought to trial. By the late 40’s, Fischer had exchanged worldviews and, unlike Schmitt, spent the rest of his life pot-shooting dead Germans—starting with the Evangelical Church in 19th-century Germany, now criticized as overly nationalist.
It is mind-boggling that so little light has been shed on Fischer’s checkered past. Even Grosse-Kracht treats his Nazism the way American liberals have usually interpreted the Stalinist backgrounds of their favorite progressives, as something that only boorish reactionaries would bring up. The dirty secret is that the post-Marxist left do not care about real Nazi pedigrees but simply about whom they can accuse of being a Nazi or a fascist, while trashing their country and its culture. Thus, they excuse Jurgen Habermas and Walter Jens, two anti-German leftist intellectuals, for their extensive activities in the Hitler youth. They also jolly along former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, who covered up his father’s work in greasing the skids for the holocaust, as Hitler’s ambassador to the Vatican. In the mid-80’s, Weizsäcker made himself into a Gutmensch (a leftist Goody Two-shoes) by speaking publicly on the need for perpetual, collective German atonement for the Nazi past. Meanwhile, those who excuse the genuine Nazis throw dirt at heroic German martyrs Claus von Stauffenberg and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who died trying to overthrow Hitler, for being insufficiently philosemitic and persistently patriotic.
In the postwar American occupation, antileftist anti-Nazis were considered politically dangerous. For several years, certifiable opponents of Hitler who disliked the communists or exhibited patriotic feelings were denied the right to publish newspapers or books. Former Nazis who changed sides, unlike conservatives who had opposed Hitler, were considered “educable.” This continued to be the rule for Fischer and those of his ilk. By tacking leftward and doing so as despisers of the German past, they have been turned into the public “conscience” for a hated and self-hating country. Perhaps it is time to notice the swastika lurking beneath this artificial conscience.