US history is a Pandora’s box. There has never been a better moment to open it

Aug 8, 2017 by

Past controversy has often been diluted. After Trump’s victory, there’s a real opportunity to discuss what counts as history and the role it plays in democracy

In divided cold war-era Germany, the last thing that an eminent historian of fascism would have hoped to do was scandalize. But scandalize Ernst Nolte did. The title of his essay The Past that Will Not Pass, published in the prominent Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1986, rehearsed William Faulkner’s famed dictum: “The past is never dead.” Under the unremarkable headline, however, lay a stark provocation.

The topic was Nolte’s specialty: the Nazi era. Germans had undoubtedly committed extraordinary atrocities, but how exceptional, he asked, were the crimes? And how exceptional did they render the country’s history? To make his point, Nolte suggested that Hitler’s annihilation policies were derivative, borrowed from the Bolsheviks, and reactive, triggered by the Nazis’ own anxieties about Bolshevism’s return.

Breaking open this Pandora’s box of historiographical taboos unleashed a very public reckoning with the origins and future of Germany’s violent past. The so-called historians’ controversy occupied headlines for more than a year and resurfaced several times thereafter. At root, the argument was about comparing two specific totalitarianisms. More broadly, it was a dispute about the salience of analogy, one that played out at a key moment in the nation’s history.

Nolte ultimately lost. The controversy that he ignited became a platform to negotiate a suitable public memory for a state about to reunify after 40 years of division. Most conceded that the dark chapter of German history could never be closed, but would live on in an ongoing confrontation – Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the struggle to overcome the negatives of the past)cautioning against populism and advancing history as a check on politics. The model would extend to the communist past as well.

But Nolte also won. Without his bombast, reunification-era Germany might not have had a foundational, open, well-informed conversation about the place of history in contemporary society. If many now complain about fading historical awareness and unprocessed pasts – colonialism being one – it is because no new Nolte has risen to upset the status quo. Half-forgotten, he died in August 2016.

Source: US history is a Pandora’s box. There has never been a better moment to open it | Yuliya Komska | Opinion | The Guardian

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