German historian Hans Mommsen dies aged 85

Historians in the News
tags: obituary, Hans Mommsen



Thumbnail Image - "Hans Mommsen IEIS Conference Arno J Mayer" by Olli Eickholt. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 lu via Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Mommsen, one of the best-known historians of Nazi Germany, died this week on his 85th birthday.

Born into a family of historians, Mommsen made his name by challenging the idea that the horrors of Nazi rule, especially the Jewish Holocaust, were driven largely by the personal intentions of Hitler and his henchmen.

Mommsen, who died on Thursday, argued instead that the atrocities stemmed mostly from “the cumulative radicalisation” of lower-ranking officials, soldiers and policemen as they responded to the exigencies of the second world war.

He also played a key role in a bitter debate in Germany in the 1980s in which conservative historians headed by Ernst Nolte argued the case for putting Nazi rule in the context of other totalitarian systems and claimed that the Nazi dictatorship was, to an extent, a reaction to Soviet dictatorship.

Mommsen, a life-long social democrat who was never afraid of a political fight, condemned this approach as a nationalist attempt to “relativise” Nazi crimes and develop a more favourable German historical narrative. ...




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