Prof Rempel lecture: German Guilt for the Holocaust

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The Question of German Guilt

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.



In April 1946, Hans Frank confessed his war crimes to the Nuremberg tribunal, which had been convened by the Allied powers to judge the major Nazi leaders, by declaring: "A thousand years will pass and this guilt of Germany will not be erased."' When Frank spoke these words, the heinous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis were fresh in everybody's mind, and there was a universal outcry to punish the guilty. This world-wide revulsion was directed not only at the top Nazis but also at the German people as a whole; they stood condemned in the eyes of the world as the most bestial murderers in history. This was in 1946. Time erases memories and heals wounds; but Nazi Germany continues t.') haunt our collective memory and disturb our sleep. The specter of Hitler is still abroad in the world, and Germans in particular are still living, in part, under his dark shadow. When Germans visit foreign countries, they still evoke unpleasant memories; bitterness toward Germans is still very strong in some countries, and a heavy German accent is still perceived and exploited by our public image-makers as a sign of either arrogant bluster or unbridled aggression.

Given the unspeakable crimes committed by the Nazis, such reactions were to be expected in 1946. Should they still be expected today? One historian has asked: Has the time come to stop blaming the Germans for the crimes of Nazism? The question hides two assumptions, namely, that it would be the task of people other than the Germans to persuade the world of this and that the Germans are either incapable or unqualified to speak for themselves.

In 1946 there was every reason to assume that the Germans were incapable of honestly coming to terms with the crimes in which their Nazi leaders had implicated them. The problem then was one of identifying the guilty and punishing them. Twenty-one major Nazi leaders were tried before the Nuremberg tribunal, an Allied legal machine whose responsibility was to ferret out those who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. In order to lend respectability and credibility to the proceedings, this trial was presided over by a lord justice of Great Britain, flanked by eight Allied judges and assisted by a judge of the United States Supreme Court who served as chief prosecutor. The defendants were well treated during their incarceration, and they were accorded legal rights that were consistent with the actual practices then standard in Western societies. Despite the claims of Goring and others that the proceedings were a sham and the outcome a foregone conclusion, the trial was conducted fairly by judges who, though not brilliant, were professional and honest.'

Nuremberg was only one of many trials, held inside and outside Germany, that were conducted to judge those who had committed crimes during World War II. Although the Germans would eventually be able to judge their own people, this option was not available in 1945 because Germany's institutions had collapsed and its people lacked the moral strength to confront the problems of guilt and punishment. The three major Nazi leaders who were responsible for the decisions that led to the tragedy of World War II - Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels - had committed suicide. All the twenty-one defendants at Nuremberg pleaded innocent, and only a few of them admitted that they were guilty of serious transgressions. They also questioned the legality of being tried by non-Germans and by legal principles and procedures for which they claimed there was no precedent. Confronted by incriminating evidence, many dodged behind a series of rationalizations. The most popular was that they merely followed orders and that Hitler or Himmler was really the guilty one. It was, of course, convenient for the top Nazis, as it was to some degree for all Germans, to blame everything on Hitler, for with Hitler dead and unable to speak for himself, they could claim ignorance or innocence or both. Almost to a man, the Nazi leaders also claimed that they were ignorant of what went on beyond their own spheres of competence. Keitel explained that as an assistant to Hitler he had nothing to do with the political motives or backgrounds of the operations he planned. He or Jodl, he said, "never discussed with the Fuhrer the question of aggression or defensive war. According to our concept that was not our job."' That his signature was on immoral orders resulting in mass murder was also not his official concern. When the consequences of such decisions were brought home to the defendants, they often used another defense mechanism by downplaying the crime and defusing its sting by what Peter Gay has called "comparative trivialization," which consists in acknowledging brutality but also pointing indignantly at crimes committed by others that were just as bad.' Thus, Rosenberg told Dr. Gilbert, one of the Nuremberg prison psychiatrists, "The Russians have the nerve to sit in judgement-with 30 million lives on their conscience! Talk about persecution of the church! Why they are the world's greatest experts. They killed priests by the thousands in their revolution."' Ribbentrop also parroted the same line: "Haven't you heard about how the Americans slaughtered the Indians? Were they an inferior race too? -Do you know who started the concentration camps in the first place? - The British."' As to those atrocity films, Göring shrugged them off by saying, "Anybody can make an atrocity film if they take corpses out of their graves and then show a tractor shoving them back in again."'

When not indulging in massive denial or comparative trivialization, G6ring and other dyed-in-the-wool Nazis engaged in mutual accusations, which took the form of casting blame on one another for having lost battles or failed to perform duties as administrators or military leaders. Such mutual recrimination, which had been endemic throughout the Nazi period, was as irrelevant as it was unproductive because it foreclosed genuine dialogue and thus blocked the truth. A few Nazi leaders did acknowledge their culpability, even dramatically confessing their crimes in the courtroom, as did Hans Frank, the butcher of Poland. The Allies, however, were not convinced by dramatic confessions, suspecting that such belated urges to confess harbored ulterior motives aimed at enhancing self-importance and pleasing the accuser.

If the highest leaders of Germany did not come clean in 194S, it should not be surprising that the German people, still traumatized by war and economic ruin, were unable to confront the problem of culpability. Ordinary people, too, dodged into convenient excuses, claiming that they were insignificant cogs caught in a totalitarian system where opposition was difficult to organize and invariably resulted in imprisonment or death. Having undergone tremendous suffering at the hands of their own criminal regime and those of their enemies, many Germans came to believe that the suffering already inflicted on them relieved them of the stigma of responsibility or collective guilt. But even if the German people had desired to grapple with the legal or ethical problem of guilt and punishment, circumstances made this increasingly difficult. The country was occupied and administered by the victorious powers that began to impose their own political and ideological agenda on them. For a second time in the twentieth century, the course of Germany's future had been taken out of the hands of Germans and placed in the hands of foreigners. As Friedrich Meinecke justly observed, this made it difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish the task of assigning guilt and meting out punishment from a position of autonomy and strength.' It was the Allied powers that instituted, each in its own peculiar ways, what became known as "denazification" -that is, identifying those who had been seriously implicated in the Nazi regime, punishing them, and excluding them permanently from public office. Five categories were drawn up: (1) major offenders, punishable by death or life imprisonment; (2) offenders, sentenced to a maximum of ten years; (3) lesser offenders, to be placed on probation; (4) followers who went along with the NSDAP; and (S) exonerated persons. Although denazification was placed in the hands of German tribunals (Spruchkammer), the Allied powers supervised the process. Denazification was part of a larger effort by the Allied powers to destroy German militarism and National Socialism, to hold war criminals to account, to force the Germans to pay for war damages, and to embark upon a policy of reeducating the Germans along the political lines deemed appropriate by the occupying powers.

Denazification proceeded by fits and starts between 1945 and 1950. It was clouded over by conflicting ideological aims; the Soviets, who had occupied most of eastern Germany, saw Nazism as rooted largely in socioeconomic conditions associated with capitalism and amenable to Communist treatment, whereas the Anglo-Americans believed that the establishment and acceptance of democratic institutions and practices, combined with major efforts in social rehabilitation, would eventually root out Nazism in a capitalist state. Although many guilty Nazis were punished and imprisoned, as many, if not more, got off scot-free. Many Germans mocked the process, especially the elaborate questionnaires (Fragebogen) that they had to fill out before judgment in every case was rendered. Some later privately admitted that too many of them had been whitewashed by what they called Persilscheine-testimonials obtained by many Germans from priests, anti-Nazis, or Jews who attested to the sterling quality of the holder and were then given to the tribunals as affidavits. A contemporary joke compared the tribunals to laundries that one entered with a brown shirt and exited with a white one.

The coming of the Cold War and the division of Germany into a Communist East and a capitalist-democratic West put an end to any real soul-searching about what would later be called the unmastered past. The question of German guilt remained in a kind of suspended animation. Both the Germans and their guardians were preoccupied with economic reconstruction and the ideological battle between two different ways of life.

The economic miracle of the 1950s, which saw a remarkable resurgence of economic prosperity in West Germany, stifled criticism and reinforced a kind of collective amnesia about the Nazi past that had set in right after the collapse of Nazism in 1945. Although the Bonn government instituted a program of reparations called Wiedergutmachung, aimed at compensating the victims of Nazism, particularly the Jews, for damages to life, health, freedom, or property incurred at the hands of the Nazis, most Germans (East or West) refused to grapple with the Nazi legacy. Important work on Hitler and National Socialism took place in Britain and the United States rather than in Germany, where historians were still reluctant to reopen old wounds and where the relevant documents were difficult to obtain because they had been appropriated by the victorious powers and stored in faraway places. Until the late 1960s German schools continued past practices of neglecting the importance of contemporary history in favor of more remote historical periods, thereby making it conveniently impossible to confront the recent Nazi past.

As the tranquil Adenauer years began to fade by the mid-1960s, giving way to a decade of social conflict, Germans were once more confronted with the dark shadow of Adolf Hitler. The younger generation of Germans, too young to have participated in the crimes of the Third Reich, demanded better answers from their parents about the Third Reich and their involvement in it. In West Germany the younger generation was becoming increasingly Americanized and radicalized, which caused acute generational conflicts and led to widespread criticism of government institutions, particularly the universities where conservatism was strongly entrenched. For better or worse, the social tensions of the 1960s prepared the way for a more open forum of ideas, which unfortunately also erupted into violence and sorely tested West Germany's democratic institutions. Yet, despite a certain shrillness that colored the intellectual climate of opinion in the late 1960s, the Germans made undeniable progress in coming to terms with their recent past. Several tenacious historians, social scientists, and journalists such as Werner Maser, Helmut Heiber, Max Domarus, Ernst Nolte, Martin Broszat, Karl Dietrich Bracher, and Joachim Fest wrote or edited incisive and comprehensive studies on Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Elementary and secondary schools revamped their outmoded curricula and began to instruct their students more honestly regarding Germany's recent past. Meanwhile, a flood of newspaper and magazine articles, records, and films began to appear on Nazi Germany, which further stimulated public discussion. In 1960 Adolf Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem; from December 1963 to August 1965 Germans followed the Auschwitz proceedings of twenty major offenders who were tried for war crimes at Frankfurt. Information about Nazi atrocities was therefore widely available to ordinary Germans who were receptive to the truth.

Unfortunately, many chose not to watch documentaries such as Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah but preferred instead to listen to the fabrications, half-truths, and plain lies that were still being disseminated by neo-Nazis and fellow travelers, aided and abetted by foreign racists, who wanted to whitewash Nazi crimes. Even in 1969, the author of the first comprehensive German work on National Socialism, Karl Dietrich Bracher, had to admit the persistence of such ideas, again camouflaged under the guise of "National Opposition," which were widely promoted by elite journals, newspapers, a flood of pamphlets, and a steady stream of exculpatory memoirs or sanitized biographies of fallen idols of World War II.' Moreover, Bracher's judgment that this revisionist literature was being handed down to a new generation of politically ignorant youthful followers is as true now as it was then. On the other hand, very few young Germans identified with Nazism; the vast majority supported the democratic way of life. The truth is that most Germans surely wanted to get along with their lives in a resurgent economy, unburdened by the weight of historical crimes.

Yet the ghost of Hitler continues to spook the Germans and the world at large: "Hitler is today all around us - in our loathings, our fears, our fantasies of power and victimization, our nightmares of vile experience and violent endings."" In 1983, Gerd Heidemann, a journalist for the German magazine Stern, presented a stunned world with the "discovery" of Hitler's diaries, which he claimed had been fully authenticated by scholarly experts, including H. R. Trevor-Roper, and would disclose exciting new information about Nazi Germany. The "Hitler diaries" became a media event, dwarfing most other newsworthy stories and making 1983 one of the best years the Fuhrer ever had. However, it turned out that these sixty volumes were outright forgeries and that Heidemann had worked closely with the forger, Konrad Kujau, and had almost conned the world into believing that the fuhrer had confided his innermost thoughts over many years to his secret diaries. The Hitler diary affair disclosed some ugly truths about Germans, neo-Nazis, and a world obsessed by sordid scandals and revolting people."

Several years later, a red-hot controversy, involving some foremost German historians, erupted in the German press and quickly assumed ugly political overtones. The debate was set off by several conservative historians, notably Ernst Nolte, who argued that the time had come to view the Third Reich in proper historical perspective, by which he meant liberating historical consciousness from the collective images of horror and barbarism by which Nazi Germany had been perceived. According to Nolte, perceptions of the Third Reich had hardened into a mythology of absolute evil, residing outside historical space and time, which made it impossible to view the period in comparison to any other period and prevented the historian from drawing comparisons between the deeds of Nazism and those of other totalitarian systems that engaged in similar genocidal activities. Nolte had written a comparative study of fascism in the 1960s in which he described fascism as a metaphysical system whose broad aim was to usurp the radicalization of the left, also based on metaphysical assumptions of social reality, and usher in a new homogenized community of the people. Nolte was quite properly describing the clash of absolute ideologies that had plagued the twentieth century with wars of annihilation. In the 1970s and 1980s Nolte left the plane of abstract thought and began to examine how and to what extent the clash of ideologies resulted in genocidal activities on all sides; by so doing, he stirred up a hornet's nest because it was his contention that Hitler's extermination of the Jews was not a unique act but was to be expected from a political religion that presupposed extermination as a necessary element of its worldview. After all, the Communists had long accepted the view that their enemies, the bourgeois, had to be liquidated. To the Bolsheviks, class membership determined whether individuals were either saved or damned. The Soviets had made it unmistakably clear that they intended to exterminate a whole class. Nolte's point was that the Nazis were no different except that they aimed to exterminate races rather than classes. So far, so good, but when Nolte next proceeded to draw causal connections between Bolshevik genocide and the Nazi Holocaust, claiming that the latter was in response to the former, he began to skate on thin ice indeed. It may be true to some extent, as has been argued in this study, that the Nazis thought they were using exterminatory measures out of self-defense against an enemy who was also waging a war of annihilation. Hitler undoubtedly linked Communism with the Jews, which, in his view, 'justified exterminating them both. But this way of thinking is mad, and by stepping into this pattern of irrational reasoning, if perhaps only to understand it, Nolte created some very unfortunate impressions, namely, that Hitler's policies were understandable and to some extent justified, and that the Holocaust, however unfortunate, was not unique at all but part of a dynamic of hate that was deeply rooted in history.

Nolte is not a racist and neither are the conservative historians who come to his aid, but the cumulative effect of relativizing Nazism was to diminish the uniqueness of the Holocaust and, by extension, to minimize the guilt and responsibility of the generation of Germans who shaped the Third Reich. Very little is served by arguing that the biological extermination of the Jews was a copy of the class extermination practiced by the Communists" and that "Auschwitz did not result in the first place from inherited anti-Semitism and was at its core not a mere genocide (Völkermord), but was really a reaction born out of the anxiety of the annihilating occurrences of the Russian Revolution."" Such speculations can only trivialize the Nazi experience and, by so doing, play into the hands of racist revisionists who argue that German policies toward the Jews were standard in world history because societies always tend toward biological ethnic homogeneity and are therefore justified in removing alien forces. In this view, ethnic cleansing is a necessary measure in order to maintain public health and hygiene.

The Historikerstreit (historians' conflict), pitting conservative against liberal or left-wing historians, was conducted on all sides with such vehemence that the purpose was largely obscured for the public." The controversy illustrates how sensitive the issue of Nazism still is fifty years after its ignominious defeat. It hangs over the Germans, obscuring the past and clouding the future. Even the assertion of minimal national pride has been a problem for Germans because it has frequently evoked paranoia abroad about the rise of a "Fourth Reich." In fact, the Historikerstreit quickly expanded beyond its German forum when foreign pundits began to inject their own tendentious opinions. German historians were accused of whitewashing history and promoting an ominous political agenda aimed at political unification and teaching Germans to get off their knees and learn to walk tall again.

Can Germans walk tall again, or is the burden of Nazi Germany so great that they will always be held under its weight? This question goes to the heart of the problem of guilt. It also goes to the heart of the problem of national identity that is connected to it. As long as Germans lived in a divided nation, these two problems were less acute than they are today in the context of a reunified Germany. A divided nation did not have to worry unduly about a national identity, but with the recent reunification of East and West, the problem of German identity cries out for a workable solution, and we suspect that the answer, in turn, depends on how Germans deal with the question of guilt and responsibility.

In 1947, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had a clear conscience, a good heart, and great moral vision, provided a compass that can still serve us in finding our way out of the moral wilderness of Nazism. In trying to examine "German guilt," it is first necessary to define the wrong that was committed that should precipitate guilt. Jaspers and most moral Germans would agree that in the case of Nazism such wrongdoing involved committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other crimes included imperialist expansion, the manner in which war was fought, and even the crime of starting the war. There can be no denying that Hitler's Germany was indeed guilty of these crimes. There are, however, as Jaspers points out, types of guilt, which he labels as criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt, and metaphysical guilt." Criminal guilt involves anyone who committed a crime under unequivocal laws, with jurisdiction resting with the court. Political guilt attaches to all citizens who tolerated what was done under the name of the state. We are all co-responsible for the way in which we are governed and therefore liable for the consequences of the deeds done by the state, although not every single citizen is liable for the criminal actions committed by specific individuals in the name of the state. jurisdiction for political guilt rests ultimately with the victor. Moral guilt involves the individual's awareness of serious transgressions or participation in unethical choices that resulted in specific wrongdoing. Jaspers argued that C4 moral failings cause the conditions out of which both crime and political guilt arise."" jurisdiction of moral guilt rests with one's individual conscience. Finally, there is metaphysical guilt, which arises when we transgress against the general moral order and violate the archetypal moral bonds that connect us to each other as human beings. As humans we are co-responsible for every wrong and injustice that is committed; and by inactively standing by, we are metaphysically culpable. The jurisdiction with metaphysical guilt ultimately rests with God.

Although Jaspers was willing to admit that Germans were morally and metaphysically culpable in the sense of tolerating conditions that gave rise to criminal activities on a large scale, he denies that all Germans were collectively guilty of the crimes committed by the Nazis. For crimes one can punish only individuals; a whole nation cannot be charged with a crime." The criminal is always an individual. Moreover, it would be tragic to repeat the practice of the Nazis and judge whole groups by reference to some abstract "trait" or character. There is no national character that extends to every single individual. This would be committing the fallacy of division that holds that what is true of some presumed whole must be true of all its members. One cannot make an individual out of a people without falling victim to the same disease that afflicted the Nazis. People are not evil; only individuals are.

In rejecting collective guilt, Jaspers by no means excluded the notion of collective responsibility. Adult Germans who lived through the Third Reich and served as active participants in Hitler's world were co-responsible for what happened, perhaps not from a criminal point of view but from a political, moral, and metaphysical one. Indeed, it has been suggested by various philosophers that, as part of a social contract, we are all corporately responsible, even for what was done by others before us because we are the recipients of decisions, good or bad, that have been made for the social group by those who preceded us - decisions, of course, that can and sometimes must be reversed if they are demonstrably unworkable or harmful. Most decent Germans today have seen the need of accepting a corporate responsibility for what was done in the name of Germany by the Nazis, which does not involve collective guilt but a moral obligation to prevent the recurrence of criminal actions that are undertaken in the name of Germany.

If one accepts, as Jaspers did, that Germans were guilty in the sense just described, how far does that guilt extend? This is a question that Jaspers did not examine, but on January 24, 1984, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was visiting Israel, said:

The young German generation does not regard Germany's history as a burden but as a challenge for the future. They are prepared to shoulder their responsibility. But they refuse to acknowledge a collective guilt for the deeds of their fathers. We should welcome this development.'s

Accepting as a fact that Nazi Germany committed horrendous crimes against humanity in general and against the Jewish people in particular; accepting as given that Germans carry varying degrees of guilt, as postulated by Karl Jaspers; and further agreeing with Chancellor Kohl that the degree of guilt diminishes with distance, it appears that the question of German guilt can be likened to the concentric circles formed by ripples when a rock is dropped into a still pond. The rock is the act, the crime, that stirs the pool to movement; the first circle holds those criminally responsible; the second, those politically responsible; the third, those morally responsible; and the fourth and all circles after that are those metaphysically guilty. just as the ripples formed in water eventually lose their momentum and fade back into the stillness of the pond, so should the ripples of guilt be allowed to subside so that quiet and peace can be attained. The political ramifications of not allowing the German people to work through the question of guilt by themselves, especially now that they are again one people and can face such problems on a basis of strength - in short, keeping the issue as alive and pressing in 1995 as it was in 1945 - could be grave not only for the Germans but for the world at large. It will only be when the Germans have rediscovered a sense of humane statehood that Nazi Germany will have passed into history.

Source: Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: a New History (Continuum, 1997)


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
Social Policy (KDF |Youth |Education )
Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
Role of Women | Women & Art | Eugenics & sterilisation |Women & Concentration Camps |Women & War
  The End of the Reich

Resistance | The Impact of Bombing |Death of Hitler | Collapse of the Reich



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