Enzo Traverso: The New Anti-Communism: Rereading the Twentieth Century
As many analysts have observed with great astonishment, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not usher in a more ‘objective', less passionately and ideologically oriented approach to the history of the twentieth century, but rather a new wave of anti-communism: a ‘militant', fighting anti-communism, all the more paradoxical inasmuch as its enemy had ceased to exist. In some ways, Paris is its capital. It reached its zenith in 1995 with the publication of The Passing of an Illusion by Francois Furet.1 Two years later came The Black Book of Communism, an anthology edited by Stephane Courtois, whose aim was to show that communism was much more murderous than Nazism.2 On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the old school of Cold War historians seems to have rediscovered its youth, as The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes (1990) and The Soviet Tragedy by Martin Malia (1994) show.3 In this context Ernst Nolte, a conservative historian who had been isolated since the Historikerstreit of the mid-1980s, when Jurgen Habermas and many German historians accused him of rehabilitating the Nazi past, suddenly achieved a new legitimacy.4 The old revisionism became acceptable, and even fashionable. Praised by Furet in a long footnote to The Passing of an Illusion, the once unpopular scholar is now highly regarded in France, where several of his books have been published (most recently his highly controversial Der europaische Burgerkrieg, The European Civil War).5
These historians cannot be lumped together without an explanation. In fact, they belong neither to the same national context nor to the same intellectual generation; furthermore, the quality of their works is very uneven. Nevertheless, the exchange of letters between Nolte and Furet6 on the one hand and Courtois' preface to the French edition of Nolte's The European Civil War on the other hand reveals a host of `elective affinities' and forges a sort of united front in the present historical and political debate. Beyond their methodological divergences, their battles as `engaged' historians converge on an essential point: anti-communism raised to the status of an historical paradigm, a hermeneutic key to the twentieth century. In the dock is the Russian Revolution, approached in different ways but always interpreted as the first step towards modern totalitarianism.
Within this anti-communist wave, Nolte appears as a forerunner. Perceived as a left historian by many observers at the beginning of the 1960s, when he published Three Faces of Fascism,7 he has taken the lead among German conservative historians since the mid-1980s, with the outbreak of the Historikerstreit. A former student of Martin Heidegger, he belongs to an intellectual tradition of nationalism and conservatism that unquestionably possesses, from Treitschke to Meinecke and from Heidegger to Schmitt, its titres de noblesse. But his place within this current is that of an epigone, in a time in which it has lost any greatness or power to fascinate and its apocalyptic appeal rings like a distant echo of the past. Today, this culture has abandoned its radical tendencies and adapted itself to a more conventional conservatism. After the Second World War, the `conservative revolution' ceased to exist. All that remains is a wounded national pride, sometimes a nationalist ressentiment, and more often an apologetic vision of the German past.8 All those features pervade Ernst Nolte's work.
Many writers before him interpreted the twentieth century as a time of civil war, first European and then international. The concept of `world civil war' (Weltburgerkrieg) already appears in the writings of Ernst Junger and Carl Schmitt.9 Junger used it in his war journal in 1942, namely in a passage devoted to his visit to the Eastern front. Schmitt used it in Der Nomos der Erde, his first work published after the war, in which he analysed the crisis of the Jus Publicum Europeum, i.e. the international order created with the Reformation and effectively destroyed in the spasms of the twentieth century's total wars.10 In this perspective, the civil war was the apogee of the `Political' conceived as the site of an `existential' conflict between `friend' and `enemy'. This concept would later be used by several historians, often on the other side of the political spectrum, such as Arno J. Mayer and Dan Diner. In different ways, they analysed the period 1914±45 as the culmination of a modern `Thirty Years War', emphasizing that the Second World War was at one and the same time a military, a geo-political, and an ideological conflict in which not only great powers but also antithetical global visions clashed (in a kind of Weltanschauungskrieg).11
Nolte suggests a different interpretation. In his opinion, the `European civil war' did not begin in 1914 with the fall of the ancient imperial and dynastic order, the outbreak of a world war, the brutalization of political life in the old continent and the opening of a new cycle of revolutions and counter-revolutions that finally led to the modern totalitarianism. According to Nolte, the `European civil war' started in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, which was followed two years later by the birth of the Communist International, a `party of the world civil war'.12 This is the well-known thesis that provoked a violent controversy among German historians in 1986: Auschwitz as a `copy', of course extreme but nevertheless derivative, of an `Asiatic' barbarism originally introduced to Europe by the Bolsheviks. How can we explain Nazi crimes, which were perpetrated by a regime born in a European, modern and civilized nation? According to Nolte, the answer lies in the trauma provoked in Germany by the October Revolution. As the first totalitarian regime to adopt a politics of terror and of `class extermination' from the onset of the Russian civil war, Bolshevism acted on the German mind as both a `frightful image' (Schreckbild) and a `model' (Vorbild).13 Thus, Nazi genocide and criminal practices could be explained as an `exacerbated' reaction to a threat of annihilation embodied by Russian Bolshevism. In others words, Nolte regards Nazi anti-Semitism as a `particular kind of anti-Bolshevism' and the genocide of the Jews as `the inverted image of another extermination, that of a world class, by the Bolsheviks'.14 In order to defend his thesis, Nolte underlines the exceptional scale of Jewish involvement in the Russian and Central European communist movement. Since the Jews were considered responsible for the massacres perpetrated by the Bolshevik regime (the destruction of the bourgeoisie), the Nazis concluded that they had to `exterminate them, as both a retaliation and a preventive measure'. Auschwitz is thus explained by the gulag, `the logical and factual forerunner' of Nazi crimes, as Nolte wrote in his notorious article in 1986.15
It is interesting to observe that in this reconstruction of the origins of totalitarianism, the collectivization of Soviet agriculture at the beginning of the 1930s is practically ignored. The death of several million Russian and Ukrainian peasants from starvation and mass deportations appears much less important, in Nolte's approach, than the violence of the civil war after the Revolution. At the same time, his reconstruction of the history of the Russian civil war is very superficial (on this point, his book is incomparably less well documented than the works of Edward H. Carr, Orlando Figes or Nicolas Werth).16 For example, he gives no estimate of the number of victims. His attention is focused less on the real horrors of this conflict than on its portrayal and distortions in the German collective consciousness. His thesis on the founding character of Bolshevik violence and on the derivative, `reactive' origins of Nazism rests on an extremely weak and controversial foundation. In fact, his key primary source is counter-revolutionary propaganda. Thus, he accepts as ready money the various (never verified) accounts diffused by tsarist and nationalist emigres about the tortures practised by an imaginary `Chinese Cheka'. In particular, he resurrects the frightening legend of the `cage of rats' (Rattenkafig), which has been narrated in different versions from Octave Mirbeau to George Orwell.17 Nolte's key source is a second- hand quotation. In 1924, Serguei Melgunov, a Russian Social-Revolutionary emigre, published Red Terror in Russia in Berlin. After warning against several evident `exaggerations', Melgunov spent many pages quoting another exile, namely R. Nilostonsky's accounts of the Russian civil war.18 Examining Nolte's different sources, German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler placed these quotations in their original context; a White propaganda pamphlet published in Berlin in 1920, Der Blutrausch des Bolschewismus (The Blood Lust of Bolshevism), essentially devoted to describing the Cheka's atrocities. Wehler gives a sample of the booklet's prose: `Behind the communist imposture of Moscow, there is the triumph of Jewish world imperialism which, according to the thesis of the Zionist congress, must be realised through the pitiless extermination of the whole Christian population.'19 Of course, this legend of the Chinese Cheka was afterwards diffused first by the Nazi newspaper the Volkischer Beobachter and then in another pamphlet by Alfred Rosenberg, Pest in Russland. Together with many other statements on the violence of Bolshevik propaganda at the time of the Russian civil war, this legend constitutes the essential `documentary' basis on which Nolte builds his interpretation of Nazism, of Hitler's anti-Semitism and of the `preventive' nature of the German war against the Soviet Union.
Nolte's collection of quotations does not prove a thesis, but rather summons up a certain atmosphere. Because of its abundant documentation, his book is not uninteresting as a study of the perception of Bolshevism in Nazi Germany. At the same time, his complete lack of critical distance from his sources and his adherence to an `image of the enemy' of this type are astonishing. After presenting Nazism as a form of inverted Bolshevism, he relates the history of the latter by borrowing many stereotypes from the German conservative literature of the 1930s, reproducing all its fears and irrational phobias.20 Nolte does genuinely grasp an essential feature of Nazism; its counter-revolutionary nature, that of a movement born as a reaction against the Russian Revolution and German Spartacism, as a militant anti-Marxist and anti-communist force. That is true of fascism -Mussolini's as well as Hitler's - and of the counter-revolution more generally, which is always inextricably, `symbiotically' linked to revolution. October 1917 provoked a frightening trauma among the European bourgeoisie, comparable in many respects to the shock experienced by the aristocracy after 1789. The Soviet dictatorship, as well as the ephemeral Soviet republics that appeared in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919-20, spread fear and even panic among the ruling classes. Nevertheless, that is only one aspect of the problem and it would be very simplistic to reduce the origins of Nazism to this reactive dimension. Certainly, the post-war political crisis created the conditions for its birth 0 contrary to Sternhell's thesis, which dates the beginning of fascism to the end of nineteenth century, in the France of the Dreyfus Affair21 - but many components of its ideology, and in particular its anti-Semitism, were older than the Russian Revolution. Doubtless, the revolutions accentuated an already widespread hatred of Jews, but Nazi anti- Semitism was very strongly rooted in the tradition of volkisch nationalism, which had impregnated the different tendencies of German conservative culture for several decades. Hitler's anti-Semitism was formed in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it could be neither contaminated by anti-communism nor fuelled by the role of Jews in the Russian Revolution and the political upheavals in Central Europe.22
Following a tendency that first appeared after 1789, counter-revolution does not limit itself simply to `restoring' the old regime; it `transcends' the past, taking on a modern dimension, trying to build a new social and political order, acting as a `revolution against the revolution' (which explains the strong `revolutionary' rhetoric and style of both Italian and German fascism).23 But the content of the fascist counter-revolution is older; it elaborates and mobilizes a whole number of pre-existing cultural and ideological elements in a new synthesis. Nationalism and imperialism, Pan-Germanism and the idea of `living space', `redemptive' anti-Semitism and racism, eugenics and extermination of the `lower races', hatred of the left and charismatic dictatorship are tendencies that had appeared, in more or less developed forms, from the end of the nineteenth century on. Nazism did not create them, it simply radicalized them.
Unlike the French Revolution, which, propagated by Napoleon's armies, was actually at the origin of a European civil war, the Russian Revolution entered a phase of `internalization' after the defeat of the various insurrectionary attempts in Central Europe. Born during a world war, it led first to a domestic civil war and then to Stalinism. After the troubles of the 1920s and the stabilization of its frontiers, the Soviet regime did not attack international capitalism - with which it tried to establish a modus vivendi - but rather launched a domestic war against the peasantry and traditional Russian society. For his part, Hitler probably considered the Soviet Union a class dictatorship, but his image of the enemy was filtered through the categories of eugenics and racial biology. In his eyes, the USSR represented the threat of a destructive revolution, not as the leading force of the international proletariat, but essentially as the result of a diabolical alliance between the Jewish intelligentsia and `Slavic subhumanity (Untermenschentum)'.24 Nazism perceived communism as a mortal enemy embodying an anti-national force; the proletariat was only its social body, not its real subject. The genocide of the Jews was not conceived as a response to a supposed class extermination but much more, in Social Darwinist terms, as a necessary step in a process of natural selection, as the conquest of the `living space' for the superior race.
If Nazism achieved a fusion of three different struggles - a colonial assault on the Slavic world, a political struggle against communism and the Soviet Union, and a racial fight against the Jews - into a unique war of conquest and extermination,25 this means that its model could not be Bolshevism. It would be more relevant and coherent to find its `model' in the colonial wars of the nineteenth century, which were actually conceived by the European imperialist powers as the appropriation of `living space', a colossal plundering of the conquered territories, a process of enslavement of the indigenous peoples and, according to a Social Darwinist model, the destruction of `inferior races'. Such colonial wars have often taken the form of extermination campaigns by European armies that were convinced they were carrying out a `civilizing mission'. In a completely different historical context, they were inspired by the same fanaticism and crusading spirit that characterized the Nazi war against the USSR. `Exterminate all the brutes!': this slogan, evoked by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, was applied by Europeans in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century before being adopted by the Nazis in Poland, Ukraine and Russia during the Second World War. In contradiction to his own thesis, Nolte himself recalls this essential aspect of the German war, emphasizing Hitler's aim of transforming the Slavic world into a kind of `German India'. He quotes Reich Commissar Erich Koch, who claimed to be carrying out a colonial war in Ukraine, `as among niggers'.26 During the first period of the war on the Eastern front in 1941±42, Hitler's `table talks' with Martin Bormann were riddled with references to Eastern Europe's future, as an empire for the Germans comparable with what Asia, Africa and the Far West had been for the British, French and US.27 The historical laboratory for Nazi crimes was not Bolshevik Russia but the colonial past of Western civilization, in the classical era of industrial capitalism, imperialist colonialism and political liberalism. Formulating it in Nolte's own words, we could appropriately describe this historical background as the `causal nexus' and the `logical and factual precedent' for Nazi violence. But it is not at all surprising that the new anti-communist paradigm completely ignores this historical genealogy.
We can recognize an element of truth in Nolte's remark that Nazi Germany appeared almost as a Rechtsstaat in comparison with Stalin's USSR.28 Of course, this means considering the Third Reich a state based on a legal order, not a liberal state. The Hobbesian image of Behemoth, the biblical monster evoked by Franz Neumann in order to describe Nazi Germany as `a non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy',29 could probably be applied more accurately to Stalin's USSR than to the Nazi regime. The Soviet Union was created by a revolution that had profoundly modified the class structure of society. Unlike Germany, where the traditional economic, bureaucratic and military elites had kept their power, this revolution had `levelled' the structure of society and created new political hierarchies. Insofar as the political regime was based on a new social structure in which all traditional privileges were abolished, nobody could avoid the threat of repression and deportation. At the apogee of the great Terror, any kulak could become an enemy of socialism, any party member could be a secret spy, any technician could be a saboteur, any former Menshevik could be a counter-revolutionary, any long-time party member could be suspected of Trotskyism and condemned as a traitor, etc. In Nazi Germany, on the contrary, violence was strictly codified. With the obvious exception of political anti-fascists (especially social-democrats and communists), its targets were different minorities classified as not belonging to the German Volk and as enemies of the `Aryan race': Jews, Gypsies, the congenitally ill, homosexuals, `asocial' people, etc. Unlike anti-fascists, who were persecuted because of their political activities, these minorities' `crime' was simply to be alive. The political order that corresponded to this racial-biological hierarchy of society was obviously inhuman and deeply undemocratic, but not necessarily `irrational' or chaotic. In other words, Nazi terror did not threaten society as a whole.
Prisoner of the contradictions of the Nazi `polycracy', the German totalitarian system was no more finished or effective than Stalin's was. The fact is that Stalinism bore no relation to the racist and biological Weltanschauung that inspired Nazi crimes.30 Stalinism, on the one hand, was characterized by a police state, blind repression, a totalitarian organization of society, `feudal-military exploitation' of the peasantry (in Bukharin's words), deportation of peoples judged as `non-reliable' or suspected, according to paranoid criteria, of collaboration with the enemy. Nazism, on the other hand, was characterized first by a `synchronized' (gleischhaltet) society that was organized along ethnic and racial lines, then by a colonial war for conquest of German `living space' in the Slavic world and a war of extermination against the Jews, both converging in the destruction of the USSR and `Judaeo-Bolshevism'. These completely different patterns exclude the hypothesis of a `causal nexus' between Nazism and Stalinism's crimes. They also considerably limit the value of the concept of totalitarianism, which is based on their formal similarities. The interpretation of totalitarianism's origins proposed by Nolte conceals an essential source of Nazism: eugenics, with its projects of racial purification (to the point of euthanasia). Developed in Western Europe beginning at the end of nineteenth century, in the epoch of classical liberalism, this ideology became the central axis of the Nazi political project.31
Forgetting such fundamental aspects, Nolte's analogy inevitably takes on an apologetic flavour. In his book, he uses the concept of genocide in a very broad and not very rigorous way. On the one hand he recognizes the peculiar character of Nazi genocidal policies, but on the other hand he applies this word to all violence occurring during the Second World War. For example, he imputes an `openly genocidal intention' to Churchill, quoting several passages of a letter to Lord Beaverbrook in June 1940 in which the British prime minister mentioned the means to be used in the war against Germany. Nolte defines the deportation of `punished peoples' in the USSR as `ethnic massacres practiced in a repressive and a preventive way'. Finally, he qualifies the Anglo-American war against Nazi Germany as `almost exclusively a war of extermination', adding that the expulsion of German populations living beyond the Oder-Neisse line was an `ethnic murder'.32 Of course such comparisons are highly questionable: they erase any distinction between genocide - the planned extermination of a human group - and forced displacement of a population, however authoritarian, inhuman and reprehensible it may be, as well as between genocide and war crimes (a category to which we could consign the bombing of German civilians between 1942 and 1945). But the main problem raised by all these comparisons lies in their hermeneutic framework: the explanation of Auschwitz and of the Nazi war more generally as a preventive genocide and a preventive war, both generated by a regime facing the threat of a terrible destruction and acting from an elemental instinct of self-defence.