According to Josef Joffe, foreign editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German historian Ernst Nolle once asked at a Harvard seminar whether anyone present could find the idea of the “Final Solution” in history before Hitler. Since no one answered, he drew the attention of his audience to the work of Marx and the concept of annihilation of the bourgeoisie as a class.

Writing in a recent issue of Encounter, Mr. Joffe recalls:

By now, puzzlement had frozen into strained silence, and the American scholar Eric Goldhagen, a survivor of the Holocaust, tried a bit of friendly irony: “Professor Nolte, when Fiorello LaGuardia [New York’s mayor] overwhelmed his political opponents, the Democrats, in the elections of 1932, the New York Times quoted him in a banner headline: ‘We Really Murdered Them.’ Herr Nolte, he did not mean it literally.”

Mr. Joffe does not record the incautious professor’s reply, adding didactically that he “did not get the point then, nor has he apparently accepted the distinction between metaphor and mechanized mass murder ever since.” Quite obviously, the distinction exists, as do other distinctions—between (Marxist) theory and (Marxist) practice, for instance—and one doubts that the man whom Mr. Joffe describes as “a Heidegger disciple who favors ‘metaphysical history'” has been as blind to them as he makes him out to be. It is, after all, the nature of such distinctions which remains unclear, one reason why, 15 years hence, Mr. Joffe is still talking about Professor Nolte, Professor Nolte is still talking about Hitler and Marx, and we are still interested in what they have to say.

In brief, the substance of the “Controversy” (to borrow Encounter‘s section heading under which Mr. Joffe’s article, “The Battle of the Historians,” appeared in the June issue) is defined by the degree of attention which a number of historians, most notably Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber, have attracted in the German press with their “revisionist” view of National Socialism as a “reactive” phenomenon with origins in the clear and present danger of Soviet expansionism in the 1930’s. Mr. Joffe sets out to lambaste the “revisionist” view, first put forward in Nolte’s article “Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will” (“The Past That Will Not Pass Away”) in West Germany’s leading conservative paper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on June 6, 1986. Since both the argument and the counterargument are highly polemical, I will not endeavor to summarize them here. Instead, I propose to focus on a recent study, bound to be perceived as yet another volley from the “revisionist” camp: Stalin’s War by Ernst Topitsch, professor of philosophy at Graz University in Austria, just published in England.

The trouble with “revisionists” like Nolte and Hillgruber, it seems to me, is that their strain of historiography is prevalently philosophic, rather than probative (and in that sense Mr. Joffe’s point about “metaphysical history” is, one suspects, something of a sore spot). They tend to address an issue like “guilt” by speculating about the internal causes of the Nazi reaction, instead of attempting to uncover the facts that would objectify their conclusions. This is just what Professor Topitsch aims to do in his study, sufficiently original and well articulated to bring about a genuine reexamination of the war, its origins, and its aftermath. In short, the antonym of “revisionism” as practiced by Professor Topitsch is banality, which brings one to the question: Is it not the duty of a historian (a thinker, an artist) to be revisionist?

The conventional view of events leading to the outbreak of the war, with Hitler as its evil genius, differs from the orthodox Soviet view largely to the extent it acknowledges the criminally irresponsible behavior of Western statesmen and its effects on the balance of power in the 1930’s. As Churchill would later summarize it, this consisted in:

Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral successes irrespective of the vital interests of the state, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation, obvious lack of intellectual vigour . . . all these constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt.

In other words, in their interpretation of the history of the war, Stalin and his successors blame Hitier, while Western democracies blame Hitler and themselves. It is astonishing that—”revisionists” aside—Professor Topitsch is virtually alone among Western historians of the period in his attempt to complete the triangle by adding Stalin’s name to the list of those who, in Churchill’s words once again, “played a definite part in the unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which, even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.”

His is a difficult task. When the Soviet Army entered Berlin in May 1945, a spetsnaz task force located and “put into safe-keeping” all records of the Stalin-Hitler negotiations, including the crucial documents relating to the Ribbentrop-Molotov meeting in November 1940. Needless to say, they have been “safe” ever since. For this reason, a historian who wishes to see beyond Soviet representations on the one hand and Western conventions on the other must rely on his instinct, along with what “hard” evidence he can obtain, to piece together his view of events. Received wisdom, not intuition, is the enemy.

It is Hitler’s reputation as a strategist that is Professor Topitsch’s first target. He shows that “the greatest general of all time” was, in reality, a pathetic amateur, outmaneuvered by Stalin at every turn. His tactical skill (magnified in the light of his successful record of deceiving or intimidating democratic leaders) was, on closer inspection, merely a gambler’s audacity, giving way to sheer panic at the first unlucky turn of fortune’s wheel. “What do we do now?” a bug-eyed Hitler is said to have asked Ribbentrop when England’s ultimatum was handed to him on September 3, 1939. (If all this sounds a little like something out of Hogan’s Heroes, it isn’t surprising—so do Hider’s adversaries, born, like him, of the democratic flesh and blood of a free West. “Never has a simpler document been issued in history with consequences more far-reaching or more pregnant with hope,” the New York Times reported on “the results of an intimate conversation between Chancellor Adolf Hitler and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Herr Hitler’s private apartments” on September 30, 1938.)

By contrast, Stalin, as befits a good strategist, was always at least a step ahead of destiny. If Professor Topitsch exaggerates Stalin’s genius for longterm thinking, his error is insignificant, for the Soviet totalitarian system, already perfected by the time Hitler seized power, was most effective in compensating for the individual shortcomings of its engineers, an advantage the National Socialist system would never possess. In any case, Professor Topitsch’s contention that Stalin had duped Hitler as he would later dupe the Allies is utterly plausible.

What gives support to this contention is the existing record of diplomatic and military moves made by the Soviets in the direction of Germany, particularly after the signing of the Hitler- Stalin pact in 1939 (“Now I have the world in my pocket!” the euphoric gambler is said to have exclaimed). Professor Topitsch demonstrates how, by opening and closing the tap of hostility (i.e., by intermittently violating and observing the terms of the “Boundaries and Friendship Agreement”), Stalin manipulated Hitler—his main hope for a destabilized Europe—into a world war from which he, Stalin, would emerge as the sole victor.

It is true that the Generalissimo had overestimated his own army and underestimated Hitler’s impulsiveness: “Operation Barbarossa,” the “treacherous” attack on Russia, came at least six months too soon. But the magnitude of this one miscalculation—tactical, not strategic—should not. Professor Topitsch argues, blind posterity to the truth about Stalin’s grand design.

That design is now the map of continental Europe, and it is easy to see why the author of Stalin’s War states unambiguously that his book “has been written more for the English-speaking than for the German reader.” That it has received so little attention, here or in the United States, is in itself an alarming sign. For there is no time like the present to remind the heirs of Chamberlain on both sides of the Atlantic that the harvest of Yalta was sown in Munich by those who like to reap.