Rejecting collective guilt

Hans Kundnani commented on a cover story in Die Zeit, which reported on attitudes among German teenagers toward the Nazi past. The general sentiment, it seems, was “Was geht das mich noch an?” (Perhaps “why would it still matter to me?” is a more contextually accurate rendering of this expression than “what’s it got to do with me?”) Kundnani’s discussion reminded me of Bernhard Schlink’s lectures entitled Guilt about the Past, which I recently read.

Schlink considered how our past influences the future and in particular how we should or could deal with the guilt we experience due to past actions, particularly those of our forebears. Obviously the context Schlink is interested in is Nazi Germany, along with the many people who did not speak up or oppose the crimes that occurred during that time - not just those who committed atrocities but those “who were fully capable of resistance and opposition but did nothing”. Schlink went on to explore how guilt can be (and, for him, should be) attached to an entire society rather than individuals. His arguments for this collective attribution of guilt are deeply unconvincing.

The claim that people can be collectively liable for the actions of individuals is, for Schlink, based on the notion of solidarity with perpetrators: “the collective incurs liability for the perpetrator’s misconduct in as far as solidarity and economic community with the perpetrator are maintained in reaping the profits from their labours, aiding them after the fact, and obstructing their just punishment.” Schlink recognised in another lecture that this is vulnerable to a charge of anachronism but pointed to the Radbruch formula used in Germany, which states that when the law is in opposition to justice it is justice that must prevail; that is, that although many of the actions we condemn today were perfectly legal at the time, we can both abhor and punish them now because their legality should not have over-ruled their injustice. Schlink claimed further that guilt “sits in wait” for the children and grandchildren of those who did not disavow or renounce the guilty members of their community. He allowed that those born generations later are not able to know their grandparents or great-grandparents enough (or at all) in order to either avow solidarity with them or deny it, but argued that, insofar as their identity is bound up with the history of their community, they remain tainted by the collective guilt until they make a decision to disassociate with it or otherwise.

It seems to me that all this rests on an assumption that other things are equal. It supposes that people are reasoning morally about what happens around them, rather than concerning themselves with their own affairs or restricting, for the most part, their moral compass to a narrower domain; that our moral condemnation today should have applied at the time; that the capacity for action is the same as motive; and that guilt should be associated by default. Perhaps most importantly, it relies on some events having a special category of meaning or importance for collective identity, such that we have to express or disavow solidarity with our forebears with respect to some historical episodes but not others. Although we can say, after the fact, that it is more important to disassociate ourselves from murders committed by our ancestors than their positive inventions, say, this is anachronistic: if our collective identity is formed by their actions and our reactions to them today then why should we not be required to express this identity as a whole, looking at all aspects? After all, if we are guilty by virtue of uncritical association with our past until such time as we understand and reject the link, where does the necessity of reflection and dissociation end? The same seems to apply, mutatis mutandis, to current exploitation: how far removed do we need to be before we can say that we are not implicated? How can we act at all without being implicated in some form of exploitation?

Perhaps the reason young Germans are rejecting Erinnerungskultur is that they deny collective guilt and recognise its justifications as spurious? Not forgetting, along with learning lessons from the Holocaust, require no link to the absurd notion that people share the guilt for events that took place prior to their birth, or that we are only dissociated from such guilt if we confront it. What this does achieve is to restrict the scope of whatever identity the next generation wishes to develop for itself, which young people are probably acutely conscious of and chafing against. Indeed, if the Holocaust is in a special category of evil then everyone should be confronting it and disavowing solidarity with the perpetrators, which is only to say that there are many things we can learn from history without needing to take on responsibility for all of it.

This implied universality leads us to another of Kundnani’s blog entries, Remembering and moving on, in which he wrote about Schlink’s lectures. Kundnani wondered “whether in Germany the desire to engage with the Nazi past was accompanied almost from the beginning by a desire to draw a line under it” and asked if the Germans “have been so diligent about remembering precisely in order at some point to be able to move on from it?” The lecture in which Schlink discussed Vergangenheitsbewältigung is entitled The presence of the past and, shortly after the pass quoted by Kundnani, Schlink declared that “[t]here is no mastering the past”. He did allow that there can be instances when we do not need to keep remembering the past, specifically those “in which the past does not currently evoke questions or emotions”, but he insisted that the Holocaust and Second World War are “our common history” since “the past they encompass is global”.

This would perhaps be Schlink’s response to the criticisms I outlined earlier: that if younger Germans are not to dismiss their collective responsibility for the past (or to face up to that past) then it has to be “integrated into our collective biography” by the previous generation such that the “questions and emotions” evoked are tackled as universal moral problems, from which everyone learns. However, this may also suggest why young people reject this requirement: as migrants and the children of migrants begin to view themselves as German, and as Germans (like other Europeans) forge identities that are not so dependent on the “bourgeois culture” Schlink believes the Third Reich to have been a “perversion” of, so their common history becomes truly global or at least not limited to what Schlink defined to be global (and may only be a reflection of his own identity). In this context, the collective guilt any of us have for the Holocaust - if it makes sense at all - is only as important, relative to any other moral problems we use in creating our identity, as we allow it to be. Ultimately, the value of this identity, and of the issues we wrestle with in giving meaning to it, depends on choosing them, not being given them as a legacy or as an example of a supposedly “common” past that has yet to be experienced as such.

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One Response to Rejecting collective guilt

  1. Natasha says:

    People who still revel in the idea of “collective guilt” should do some soul searching and good, long reading, for they may have more with the Nazis in common than they are aware of. My great-grandfather was persecuted and prosecuted by the Nazis, his life destroyed - but how can I judge those who were too scared to help him? Empathy in a dictatorship like Stalins Russia, Hitlers Germany or Pol Pots Cambodia meant to risk not only to be (slowly) tortured to death by professionals, but to risk that your own family might experience a horrible fate (“Sippenhaft” - an often forgotten concept). How can one bear to make such a decision as a mother or father, husband or wife, sister or brother? This is how they break people until today in the totalitarian regimes of the world - by hurting their loved ones. The Milgram and Stanford-prison experiments furthermore have proven, that most people are very likely to commit unspeakable crimes in similar situations, no matter their national, Gender or ethnic background. This includes you and me.

    Additionally, hundreds of thousands of Germans were sent to the Nazi camps themselves. The Holocaust was not only about Jews, it was about Sinti and Roma, too, as well as trade unionists, homosexuals, blacks, communists, mentally and physically handicapped, to name a few. If the Germans living in a dictatorship were all responsible for Hitler’s crimes, then the British and Americans living in democracies were not free of “guilt” - especially as the Holocaust and Nazi machinery could have never worked so well and made such a perverse impact on world history without the help of American big business. Hitler was deeply inspired by the American Eugenic Movement, which was heavily funded by the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. Henry Ford was bestowed the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazis. IBM organized the Holocaust. It’s too bad they forgot them at the Nuremberg Trials. Award-winning investigative journalist and son of Holocaust-survivors Edwin Black has well documented this suppressed part of history:

    Furthermore, we can not measure pain. The crimes of the Axis Powers have been rightfully condemned and now the time is ripe for the rest of the story to be told: such as the ethnic cleansing (turned partially genocide) of 15 million East European Germans, such as the mass rape of more than 1 million girls and women by the Red Army, such as Dresden, Hiroshima, Hamburg and forgotten horrors such as Pforzheim. Pforzheim was a small town of no military significance in which roughly every third inhabitant (that is: mainly children, their mothers and elderly people) was killed in a scientifically planned firestorm. This was meticulously researched by historian Jörg Friedrich (who is not right-winged and has researched the Nazi crimes as well):

    If we build “politically correct” hierarchies of important-and-not-so-important victims, than we create hierarchies of the value of human life, very much like the Nazis did. As one history professor remarked: “As a human being, I have problems realizing that some people will base their judgment of the suffering of innocent people (children) on the views they hold of those who inflict the suffering.” Besides, World War II (including its reasons) was overwhelmingly complex and so many files are still classified, that there is no rational basis for a world view that neatly divides the world into good and evil. If we stick to these concepts of in-group and out-group, the world will never find peace. But fortunately we live in a globally interconnected world. Our survivability is linked to one great insight: We are one human race sharing one great planet and now we finally have to behave that way. I consider this as a source of hope.

    Sorry for bad English.

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