Ever since I was a little kid, I have felt a special self-identification—sometimes troubling in our postwar popular culture—with my Germanic roots. I don’t come from a purely German family. Only one out of my four grandparents was German. The other three were Anglos. But it was from my German maternal grandfather that I seem to have inherited my dominant physical, psychological, and behavioral traits.
My grandfather was a journalist, and then a bookseller. I am a writer. My grandfather and I have similar voices. Our temperaments are similar. Our sense of humor is the same. A great-uncle once told me my grandfather and I had identical gaits. A waitress told me I eat my food—even cutting bites of pie at right angles with my fork—the same way as my grandfather. My grandfather and I were very close, but these similarities have always seemed to me to have more to do with shared genes than learning or influence.
My grandfather was raised in a German-speaking family, the youngest son of immigrants, and my great-aunts, -uncle, and grandfather often joked at family parties in German. I remember one time we saw a newsreel on the TV of Hitler delivering a speech, and I had innocently asked: “Grampa, what is he saying?”
“I don’t speak that kind of German.” Subject closed.
He was 45 years old at the end of the war, and he must have felt a great sense of mortification at the revelations about the atrocities committed by people who had so recently been his kinsmen. Yet we never spoke of it. There was one time, however, when he alluded to what it was like growing up German during the First World War. He was a high school student during those years, and it was difficult for him to cope with the anti-German sentiment of the time, even though his older brother was serving with the US Army in France. I guess that he had been made to feel shame all his life for his parents’ country of origin.
I have conflated my grandfather’s sense of shame with the collective guilt (or Kollektivschuld) the German people were made to feel in the postwar decades. Having personalized this phenomenon to my grandfather and to the others like him who must have existed, I have always felt that the concept was factually wrong and unjust, even ridiculous.
How can an entire nation of people be saddled with guilt which should more rightfully be assigned to the individuals who committed criminal acts under the veil of secrecy? How can such guilt be assumed when so much of it has been shown to be supported by unreliable evidence and tainted eyewitness testimony? How can German identity be founded on the history of the Holocaust alone and on the assertion that one belongs to a tribe of murderers? How can the thousands of years of experience of a cultured people be negated by 12 years which produced more than just eliminationist anti-Semitism? How can you expect anything good from the progeny of a country whose national archives offer only murderers and no heroes?
This is not to dismiss or minimize the horror of anti-Semitism and its results, but to echo what so many parricides have told me: that they will not have their entire lives defined by a single, ghastly episode in their experience.
At a 1964 Harvard University forum, historian Hannah Arendt said that the concept of collective guilt (as opposed to individual guilt) is “senseless,” and only serves as a “whitewash” for guilty individuals to hide behind. Those whose “consciences did not function automatically,” dared judge events for themselves, she said. Their choice not to participate was founded on the desire to “live at peace with themselves.” There is an urgent need to make known that thousands of Germans risked their lives to help Jews, or at least, to do no harm.
In preparation for his celebrated 1985 visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, Ronald Reagan described the alleged collective German guilt for the Second World War as “imposed” and “unnecessary.” That Reagan felt compelled to express himself so clearly demonstrates that the collective guilt of the Germans was—and is—still a burning issue. The president’s words, and the furor that attended them, are a clear mandate to examine anew the nature of this imposed guilt, and the persons and circumstances that imposed it.
Some would have us believe that not only did the SS Einsatzgruppen murder millions of Jews, but members of the Wehrmacht and Germans of all classes and regions happily cooperated. The most extreme form of this accusation is found in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), released in Germany as Hitlers Willige Vollstrecker. The book was a German best-seller despite its insubstantial or invented evidence, a fraud methodically dissected by Jewish critics Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (1998). According to Finkelstein and others, the Holocaust has been transformed into a giant extortion racket and a means of justifying human rights abuses by the Israeli state against Palestinians. In the words of a former German foreign minister, Auschwitz serves as the “founding myth for the German Federal Republic.” In one way or another, too many Germans still define their ethnic identity in the context of the Holocaust.
It has got to end. It’s now four generations since the Nazis ruled Germany. Beginning in the 1970s and ‘80s, a vocal group of German intellectuals expressed resentment at “being made to feel guilty” about crimes against the Jews, arguing that there should be a statute of limitations of sorts on moral responsibility. The persecution of individuals who refuse to abide with this mark of Cain must give way to a greater acceptance of expressions of German self-pride.
The concept of Kollektivschuld can only foster collective dysfunction, just as a retributive Treaty of Versailles justified the waging of a second world war to “correct” the excesses of hate arising from the first.
Hate only begets more hate.
Groove of the Day
87° and Partly Cloudy, then Clear