The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - GLO­RIA TESSLER


THE TERM Right­eous Gentile usu­ally de­scribes those coura­geous Chris­tians who risked their lives to save Jews at a time of per­se­cu­tion, no­tably dur­ing the Holo­caust. Al­though the Ger­man his­to­rian, Hans Momm­sen does not fit into this cat­e­gory, his con­tention that the evils of Nazism did not be­long to its lead­er­ship alone but must be laid squarely at the door of Ger­man so­ci­ety it­self, was both coura­geous and con­tro­ver­sial.

Momm­sen con­sid­ered busi­ness lead­ers, the aris­toc­racy, the ju­di­ciary, the mil­i­tary and the civil ser­vice equally cul­pa­ble, and that Nazi at­ti­tudes which cul­mi­nated in the Holo­caust were not just the work of a small crim­i­nal fra­ter­nity. To be­lieve that Hitler and his hench­men were solely re­spon­si­ble for the racist laws of the Third Re­ich was, he be­lieved, sim­plis­tic and apol­o­gist.

In fact, ac­cord­ing to this lead­ing ex­pert on Nazi Ger­many and the Holo­caust, Hitler was a weak dic­ta­tor with few gen­uine ideas of his own. He de­pended, claimed Momm­sen, on a ri­val­rous mud­dle of gov­ern­men­tal bu­reau­cra­cies, who wanted to prove they were in­dis­pens­able. The Fi­nal So­lu­tion, he ar­gued, was in no way Hitler’s brain­child alone. Those func­tionar­ies lower down the ranks fu­elled the an­ti­semitic laws which cul­mi­nated in the Holo­caust.

Many of Momm­sen’s views were de­vel­oped dur­ing the last months of Nazi rule when he ex­pe­ri­enced the de­struc­tion, chaos and sheer in­hu­man­ity of the Nazi de­bris. He pas­sion­ately ad­vo­cated broad­en­ing pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of how his great civil­i­sa­tion could now lie in ru­ins. But his the­sis was chal­lenged by Ger­man crit­ics as “ba­nal­is­ing the political re­al­ity of the rise of Nazism”, and triv­i­al­is­ing Hitler’s to­tal­i­tar­ian am­bi­tions. Hitler’s bi­og­ra­pher Joachim Fest in­sisted that Ger­many’s cold-blooded pol­icy to an­ni­hi­late the Jews was the Nazi leader’s per­sonal cre­ation.

Momm­sen’sstud­iesof the Holo­caust would inevitably prove con­tro­ver­sial to a Ger­many try­ing to re­build it­self, as was his at­tack on Volk­swa­gen which he claimed used slave labour dur­ing the Se­cond World War. In 1986 Carl Hahn, Volk­swa­gen’s chair­man com­mis­sioned Momm­sen to ex­am­ine its his­tory. The re­sults proved that some 70 per cent of Volk­swa­gen’s work force dur­ing the Se­cond World com­prised pris­on­ers of war, con­cen­tra­ton camp in­mates and East Euro­pean young peo­ple ab­ducted from cin­e­mas, churches or trains, and of­ten beaten or worked to death. The fac­tory med­i­cal of­fi­cer was ex­e­cuted by the Bri­tish for starv­ing to death the chil­dren born to East Euro­pean women.

But once Hahn had been re­placed by Fer­di­nand Piech, grand­son of VW’s founder Fer­di­nand Porsche, Piech protested that in 1943 “he had to use cheap East Euro­pean work­ers to ful­fil the Fuhrer’s wish that the Volk­swa­gen be pro­duced for 990 Re­ichs­mark. He ac­cused Momm­sen of a per­sonal at­tack on his fam­ily. Piech re­tained his chair­man­ship un­til he re­signed in April last year.

Momm­sen was from in­tel­lec­tual stock. He was the son of Marie-Therèse (née Iken) and Wil­helm Momm­sen, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern his­tory and the great-grand­son of lit­er­ary No­bel lau­re­ate Theodor Momm­sen. His brothers Wolf­gang and Karl also be­came his­to­ri­ans. He stud­ied at Hei­del­berg, Tub­in­gen and Mar­burg, and was a pro­fes­sor at Bochum Univer­sity from 1968 un­til his death. He also held sev­eral vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor­ships, in­clud­ing Har-

Hans Momm­sen: his­to­rian who broad­ened per­spec­tives of Nazi guilt vard, Prince­ton, Ox­ford, Berke­ley and in Jerusalem. Among his many awards was the 2010 Bruno Kreisky prize in Aus­tria. Some of his ac­claimed es­says were pub­lished in an English trans­la­tion, From Weimar to Auschwitz in 1991 and Al­ter­na­tives to Hitler: Ger­man Re­sis­tance un­der the Third Re­ich, in 2003.

He came into his own in the early 1960s when he turned his at­ten­tion to the then cur­rent Ger­man ten­dency to air­brush his­tory. In his book Beam­ten­tum im Drit­ten Re­ich (The Civil Ser­vice in the Third Re­ich) he de­picted Hitler as a weak politi­cian and a self-re­gard­ing pro­pa­gan­dist. He sparked de­bate with an ar­ti­cle about the Re­ich­stag fire of 1933, dis­count­ing the pop­u­lar be­lief that the Nazis them­selves had caused the fire, prior to their takeover of the Ger­man state. But Momm­sen de­clared the ar­son­ist was a young Dutch com­mu­nist act­ing alone. When a group of prom­i­nent his­to­ri­ans com­plained about ex­ces­sive Ger­man Holo­caust­guilt, Momm­sen and his twin brother Wolf­gang con­demned their at­ti­tude as “his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism”.

It was not un­til 1983 that Momm­sen turned his at­ten­tion to the Fi­nal So­lu­tion in his es­say Die Real­isierung des Utopis­chen (The Re­al­i­sa­tion of the Un­think­able). Here he ad­mit­ted that Hitler’s an­tisemitism had moved the so­cial cli­mate to its ex­ter­mi­na­tory end game, but with­out spe­cific or­ders and within a sys­tem that had be­come in­creas­ingly chaotic. He ex­panded this theme in his book Das NS-Regime un die Aus­lochung des Ju­den­tums in Europa ( The Nazi Regime and the An­ni­hi­la­tion of the Jews in Europe), re­vised in 2014.

An­other shib­bo­leth he dis­man­tled was the hero­ism as­so­ci­ated with the doomed Stauf­fen­berg plot. In Ger­mans Against Hitler, pub­lished in 2009, he ar­gued that many of those who played an ac­tive part in the July plot, and who had even lost their lives, “had pre­vi­ously par­tic­i­pated in the war of racial ex­ter­mi­na­tion, or had at least ap­proved of it for some time, and in some cases ac­tively sup­ported it”. He be­lieved the plot­ters at­tempt­ing to de­stroy Hitler did not do it in or­der to re­turn to democ­racy.

His last book The Nazi Regime and the Ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Jews in Europe was pub­lished last year. But re­cently younger his­to­ri­ans at­tacked his eval­u­a­tions for be­ing too ab­stract, un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the crimes and ide­ol­ogy of the Nazi per­pe­tra­tors. He re­mained un­yield­ing to the end, which led him to a fi­nal sense of alien­ation. In 1966 he mar­ried Mar­gareta Reindl, now pro­fes­sor emerita of political sci­ence at Mu­nich Univer­sity and an ex­pert on Putin’s Rus­sia, who sur­vives him.

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