Domenico Losurdo: Ernst Nolte and the Development of Revisionism


With the death of Ernst Nolte on the 17th August, we have seen the passing of one of the most famous revisionist historians. His work on twentieth century history and comparative studies of Nazism and Communism reduced the Nazi genocide to merely a subplot in a supposed "asiatic" horror—Communism—to which the Nazis were just reacting. It is this supposed origin of the violence of the early twentieth century in the ur-horror of the Russian Revolution which sparked the Historikerstreit (historians' dispute) in Germany in the late '80s.

In this extract from Domenico Losurdo's War and Revolution, Losurdo charts the development of Nolte's thought. Losurdo argues that as Nolte moves closer to historical revisionism, he increasingly denies the horrors of both the Nazi genocide and colonialism, in a political move to discredit Communism as both a historical reality and a theoretical idea.

In Ernst Nolte’s view the horror of the Third Reich took the form of a replica of, and prophylactic measure against, the horrors hailing from Soviet Russia. But the revisionist ideologue who claims to have identified October 1917 as the primordial source of the catastrophe of the twentieth century is contradicted by the historian obliged to recognize that the deportation of the Armenians marked ‘the first great act of genocide in the twentieth century’. This was a deportation that occurred prior to the fateful date – in fact, during the war against which the Bolsheviks rebelled. But this is not the only oscillation or inconsistency in Nolte, on whose development it is worth dwelling.

In his early phase, the German historian sought the origins of Nazism and the genocide elsewhere. He underscored the Social Darwinist motifs in Hitler and his links with ‘the great stream of counterrevolutionary thought’. He highlighted the decisive role played by appeals to struggle against the Judeo- Bolshevik conspiracy, by the denunciation of the Jew as a pathogenic agency in society, as a bacillus of dissolution and subversion to be destroyed: ‘The explosive political effect of this identification of Jewry with bolshevism is obvious . . . Not, of course, that it was Hitler’s invention; it was the common property of a whole literature from Henry Ford to Otto Hauser – one might even be tempted to say that Hitler was its invention.’

Particularly interesting here is the reference to Ford, whom we shall see supporting the thesis of the racial (Jewish), as opposed to political, origin of the Bolshevik October. In this phase, Nolte explained Hitler not with reference to the USSR and Lenin and Stalin, but to the USA and a magnate of the American automobile industry. The Third Reich was viewed as inspired not by the ‘Asiatic’ model represented by Bolshevism, but by the ideology that branded Bolshevism and Judaism alike as Asiatic phenomena alien to the West. If analogies with Nazism could be discovered among Germany’s enemies, they were to be found in the nationalist movements. In his chauvinist frenzy, an author like Charles Maurras indissolubly equated Nazism and the German people, so that the only possible ‘de-Nazification’ would be ‘de-Germanization’. Such a view, commented the non-revisionist historian, ‘is the outright expression of the inclination (if not personal, at least factual) toward genocide, which links [Maurras] with Hitler’. Early Nolte was well aware of the naturalistic and racial character of the Third Reich’s de-specification of the enemy. Precedents and analogies were to be sought other than in the revolutionary tradition.

At this stage of Nolte’s development, far from representing a mere riposte to Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism had a pre-history pre-dating October 1917 and which, moreover, did not refer exclusively to the struggle against the democratic and socialist movement. A prominent role was played by growing international tensions, the increasingly evident antagonism between the various capitalist countries. Even before the outbreak of the First World War, movements existed in France at whose core was ‘hero worship and the spell of bloodshed’. They declared ‘holy war’ on the republic, prayed for Jaurès’ death, stated their intention of drowning Parliament in the Seine, smelt the presence of Jewish espionage and treason, and unleashed squads against socialists and anti-militarists. Along with Action française, the Camelots du Rois, whose name was ‘synonymous with terror’ – a terror manifestly attuned to preparing for the impending gigantic conflict – especially distinguished themselves. Having cleared the streets of any resistance to the introduction of the three-year military draft, they boasted of having acted as ‘Gendarmes supplémentaires’. Early Nolte aptly comments: ‘Flouters of the law as auxiliary police: a strange union with more than a hint of things to come!’ It is clear that the constitutive elements of Fascism were already present and, according to the non-revisionist historian, the original experi- ence of Mussolini’s terror derived not from Lenin but precisely from the Camelots, even if the news of their evil deeds initially filled his ‘Marxist heart . . . with angry contempt’.

Turning from France to Germany, we see ‘right-wing totalitarianism’ emerging prior to October in ‘a classical formulation’. Nolte is referring to a book published anonymously in 1912 by the president of the Pan-German League. We are once again referred to the climate preceding and heralding the outbreak of the Great War, which was prayed for by Heinrich Class (the author in question) as a remedy for the ‘current malady’ and ‘a moment of revival in the people of all its good, healthy and energetic forces’ – the forces it required to decisively repulse the democratic movement, if necessary by a coup d’état. No doubt the war with the other powers would prove hard and difficult; and it might end in defeat and increased chaos. But people should not be unduly concerned about this: the ‘powerful will of a dictator’ would ensure the restoration of ‘order’ and prepare for revenge, after having swept away ‘Jewish-socialist propaganda’ for ‘a revolution intended to destroy the German people for ever’. Only a ‘catastrophe’ serving to liquidate the Jewish ‘ferment of decomposition’, and socialist and ‘Jewish dissolution’, could pave the way for a real renaissance of ‘national policy’.

Such talk, which seems to prophesy Nazism, and offer a clear statement of the justification for Hitler’s regime, is clairvoyant and sinister. At stake was averting the threat of annihilation that Jews and socialists posed to Germany. This ideological theme of ‘counter-annihilation’, not taken seriously by early Nolte, is at the heart of his subsequent reading of the twentieth century. Throughout his development, the German historian has rightly paid particular attention to Nietzsche and, above all, to the appeal, which emerged in the last years of the philosopher’s conscious existence, to the ‘annihilation’, the destruction ‘without pity’, of anything degenerate. Thus, stressed early Nolte, the working-class movement inspired by Marxism was ‘confronted with the desperate comradeship in arms of the martial society and the culture proceeding from it with its battle cry of “salvation” and “annihilation” ’. This pitiless conflict would end in the triumph of ‘the future lords of the earth’. A new type of man would emerge, capable (in Nietzsche’s words as reported by Nolte) of ‘cruelty merely at the sight of much suffering, perishing, and destruction’. He would be ‘cruel in hand and deed (and not merely with the eyes of the spirit)’, and prove capable of ‘experiencing pleasure’ in suffering. Thus, ‘many decades in advance, Nietzsche provided the political, radical anti-Marxism of fascism with its original spiritual image, an image of which even Hitler never quite showed himself the equal’. In this phase, Nazism was the inheritor of a reactionary radicalism that contained a terrible charge of violence and developed decades before the Bolshevik October.

True, Nietzsche might be considered a riposte to Marx. However, for the non-revisionist historian it made no sense to seek to put the two philosophers on a par:

It is true that the bourgeoisie saw itself threatened politically with destruction by the socialist program. But it is equally true that it was a legacy of Marxism if scarcely anywhere did the socialist parties attempt to bring about such destruction (even in Russia they did so only hesitantly and in the struggle for their own survival). For Marxists regard ‘the expropriation of the expropriators’ rather as the radical removal of an already tottering obstacle than an actual battle, and certainly not as physical extermination. It is precisely Nietzsche’s thought which proves that the fascist idea of destruction must not be regarded primarily as a homogeneous reaction [to the challenge represented by Marx].

Whereas Nolte links Nazism with the anti-democratic reaction of the nineteenth century, the idea of physical extermination proves foreign not only to Marx, but also to the Bolsheviks. Some years later, although correctly underscoring the ‘horror’ of the Gulag, when reporting the assertion of a Bolshevik newspaper that ‘our war is not directed against individuals, but we seek to destroy the bourgeoisie as a class’, the German historian regarded it as ‘incontrovertible’ that ‘the “destruction of the bourgeoisie” as a class does not mean killing every single bourgeois’.Shortly before his revisionist turn, Nolte defined the Bolsheviks as ‘the greatest force of planned destruction’, but entered two important caveats: ‘the white terror was at least equal in cruelty to the red terror’ and, in any event, the Bolsheviks’ planned destruction was to be regarded as ‘anti-Marxist’. It was alien to Marx for reasons bound up with his scientific methodology. In fact, observed Nolte, Marx’s definition of classes was never purely sociological (it might be said that in Marx ‘actual sociological analysis’ was ‘comparatively irrelevant’): ‘party struggle’ was not immediately identified with ‘class struggle’. Depending on circumstances or ‘conduct’, the same social group, or individuals from the same social group, could be included in the category of proletariat, lumpenproletariat, or plebs. The same was true of the bourgeoisie. Elements from its ranks could become part of the working-class movement, even leaders of it. The category of class genocide, which subsequently became the war horse of historical revisionism, is exposed here as a nonsense: what defines genocide is precisely the irrelevance of the conduct of the individual, naturalistically included in a group whose fate she or he simply cannot escape.

In today’s historical revisionism, there is no reference to Maurras and Ford: it is a question of exclusively indicting the revolutionary tradition from 1789 to 1917. In tracing the history of conspiracy theory, Furet establishes a dizzying line of continuity between the French Revolution and Nazism: the ‘aristocrats’ and class enemies sniffed out first by the Jacobins, and then by the Bolsheviks, become the Jews who were the object of Hitler’s paranoia. Not a word is spent by the French historian on his esteemed Burke, who was among the first (as we shall see) to detect a Jewish hand in the unprecedented events across the Channel. Little or no attention is paid to the extraordinary vitality of the myth of the Jewish conspiracy supposedly underlying revolutionary upheavals. In the course of the struggle against the October Revolution, this myth celebrated its triumph not only in Germany, but throughout the West. The initial head of the crusade against the Judeo- Bolshevik conspiracy was Henry Ford, the American automobile magnate. To foil it, he founded a paper with a large print run, the Dearborn Independent. The articles published in it were collected in 1920 in a volume entitled The International Jew, which immediately became a reference point for international anti-Semitism, to the extent that it ‘probably did more than any other work to make the Protocols world-famous’. Much later, front-rank Nazi leaders like von Schirach and even Himmler claimed to have been inspired by Ford or to have started out from him. In particular, the second recalls having understood ‘the Jewish danger’ only after reading Ford’s book: for Nazis it came as a ‘revelation’. Reading of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion followed: ‘These two books indicated the road to follow to liberate humanity from the affliction of the greatest enemy of all time, the Jewish international.’ According to Himmler, along with the Protocols, Ford’s book played a ‘decisive’ (ausschlaggebend) role in the Führer’s formation, as well as his own.What is certain is that The International Jew continued to be published with great fanfare in the Third Reich, with prefaces underlining the decisive historical merit of the American industrialist (for having shed light on the ‘Jewish question’) and disclosing a kind of direct line from Henry Ford to Adolf Hitler!

Blithely ignored by Furet, all this is allowed to lapse by the later Nolte, committed as he is to the goal of Germany’s readmission into the authentic West. Attention must now be concentrated exclusively on the East. Everything is clear: the Nazi genocide is to be imputed to ‘Asiatic’ barbarism, imitated by Hitler with his focus on the October Revolution. Was the idea of annihilation already present in late nineteenth-century culture? In reality, it was tantamount to an idea of ‘counter-annihilation’, in reaction to the programmes of physical liquidation of the bourgeoisie and exploiting classes already inscribed in black and white in the socialist movement. ‘With the Bolshevik Revolution, for the first time in European history a negation of the right to existence not only in theoretical terms, but in historical reality, came to fruition. All this was precisely postulated by Marxism.’ First Nietzsche, then Hitler, reacted to the threat of annihilation: The Anti-Christ responded to the Manifesto of the Communist Party, just as Mein Kampf took up the chal- lenge of The State and Revolution!

A pity that this ingenious reconstruction does not withstand textual analysis! Late Nietzsche’s relentless polemic against socialists must not lead us to forget the motif of the ‘destruction of the decadent races’. The philosopher expressed the hope that the ‘“barbarism” of the methods’ used by the conquistadors ‘in the Congo and wherever’, and an awareness of the need to maintain ‘mastery of barbarians’, would end up putting paid to the habitual, hateful ‘European sentimentality’. This takes us back to revisionism’s other colossal repression. While the first ignores total war, the second abolishes the history of colonialism. According to Nolte, in developing his programme and methods of struggle, Hitler constantly had in mind the treatment meted out to prisoners of the ‘Chinese Cheka’: ‘They place a cage containing a half-starved rat in front of his head. The interrogator threatens to open the door.’ This was the kind of horror to which Nazism felt compelled to respond. The revisionist historian’s argument is the one with which colonialism has traditionally justified its brutality. Let us read a contemporary American historian:

The Filipinos were fighting the kind of war that is based on terror; the Americans fought back just as cruelly. They developed a ‘water torture’ that made even the Spanish cringe. If a captured Filipino refused to divulge military information, four or five gallons of water were forced down his throat until his body became ‘an object frightful to contemplate’. Then the water was forced out by kneeling on his stomach. The treatment was repeated until the prisoner talked or died.

Torture is not an invention alien to the West, which Nazism could only have imitated by looking to Asiatic, Bolshevik barbarism. But Nolte sticks with his schema: like the barbarism of the means of struggle generally, so the genocides of the twentieth century descend from the October Revolution. With the latter, a ‘qualitatively new thing was entering into world history’ – ‘the collectivist appraisal of guilt and the acts of annihilation that resulted from it’.85 Once again, both total war (and the practice of decimation), and the history of colonialism, disappear from the revisionist historian’s view. Yet it was precisely to this history that an anti-Semitic deputy made explicit reference in the Reichstag in the late nineteenth century, when demanding the mass expulsion of the Jews uninhibited by compassion for particular individuals. In India, he stated, the British ‘exterminated this whole sect [the Thuggee], without regard to the question whether any particular member of the sect already had committed a murder or not’.