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Intellectuals In Crisis: Historians Under Hitler

ISSUE:  Spring 1978

Crisis periods abound in history. But “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination” wrote the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. She spoke from a keen, personal interest in dark times, for Arendt was a Jewish intellectual who fled from Hitler’s Germany. But on whom does a society depend for the illumination that she demanded? The answer, increasingly, is—on the intellectuals.

The role of the 20th-century intellectual has become accepted and defined as that of an adversary—providing dissent when politics cease to mesh with ethics and freedom. In the 1960’s, American intellectuals led opposition to the Viet Nam War, while their counterparts in the Soviet Union were galvanized into action by the 1966 Siniavsky and Daniel trial. (Their “crime” was publishing their books abroad.) Particularly in “dark times” or times of repression, intellectuals are called upon to be, as Karl Mannheim said, “watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.” And in recent times they have fulfilled that role.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s legendary dissent landed him in exile, while his successors as leaders of the human rights movement, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Ginzburg, continue to be persecuted by the Soviet government. Dwight MacDonald, Noam Chomsky, and Herbert Marcuse vociferously criticized the United States government for its actions in Southeast Asia, and Howard Zinn urged fellow historians to become leaders of the opposition movement.

From Thomas Paine to Fyodor Dostoevsky to Karl Marx, the tradition of intellectual dissent is a deep-seated one. In the United States, continental Europe, and Russia, the general acceptance of this tradition accounts for scholars’ acute criticism of German intellectuals for their non-dissent during the Third Reich.

This criticism has been widespread, and Germans themselves have shared in the indictment. Universities and professors are singled out for being negligent in fulfilling their duties as custodians of civilized values. In December 1936, for example, the exiled German novelist Thomas Mann responded to notice of the revocation of his Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Bonn University. To a dean at Bonn, he wrote of his “irrepressible disgust” for the Nazi regime and then accused German universities of “a heavy responsibility for the present sufferings which they called down upon their heads.” He added, “This responsibility of theirs long ago destroyed my pleasure in my academic honor.”

Wilhelm Röpke, professor of economics at Marburg University until his dismissal in the spring of 1933, agreed with Mann’s accusation. He wrote that “it was precisely the university professors that failed when the need came for courageous defense of the ultimate values of our civilization.” Their inaction was fatal because “it resulted in the crippling of the conscience of the German nation.”

There are two considerations that suggest the opportunity German professors had to lead dissent. The first is the enormous potential influence they could exert by virtue of the unparalleled prestige that they enjoyed. The extent to which Germans revered professors is indisputable. Scores of Americans who did graduate work in Germany have told of an esteem accorded to German professors that is unimaginable outside the German cultural sphere. This continued, traditional veneration has been noted by German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf. In his book, Society and Democracy in Germany,Dahrendorf lists the results of a 1951 survey in which Germans overwhelmingly chose university professor as the single most prestigious profession. Thus professors commanded a great deal of respect and easily could have assumed leadership positions had they so desired.

The second consideration is the flexible and free working environment that the universities provided. German universities were operated and financed by the state but guaranteed a great deal of academic freedom by the Prussian General Code of 1794. Each of the four faculties (law, philosophy, medicine, and theology) elected a dean to act as its spokesman, and the entire faculty elected a rector to be its symbolic head. Real administrative power, however, resided with the whole faculty, with individual professors exerting vast powers in their own departments. The holder of a prestigious chair, for example, virtually hand-picked his successor.

German universities had long been regarded as pinnacles of culture, learning, and humanity. The many foreigners who flocked to Germany for graduate study attested to this illustrious reputation. What then accounts for the ease and rapidity with which universities were integrated into the political program of the Nazis? Part of the answer lies in the behavior of German professors during this period.

The record of German professors during the Third Reich is a mixed one; some academic disciplines were more overtly complicit and compromised than others. Physicists, mathematicians, and jurists who attempted to construct an “Aryan” mathematics, physics, and law, for example, had a contemptible record. But economists and philologists were not as clearly compromised. It is difficult, therefore, to make many valid general statements about professors as one group of intellectuals. The most accurate understanding of the role of professors under Hitler comes from close scrutiny of each of the specific disciplines. Thus a careful look at historians may serve as a case study approach to the larger problem.

Why historians? There are two good reasons for isolating their response to Nazism. First, they were the intellectuals who were most engaged in critical analysis of the state and its relation to power and ethics. At a time in Germany when political science did not exist, historians were most capable of maintaining a critical perspective toward Nazism and of achieving a complete understanding of its dangers, Second, historians are, as Albert Levi said, “custodians of the national memory” because they are the scholars who discern the essential traditions of a country. As such, they can influence political events by the way they interpret them. German historians, for example, could make it appear that Hitler was Bismarck’s natural successor, and that all German traditions led to their logical culmination in Hitler, Historians, if they so desire, can legitimatize and fortify a government by placing the full weight of history behind it. The converse is true as well. German historians were able seriously to undermine the Weimar Republic by portraying it as a rupture with the German past.

Hitler noticeably impinged upon the consciousness of German historians for the first time with his attempted putsch in 1923. Even at this early date, some historians numbered among his admirers. Karl Alexander von Müller, for instance, professor at the University of Munich, began his seminar on the day after the event with an entreaty to respect and praise those who had died at the Feldherrenhalle. Some historians, on the other hand, were avowedly anti-Nazi at this early stage. Hermann Oncken, also historian at Munich University, began his lecture the day after the attempted putsch with, “while it is not fitting or usual to take a position on daily politics from the lecture podium, if someone should go so far as to attack the Reich . . .one ought not to delay in publicly branding him as irresponsible.” “Irresponsible” was not a severe rebuke for attempted treason, but the very act of public denunciation was a strong one for Oncken to take. To express his opinion in this way went entirely against the accepted tradition of the German historical profession. Historians believed that they were bound by the ethics of their profession to keep their opinions on contemporary political issues out of their classrooms and their scholarly works. In this they were influenced by two towering figures: the historian Leopold von Ranke and the sociologist Max Weber.

Rartke maintained that historians could not judge events by universally applicable values because all values were time-bound. Since the historian’s task was to mirror the past “as it really was,” he had to avoid making value judgments that reflected the standards of his own period. For Ranke, the most accurate historical works were those written objectively, devoid of preconceived notions and political partisanship.

Max Weber, in a 1918 lecture, “Scholarship as a Profession,” stressed that if a scholar introduced his personal value judgments, a full understanding of the facts necessarily ceased. He maintained that scholars should seek to provide clarity, not a discussion of ultimate ideals, for “scholars must not claim to be football coaches in the problems of life.” Above all, he declared, “politics is out of place in the lecture room.”

Historians took the examples of Ranke and Weber very seriously. In the last years of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazis continued to gain electoral strength, some historians became uneasy. But they genuinely thought that exerting political influence in their lecture rooms would make them untrue, to the integrity of their profession. What did they do in the last years of the fading republic? Most did very little to make their influence felt against the Nazis. But at least two striking exceptions were Gerhard Ritter and Friedrich Meinecke, both of whom actively urged Germans to vote for Hindenburg against Hitler.

Hindenburg won the election, but Hitler came to power in 1933 anyway. No great public outcry emanated from the academic community even though every academic had reason to fear a regime that denigrated culture and intellect as much as the Nazis did. The rectors of nine universities collectively wrote a book of speeches welcoming the new German chancellor with glorious appeals to their colleagues to “give their understanding to the striving German nation, united by Adolf Hitler in freedom, justice, and peace.” Non-Nazis did not publish any book of speeches opposing Hitler. At this early date, before the threat of dismissal became real, the record of historians was one of passivity. Professor Hans Rothfels, historian at the University of Königsberg until his dismissal in 1934, labeled the silence of professors “voluntary coordination” and called it “astonishing, and I would not hesitate to say, deeply shameful.”


Through a series of small steps, German universities were quietly coordinated into the Third Reich. The following incident typifies the steps which facilitated the process: every year most universities celebrated January 18, the day of the founding of Bismarck’s Second Reich, with a large assembly highlighted by speeches from major political figures. A procession of the faculty began the festivities by solemnly marching into the already filled hall. The highest honor, that of leading the procession of professors, went to the man who held the highest military decoration. In 1934, the faculty at a North German university faced an obvious dilemma because a Jewish professor there held the greatest military distinction. Their reaction to the situation exemplified academics’ behavior throughout the period: fraught with doubts, first they wavered, then they did nothing. They neither invited the professor to lead the procession nor did they specifically inform him that he could not have the traditional honor. Realizing the situation, the professor remained at home with a fabricated illness so that an “Aryan” could take his place. The faculty had not openly complied with Nazism, but the tone was set; professors would not assume the lead in active resistance. Six months earlier, William Dodd, American ambassador to Germany, had already written in his diary that “so far nearly all university men seem to acquiesce in their own intimidation, but it is fear of unemployed status rather than a willing surrender.”

Although personal opportunism and moral weakness abounded, they are not total explanations for the silence of historians. Many reasons account for historians’ inaction, but for simplicity’s sake, they can be discussed in terms of three matters: perception, mandarin background, and intellectual affinities.

The first fatal problem for historians was their inability to perceive Hitler as a real threat. Many thought that he would be more radical in achieving power than in maintaining it because President Hindenburg and the conservative members of the cabinet would control him. The example of the relative mildness of Fascism in Italy further assuaged their fears about the cruder aspects of Nazism.

Perhaps the most common problem of perception was the inability to take Hitler seriously. Cultivated men thought that Hitler, the uncultivated street ruffian, could scarcely govern a complex, industrialized country, Many thought that he would never last more than six months in office. Typical was legal scholar Georg Schwartzenberger’s decision that “I’ll wait half a year. Then either he (Hitler) goes, or I will.” Historians too adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Their writings about the Nazis reflected this attitude. Friedrich Meinecke, the acknowledged leader of the historical profession, and its most esteemed member, wrote an article for a Cologne newspaper that intended to call attention to the dangers of Nazism. But in the article, Meinecke mitigated his criticism with the assertion that “there are many worthwhile ideas, strengths, and men in this movement.” After the Nazis came to power, Meinecke wrote in another article that “we want to confront these men at the voting table without hate.” These were hardly words to rally resistance! Meinecke’s misperceptions of the Nazi threat coupled with his desire to offer a judicious appraisal of the new regime, precluded his moral indignation and active early resistance.

Equally debilitating for historians was their mandarin background. The term “mandarin,” first applied to Chinese elites, is used by Fritz Ringer to describe German professors as a social and cultural elite with enormous status in the state bureaucracy. Because German universities were state institutions, professors were civil servants with tenure and pension rights. Full professors held the rank of Councillor of State third class; associate professors ranked as councillors fifth class. Upon retiring, they became emeritus professors on full salary. Very much a part of the conservative, official establishment, their loyalty was always to the state, regardless of the government which led the state, They prided themselves on being loyal and completely apolitical in the fulfillment of their duty. Party squabbles and petty politics were not part of the lofty realm they believed themselves to operate within. This haughty attitude inhibited them from speaking out against Hitler.

Finally, we come to the question of intellectual affinities, or the extent to which Nazism was compatible with the political beliefs of historians. Except for the vödlkisch anti-semitism of Nazism, many historians wanted precisely what Hitler promised. They viewed the Weimar Republic as a period of profound crisis and teemed with nostalgia for Bismarck’s lost Reich. Historians were intensely nationalistic and bitter over Germany’s defeat in the first World War, the flight of the Kaiser, and the bickering inefficiency of political parties. Historian Conrad Bornhak referred to this period as “the Kaiserless time, the terrible time,” while Hermann Oncken expressed the widespread conviction that democracy could not produce the creative personalities for leadership that Germany needed. Prominent historians called for a Führer to restore Germany to its lost position of world power. In his research on the Weimar period, American historian Oscar Hammen found that the histories of Edeard Heyck, Hans Delbrück, Friedrich Meinecke, Hermann Oncken, and K. A. von Müller, among others, “reflected this Führer consciousness.”

Although crude, the substance of Nazism appealed to the strong nationalism of most historians and promised to be a bulwark against socialism. While few historians themselves were Nazis, they were willing to remain passive until they had more time to observe the outcome of events.

But as historians quietly observed events, the character of German universities and the tenor of intellectual life rapidly changed. On April 7, 1933, the regime enacted the Law for the Protection of the Professional Civil Service. It provided for the firing of political and racial unreliables, and as a result, more than 1700 faculty members lost their positions in various German universities. The Nazis purged 15 percent of the entire teaching staff of Germany. Eighty percent of those dismissed were Jewish, the remaining 20 percent supposedly had republican sympathies or left wing tendencies. Düsseldorf Medical School lost a full 50 percent of its faculty, while the arts faculties at the universities of Berlin and Frankfurt shrank 32 percent and 24 percent respectively.

Historians took no collective protest action, nor did they write petitions in opposition to the new law. Some isolated individuals did try to help; Friedrich Meinecke, for example, wrote to the Education Ministry on behalf of. Gustav Mayer, one of the few Jewish professors of history. But Meinecke did not protest the perverseness of the law itself or the firings on the basis of religion, He asked only that an exception be made for Mayer. Motivated by friendship and concern for a particular individual, Meinecke did not appeal to principles of academic freedom or human rights. He similarly tried to help his friend and colleague, Walter Goetz, an “Aryan” dismissed because he had represented a liberal party in the Reichstag. In both cases, Meinecke failed in securing exceptions to the law.

By May of 1933, book burnings occurred in all parts of Germany. The “heil Hitler” greeting was made public usage in July, and all state officials, including professors, were pressured to set a good example by using it, In August 1933, admission to the university became contingent upon four months of compulsory service in the Nazi labor force. The universities’ characteristic freedom disappeared as they became more regulated by the Nazi Minister of Education. Instead of being elected, the rector had to be selected by the regime for his political reliability. And instead of being a symbolic head, he held very real power.

In December 1933, professors hired after 1918 had to take a new oath of loyalty to Völk and Fatherland. By August 1934, civil servants had to swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler. In Italy, many professors refused to take a similar oath of allegiance to Mussolini and Fascism, but in Germany this kind of resistance rarely occurred.

Freedom of the press no longer existed, a list of banned books harmful to public morality was published, and Jewish professors who had not been dismissed (because of service in World War I) were urged to publish only in the Hebrew language. According to German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, the Bavarian Minister of Culture (Hans Schemm) assembled the faculty at Munich University to inform them that “from now on it will not be your job to determine whether something is true, but whether it is in the spirit of the National Socialist revolution.”


Clearly, by 1934 there should no longer have been a problem of perception. But while resistance was still possible, it became increasingly more difficult. As historians finally comprehended the dangers of Nazism, they faced the compelling dilemma of whether or not to emigrate. Large numbers of luminaries did emigrate, but they were primarily Jewish or otherwise in danger by remaining behind. The belief that everyone with a conscience left as quickly as possible, as Thomas Mann did, simply is not true. Mann himself would have lived in great peril had he remained and was advised by family and friends, while abroad, not to return.

Among the historians, almost every tenured, non-Jewish professor remained in Germany. Those who were defined by Nazi law as Jewish, whether or not they were practicing Jews, faced great danger, or at least a blocked career path, and emigrated. Because of Hitler’s anti-semitism, Germany lost the talents of such extremely gifted historians as Hans Baron, Fritz Epstein, Felix Gilbert, Felix Hirsch, Ernst Kantorowicz, Hans Kohn, Hans Rosenberg, Hans Rothfels, and Ernst Simon. Hajo Holborn, whose wife was Jewish, also had the integrity to leave and later became one of America’s leading historians at Yale University.

But the emigration dilemma was a perplexing one, and reasons for staying or leaving were quite complicated. Remaining in Germany meant making compromises of conscience, keeping silent, enduring unpleasant things. But it also provided the opportunity of being a moderating force and looking after one’s students. Professor Walter Bussmann, historian in Karlsruhe, has said that he will be eternally grateful to his major professor, Sigfried Kaehler, for not emigrating. Bussmann maintains that by remaining behind, Kaehler enabled him to complete his studies unhampered by Nazi professors or their demands that traditional history be accommodated to Nazi aims. Non-Nazi students, Bussmann asserts, needed the protection of non-Nazi professors.

On the other hand, emigration was a very definite, symbolic way of saying no to the regime. From Dante and Grotius to Rousseau and Heinrich Heine, the tradition of exile is an old and honored one. It precluded lending one’s prestige to enhance the regime, as, for example, happened with the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger. But it also meant that the vacated position would be filled on political grounds. Reich Education Minister Bernhard Rust had already predicted in 1933 that “in five years 45 percent of all scholarly positions would be newly filled.” Haunted by the image of the universities taken over by rabid Nazis, some historians felt that it would be more patriotic to stay and attempt to be a moderating influence than to flee their country in bad times.

Some historians did not muse over lofty considerations of patriotism or ethics; for them the question was purely practical. Otto Hintze, for example, retired since 1920 from the University of Berlin because of bad health, was dependent upon his pension as his source of income. An avowed anti-Nazi, Hintze nonetheless was compelled by poor health and old age to remain behind, while his Jewish wife Hedwig fled for safety.

In addition, the bleak job situation prevented many historians from emigrating. Historians worried that they would not find positions elsewhere and knew that they were assured good pensions if they could last it out in Germany until retirement. Since most historians were already 60 years old when Hitler came to power, the thought of a comfortable retirement strongly induced them to remain. For a large number of historians, the emigration question did not crystalize as an ethical dilemma. They pragmatically analyzed their possibility of being able to pursue an uninterrupted career in Germany. Some of the more renowned historians, therefore, such as Hermann Oncken, Gerhard Ritter, and Friedrich Meinecke never considered emigrating, although they certainly did not support Hitler.

Finally, many professors stayed behind because they had positive feelings for the regime. In 1933 Klaus Mann (brother of Thomas Mann) corresponded with the famous writer Gottfried Benn, urging him to resign from the writer’s academy as a protest against the regime. In response, Benn praised the many achievements of the Third Reich and stressed that “the workers in Germany are better off now than ever before,” Hitler had admirers among historians as well. Adolf Rein, Willy Hoppe, and Walter Recke became members of the party, while Erich Marcks, Richard Fester, and K. A. von Miiller gave it their full cooperation.

For historians remaining behind, the extent to which they should cooperate with the regime became a difficult problem. The options they had were few; one was “inner emigration” or writing apolitical, esoteric monographs on subjects of limited popular appeal. Friedrich Meinecke’s Die Entstehung des Historismus (The Rise of Historicism) published in 1936, was probably the best known example. Another form of inner emigration was writing about “safe” topics such as conservative heroes whom the Nazis admired. Gerhard Ritter, for example, wrote two books during this period on such figures—Martin Luther and Frederick the Great. But Ritter’s purpose was resistance rather than safety. He courageously interpreted the lives of both figures in direct contradiction of the official Nazi line.

The option antithetical to inner emigration was, of course, outspoken dissent and active resistance. This was, however, a path taken by almost none of the historians. Among the most highly respected historians, Gerhard Ritter’s name alone appears in connection with the resistance movement. Ritter, active in the Protestant Confessional Church, was implicated in the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler’s life. The Gestapo imprisoned him in November 1944. He remained in prison until the advancing allied armies liberated him.

Milder forms of resistance were another option open to historians but taken by only a few. Hermann Oncken, - for example, wrote books and articles about Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, and other revolutionary leaders. He skillfully depicted their leadership so as to have it remarkably resemble Hitler’s actions, then he severely criticized them. Historical parallels (particularly if delivered verbally) were effective forms of resistance for two reasons: first, as described by Gerhard Ritter, the Nazi professors and students who acted as spies and informants lacked sophistication and scholarly talent. Chosen for their political reliability rather than their intelligence, many simply did not comprehend the subtleties of this form of resistance. Second, the bureaucracy of the regime was rife with conflicting rivalries. At any given time, an historian submitted to the authority of: Rust, Minister of Education; Frick, Minister of the Interior; Rosenberg, official party ideologist; Goebbels, chief of propaganda; Schirach, Reich youth leader; Walter Frank, head of the Nazi historical institute; the rector of the university; local Gauleiters, and the Gestapo. The desire of one of these to expand his own power gave ample opportunity to criticize his rival,

Gerhard Ritter’s and Hermann Oncken’s mild resistance in their published works were notable exceptions—most historians did not openly resist the Nazi regime. The majority saw their most viable alternative as keeping quiet and attempting to minimize the extent of their own complicity. Rather than reacting to political events with open dissension, they set as their primary aim the safeguarding of the purity of their discipline. Few non-Nazi scholars made history subservient to Nazi aims despite constant pressure to do so. In the post-1945 years, German historians proudly asserted, with some justification, that they had remained true to scholarly principles under a regime that deplored scholars, They pointed out that few university textbooks had to be rewritten because of accommodation to the Nazis. Bruno Gebhardt’s Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte (Handbook of German History), for example, is still used in universities all over the world, as are similar texts written by Karl Hampe, Johannes Haller, and Arnold Oskar Meyer. In fact, the basic scholarly integrity of a great majority of historians necessitated the establishment of a special Nazi historical institute under Walter Frank to promote the Nazi view of history.


Those historians who were Nazi sympathizers did not maintain the same degree of scholarly integrity; they adapted their works to Nazi aims. Fritz Hartung wrote two books on the favored themes of Völk and Reich; Richard Fester tackled several Nazi favorites—the Versailles Peace Treaty, the glories of the German army, and the “Jewish Question.” (This book was entitled in German, Judaism as an Element of Decay in Nations.) Erich Marcks and K. A. von Müller wrote numerous books on the Völk, the Reich, Bismarck, and Germany’s rivalry with England for world power.

The final option open to historians was collaboration with the Nazis by joining Walter Frank’s institute. Some of the traditional historians—Meinecke, Goetz, Hintze, and Oncken, for example, having never been invited to join, had no decision to make. Gerhard Ritter made his abhorrence of Frank and Nazi history absolutely clear. He wanted no part of the institute. But many conservative, nationalistic historians accepted the invitation to membership. Richard Fester, Fritz Hartung, Heinrich von Srbik, Erich Marcks, Arnold Oskar Meyer, Karl Alexander von Müller, Otto Westphal, and Albert Brackmann were all members of Frank’s Nazi history institute. Their motives for joining varied, but all exhibited some degree of sympathy for National Socialism.

The importance of a large number of historians joining Frank’s institute, and an even larger number silently co-existing with the regime, cannot be overestimated. It divided the profession into two camps: Nazi fellow-travellers, and those trying to maintain standards of pure scholarship, devoid of Nazi content. Thus split, the profession could not offer effective resistance leadership. The atmosphere became politicized, with Nazi historians often attacking the character and works of the traditional historians. Because respected historians cooperated with the Nazis, they gave academic legitimacy to an intellectually bankrupt ideology that merited no such legitimacy.

For historians who did not cooperate with Walter Frank, survival under Hitler involved a series of “where-do-you-draw-the-line” dilemmas, Friedrich Meinecke, in his capacity as president of the National Historical Commission, and editor of the renowned historical journal, the Historische Zeitschrift, faced some of the most crucial decisions. His position of eminence gave Meinecke a special opportunity to rally resistance against Nazism, and several scholars criticize him for not accepting this role. Meinecke did not openly resist. He tried to fulfill his duties without too severely compromising his conscience, although this became exceedingly difficult for him.

The regime ordered Meinecke to report the names of those members of the Historical Commission who were “unreliable” according to the April 7,1933 law. He did this. He was then ordered to dismiss two Jews—Gustav ayer and Hans Rosenberg. Meinecke reluctantly complied with the explanation “I must do what I was pledged to do as president.” Although resistance, noncompliance, and resignation were certainly options, Meinecke elected to cooperate as a way of maintaining the presidency and thereby keeping it out of Nazi hands.

He faced similar problems as editor of the historical journal. He had already refused to resign voluntarily as editor in 1933, and the publisher wished to avoid firing him because of Meinecke’s world-wide reputation as a scholar. So Meinecke remained as editor to safeguard the integrity of the journal. But a mounting campaign of pressure from the publisher forced Meinecke into many compromises. He had to include articles and book reviews on favorite Nazi themes (race, living space, the Völk) but he agreed to receive such articles only from legitimate, established scholars. He accepted book reviews on works dealing with “the Jewish Problem,” but he assigned Jewish historians to write the reviews. When he came under pressure to fire Gerhard Masur and all Jewish members of his staff, he tried to compromise by dismissing the less experienced Jewish historians but retaining those with the most expertise. When the publisher demanded that he hire such Nazi favorites as Willy Hoppe and Hermann Aubin, he agreed to hire other Nazi sympathizers who were more moderate. So it went, step by step. The publisher tried to turn the journal into a Nazi organ, while Meinecke attempted to cooperate in order to save the journal from complete Nazification.

The final confrontation came for Meinecke when Walter Frank attacked Hermann Oncken in the Nazi newspaper (the Völkischer Beobachter). Oncken had given a lecture to the German Philosophical Society in which he courageously attacked the pseudohistory of the Nazi historians. Swift Nazi retaliation came in the form of his dismissal from his teaching position and the defamation of his character in Frank’s newspaper article. Out of friendship and loyalty to his colleague, Meinecke immediately prepared to print Oncken’s lecture in the journal. But the publisher had been tipped off to Meinecke’s intentions by his co-editor, Albert Brackmann. The publisher forbade publication of Oncken’s speech in the journal, but Meinecke, for the first time, steadfastly refused to compromise. By then, however, it was too late. A few weeks later, at the end of 1935, Meinecke was replaced as editor by Nazi sympathizer Karl Alexander von Müller. In his first article as editor, von Müller pledged his cooperation with the regime, thus sealing the fate of the journal. It soon became another Nazi organ.

But even after his dismissal from the editorship, Meinecke’s attitude toward the regime remained curiously ambivalent. The outbreak of World War II and the Germans’ subsequent stunning victories created severe problems for patriotic but sincere anti-Nazis such as Gerhard Ritter. Ritter later wrote that “no foreigner can fully understand what a heartbreak this was for Germans who were opposed to National Socialism and who had to sacrifice our blood and the blood of our sons for a hated cause.” But Meinecke clearly exulted over the war victories. He made no distinction between the German nation and Hitler’s state when he wrote to a friend upon hearing of the winning of Strassbourg: “How should one’s heart not beat. It is marvelous and even the greatest of the positive achievements of the Third Reich that such a newly constituted army can be capable of such great achievement.”

Thus Meinecke willingly shunted aside his doubts about the Nazi regime and rejoiced in its victories on the battlefield. While he strove mightily to prevent Nazi perversion of the historical profession, he never took steps to oppose the perversion that was the essential core of Nazism. Indeed, he overlooked this perversion as he applauded the very victories that would certainly prolong the Nazi dictatorship and spread its power, like a cancer, over the rest of Europe. Faced with the darkest of times, Meinecke found the strength to write objective, illuminating history but not to provide the essential illumination that Hannah Arendt pleaded for.

Meinecke is not an unusual example. German historians did not respond to Hitler with the same dissent that their American and Soviet counterparts subsequently demonstrated in periods of crisis. Historians under Hitler appointed themselves guardians of the purity of scholarship but refused to accept the responsibility of being, as Mannheim urged, “night watchmen” for civilized values. Perhaps their example is the most forceful sanction possible for the role of the intellectual as adversary and critic. For, when German intellectuals abdicated that role, Hitler’s Germany became, as Mannheim feared, a pitch-black night.


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