One of the reasons for the success of U.S. efforts to support liberal democracy in part of Germany after World War II lay in the contributions of a generation of German scholars and intellectuals who came of age during the Nazi period and then turned their minds to understanding how Nazism arose in the first place. The historian and political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher, who died on September 19 at the age of 94, was one of the leaders of that postwar examination.
In The German Dictatorship, published in 1969, Bracher offered one of the first German-language interpretations placing Hitler’s anti-Semitism and racism at the center of the Nazi policies leading to dictatorship, war, and the Holocaust. Yet as historians divided into camps focused on either right-wing or left-wing forms of totalitarianism, Bracher remained the quintessential liberal, directing his sharp gaze at the threats to democracy from both directions. Germany’s intellectual and public life had numerous articulate and impassioned advocates for liberal democracy, but Bracher was unique in the professoriate of his generation for his focus on “the double threat” of totalitarianism of both the Nazi and Communist variants.
Bracher fought in the Wehrmacht’s Afrika Korps and was captured by American soldiers in 1943. He spent the remainder of World War II as a prisoner in Kansas. He returned to Germany and earned a doctorate at the University of Tübingen with a dissertation on the decline of the Roman Empire and studied at Harvard University from 1949 to 1950. He married Dorothee Schleicher, the niece of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who participated in the German resistance to the Nazis and was executed by the Nazis in 1945. In his first major study, Die Auflösung der Weimarer Republik: Eine Studie der Machtverfall in der Demokratie (The Dissolution of the Weimar Republic: A Study of the Collapse of Power in Democracy; Ring Verlag, 1955), he argued that neither defeat in World War I, the Versailles Treaty, or the Great Inflation made inevitable Hitler’s rise to power, though he drew attention to forceful anti-democratic currents, especially on the German Right, that made it possible. With Wolfgang Sauer and Gerhard Schutz, he probed those issues in more detail in a 1960 monograph on The National Socialist Seizure of Power: Studies in the establishment of totalitarian domination in Germany, 1933–1934 (Westdeutscher Verlag, 1960). Bracher and his co-authors examined: the Nazi abuses of the institutions of democracy to destroy democracy, the political blunders of their contemporaries that made it possible, and then the actual seizure of power in the first year of the regime.
In 1965, Bracher published a study of Theodor Heuss, the first president of the Federal Republic and a leading exponent of political liberalism. In his early 1950s speeches, Heuss had urged the students and faculty in German universities to write the truth about the causes of Nazism and the nature of its crimes. Doing so, Heuss argued, would strengthen, not weaken, the then-emergent West German democracy. Bracher took Heuss’s arguments to heart. One result was Die Deutsche Diktatur, which was quickly translated into English and appeared as The German Dictatorship, with an introduction by the Yale historian Peter Gay. Gay called it “the first serious comprehensive history of the Nazi phenomenon” and a “masterly” synthesis. After the purges of German universities in the 1930s and then the Holocaust, there were few Jewish scholars in West German universities in the postwar decades. Bracher was among those West German historians who drew attention to Nazi anti-Semitism and the mass murder of European Jewry. In so doing, he drew on the work of Jewish scholars outside Germany such as Hannah Arendt, Saul Friedlander, Raul Hilberg, George Mosse, Walter Laqueur, Leon Poliakov, and Gerald Reitlinger.
The German Dictatorship is a classic of enduring importance. Despite a vast outpouring of scholarship on the subject since it was published, it remains well worth reading today. Yet it was the last major scholarly work that Bracher wrote primarily about Nazi Germany. In the 1970s, he turned to the intellectual history of anti-democratic, illiberal, and totalitarian ideologies across the whole political spectrum of “the age of ideologies” in 20th-century Europe. The emergence of a New Left in West Germany was accompanied by a revival of Marxist interpretations of National Socialism. It was accompanied as well by an attack on the very concept of totalitarianism as an example of “Cold War ideology” that erroneously extended the concept to the Communist regimes and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Bracher defended the conceptual value of totalitarianism, as well as its applicability to Communist regimes and movements. He criticized historians who diverted attention away from Hitler and his ideology toward impersonal factors such as economic interests, and who engaged in what he viewed as an inflationary use of the term “fascism” to denounce anti-communist politics.
Bracher argued further that the Marxist revival of the 1970s in West Germany was reproducing “illusions and fictions…that led to the fatal underestimation of Hitler and his movement.”1 He devoted a much attention to the divisions and conflicts within Hitler’s government, yet he stressed that “it was indeed Hitler’s Weltanschauung and nothing else that mattered in the end, as is seen from the terrible consequences of his racist anti-Semitism in the planned murder of the Jews.”2 For Bracher, the history of National Socialism—from its beginnings in power to the Munich Agreement of 1938, the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and initial disbelief that Hitler was serious about his threats to murder the Jews of Europe—could be written as the history of the underestimation of the causal import of its core ideas.
Bracher was a supporter of Willy Brandt’s policies of domestic reform and foreign policy détente. By the mid-1970s, however, he worried about wishful thinking and illusions concerning the Soviet Union and Communism, especially among young West Germans who he believed were paying insufficient attention to “the great totalitarian double-threat posed by Hitlerism and Stalinism” and the “erosion of the fronts between a free democracy and socialist dictatorship.”3 In 1982, in The Age of Ideologies, he again applied the concept of totalitarianism to both Nazism and Communism. He criticized Marxism-Leninism’s claim to scientific infallibility, arguing that it contributed to “its great strength vis-à-vis supporters and sympathizers but also its extremely intolerant and coercive character.”4 In Marxist-Leninist ideology Bracher saw echoes of the mystical elements of Nazism and fascism: “Communist policies are something mystical, something surpassing the rational capability of the individual, something fully accessible only to the collective and its leadership,” which saw itself as “an exclusively informed elite.” Communism, he argued, was the second major political religion of Europe’s 20th century. Since the Communists believed that they grasped history’s inevitable course,
no limits were set to that elite’s supranational competence…. It is this moral and intellectual totalitarianism pseudo-scientifically justified and politically enforced, that represents both the strength and the weakness of communist ideology. It was able to bring salvation from doubts in a modern complex world, but it was bound, time and again, to come into conflict with the facts of that complexity.5
This “Cold War anticommunism” was out of fashion in the left-leaning intellectual world of the humanities and social sciences in the West Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. It appeared to be at odds with the spirit of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, one that shifted the sharp anticommunist rhetoric of the Adenauer era for that of what Brandt called a “peace policy in Europe” that was intended, in the words of Egon Bahr, Brandt’s leading foreign policy adviser, to bring about “change [in Eastern Europe, JH] through rapprochement.” Where the critics of totalitarianism in the 1950s had described the Soviet Union as such a regime, advocates of détente such as the German analyst Peter Bender called for an “end to the ideological era” including what he called “the ideology of the cold war.”6 Yet for Bracher, pointing to the difference between liberal democracy and communist dictatorship was not an ideology to be overcome. Rather it rested on the same moral and political judgments that had led him in the 1950s and 1960s to write his pioneering historical works about Nazism and which, in the 1970s and 1980s to examine what he viewed as a totalitarian threat coming from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Red Army Faction terrorists in West Germany.7 Bracher viewed himself as a consistent liberal, opposing two variations of totalitarianism.
Amid the famous “Historians’ Dispute” in West Germany about the similarities and differences between the Holocaust and the crimes of the Soviet regime, Bracher limited his involvement to a letter to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published on September 6, 1986. He wrote that the discussion then raging about the comparability of the Nazi and Communist policies of “mass murder contained nothing really new in a scholarly sense.” Almost all of the facts and arguments had been published in the scholarship on totalitarianism of the 1940s and 1950s regarding “both radical ideologies.” Taking aim at two of the key participants, he bemoaned a two-decade long
taboo on the concept of totalitarianism and the inflationary use of the concept of fascism (for which both Ernst Nolte and Jürgen Habermas are not completely innocent). With the proscription of the concept of totalitarianism, the commonalities of systems of oppression of leftist and rightist dictatorships were suppressed. The use of the word [totalitarianism] aroused the suspicion of anticommunism. At the same time, the current theories of fascism underemphasized the central role of National Socialist racial ideology.8
Bracher expressed frustration that the polemics of 1986 took place as if the previous scholarship to which he had contributed did not exist. “The essential point remains,” he wrote, “that comparison of such ideologies and dictatorships which make the most frightful events possible does nothing to do away with their respective ‘singularity,’ namely their inhumanity. We must not seek support in a national or socialist apologetics.” German scholarship had recognized “the dangers of totalitarian manipulation. Pointing to similar phenomena in other countries and peoples should not relativize this experience. Rather it should contribute to expanding and generalizing its lessons. Doing so means not only remembering the past but also offering a warning for the present and future.”9
Alas, at the time, Broacher’s defense of the liberal center, his plea to dispense with a double standard and the obfuscating binaries of the Cold War, was but a soft voice of reason amid louder partisans to his right and left. Yet his letter during the Historians’ Dispute anticipated the moods and passions of the fall of 1989, when the word “totalitarianism” was revived and entered respectable political discussion among liberal and socialist intellectuals in France and, very importantly, among dissident movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Bracher welcomed the end of the East German Communist regime, the second totalitarian dictatorship in 20th-century Germany. He did not equate the East German dictatorship to its Nazi predecessor, but he did call for an honest reckoning with its history. The spirit of Bracher’s writings was manifest in the events of 1989–90 in Germany, when the Communist dictatorship fell, Germany reunified, and the German government agreed to build a memorial to the murdered Jews in Europe within walking distance of its new capital buildings and the renovated Reichtstag. In subsequent years, German Chancellors continued, albeit with varying degrees of warmth, to stress their support for Israel. Bracher’s analysis of the Nazi past and his denunciation of totalitarianism in its Communist form made a significant scholarly as well as public intellectual contribution to the consolidation of liberal democracy in West Germany in the 1950s, to the defense of those values in the 1960s to 1980s, and to the delegitimation of the theory and practice of dictatorship in Germany and Europe before and during the revolution of 1989.
The complaints about democracy and liberalism that Bracher examined in The German Dictatorship find echoes in our own time. Our institutions are far more stable than those of the Weimar Republic, but the appeal of authoritarianism and conspiracy-theorizing is growing in Western politics. Therefore Bracher’s work on how democracy was destroyed in Germany in the 1930s remains uncomfortably relevant. Moreover, the era of totalitarian ideology and politics did not end with the collapse of Communism in Europe. Using Bracher’s criteria, it continues, most importantly in the Islamist movements that have fueled the terrorism of recent decades. Totalitarianism has changed both its geographical location and its cultural coordinates, but in its inhumanity and irrationality it merits comparison with its 20th-century predecessors. Here, too, Karl Bracher’s work will remain important for years to come both for historians of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships and for advocates of liberal democracy in a world that faces multiple illiberal challenges.
1Bracher, “Probleme und Perspektiven der Hitler-Interpretation,” in his Zeitgeschichtliche Kontroversen: Um Faschismus, Totalitarismus, Demokratie (Piper Verlag, 1976); reprinted as “”The Role of Hitler: Perspectives of Interpretation,” in Walter Laqueur, ed., Fascism: A Readers Guide (University of California Press, 1976), pp. 211–25.
2Bracher, “The Role of Hitler,” p. 217.
3Bracher, Europa und Entspannung (Ullstein, 1982), p. 8. Also see Bracher’s Europa in der Krise: Ideengeschichte und Weltpolitik seit 1917 (Propylaen, 1979); Geschichte und Gewalt: Zur Politik im 20. Jahrhundert (Severin and Siedler, 1981); Zeitgeschichtliche Kontroversen: Um Faschismus, Totalitarismus und Demokratie (Piper, 1976); Zeit der Ideologien: Eine Geschichte politischen Denkens im. 20. Jahrhunderts (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982); Age of Ideologies: A History of Political Thought in the Twentieth Century (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982).
4Bracher, “Totalitarian Progressivism on the Right and the Left,” in Age of Ideologies, 125.
5Bracher, “Totalitarian Progressivism,” pp. 125–6.
6Peter Bender, Das Ende des ideologisichen Zeitalters (Berlin: Severin and Siedler, 1981).
7On these issues see Jeffrey Herf, “Boundary Erosion: Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr, and the Political Culture of Détente,” in War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 14-26.
8Bracher, “Leserbrief an die ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” September 6, 1986, reprinted in Historikerstreit: Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung (Piper, 1987), p. 113.
9Bracher, “Leserbrief,” pp. 113–4.