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Historical Reference Work Delves Into Scholars' Past

The "International Encyclopaedia of German Studies Scholars" has triggered a national debate on the Nazi past of several high-profile scholars, and it hasn't even been published yet.


Did a few of Germany's top scholars go from the Hitler Youth to the Nazi party?

Reseachers have discovered that many influential post-war academics were registered as members of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1945.

Prominent intellectuals such as Profesor Emeritus at the University of Tübingen Walter Jens and Peter Wapnewski, founder of the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, have found themselves at the heart of a controversy which many say puts 20th century German Studies in a whole new light.

Encyclopaedia of German Scholars

Publication of a new academic reference work doesn't normally make headlines, but this one has proved highly inflammatory. In early December, Walter de Gruyter is set to publish the Internationale Germanistenlexikon 1800-1950. Seven years in the making, it's a three-volume, 2300-page encyclopaedia with 1500 entries on German Studies scholars from 44 countries, edited by Christoph König.

Back in 1972, the Center for Research into the History of German Studies was set up by the Schiller Society at the renowned German Literature Archive in Marbach, with an initial aim of exploring the role of German Studies scholars in the Nazi era. The project was soon extended to cover from 1800 to the mid 20th century.

Memory lapses

Their research soon led the editorial team to the Federal Archive in Berlin, which includes an index of NSDAP members. Astonishingly, it featured the names of many high-profile German scholars, including Walter Jens, Peter Wapnewski, Arthur Henkel and Walter Höllerer, who died earlier this year.

When the revelation surfaced, König turned to historian Michael Buddrus, who told him that at least one signed application was required for registration as a party member.

But both Jens and Wapnewski say they have no recollection of signing applications to the party.

Peter Wapnewski Weimar

Peter Wapnewski admits his Hitler Youth leader may have registered him with the NSDAP in 1938

In the newspaper Die Zeit, Wapnewski (photo) stressed that all he could say for certain was that in 1938, "my Hitler Youth leader told me he wanted to register me with the NSDAP....but then nothing more happened." Six months later, Wapnewski was called up. "I was sure that nothing had ever come of the Hitler Youth leader's suggestion," he says. "No official ever informed either me or my family that I was a member of the party."

Coming to terms with the past

Wapnewski resists the idea that post-war German Studies need be reappraised in the light of the revelations, saying that "the fact that at the age of 18, Jens and Höllerer may have been pushed into joining the party or even done so of their own free will has nothing whatsoever to do with their later academic achievements, which are hopefully to their credit."

The daily newspaper F.A.Z. points out that Jens, for example, has built a career on the principle of Germany's need to come to terms with its past. While President of the Berlin Arts Academy between 1989 and 1997, Jens was a vocal critic of colleagues accused of involvement with the East German Secret Service. It now transpires that this leading intellectual may not have adequately reflected on his own past.

In an interview with news agency dpa, Jens dismissed the allegations as banal, saying he may once have "signed some slip of paper" but insisting he had a "clear conscience". He admits "I was not a resistance fighter, I was in the Hitler

Trommer für die Hitlerjugend - Propagandafoto

Ein in Uniform gekleideter Junge, Mitglied der nationalsozialistischen Hitlerjugend, beim Schlagen seiner Trommel (undatierte Aufnahme - Propagandafoto.)

Youth Movement, I was 19 years old," and suggests that the Hitler Youth Movement may have registered members with the party without their knowledge. "I have to know what happened in my past before I can out myself about it," he said.

König, the editor, agrees that it's important to distinguish between those born after 1920 and the older generation. Signing an application form at the tender age of 18 doesn't make someone an avowed Nazi, and for this reason it seems unfair to compare Jens' involvement with that of Hans Ernst Schneider, for example, another leading academic and former soldier with Heinrich Himmler's notorious SS.

Nonetheless, surveys show that more than 50 percent of Germans today believe their families were not sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The new encyclopaedia serves as a reminder that in fact, active resistance to the Third Reich was few and far between.

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