The Holocaust Historiography Project

An Interview with Hellmut Diwald: Truth-Seeking Historiography

Editor’s Note

The following is taken from the Austrian student periodical Die Aula (No. 3, 1980, pp. 9-10), A-8010 Graz, Merangasse 13, Austria. Professor Hellmut Diwald, distinguished professor of history at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, West Germany, became a figure of some considerable controversy in academic and press circles with the publication in 1978 of his book Geschichte der Deutschen (Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna: Propylaen Verlag). This general history of the German people from the tenth century A.D., published by a thoroughly respectable and venerable firm, engendered by virtue of its treatment of certain themes of Third Reich World War II history an immediate and massive backlash — with the ultimate result that the first edition was officially withdrawn, and a new version released with certain offending passages changed. These passages occurred on pp. 164-65, and dealt in fairly general terms with the treatment of the Jews by Germany in World War II. Diwald wrote, among other things, that “Since the capitulation in 1945, 'Auschwitz' has also served as the main vehicle in a campaign to reduce the German people to complete moral degradation … Countless works have been published and claims made since 1945 which cannot be proven and which cynically add to the infamy. The most horrible events of modern times have been exploited through the use of distortions, deceptions and exaggerations… Thus, the victorious Allies claimed the existence of 'extermination camps' of which there was not a single one in Germany. For years visitors to the Dachau concentration camp were shown 'gas chambers' where as many as 25,000 Jews were allegedly killed daily by the SS. Actually the rooms displayed were dummy chambers which the U.S. military had forced imprisoned SS men to build after the capitulation… The deportation of the Jews took place as part of a general forced-labor program for the war industry … During the war Jewish emigration was no longer possible and the expression 'total solution' or 'final solution' was coined to refer to the policy whereby all Jews were to be segregated from the German population, removed from central Europe, evacuated to the East, and relocated in new ghettos. This plan was outlined by Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office on 24 June 1940. The central questions about what actually happened in the subsequent years still remain unclear despite all of the literature."*

(Die Aula questions are in boldface, Diwald’s answers following.)

Die Aula: The best way to introduce a short discussion of the book Geschichte der Deutschen is with a remark by David Irving made during a lecture given at the “Seminar for a Free Mass Media” in Kassel, West Germany. Irving began his presentation by pointing out how remarkable it is that it takes an Englishman to correct historical distortions relating to Germany’s role in the Second World War. That should more appropriately be the job of a German historian.

Such a historian has now come forward. As should be expected in contemporary, semi-colonial, Germany, his work has caused an echo-effect in the mass media; the responses have ranged, depending on the particular respondents, from naked hatred to a breath of relief. The sense of relief is due to the fact that the ice finally seems to have broken and an objective, un-emotional discussion of events become possible.

The established practice of “overcoming” the past brought about the forced revision of the first edition of Geschichte der Deutschen and must likewise sooner or later lead to an attack on the entire work. But the practice should not condemn whole generations of Germans to political ignorance and stupefaction due to their receiving a distorted sense of history. The “mess”

*A complete translation of Diwald’s remarks in this section ("The Final Solution") of his book was presented in The Journal of Historical Review Vol.3, No.1 (Spring 1982), pp.35-37. The book was reviewed in JHR Vol.1, No.1 (Spring 1980), pp. 81 -87

which has occurred should prove quite enough for a while. Besides, the real circumstances of the case should be clear to any German interested in history and educated in the traditional sense.

Nobody can object to calling things by their correct names. Insofar as they were inconsistent with international law and do contribute to a “moral mortgage” against the German people of today and their descendants, the Erlangen historian Hellmut Diwald makes appropriate and frequent criticisms of the decisions and policies of the Third Reich. That is as it should be. However, and in the name of the German people, Diwald condemns the criticisms which go beyond those limits. This is his good right as a scholar and as a historian of contemporary history. It is also his duty as a patriot and member of this very self-critical people, the Germans.

During an interview in December 1978 with Bavarian Broadcasting, you stated that you would not agree to any changes made by the Propylaen publishing house in your attention-getting book, “Geschichte der Deutschen.” Since then a second edition has appeared in which pages 164 and 165 have been changed, It is being said that a forthcoming new edition of the book will be significantly “reworked.” What circumstances induced you to revise the book?

I still stand today by the same position, in that I don’t take back a word of what I've written in my book Geschichte der Deutschen. That also includes the two pages which were substituted in the new edition. I have merely taken out a few remarks, which are nevertheless fundamentally correct, because I haven’t the slightest intention of providing [new] material which can be misused for consciously false claims. I still maintain that the theme of “German crimes” has been used since 1945 in order to defame the Germans. Moreover, central questions in this regard still remain unexplained. I have rejected any further revisions.

You mean, then, that the revisions do not change the substance but rather were made only for the purpose of clarification?

It is a fact that at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp the memorial plaque still refers to 50,000 victims whereas in reality there were 7,000 — most of whom died during the final months of the war as a result of epidemics and malnutrition. The usual response to that observation is to argue that the number is not what is important.

Golo Mann called your book “The most monstrous since 1945” written in this field.

Concentration camps are not the issue. Many contemporary historians hold that if we discuss history this way [that is, in a revisionist way], the work of 20 years is brought into question. An effort was thus made to take the book completely off the market. The whole affair involved important issues of criminal and civil law. I had to consider carefully those issues. It would have been unwise to push the matter and thereby jeopardize the entire book.

Have you had difficulties with your colleagues?

My colleagues can be divided into three types. One person opposes me, another remains silent, and a third comes to me, shakes my hand and merely says: “Keep your chin up.” A historian cannot be concerned primarily with popularly desirable pedagogical values, but rather with what is tenable. The first consideration must be to clarify the facts of the matter. Morally desirable considerations are secondary. Science recognizes no rules which engender limitations on objective truth. “Truth” means the greatest possible striving for the ideal of truth. Today, the field of contemporary history is limited to a few basic convictions which cannot be challenged or, in other words, cannot be discussed.

Do you mean that in the same sense as did the former Rector of the University of Tuebingen, Prof. Eschenburg, who declared: “Whoever questions Germany’s exclusive guilt for the Second World War destroys the foundation of post-war politics” or, similarly, the statement by David Irving that many contemporary German historians make it easy for themselves by copying from each other’s work?


What has been and is the response among students?

Among the students who know me, nothing has changed at all. A mob once organized a meeting in Erlangen. Posters in February announced the meeting. A colleague asked me to participate in a discussion since the students had many questions. I agreed. Things got very emotional although the meeting went well on stage. But it was as if I was speaking to a wall. There was no basis for understanding. I was sharply attacked, although hardly anyone knew the book. The students got their information only from the newspaper and from the article in Spiegel.

Your book is important for Austria. In the introduction, you speak of the existence of three republics in which Germans live, one of which is in Austria. How do you see the themes of state, nation, and folk in regards to Austria?

The principle of the right of self-determination must remain preeminent. Furthermore, in view of the political realities which have emerged, one must remain thoughtful when considering the situation of the German nation. It is a fact that the German people were denied the right to self-determination after the First World War and that ten million Germans remained excluded.

In 1952 Stalin proposed a peace treaty whereby Germany would be reunified and militarily neutral. The English newspaper “The Observor” recently [1980] reported that Brezhnev would be prepared to accept a similar arrangement. Do you see any chance for reunification along these lines?

Yes. There are certain constants in politics. We should keep that in mind — even if the government in Bonn does not. However, our constitutional mandate to work for reunification must take precedence. Consistent with the unity of Germany, an independent policy must be followed which, above all, is oriented neither toward the West nor the East. Such a policy could make a valuable contribution to peace. The Federal Republic of Germany should not promote the foreign policy of the U.S.A. and neither should the “German Democratic Republic” promote the foreign policy of the USSR. The danger that a reunited Germany — or, we might say, a rump Germany joined in a single state — could be Bolshevized, does not exist. There is nothing the Russians would like less than to have such a powerful formation within their own sphere of influence. On the other hand, [reunification] would eliminate the greatest source of turmoil in Europe — that is, a divided Germany — and thereby relieve both the United States and the Soviet Union. The initiative for this will certainly come not from the United States, but from the Soviet Union. The Soviets are much better practitioners of Realpolitik than are the politicians of the U.S.A.

Is the “Ostpolitik” of the Bonn Government a suitable vehicle?

No. The Russians view the current [1980] Bonn policy as a lesser evil because the rigidity of the previous CDU [Christian Democratic] government and its absolute Western orientation excluded any political flexibility.

In other words, all of the Bonn parties have failed?

Yes. Austria is way ahead in this regard. Austria would be a realistic model.