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On the Persistence of German War Guilt

Photo Source Rob Faulkner | CC BY 2.0


Isaiah 13:16

Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.

Hosea 13:16

Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.

By the Rivers of Babylon

Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks

For most people, the historical fact of German/Nazi war crimes is uncontroversial. At the same time, for at least three generations of Germans, the question of their war guilt has been an integral part of the social-psychological reconstruction and re-presentation of their society. The sense that “we are guilty and we must pay” is a serious mental phenomenon that haunts many Germans to this day.

Holocaust deniers aside, no one is calling for the historical absolution or forgiveness of the Nazis.

However, is it legitimate to ask that if ones great-grandfather was a mass murderer in what way should that fact effect the great-grandchild?

Should a distant descendant feel a severe sense of guilt for the crimes of a heinous ancestor?

Unless you believe in the assigning of collective guilt through time the answer should unequivocally be no.

Following this logic, most Germans living today are not guilty for past crimes but instead are responsible for a vibrant and, for the most part, tolerant civil society.

This does not mean that the Nazi era should be whitewashed or cleverly argued away.

But perhaps it does mean that it should be put in greater historical context.

For some anthropologists genocide is as old as mankind itself. Historically, it certainly occurred under the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. In the early modern and modern era, the slave trade, New World colonization, 19th and 20th century colonialism, the Armenian tragedy, Stalinist atrocities, Maoist mass murder, the Khmer-Rouge, and the Rwandan case are all examples of mans rapacious cruelty to his fellow man.

Thus, in no historical way, is the German case unique. Instead, it is an historical tragedy among many others. This should not distract us from its intrinsic horror but should cast significant doubt on the thesis of its historical singularity.

Of course, the allies, especially the United States was very much interested in cultivating this sense of ultimate evil among the conquered Germans. Arguably, it aided in their de-Nazification and the rebuilding of a democratic society. Also, the American sense of self and historical destiny depended very much on its role in the Second World War; a conception that was carefully molded and transmitted by Hollywood. The more morally evil the German, the greater glory to the American.

That the liberation of Europe from the Nazis was a moral good is without question. However what is a question for us is the current uses and purposes of what amounts to continuous American war propaganda.

Understandably, for the Americans, like the Greeks who defeated the Persians or the Russian Great Patriotic War, their victoriously ended conflict defined their greatest existential moment and arguably their very conception of themselves.

Yet conversely it would be no historical irony that for the modern German it would be a contemporary travesty to freeze their definition of themselves in the Nazi period.

Rather, for the modern German as well as other nations, the comparative nature of German/Nazi crimes should be emphasized.

In a sense, many of the Nazis’ most horrible aspects had their counterparts in the allied camp: racial laws, racial segregation, xenophobia, nationalism, the glorification of war, empire, and conquest, and last but not least eliminatory eugenics. The Nazis were an extreme example of many general ideas and trends then circulating in the West. And, finally, it should not be forgotten that, initially, Adolf Hitler had many high profile admirers in the West; a fact that is conveniently disregarded today.

Whether things could have turned out differently or not is a perennial philosophic/historical question. Yet if you believe in historical determinism or historical contingency does not in the end really matter here. The modern German should not be trapped in the temporal cage of 1933-1945 but should rather deeply contemplate the causal elements of its construction while removing his current existential self to facing the not inconsiderable achievements of the recent past as well as those cultural and scientific achievements which preceded their great historical catastrophe.

Hardly anyone calls on the Russian, the Chinese, the British, the Turkish or the American to do historical penance in the present to the extent that they do the German. Yet, how and should we make an hierarchical list of inhuman crimes? Is red terror any less than brown murder? Are transatlantic slave ships any better or worse than totalitarian barbed wire?

The modern German, just as any other nation, has the moral right to psychologically escape his historical purgatory while at the same time acknowledging its intrinsic historical horror and future unrepeatableness. 

 

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