On Collective Guilt

Ruth_Andreas-TitelWe can’t leave the Holocaust alone. That might be a good thing if we had the courage to view it honestly. We don’t though. We insist that it’s a puzzle we continue to try to solve, ostensibly so that we will know where to place blame, and in that way also know how to ensure that it will never happen again. We refuse, however, to place blame where it really belongs and so we keep turning it over and over, searching for something we will never find.

Why the Germans? Why the Jews? are questions that Götz Aly takes up in a new book the title of which begins with these questions (Metropolitan Books, 2014). Aly’s theory, not particularly novel, is that the social and economic advances made possible for Jews in Germany as a result of a series of legal reforms in the various German states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made them objects of envy. “Not all Nazi voters,” acknowledges Christopher R. Browning in a review of Aly’s book, “were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism” (“How Envy of Jews Lay Behind It,” The New York Review of Books, January 8, 2015).

“But how to explain,” Browning continues, “this ‘moral insensibility’ and ‘moral torpor’ of 1933-1944, which underpinned the ‘criminal collaboration’ between the German people and the Nazi regime?” The answer Aly offered first in Hitler’s Beneficiaries (Metropolitan Books, 2005), was material gain. Aly’s new work supplements the motive of material gain with a “new morality” involving race theory that would justify such collaboration.

Many Germans remained unconvinced, however, by the new race theory. Many Germans were, in fact, untroubled by the legal reforms that had made possible the flowering of the Jewish middle class. Many Germans had even championed these reforms.

What happened to those people?

The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous Kristallnacht,“ gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office. “The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,

as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering–a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.

            ‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945 [Paragon House, 1989).

When she gets to the office, her editor, whom she observes, was “rumored to have a tinge of Nazism, ” says “one doesn’t dare look people in the eye anymore” (21).

“They’ve dragged all them all away–all the Jewish men they could get hold of,” begins her entry for the next day.

Only those who were warned in time have escaped the raid. Thank Heavens, a good many were warned. Hundreds managed to disappear at the houses of friends; hundreds sought shelter with strangers and found it. One little seamstress took in two Jewish fugitives; she didn’t even know their names or where they came from. Workingmen in the Frankfurter Allee brought back to the Jewish shop-owners the merchandise that was scattered over the street. They didn’t say a word, just tugged sheepishly at their caps. The chief surgeon of a hospital is hiding a wounded rabbi in the back room from the bloodhounds of the Gestapo.

            While the SS was raging, innumerable fellow Germans were ready to die of pity and shame” (p. 25).

The next line of the translation reads “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” If one goes to the original German edition of the diaries, however, the text continues

Women are dashing about the city today with mysterious bundles under their arms, meeting one another on street corners: Shaving articles for Doctor Weißmann. A clean shirt for Fritz Levy, night things for Jochen Cohn. One tries, as much as possible, to look after those in hiding. It isn’t advisable for them to come out of hiding yet. What happened yesterday could continue today (Der Schattenmann [The Shadow Man], Suhrkamp, 2nd ed. 2012, p. 38).

Then comes the line “Almost all our friends have people quartered on them.” There is no ellipsis to indicate material was omitted. One could argue it doesn’t matter because what makes it into the translation makes clear that the general reaction of Berliners to Kristallnacht was one of horror. Still, the omitted material makes even clearer how widespread among gentiles was sympathy for the plight of the Jews.

Interesting, eh? People running about the city collecting the necessary articles for friends, and in some cases even strangers, they’re protecting. Jews being given shelter by countless German gentiles. Workmen returning to Jewish shop-owners merchandise that had been scattered on the street. What happened to those countless Germans who were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, to those countless “brothers in shame”?

What do you think happened to them? What happens to people who try to help others as it becomes increasingly clear what such assistance might eventually cost them? Some continue, despite the danger, some go into resistance groups such as “Uncle Emil,“ the one with which Andreas-Friedrich became associated, but most do not.

Andreas-Friedrich “looks lovingly” at the man who whispers “A damn shame!” at the sight of the burning synagogue.

“It occurs to me,” she writes, “that this is ”really the time to call your neighbor ‘brother.’ But I don’t do it. One never does; one just thinks it. And if you really do pluck up the courage for a running start, in the end you just ask, ‘Pardon me, could you tell me the time?’ And then you are instantly ashamed of being such a coward” (p. 19).

Why couldn’t she do it? Why couldn’t she acknowledge to the man that she also condemned what had happened the night before? Why couldn’t any of the people on the bus who were hanging their heads in shame, in silent shame? Why doesn’t one do it?

Years ago I saw a nature program that focused on a litter of wolf cubs. There were three cubs in the den. One emerged, however, days before the other two. He was bold, he was courageous. He was eager to explore the outside world. Ah, I thought to myself, he will be the alpha wolf. He will grow up to be the leader.

One day, though, the brave little cub came home from his explorations with an injured foot. He left again the next day, undaunted by his grisly experience of the day before, but that evening, he did not return. He never returned again. Who knows what had gotten him, but something clearly had.

Several more days passed after the disappearance of the first little cub before the two remaining ones peeked out, trembling, bodies pressed together, from the mouth of the little den. Another day still passed before they had the courage actually to emerge fully from the shelter of their home.

And suddenly I understood why human beings are such a miserable craven lot. Natural selection has ensured that cowardly individuals have a higher survival rate than courageous ones. They live longer, produce more offspring. So it isn’t our fault, really, that we’re such a miserable, craven lot. It’s in our genes.

And yet it is our fault because cowardice isn’t the only thing that’s in our genes. We have somehow also evolved a conscience. We know, as Aristotle expressed it in the Nicomachean Ethics, that there are things we ought rather to “face death” than do (Book III 1). And yet few of us have the courage to face death to do the right thing. Few of us even have the courage to say “brother” to another who affirms the values we purport to hold dear.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the February 16th issue of The New Yorker that the Germans “failed miserably” to draw a line between the innocent and the guilty after the war. She writes, in fact, that to say they “failed miserably” would be “generous” (“The Last Trial”). That’s true, of course, though in a different sense, I think, than the one Kolbert meant, because the line, drawn properly, would encircle us all, all except for the few whose willingness to martyr themselves to do the right thing places them not outside the group, but above it.

We are all guilty of the cravenness that paved the way for the Holocaust, the glass through which we keep seeing darkly, which we keep turning over and over in a vain attempt to escape our own reflection. If we had the courage to recognize ourselves in it, then perhaps we could learn from it. But courage, sadly, is precisely what we lack.

(This piece is dedicated to my dear friend and German tutor of many years, Ebba Mørkeberg 1924-2014.  It originally appeared in the of Feb 17, 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

12 responses

  1. which Holocaust do you mean? the one where 6 million Jews were killed or the 100 million Russians killed during the same war?

    • Ah the rhetorical question! The first, of course. That’s the only Holocaust we seem willing to acknowledge as such. I think if we had the courage to be honest with ourselves about that one, then we could be honest with ourselves about the others as well.

  2. “Ensure it will never happen again?” It’s repeatedly happening around the world but just doesn’t get the coverage in the media, films and books that the holocaust receives. Take Sri Lanka – there’s been sixty years of genocide/ethnic cleansing but how often does it appear in the news?

    • Yes, that’s the problem. We won’t admit that we are capable of such things, that human beings in general are capable of such things. We want to pin all the guilt for the Holocaust on the Germans. That’s the problem. Understanding how such things actually happen could help to prevent them from happening, but we steadfastly refuse to look honestly at history.

  3. This older post showed up at the bottom of your latest and I’m so glad I opened it up. I’ve been reading a lot about WWII from the perspective of those who lived in occupied France and so my interested was piqued at the subject. I’ve asked myself a lot I would have the courage to be part of the resistance and/or hide Jews or risk my life in some way to to help the war effort. I honestly don’t know the answer but it’s sure interesting to ponder.

    Great post!

    • Thank you. I don’t think anyone can know the answer in advance to that kind of question. Even people who have behaved courageously in the past can give in to fear. That’s why it is so important that we ensure that society is arranged in such a way that people are not required to be particularly courageous in order to ensure that everyone is treated decently and humanely.

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