Hans Rothfels (April 12, 1891-June 22, 1976) was a conservative German-American nationalist historian.
Rothfels was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Kassel, Hesse-Nassau. In 1910, he converted to Lutheranism. He was studying history and philosophy at Heidelberg University when World War I broke out in 1914. As a student, Rothfels had been a leading pupil of Friedrich Meinecke. Rothfels enlisted in the German Army as a junior officer and was badly wounded at the Battle of the Marne. He lost one of his legs and was in a hospital until 1917. He was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class. In 1918, Rothfels's dissertation on Carl von Clausewitz, "Carl von Clausewitz: Politik und Krieg", led to Heidelberg granting him a degree in History. In 1920, Rothfels's dissertation was published as a book. In 1922, he edited and published a collection of Clausewitz's private letters. In addition, Rothfels published several collections of Otto von Bismarck's letters, and was the first historian to be authorized by the Bismarck family to publish the Iron Chancellor's correspondence.
Between 1924-1926, Rothfels taught at the University of Berlin. From 1926 to 1934, he worked as a professor, holding the Chair of History at the University of Königsberg. During his time in Königsberg, he was well known for his highly nationalistic interpretation of German history. A reactionary in his politics, Rothfels was hostile towards the Weimar Republic and a firm anti-communist. In foreign affairs, he often denounced the Treaty of Versailles and the eastern borders it had imposed on Germany. As a historian, his major interests were Otto von Bismarck, Clausewitz, and later on, the conservative German opposition to Adolf Hitler.
Jewish by birth, Rothfels was sacked from his university position by the Nazis, and forbidden to publish or visit libraries. Subject to increasing persecution and discrimination by the State, he reluctantly left Germany in 1938 for Britain. What decided the issue for him was his experience during the Kristallnacht pogrom when his house was looted and trashed by the SA and he himself was arrested and held by the Gestapo for several hours, during which he was deprived of his crutches and beaten up. Together with his wife and their three children, Rothfels left for the United Kingdom, where he hastily began to learn English, a language that he subsequently mastered.
After teaching at St. John's College, Oxford from 1938 to 1940, Rothfels left for the United States, where he stayed until 1951, and took U.S. citizenship. He taught in the Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. An able writer and a charismatic speaker, Rothfels was a popular professor at Chicago. During his time in the United States, he befriended the American publisher Henry Regnery and became active in the G.O.P..
In an essay published in 1943, in the book The Makers of Modern Strategy on Clausewitz, has been praised by Michael Howard as the first serious essay ever published on Clausewitz in English. In his essay, Rothfels argued that Clausewitz's military theories were more sophisticated than the "Mahdi of Mass" interpretation of Clausewitz that had been popularized by such historians as Sir Basil Liddell Hart. Rothfels argued that it was inappropriate to view Clausewitz in the context of later events; instead Rothfels insisted on understanding Clausewitz and his theory of war in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and on understanding the Clausewitz the man as the key to understanding Clausewitz the military thinker. Rothfels maintained Clausewitz's personality, social background, war experience, and his schooling all needed to be understood to properly appreciate his theories about war. Most notably, Rothfels portrayed Clausewitz as a man under considerable psychological strain caused by his commoner background in the largely aristorcratic Prussian Army. Through Rothfels contended that aspects of Vom Krieg were outdated due to advances in military techonology and tactics, none the less, Rothfels felt that Clausewitz was the most important military philiosopher of all time. The U.S. military historian Peter Paret has differed with some of Rothfels's interpretation of Clausewitz, but acknowledged Rothfels as a major influence on his work on Clausewitz.
In 1948, Rothfels published his most famous book, The German Opposition To Hitler, which celebrated those conservatives who attempted the July 20 Plot of 1944. Rothfels, who remained a steadfast German nationalist all his life, saw the conspirators against the National Socialist regime as representative of all that was best about German life and argued that the actions of the conspirators had restored Germany's honour from the disgrace the Nazis had brought upon it. Rothfels accepted Edmund Burke's idea that the best defenders of liberty come from the upper crust of society and cast the men and women of July 20 as a perfect example of Burke's theory. Rothfels claimed that the German opposition was motivated by the highest possible ethical and moral considerations, and asserted that there were no self-interested motives whatsoever amongst the men and women of the July 20. Rothfels argued that the actions of the July 20 conspirators were motivated a sense of noblesse oblige, devotion to the principles of Christianity and the highest form of patriotism. Rothfels was fond of pointing out the difficulties involved in attempting to overthrow one’s government in war-time, which in Rothfels view, was a sigh of the true patriotism of the July 20 conspirators.
Rothfels saw Nazism as a type of totalitarianism, and often argued that there was no moral difference between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; in his view, the Cold War was merely a continuation of the struggle between what he called the “conservative freedom movement” and totalitarian forces. In particular, Rothfels was opposed to any sort of Sonderweg interpretation of German history, and argued that Nazism was the result of the general problems of modern civilization, which Rothfels saw as based on a set of values that were overtly materialistic, secular, and dehumanizing, and which had reduced most people to a mindless mass. In Rothfels’s view, the values of modern mass civilization had led most people to forget the fundamental values of the the West, which in his opinion were based on respect for God and the individual. Rothfels argued that the Nazis came to power as a result of a series of unfortunate developments that had occurred in Germany after World War One such as the Great Inflation of 1923 and the Great Depression, and often criticized those in his view promoted the view that sought to equate Deutschum with Nazism such as Sir Lewis Bernstein Namier, William L. Shirer, A.J.P. Taylor and Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. Moreover, far from Nazism being rooted in German traditions, Rothfels claimed that the strongest opposition to Nazism came from those grounded in traditional values. The German Opposition to Hitler ended with a call for people all over the West to embrace what Rothfels regarded as the noble ideas of the conservative opponents of Nazism, which Rothfels saw as leading to back to the higher values of the West.
The German Opposition To Hitler was a controversial book because Rothfels focused his attention largely on anti-Nazis on the Right and ignored anti-Nazis on the Left. In addition, many felt that the book was a hagiographical treatment of anti-Nazi conservatives. His motive in writing the book was in part to prevent the emergence of a new stab-in-the-back legend that might once again undermine democracy in Germany. He was dismayed by public opinion polls taken immediately after World War II in the American zone of occupation that showed the majority of Germans had a low opinion of the men and women involved in the July 20 plot. Rothfels was determined that Germans should see them as heroes, not villains.
In 1951, Rothfels returned to West Germany, where he taught at the University of Tübingen. He worked hard for the rest of his life to exonerate German nationalism from the taint of Nazism. Upon his return to Germany, Rothfels founded the Institut für Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History), an historical study center devoted to the Nazi period. The institute's journal, the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (Journal for Contemporary History) has become one of the world's leading periodicals for the study of Nazi Germany. Within a few years, the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte had the highest circulation of any historical journal in West Germany. During the 1950s, Rothfels was one of the few German historians who attempted a serious examination of the Holocaust, which was a subject that most German historians preferred to ignore during that decade. In particular, he broke new ground by publishing Kurt Gerstein's reports relating to the Final Solution in the first edition of the Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte in 1953 and another article in 1959 that examined the plight of Polish Jewry under Nazi rule.
After his return to Germany, Rothfels was a pioneer of contemporary history, the study of the “epoch of those who lived at the time” to use Rothfels’s words. In Rothfels’s view, contemporary history was the study of the recent past, where despite or rather because the lack of documentation caused by studying events so close to the past and the challenge of writing about events that one experienced oneself, required special patience, skill and ability of the part of the historian. In particular, Rothfels called for historians working in the field of contemporary history to approach matters in an objective and neutral matter while keeping in mind the moral questions. In practice, contemporary history came to refer history from 1914 on.
After his return to Germany, Rothfels took a strong stand against those whose work he felt could exonerate the Nazis. In 1954, he and one of his star pupils from the University of Chicago, Gerhard Weinberg had a renowned debate on the pages of Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte with Andreas Hillgruber and Hans-Günther Seraphim over the issue of whether the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had been a “preventive war” forced on Adolf Hitler by the possibility of Soviet attack on Germany. Hillgruber and Seraphim argued for the "preventive war" thesis while Rothfels and Weinberg opposed it, arguing that it was Nazi racial theories that were the origins of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The majority opinion was that Rothfels and Weinberg destroyed Seraphim's and Hillgruber's arguments. Indeed, Hillgruber himself did a volte-face and renounced his former thesis as mistaken. Later, in 1961, Rothfels took a strong stand against the American neo-Nazi historian David Hoggan who claimed that the outbreak of war in 1939 had been due to an Anglo-Polish conspiracy against Germany. Also in 1961, Rothfels assisted Weinberg with the publication of Adolf Hitler's Zweites Buch which Weinberg had discovered in 1958, and for which Rothfels wrote the introduction.
Another area of interest for Rothfels was the expulsion of the ethnic German population from Eastern Europe after World War II. In the 1950s, Rothfels worked with Theodor Scheider, Martin Broszat and Hans-Ulrich Wehler to produce the multi-volume Documentation of the Expulsion of Germans from East Central Europe. Ironically enough for an ultra-conservative, Rothfel’s disciples included a number of prominent left-wing historians such as Martin Broszat, Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Hans Mommsen.
In his lifetime and since his death, Rothfels has been a very controversial figure. Many see him as apologist for the anti-democratic German Right, and in particular, his attitude towards the Weimar Republic has recently been the subject of controversy in Germany. The historian Ingo Haar in his 2000 book Historiker im Nationalsozialismus called Rofthels an enemy of the Weimar Republic and a Nazi sympathizer. The historian Heinrich August Winkler has strongly criticized Haar, and in the defence of Rothfels has discovered a radio address Rothfels gave in 1930 praising Friedrich Ebert, Gustav Stresemann, and Paul von Hindenburg as great German leaders and another one Rothfels wrote but was prevented from delivering in 1933 calling on Germans to preserve democracy. Rothfels's critics contend that his planned 1933 radio address was too little, too late.