Guilt in German

In my last post, I talked about the backlash against Germany’s culture of memory. In a sense, this development is historically inevitable. But is it also somehow built in to the way Germans think about guilt and in particular in the etymology of the terms that Germans use to describe dealing with the Nazi past? For example, the German word for guilt, Schuld, is also the word for a debt – which can by definition be paid off. (Nietzsche famously uses this etymological connection in On the Genealogy of Morals to argue that that the concept of guilt ultimately derives from the idea of debt.) Perhaps the most striking illustration of the idea of guilt as a debt that can be paid off is the restitution – in German Wiedergutmachung (literally, “making good again”) – that West Germany paid to Israel after World War II. So is there something specific about the way Germans think about guilt that has influenced the way they deal with the Nazi past and in particular created a desire to draw a line under it?

Bernhard Schlink, the author of the The Reader, touches on this question in the series of six lectures that he gave in Oxford in 2008. In one of the lectures, published earlier this year as Guilt about the Past, Schlink points out a paradox inherent in the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung (literally, “mastering the past”), the word most commonly used in Germany to describe the process of dealing with the Nazi past. Schlink says that the word suggests that dealing with the Nazi past is a task that can at some point be completed: “It stands before us, we set to work on it, and finally it is mastered. Then we are done with it.” He goes on:

The thought that the past could and should be mastered contains not only the yearning for freedom from it; it even asserts an entitlement to such an end. As with every task, whoever works hard at it expects that the task will eventually be completed, and then demands to be released from duty once the task is finished. Whoever vigorously applies him- or herself to the work of commemorative remembrance wishes to be held captive by the past no more. Whoever remembers wants the right to forget.

This puts the way that Germany has dealt with the Nazi past – often thought of as exemplary – in an interesting light. The Germans have certainly done a better job of confronting their problematic past than others such as the Japanese (see Ian Buruma book The Wages of Guilt). In fact, if the Germans see memory as a task that can be completed, it is one that the Japanese have barely begun. Nevertheless, I wonder whether in Germany the desire to engage with the Nazi past was accompanied almost from the beginning by a desire to draw a line under it. (I argue in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that both of these impulses co-existed among the 1968 generation, which is generally thought to have begun Germany’s engagement with the Nazi past.) In fact, if guilt is a debt that be paid off, and memory is a task that can be completed, could it even be that Germans have been so diligent about remembering precisely in order at some point to be able to move on from it?


5 thoughts on “Guilt in German

  1. I grew up with teachers and fellows who constantly would fight the concept of “moving on” and remembering IN ORDER to achieve a state of mind like “leaving behind/ drawing a line”. That shows that you got a point there. Without Germans thinking and behaving this way there wouldn´t be the need to critizise them. Although I find terms like “guilt” and “memory” are somewhat difficult by themselves, and there is a personal right and a natural will to “move on” , my position is like this:
    The german guilt isn´t and never will be a kind of debt that can be paid off. Whom would that serve? The purpose of remembering precisely to me is not “to be able to move on from it” but to live up to the responsibility and respect this subject deserves. And memory can´t be “completed”. Isn´t it a constant process, especially for a society which rans out of eye-witnesses?
    Ralph Hötte

  2. Pingback: Rejecting collective guilt | The Kindly Ones

  3. I feel that the past must be remembered, but as for guilt? I have none for the actions of my Governments past dealings that are not so nice here in the U.S. however I feel for the people who generations had suffered from my Governments actions. I can not be held accountable for situations that took place before I existed. I can however pass my knowledge of these atrocities,on to my generation and children to in some way hope they are not repeated.

  4. Just who are ‘the Germans’ you speak of? You seem to hold the same view of ‘Germany’ and ‘the Germans’ as a dyed-in-the-wool neo-Nazi: namely, an eternally-constant and unchanging nation. And this nation may never forget, no matter how detached from present reality this ‘duty of remembering’ is. There are Germans today whose ancestors had NOTHING to do with the Shoah: must they be coerced into a false duty of remembrance? Or does guilt lie with the territory? It sounds like a clear case of moral narcissism to me, whenever someone pops up and says, ‘Oh the Germans, they’re trying to wriggle off the hook’, particularly when he belongs to some group which hasn’t dealt with its past. In Britain, nostalgic references to the Imperial past are rife, from soap to institutions of higher education, and nobody says a thing to discourage it. Perhaps we should all take Voltaire’s advice in Candide, and tend to our own garden before going and trying to rake up some muck in other people’s…

  5. Pingback: Dealing with the past | My Mind's Museum

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