Anna Corsten’s Unbequeme Erinnerer is a compelling and original work of scholarship. It takes a well-plowed field, the intellectual history of the emigration, and adds to it a patient and careful analysis of the careers of émigré historians, asking what influence those careers had on the historical imagination of the Federal Republic of Germany. Her answer, somewhat surprising, is that they had dismayingly little influence.
This is, then, a study of knowledge transfer and the obstacles to that transfer. Corsten focuses on émigré historians in the United States of the first generation, born between 1895 and 1917, and of the second generation, born between 1918 and 1935. The first received their advanced education in Germany, the second abroad. The abroad is the United States, the country that took in the largest number of migrants. Corsten narrows the field further by focusing on those scholars who worked on contemporary history, particularly National Socialism and the Holocaust.
Using personal papers, autobiographical writings, and a great many interviews, Corsten conceives her study as a series of interlocking biographies. She divides the work into three major chapters, entitled “1933 as a Caesura of German History,” “Cultural Causes of 1941,” and “Explaining the Unexplainable.” For Corsten, the first generation was largely focused on the vanishing point of 1933, the second on the vanishing point of 1941, the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the decision to murder the Jews of Europe. Of the first generation, she considers Hans Rosenberg, George W.F. Hallgarten, Adolf Leschnitzer, and Hajo Holborn. Of the second generation, she looks at Fritz Stern, George Iggers, Herbert A. Strauss, and George L. Mosse. And of those who wrote about Nazi foreign policy and the Holocaust, Corsten examines the careers of Gerhard L. Weinberg, Henry Friedlander, and especially Raul Hilberg. Most of the émigrés she writes about are Jewish, though this aspect is not as thematized as it might have been.
Corsten works through these male biographies with skill and patience. But her real question is what influence these historians had on what she, following the sociologists Trutz von Trotha and Thomas Herz, calls the “basic narrative” (p. 29, Basiserzählung) of West Germany. To get at this question, Corsten has traced the reception of her major figures through book reviews in newspapers and learned journals, and has discovered a persistent pattern of dismissiveness. Expressing itself in different ways, this dismissiveness nevertheless constituted a long-term defensive mechanism against uncomfortable interventions from outside.
Attentive readers may well bristle with skepticism. Some of the figures in the sample have enjoyed illustrious careers, not only in the United States, but also in Germany. Hans Rosenberg was one of the crucial influences on the so-called “Bielefeld School.” Hajo Holborn was widely considered a doyen of German history, and his three-volume work on the subject (A History of Modern Germany / Deutsche Geschichte in der Neuzeit), its considerable flaws notwithstanding, nevertheless enjoyed a successful career as a Fischer Verlag paperback. Fritz Stern was an immensely important figure in the politics of history, and received a dizzying number of prizes to honor him. One could add more. Neither George Iggers nor George Mosse were marginal figures in Germany. And both Adolf Leschnitzer and Herbert A. Strauss could be said to have had far more influence in the Federal Republic than in the United States.
Nevertheless, Corsten rightly points out that the principal works of these major figures were neither hailed as major breakthroughs at the time of publication nor did these works find German imitators. The stature of many figures came later, as was arguably the case with Fritz Stern, while others, like Hajo Holborn, had publishing success, prizes, and offers, but little scholarly influence in the Federal Republic. Moreover, Corsten cites major figures, such as Gerhard Ritter, who argued that German history should be written by and for Germans, and that outside interventions should be guarded against. In this way, emigration was held against the émigrés, and their experience of persecution came to delegitimize their claim to objectivity.
Two decades ago, the historian Nicolas Berg made this argument with respect to postwar Jewish historians of the catastrophe, such as Léon Poliakov and Joseph Wulf.1 Corsten extends Berg’s argument to Jewish and non-Jewish émigrés, and shows it was an effective defense against the “dislocating knowledge” (p. 13) of the émigrés. It was a defense, moreover, that did not remain static. Corsten demonstrates that in the second generation the “basic narrative” still held, but few reviews disqualified émigrés as per se biased. Rather, there was disinterest. Major works were not translated. George Mosse’s The Crisis of German Ideology, a fundamental text for the cultural history of the roots of National Socialism, was published in 1964 but translated in 1979. Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961, was not translated until 1982, and even then it garnered few reviews and little attention. Involving the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, the saga of the translation of Hilberg’s magnum opus is an involved yarn, and need not detain us here. Yet it reinforces the general pattern of circling the wagons around the “basic narrative.” It also points to academic jealousies and everyday blindness. Of these, perhaps the most telling involved Gerhard Weinberg, whose contribution to the history of Nazi foreign policy was fundamental, and yet it was often ignored by figures such as Andreas Hillgruber, even when Weinberg’s arguments for the centrality of ideology to Hitler’s strategies tended to support positions for which Hillgruber argued.
In a short review, it is difficult to convey the full richness of a very fine book. Corsten has given us an analytically detailed analysis of the influence of émigré historians on German historical thinking and has found it to be less than we have hitherto supposed. She is no doubt right to caution us from projecting backwards later levels of scholarly exchange, even when major participants, such as Rosenberg, Stern, and Hilberg, have since been recognized for their contributions.
There are of course matters to quibble with. Written as a dissertation, the book retains too many avoidable repetitions, unnecessary stage directions, and sometimes implausible categories. Less than convincing is the notion that 1941 served as a vanishing point for figures of the second generation, such as Mosse and Stern. As German Jews, it was not 1941, but rather 1933 to 1938 that defined their horizon of experience. Their explanatory apparatus stressed the irrational and the illiberal that brought about Nazism and the persecution of the Jews in the first place – not the actual mass murder that the vanishing point of 1941 implies.
Still, the empirical richness, the analytical clarity, the clear prose, and the overall importance of the subject make this book essential reading for anyone interested in how German historians on both sides of the Atlantic grappled with the problem of National Socialism and the catastrophe we have come to call the Holocaust.
1 Nicolas Berg, Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker. Erforschung und Erinnerung, Göttingen 2003, 3rd ed. 2004; English translation: Nicolas Berg, The Holocaust and the West German Historians. Historical Interpretation and Autobiographical Memory, ed. and transl. by Joel Golb, Madison 2015. See also: Astrid M. Eckert / Vera Ziegeldorf (eds.), Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker. Eine Debatte, Berlin 2004, http://dx.doi.org/10.18452/17807 (07.08.2023).