Guilt and responsibility

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.

13 thoughts on “Guilt and responsibility

  1. “But he recognises that this past has become part of the baggage of being a German.”

    I’m unclear as to why the Nazi era has become part of the baggage of being a German while present day Russians are apparently absolved of the legacy of the far greater number of victims of atrocities by the state in the Stalin era:

  2. The fact that Hitler, unlike Stalin, was actually elected to lead his country to ruin – and by 1939 was adored by far, far many more than voted for him in 1933 – just might have something to do with it. Hitler’s popularity didn’t start to wane until the victories ceased, and even as late as June 1944 most Germans viewed attempts to remove him as the height of treachery. By contrast, blaming ordinary Russians for Stalin makes as much sense as blaming North Koreans for the brute they’re stuck with.

  3. Abiola – That’s one of the few convincing responses I’ve ever read to the question although we’ll likely agree that the history was rather more complex.

    The Nazis weren’t elected to the Reichstag with a commanding majority in the elections of 6 November 1932 and had to negotiate with other parties to form a coalition to enable Herr Hitler to become Chancellor in January 1933 with a supporting majority.

    On 12 November 1933, a plebiscite endorsed the creation of a one party state with a huge majority – with intimidation and pressures, the extent of the majority is open to question but independent observers don’t question that there was a substantial majority. On President Hindenburg’s death in August the following year, a plebiscite endorsed combining the functions of President and Chancellor in the person of the Fuhrer. William Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is a good source on this as Shirer was based in Berlin for much of the time as these events unfolded.

    How did the Nazis become so popular? Part of the answer to that is something JM Keynes wrote in The New Statesman on his return from giving a lecture in Hamburg on 8 January 1932, a year before Hitler became Chancellor: “Germany today is in the grips of the most powerful deflation that any nation has experienced. . . ” [DE Moggridge: Maynard Keynes (1992) p.539-40]

    Once established in power, the Nazis set about a implementing a public works programme to create jobs:

    ” . . spending for public works, including Autobahnen, was undertaken through special paper discounted by banks. The effect was rapidly to reduce unemployment from 6 million in October 1933 to 4.1 million a year later, 2.8 million in February 1935, 2.5 million in February 1936, and 1.2 million in February 1937.” [CP Kindleberger: The World in Depression (1973) p.240]

    After meeting Hitler in 1936 in Germany, Lloyd George, Britain’s last Liberal Party prime minister, is on record as saying: “Fuhrer is the proper name for him. He is a great and wonderful leader.”

    What is so curious about that is that we know from entirely independent sources that knowldge of the existence of concentration camps in Germany was already in the public domain in Britain.

    George Orwell, in his private research diary for the book that was to become: The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), wrote an entry for 16 March 1936:

    “Last night to hear [Sir Oswald] Mosley speak at the Public Hall [in Barnsley, Yorkshire], which is in structure a theatre. It was quite full – about 700 people I should say. About 100 Blackshirts on duty, with two or three exceptions weedy looking specimens, and girls selling Action etc. Mosley spoke for an hour and a half and to my dismay seemed to have the meeting mainly with him. He was booed at the start but loudly clapped at the end. Several men who tried to interject with questions were thrown out . . . one with quite unnecessary violence. . M. is a very good speaker. His speech was the usual clap-trap – Empire free trade, down with the Jew and the foreigner, higher wages and shorter hours all round etc. After the preliminary booing the (mainly) working class audience was easily bamboozled by M speaking as it were from a Socialist angle, condemning the treachery of successive governments towards the workers. The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews who were said to be financing, among other things the British Labour Party and the Soviet. . . . M. kept extolling Italy and Germany but when questioned about concentration camps etc always replied ‘We have no foreign models; what happens in Germany need not happen here.’ . . . ”
    [George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1 An Age Like This 1920-1940; Penguin Books, p.230]

    We might also note that Mosley had been a cabinet minister in Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour government of 1929-31 until he resigned in May 1930, claiming that the government was doing too little to tackle the problem of unemployment. He went on to found the British Union of Fascists in September 1932.

    On the evidence, it stretches credibility to claim that the Nazis and fascism were “right wing”, especially since Stalin evidently had no insuperable objections to the Soviet Union signing up to a Friendship Treaty with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939 when Britain and France were already at war. [Norman Davies: Europe (1996) p.1001]

  4. I find the Bach reference appropriate. Personally, when I’m sitting listening to Bach I don’t think of myself as listening to German music. Perhaps, attrocities should go “public domain” as soon as personal responsibilities have elapsed by natural means – i.e. those involved are all dead.

    This doesn’t mean the responsibilities or lessons learned are diminished in any way, on the contrary, they are at least as important as before. However, the actions are treated as crimes by humanity as well as against humanity.

    After all, we often see the can’t-blame-the-children argument but its true the other way around also: those of us that aren’t associated with long-past attrocities by birth or nationality did nothing towards our “innocent” status, either.

  5. Here is another question? What do you do about peoples that refuse to accept responsibility?

    Turkey – Armenians and Greeks
    Indonesia – East Timor
    Australia – the Aborigines
    US – Native American tribes
    Britain – Sudan, South Africa, India, Ireland
    Japan – Korea, China
    China – Mongolia, Tibet, East Turkestan

    Actually, most countries don’t accept responsibility for their bad actions, which is what makes the story of postwar Germany so remarkable. It was a unique confluence of events.

  6. Hektor,

    You’ve not mentioned France and the Huguenots:

    “In what became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 24 August – 17 September 1572 Catholics killed many Huguenots in Paris; similar massacres took place in other towns in the weeks following, with an estimated total death toll of 70,000.” – from:

    And what of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century? It was said of the Mongols, who surely deserve credit for inventing Blitzkreig, otherwise known as Shock and Awe, that what they didn’t understand in the lands the hoards came upon, they despised, and what they despised, they surely destroyed. By several accounts, they evidently didn’t understand much in the civilized places they invaded.

    There is a large and serially contentious question, not specifically relating to Germany, about whether we have anything to learn from history. There seem to be at least three popular views:

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” [George Santayana: The Life of Reason]

    “What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” [Hegel: Philosophy of History]

    “Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” [Karl Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon]

    Historical events and eras are unique, emerging from particular circumstances and with uniquely endowed personalities cast as players, for all that Marx claimed. But I think social scientists nevertheless believe that there are enduring generalisations to be inferred from historical experience. Indeed, since historical conditions cannot be replicated with one factor changed so as to test out social theories in the way practitioners of the physical sciences can test (some) theories in laboratory conditions, the study of social conditions through time or through space is the only way we have of testing out whether we understand the factors motivating social behaviour.

    Unless we believe that, we must accept the corollary that human behaviour is entirely unpredictable – and that is going much too far, I think. Our social order depends on general expectations that family, fellow citizens and the people with whom we “do business” will mainly behave in “appropriate” and “acceptable” ways. Such expectations are an essential ingredient of trust in social transactions. Disraeli was wrong to exhort us to: “Read no history, only biography, for that is life without theory.” Francis Fukuyama is the more illuminating:

    ” . people who do not trust one another will end up cooperating only under a system of formal rules and regulations, which have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated and enforced, sometimes by coercive means. . . .Widespread distrust in a society . . . imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” [Fukuyama: Trust (1995) p.27]

    Put that way, there will be an enduring interest in the grotesque atrocities of Nazi era just as there will be an enduring interest in the horrors of Stalinism. Without that, the historic and moral significance of both are diminished. In Robert Conquest’s study of Stalin, he mentions a report back in 1936 to the Foreign Office by Britain’s ambassador in Berlin: in a march past of the Nazi SA [the Sturmabeilung or Brownshirts], the contingent of ex-Communists were the best turned out.

    Working rule 1: Beware the totalitarian mindset . .

  7. What do you do about peoples that refuse to accept responsibility?

    The question would be easier to answer if any two people could agree on what it means. “Accepting responsibility” can mean anything from: yes, I chopped down the cherry tree, up to and exceeding enacting laws proscribing punishment for anybody denying an accepted view of history. Most of the example “responsibilities” have already been accepted in the cherry tree sense. There are, for example, no official British positions on those issues highlighted that conflict with mainstream historical thought on the subject.

    Sure, we’ll all feel that little bit better if governments get on their knees and plead forgiveness for their predecessor’s sins, despite the fact they would never be re-elected. And, it might be nice to have our ancestor’s misdeeds rammed down our throat in school so that half of us grow up with an inferiority complex and the other half react by becoming extremists. But, will these things really change anything for the better?

  8. I wrote a piece a year and a half ago on my other blog on the notion of collective guilt and I think Etzioni’s position is not too different from mine: I reject the notion of hereditary guilt. A German born too late to conceivably have had any effect on the Holocaust should not feel personal guilt for it. However, I think we differ in one respect. I think that institutions can bear guilt, and that that guilt does not end with the passing of a generation. No German born after 1935 should be deemed personally guilty because of the Holocaust. But, to the extent that there exist people who are alive and who suffer as a consequence of the Holocaust, Germany as an institution has a responsibility to them, and German citizens – without regard to ancestry but simply by virtue of being Germans – have a collective responsibility towards them through their national institutions.

    The death of the generation that can actually be personally held responsible for the Holocaust also entails the death of its surviving victims. I think there’s a good (although not air-tight) case to make that there is no new generation of Jews who can claim a present status of victimisation as a direct consequence of the Holocaust, and that this entails the acquittal of German collective responsibility towards them. For Roma, I don’t think the same claim can be made, and in their case I don’t think Germany can be let off the hook quite yet.

  9. Scott – Does that mean the Republic of Mongolia, as an institution, is responsible for all the atrocities inflicted by Mongol invasions of the 13th century or is there an international convention on limitations somewhere?

  10. Bob – no, because one is hard pressed to identify a person and say: this guy’s life sucks in significant part because of Genghis Khan and the horde. Although there is no fixed time limit, it is hard to link the well-being of individuals living in the present directly to the Mongol invasions. To find Roma who are still living very harsh lives in significant part because of the displacements and slaughter of the Nazis is much simpler.

  11. Having worked for 15 years in the PES ( Party of the European Social Democrats) I know min. one thing : Etzioni is a self proclamed inventor or inspirator of the UK Third Way. I don’t know if T. Blair agrees. Might be.

    Anyway since ( New ) Labour entered government( 1997 ) we didn’t hear that much anymore about the furher theoretical developments of the Third Way.The best and brightest entered government. Etzioni was +/_ all alone.

    For a more intelligent implementation of his ideas in practice : see the scandinavian way.

    My e – book :

  12. I understand Scott’s position, but I’m not entirely sold on it yet.

    (a) Germany does not exist as an institution: it is more akin to a collective of people and government institutions etc. However, like most of its people, the institutions within Germany today did not exist prior to 1945

    (b) Finding Roma living a harsh existence is undeniable. Finding Roma living quite well is also undeniable. Attribute all ills to the Nazis and the fortune to the liberators (or whatever your favourite cause is) is silly. Therefore we are into an extremely subjective apportionment of degrees of liability which sounds, to me, more like schadenfreude than justice.

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