Further to Doug’s eloquently silent post of the 27th instant: I’ve only noticed it now, but Amitai Etzioni put up a remarkable essay on his website a couple of days ago. It’s the English translation of an article he published in the S?ddeutsche Zeitung. That article, which you will have to pay money to the S?ddeutsche to read, has a rather better title than the translation does, but never mind that: just go to Etzioni’s site and read the thing.
Etzioni’s themes are guilt and responsibility. That’s all somewhat abstract, perhaps, considered in vacuo, but it is made sharply concrete by the facts that the article appears to have been occasioned by the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and that Etzioni is a Jew. What’s more (and this I had not known), he is a Jew from Germany (a K?lner, in fact), who as a child witnessed the highly civilised country of his birth transform into a ravening beast.
It would be perfectly understandable if Etzioni, as one of the rare Jews to escape the beast’s maw, dismissed his first homeland with a hearty ‘to hell with the lot of you, then’. He doesn’t, though.
But nor does he blithely wave away the fact of the nazi terror as something that happened a long time ago. Those Germans who share guilt for the holocaust are mostly dead; some still live among us, but given the dictates of biology we shall be rid of them before long. It’s absurd, obviously, to impute to Germans born after the nazi era (or to those who were children when it ended) guilt for their parents’ acts and omissions. But acknowledging that absurdity is not the same thing as saying, ‘Oh, it’s all in the past.’ Etzioni understands that the past can cast a long shadow.
He dismisses the idea that the German nation (whatever that means) or German people generally can be said to bear guilt for the nazi past. But he recognises that this past has become part of the baggage of being a German. Germans may rejoice in the knowledge that they have given us Bach; now they must also live with the knowledge that they have given us Auschwitz. No moral blame attaches to today’s Germans for this, but it is their burden nonetheless.
And that burden, thinks Etzioni, gives Germany a unique responsibility, and a unique opportunity. His conclusions about German guilt are not all that very far away from those of Theodor Heuss, the first president of the postwar Federal Republic. But his view of what Germany can, and should, do in response to the fact of the holocaust is a vision of uncompromising moral clarity, and at the same time of astonishing sympathy.