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Dmitry Moiseev explores the moral debates that arise when academics examine issues related to right-wing political movements of the twentieth century, focusing on two well-known situations in Germany and Russia that produced findings which contradicted public opinion.

The debate on whether or not it is ‘ethical’ and ‘morally justified’ for intellectuals in the humanities to address certain issues related to the radical political regimes of the twentieth century has been going on for decades. Investigating these phenomena, an integral part of political history, often leads to scientifically new conclusions and the construction of new explanatory concepts that run counter to previously available information. Such situations are often the subject of ethical-political rather than scientific debate.

This report focuses on two well-known situations of a similar nature. The first is the famous ‘historians’ dispute’ that took place in Germany between 1986 and 1987, with the main actors being historian Ernst Nolte (1923–2016) and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). The second situation is the scandal surrounding the defence of a Doctor of Science (DSc) dissertation by the modern Russian historian K. M. Alexandrov (b. 1972), which is dedicated to analysing the personnel of the armed formations of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia. These situations are very similar: researchers carry out a significant amount of work, the result of which are findings that contradict public opinion; then, their colleagues analyse the results of the work not so much from a scientific point of view but from a moral one. In the case of Alexandrov, this situation is exacerbated by the extraordinary politicisation of the theme of World War Two in modern Russia and, accordingly, much greater risks than those faced by Nolte at the time.

When discussing the study of right-wing radicalism of the 20th century – Fascism, National Socialism, and Falangism – it is important to note that these phenomena were subject to highly ideologised analysis almost from the moment of their appearance in the world. This is particularly evident in the case of Italian Fascism, which was subjected to intellectual analysis by communists (A. Bordiga, A. Gramsci, G. Dimitrov, S. M. Slobodskoy, and others), liberals (F. Hayek, Z. Brzezinski, and K. Friedrich), and conservatives (E. Voegelin, I. L. Solonevich).

The outcomes of these ‘studies’ that originate from clear ideological positions may present a certain image that resonates with intellectuals who belong to the aforementioned ideological and political schools. However, this image may not accurately reflect the genuine intellectual content of Italian Fascism. It is understandable why contemporaries approach the analysis of such phenomena from an ideological angle, as many of them had tragic experiences due to their political and philosophical opposition to Fascism. Gramsci died in prison, Voegelin was forced to emigrate, and Bordiga was politically persecuted and repeatedly arrested throughout the ventennio (the period of twenty years of Fascist rule).

However, for the next generation of researchers, the mid-twentieth-century events had far less emotional content and were primarily of purely scientific interest. Already in the 1960s, studies that can reasonably be considered reliable and unbiased scientific research began to be published – for example, the works of R. De Felice, N. Valeri and R. Vivarelli on Italian Fascism.

E. Nolte’s book Three Faces of Fascism: Action Française, Italian Fascism, National Socialism was published in Germany in 1963. Afterwards he published several other major works, also on Fascist themes: Die faschistischen Bewegungen: Die Krise des liberalen Systems und die Entwicklung der Faschismen (The Fascist Movements: The Crisis of the Liberal System and the Development of the Fascisms) (1968), Der europäische Bürgerkrieg 1917–1945: Nationalsozialismus und Bolschewismus (The European Civil War 1917–1945: National Socialism and Bolshevism) (1987), Streitpunkte: Heutige und künftige Kontroversen um den Nationalsozialismus (Points of Contention: Current and Future Controversies Surrounding National Socialism) (1993).

According to Nolte’s concept, Fascism is a phenomenon that goes beyond politics and represents a radical response to the perceived threat of Marxism. In proving this hypothesis, the German scholar uses both historical and philosophical tools. In his work The Three Faces of Fascism, Nolte gives three definitions of Fascism: it is ‘anti-Marxism, seeking to destroy its opponent by constructing a radically opposite and yet similar ideology and applying almost identical, equally characteristic modified methods, but always within the insurmountable framework of national self-assertion and autonomy’; it is ‘a deadly struggle against a sovereign, militant, internally antagonistic group’; and finally, it is ‘resistance to transcendence’. According to the author, the third is the most fundamental definition.

Transcendence, which allows us to encounter new impulses towards the whole, plays a crucial role in Nolte’s philosophy. He distinguishes between theoretical and practical transcendence. Theoretical transcendence is the impulse of thought that goes beyond what is currently present and accessible, striving towards the absolute whole. Practical transcendence, on the other hand, is a social process that continuously expands connections between people, allowing for greater refinement and abstraction as a whole. This process frees individuals from traditional constraints, ultimately strengthening a particular group and even disrupting the power of primary, naturally historical forces.

Nolte points out that Marx saw the critical task of a classless society in replacing theoretical transcendence, the earthly realisation of ‘higher being’. Nietzsche, for his part, led a counter-offensive against the Marxist attack. According to Nolte, his quest for ‘true culture’ is an attempt to defend the authentic ‘theoretical transcendence’ in which ‘life’ is rooted and against which Marxism rebelled. Nietzsche’s condemnation of history and struggle against the foundations of Western European Christian civilisation in the name of genuine culture is the exact opposite of the Marxist understanding of the processes of world development. If Marxism seeks to change the very structure of the world, Nietzscheanism denounces these attempts to change it. At the same time, this aspiration leads Nietzsche to the affirmation of ‘life’, to the approval of the ‘here and now’, to glorify the coming superman as the creator of new values, to the image of the ‘blond beast’. Such a struggle must surely be brutal and not stop at sacrifice – for it is being waged ‘for the real’ and ‘against the false’. According to Nolte, this inherently anti-Marxist instinct of Nietzsche is a prototype of the spiritual foundations of Fascism – the German philosopher attacked practical and theoretical transcendence simultaneously, but in the name of the higher, the beautiful and the pure.

In his works, Nolte always views Bolshevism and Fascism as phenomena ‘which can only be understood in their unity, though not as one whole’. Nolte argues that Bolshevism emphasises practical transcendence, which involves material production, while Fascism opposes this practical transcendence. This opposition to practical transcendence is common among conservative political movements. However, Fascism also rejects theoretical transcendence, which is the foundation of its resistance. This results in a tragic situation where Fascism replaces the liberal society it developed from but denies its essential values. This contradiction is exemplified by Fascist intellectual constructs. Nolte describes the beginning of Fascism as a ‘conservative tragedy’ due to this internal conflict.

Nolte’s approach to studying Fascism was subjected to harsh criticism (primarily in Germany) for ‘normalising’ and ‘de-moralising’ the recent past, which was still considered ‘indecent’ to speak neutrally about even in academic circles from the 1960s to the 1980s. One of the most influential representatives of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, accused Nolte of being an apologist for National Socialism and of concealing the ‘essentially criminal aspect of National Socialism’.

Nolte, Andreas Hillgruber, and Joachim Fest are among the scholars who studied National Socialism through the lens of ‘historicisation’. This approach draws from the German historical school of the late nineteenth century and utilises the methods of Georg Simmel and Wilhelm Dilthey. Historicism posits that any phenomenon must be studied thoroughly while taking into account the specific features of the era and cultural context being examined. Moreover, each object of study requires a unique approach and does not allow for simplistic generalisations. Thus, by applying this method to National Socialism and Fascism, we can trace their origins to various cultural phenomena in Germany and Italy. This is evident in Nolte’s analysis of Nietzsche and Marx.

Habermas’s approach is unique in that he intentionally does not separate the scientific realm from the public realm when it comes to matters of great public significance. He argues that when a scientist publishes research, he has the potential to influence non-experts in the public sphere, and therefore can be criticized as if he were simply making a statement in that space. It is also important to consider the temporal context of the debate. In the late 1980s, there was a lively discussion in Germany about the integration of Germany into the Western world and the exceptional importance of liberal democracy. As a result, Habermas argues that ethical and political considerations take precedence over purely scientific ones.

Nolte, Hillgruber, and Fest reject the excessive ‘moralisation’ of the National Socialist and Fascist past by Habermas, arguing that it is not scientific but driven by political interests. They claim that Habermas and others like him sought to turn Europe’s radical right-wing past into a negative mythology, insisting on the uniqueness of National Socialist practices such as the extermination of their own citizens. By the 1980s, there was already enough objective information to reasonably argue that similar methods were used in the Stalinist Soviet Union and Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Also, in a dispute with Hillgruber over the supposed uniqueness of the National Socialists’ extermination of European Jews, Habermas argued that, unlike Jews, Russian peasants were ‘exiled’ during the dekulakisation, when in reality millions of peasants were physically exterminated by Soviet authorities. Other arguments by Habermas, a philosopher rather than a historian, also did not withstand criticism from representatives of the academic community of professional historians.

Is there a clear distinction between normalising a troubling past and apologising for it? This is the central ethical issue raised by the ‘historians’ dispute’.

Before addressing this question, let us consider a contemporary example. Specifically, we are referring to the 2016-17 controversy surrounding Russian historian Kirill Alexandrov’s defense of his DSc thesis on the personnel of armed formations of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia.

The thesis on the topic ‘Generals and Officer Corps in the Armed Forces of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia 1943–1946’ was defended by Aleksandrov on 1 March 2016 at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Seventeen members of the dissertation council supported the award of the academic degree to the author, with only one voting against it. The work itself is an impressive 1,145-page volume. The author defines its relevance as the opportunity to ‘clarify and supplement historical realities to obtain a holistic picture of the Great Patriotic War’ and its methodology as ‘based on the principles of historicism and source criticism’.

It is practically impossible to dispute that the topic of Russian collaborationism during the Great Patriotic War is insufficiently studied. At the same time, if approached conscientiously, this topic may be even more ‘sensitive’ for a Russian than National Socialist themes are for a German. Given the exceptionally high level of politicisation of the events of World War Two in the Russian mass consciousness and public field, an objective study of such a ‘slippery’ topic as Russian collaborationism sparked a heated discussion in the public sphere, during which historian Alexandrov was accused of his dissertation ‘not serving the promotion of patriotism and not contributing to the consolidation of Russian society’. Ultimately, in 2017, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation cancelled the decision to award Alexandrov the DSc degree.

The controversy surrounding Alexandrov’s dissertation raises the same issue as the German ‘historians’ dispute’: should scholars separate themselves from potential moral judgements of their research findings, or should they take into account all ethical and political implications arising from their work? We believe that the only productive and intellectually honest approach, especially in fields that deal with historical-social reality or the sciences of the mind, is to answer the first question in the affirmative.

Max Weber, in his lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’, acknowledged that science cannot provide answers to the ultimate questions of human existence: ‘What shall we do? How shall we live?’ However, he believed that science can offer something valuable to those who ask these questions correctly.

The formulation being discussed here suggests that scientific inquiry is limited in its ability to provide moral or ethical guidance. It acknowledges that different value positions are in conflict with each other and that science cannot necessarily determine which is correct. Furthermore, it suggests that qualities such as beauty and truth are not necessarily aligned with moral goodness, and that the sacred (i.e. religious or spiritual concepts) need not conform to our conventional notions of beauty or goodness.

In his speech, Max Weber used the metaphor of a ‘battle of the gods’ to describe the struggle between different value systems. If a person chooses the ‘god of Truth’, he strives for impartiality and objectivity. A moral scientist should not manipulate facts or adjust research results to please other ‘gods’ like the ‘god of Beauty’ or the ‘god of Goodness’. It is unacceptable for a scientist to preach from the pulpit, and his work should be evaluated based on the value of his research results, not on the ethical consequences of his findings. The academic community should show solidarity with researchers who publish studies that may be controversial from a political standpoint but meet scientific criteria. Such activity is valuable in itself and should only be evaluated based on scientific rigor.

Both Habermas in the ‘historians’ dispute’ and critics of Alexandrov moved beyond the realm of science and entered into the domain of politics, although they did not explicitly state it. They made judgements about academic research based on moral and value-based criteria instead of scientific ones. However, this position cannot be considered truly ethical.

The process of historicising ‘unpleasant’ events is inevitable. In recent decades, many objective studies on Fascism, National Socialism, and neo-Nazism have been published in the field of intellectual history. The works of authors such as A. James Gregor, E. Gentile, D. Roberts, S. Payne, and R. Eatwell stand out in this regard. These books analyse historical events and reconstruct the motives behind various radical doctrines and political teachings. Given that right-wing radical ideas covered half of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and their consequences have become an integral part of world history, it is difficult to argue that they do not deserve significant attention from historians and philosophers, who are free to propose any hypotheses. Academics who uncover new and often ‘unpleasant’ results in their work are exercising their principal privilege – a ‘special degree of freedom’ that enables them to approach their work critically and impartially, regardless of the moral and ethical attitudes of the society in which they live and work

Discriminating against a scientist simply based on their chosen research topic is completely unacceptable. There should be no ‘off-limits’ subjects, and the humanities should remain free from the influence of political circumstances. A scientist’s sole commitment should be towards seeking the truth.

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Translated by Constantin von Hoffmeister

Dmitry Moiseev

Dmitry Moiseev was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1987. He received his PhD in history of philosophy from the National Research University – Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. He also holds an MSc in philosophical anthropology from HSE, a BSc in economics and management from the London School of Economics and a BSc in economics from HSE. He is a senior lecturer at HSE, a member of the Russian Philosophical Society and the Russian Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

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Hans Vogel
1 year ago

Great article, spot on. From my personal experience in the academic world on both sides of the Atlantic, I can only concur wholeheartedly. Since I did my doctoral research on Argentina (a country shunned at the time by most “Latin Americanists”), I was regarded as suspicious. After all, Argentina was a country where the “fascist” military had been running things since 1930. A proper Latin Americanist was supposed to study Mexican peasants, slavery in the Caribbean, or the plight of oppressed women in some shanty town, etc. etc.

As a rule, in the academic world one was identified with the subject of one’s research. It was OK to do research on the oppressed and the weak: small farmers, slavery, etc., to the point that only blacks were supposed to do the history of slavery, like women were expected to focus on “gender studies”.

As a matter of fact, the politics of individual choices for academic research should be a wonderful topic for dissertation research.

Likewise, one could also consider historical and other academic research as “meta-autobiography.”

1 year ago

If we train an artificial intelligence with the Arktos corpus, I wonder how it will answer questions. Would it perform well enough on a college exam to get kicked out?

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