BORNMARBURG,NRFRANKFURT, NOVEMBER5,1930.DIEDTUTZING, GERMANY,NOVEMBER5,2015,AGED85
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.