BERLIN, May 12, 2153 – Within the ivy-covered walls of Farben University, a great battle is now raging. But although the Reich's ancient capital has seen its share of warfare down through the centuries, today's combatants have no swords, no guns, no bio-disrupters – just words and pictures, marshalled on either side of a fierce debate that has split the staid academic world in two, and is beginning to spill over into national politics as well. It all revolves around a simple question: Was the German Empire a good thing or a bad thing?
At one time, the answer would have seemed clear. In the three decades since the last "Reich Protectorate" gained its independence (Ukraine, 2122), the liberal consensus among German historians has been that the Empire founded more than 200 years ago by Adolf Hitler was largely a malign development: "a system born in aggression and atrocity, which inflicted terrible suffering on the conquered lands for generations, and warped German society itself with its arrogance, brutality and corruption," as Germany's leading historian, Yuri Vinogradov, put it in his landmark 2128 work, Reich and Reality. That book set the tone for a flood of hard-hitting probes into Reich history that left almost no nationalist myth intact.
But in recent years, a group of conservative historians – dubbed the "Revisionists" – have sternly challenged this view. Led by the young Danzig firebrand, Gregor Metzger, the Revisionists argue that the achievements of the Empire – and the "Leader-State system" that was replaced by parliamentary democracy in 2120 – have been denigrated by, in Metzger's words, "liberal apologists picking at old scabs."
"Everyone knows there were blots on the Empire's record," Metzger says. "No one today would countenance, say, the early Reich's treatment of the Jews or the excesses in putting down the Muslim Rebellions in the Caucasus, etc. But neither should we look back and impose our modern values on the people of those times. Rather, we should try to understand them in their own context – and appreciate their many accomplishments."
These accomplishments, say the Revisionists, include: the eradication of Communism in Europe; the establishment of a continent-wide free market for goods, labor and capital; the creation of a common legal system and government institutions now used by most of the old colonies; and the planting of large settler communities throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia that have evolved into thriving cities and "carried the values of Western Civilization deep into benighted and lawless lands," as Metzger writes in his best-selling new book, The End of Shame: German Power in Perspective.
The Revisionists' work has been taken up by conservative politicians seeking to roll back many of the democratic reforms and cultural freedoms instituted by what they scornfully call "the new Weimar Republic." Citing Metzger and others, they are advancing a "national greatness agenda" to foster pride in the Homeland, restore "traditional moral values" to society, and reassert German dominance in world affairs. The centrist government, put on the defensive by these attacks, has increasingly adopted more nationalist rhetoric, and last month cancelled a long-planned exhibition at the National Museum on "Hitler's Tainted Legacy," calling it "too biased."
Much of the academic debate turns on interpretations of the Speer Era (1947-81). After Hitler's death from cancer in 1947, Armaments Minister Albert Speer took power with the backing of intelligence chief Wilhelm Canaris in a brief but bloody coup against the Nazi old guard. He then negotiated an armistice, and the battle lines of the deadlocked armies became the boundaries of the new world order, leaving Germany in control of Europe from the Pyrenees to the Urals.
To the Revisionists, Speer and Canaris are heroes – pragmatic moderates who curbed the Regime's ugliest aspects while preserving its vast territorial gains and consolidating its power. "Although Leader Hitler's dream of a civilizing German empire in the East was somewhat skewed by his unfortunate adherence to the American pseudo-science of eugenics, it was still a noble vision," Metzger says. "Leader Speer purged this vision of its dross and made it the foundation of our modern world."
For the liberals, that is precisely the problem. "After the coup, Speer could have restored democracy," says Vinogradov. "He could have withdrawn from the conquered lands. He could have made reparations to Hitler's victims and confronted the nation's guilt. Instead he chose to assume Hitler's mantle, the semi-divine aura of the 'Leader,' exalting power above the law. Centuries of crime and tyranny flowed from that fatal choice. Yes, he closed the death-camps – but prosecuted no one for these atrocities. He accelerated the land-theft of the settlements, and drafted millions into forced labor to make up for the loss of native Germans to the colonies. Why pretend this was somehow noble or glorious? We should simply tell the truth about it."
Vinogradov is himself a product of the forced labor policy. When the Soviet state collapsed after Stalin's retreat to the Urals, European Russia was savagely reduced, and its territory parceled out to other Reich protectorates. Moscow was razed to the ground in 1944 and never rebuilt; its carefully preserved ruins are still a popular attraction for German tourists. Vinogradov's ancestors, native Muscovites, were shipped to Germany to work in the fields.
The Revisionists say the "scab-picking" over the past is irrelevant in the modern world. "What's done is done," says Metzger. "The Romans have already conquered Carthage. Britain has already built its imperial wealth on slavery and colonial rule. The Americans have already slaughtered the Indians and chained the slaves. We can't unring the bell. Nor should we want to. What matters are the long-term benefits to civilization we have accrued from those who came before us, whatever their mistakes or misdeeds might have been. Which of these benefits would you give up to rectify some ancient historical wrong?"
Metzger, tipped by many as the likely replacement for Vinogradov when he retires as head of the Farben history faculty next year, can't resist a slight personal dig at his venerable rival.
"One wonders if Herr Professor Vinogradov would enjoy the same kind of prosperity – and freedom to criticize – he possesses today if the Communist evil had not been destroyed, at great sacrifice, by German power," Metzger says. "While one sincerely regrets the injuries to the professor's forbears, I think, on balance, we can say that the liberation of the East from Stalinist tyranny was a boon for all humanity."
Vinogradov shrugs off these "shallow" arguments. "The point of historical research is not to dispossess the present, but to disillusion it: to strip away self-serving myth and fatal ignorance, in order to see more clearly how we got here, and what it really cost, and how these costs shape – and distort – our responses to reality. Otherwise, we are blind – easy prey for the abusers of power and their murderous deceptions."
The original version of this article appeared in the Feb. 22 2006 edition of The Moscow Times.