For the historian the most regrettable result of the nonpassing of the past is that the simplest rules that are in effect for every past appear to be suspended: Every past is knowable in its complexity; the connectedness in which the past is interwoven should be made more visible; black-and-white images of politically involved contemporaries should be correctable; earlier histories should be subject to revision.
But in the case of the Third Reich, this rule seems to be "dangerous for the people": Could it not lead to a vindication of Hitler or at least to exculpation of the Germans? Might it not allow for the possibility that the Germans could again identify with the Third Reich, as the great majority did between 1935 and 1939, and that they might fail to learn the lesson imposed upon them by history?
These questions can be answered briefly and apodictically: No German can desire to justify Hitler, even if only because of his March 1945 order to annihilate the German people. Historians and journalists cannot guarantee that the Germans will learn lessons from history—but that is guaranteed by the total shift in the relationships of power and by the obvious and evident results of two great defeats. The Germans can of course still learn false lessons, but only in one way, a way that would be novel and "anti-Fascist."
It is true that there has been no shortage of efforts to transcend the level of polemic and to draw a more objective picture of the Third Reich and its führer. It will suffice to mention the names of Joachim Fest and Sebastian Haffner. Both focused on the domestic German situation, however. I would like to attempt, using a few questions and key words, to suggest the perspective in which this past should be viewed if it is to be treated with the equality that is a principal postulate of philosophy and of any historical scholarship that desires to highlight differences.
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Gulag Archipelago and Auschwitz
It is a notable shortcoming that the literature about National Socialism does not know or does not want to admit to what degree all the deeds—with the sole exception of the technical process of gassing—that the National Socialists later committed had already been described in the voluminous literature of the 1920s: mass deportations and executions, torture, death camps, the extermination of entire groups using strictly objective selection criteria, and public demands for the annihilation of millions of guiltless people who were thought to be "enemies."
It is likely that many of these reports were exaggerated. It is certain that the "White terror" also committed terrible deeds, even though its program contained no analogy to the "extermination of the bourgeoisie." Nonetheless, the following question must seem permissible, even unavoidable: Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an "Asiatic" deed merely because they and their ilk considered themselves to be potential victims of an "Asiatic" deed? Was the Gulag Archipelago not primary to Auschwitz? Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the "racial murder" of National Socialism? Cannot Hitler's most secret deeds be explained by the fact that he had not forgotten the rat cage? Did Auschwitz in its root causes not originate in a past that would not pass?