BERLIN - The presentation of one of Germany's most prestigious literary prizes to a historian who has sought to justify the Holocaust has ignited a fierce dispute here at a time of conservative and reactionary intellectual stirrings in Europe.
The historian, Ernst Nolte, has argued that Hitler's anti-Semitism had a "rational core" and that Nazism was in essence a riposte to Bolshevism. He received the Konrad Adenauer Prize for literature this month, prompting an uproar that has filled newspapers with invective and divided one of the country's leading historical institutes.
The prize, whose past recipients include former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, is given for works that "contribute to a better future" by the Munich-based Deutschland Foundation. The organization is conservative and close to the right wing of the Christian Democratic Party but had not been considered reactionary or revisionist.
Accepting the prize, Nolte said, "We should leave behind the view that the opposite of National Socialist goals is always good and right." He added that because Nazism was the "strongest of all counterforces" to Bolshevism, a movement with wide Jewish support, Hitler may have had "rational" reasons for attacking the Jews.
The timing of the prize was particularly delicate because this is a period of some intellectual ferment in Europe.
Austrian rightist Joerg Haider's success in steering his Freedom Party into government has emboldened the right. In Germany and France, a conservative reaction is evident against what the French call "the angelic left," which is accused of imposing a stifling political correctness on debate and of backing a multicultural tide that will sweep away the European nation state.
In this context, Nolte has emerged as an iconoclast with apparently growing conservative appeal. A few days after receiving the prize, he was widely applauded at a conference in Paris where he again explored his thesis about Hitler and the Jews.
"The award of the prize to Nolte was a clear political statement intended to promote the view that there is no particular stigma to Nazism in the light of what some Germans now call the `Red Holocaust' in the Soviet Union," said Charles Maier, a Harvard historian. "It's exculpatory in the German context. It's also really scandalous."
The unease and anger in Germany over the prize has been accentuated by the fact that another prominent historian, Horst Moller, the director of the distinguished Institute for Contemporary History, chose to make the speech honoring Nolte.
The institute was established after the war in Munich with a clear mission directed largely toward researching Nazism.
In his speech, Moller said he did not agree with all of Nolte's views, but he went on to praise a "life's work of high rank" and to make a vigorous attack on the "hate-filled and defamatory" attempts to stop open debate in Germany.
The reaction was overwhelming. Newspapers have been filled with letters from other historians at the institute calling on Moller to resign. In an open letter to Die Zeit, Heinrich A. Winkler, a professor of history at Berlin's Humboldt University, said Moller "allowed himself to become party to an intellectual political offensive aimed at integrating rightist and revisionist positions in the conservative mainstream."
Moller's secretary said he was traveling and not available for comment.
With Haider thriving in neighboring Austria, the ground in Germany is fertile for a nationalist and right-wing intellectual awakening. It is fed by weariness, even anger, at what is seen as Germany's eternal victimization for the Holocaust and by irritation at the multicultural message from the government.
Nolte took up those themes in his speech. He attacked those who argue for "an unstoppable transition toward world civilization." He bitterly denounced the "collective accusation" continuously leveled at Germany since 1945.
The historian, the author of books including "Three Faces of Fascism" and "The European Civil War," has been known for his arguments about Hitler and Stalin since the 1980s.
But never before has a center-right institution like the Deutschland Foundation moved to embrace him in such a formal way, intimating that at least the right of the Christian Democratic party may be ready to countenance the view that the crimes of the Nazis were not unique and have been unfairly singled out.
A similar intellectual restiveness is evident in France.
"The hour of doubt, the hour of the critical mind, that is to say the time of the Enlightenment is over," Elisabeth Levy, a journalist, wrote recently in Le Monde after her articles questioning Serbian crimes in Kosovo became the object of a torrent of abuse. "This is an illness of the crazed Left."
Haider has made headway in Austria by questioning the "intellectual tyranny" of the left.