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  • Meirion Harries

DAY FIVE: Collective Guilt


You can imagine them on that cold day in January 1942 hanging up their coats in a villa in Wannsee. They - SS leader Heydrich and senior administrators from key civilian government agencies - were there to coordinate the Final Solution.


Mary Fulbrook, in her book Reckonings, documents how few of those directly responsible - military or civilian - were brought to justice. She describes a kind of 'legalised clemency' which integrated most former Nazis into society while scapegoating just a few. She shows how the elites who had profited from slave labour were 'treated with shocking leniency', while lowly camp guards were not. But not that many - of the 6,500 guards in Auschwitz only 50 were successfully convicted. In the east - Soviet occupied - prosecutions were a priority but, in the west, 106,000 people were investigated and 4,000 convicted.


Outside the judicial system, there was the 'reckoning' identified by Carl Jung in 1945: that there was 'collective guilt' and it "will be one of the most important tasks of therapy to bring the Germans to recognise this guilt." The occupying forces, no doubt applying Jung, promoted the sense of guilt with slogans such as "These Atrocities - Your Fault!"

But the guilt remained concealed: don't ask, don't tell were the watchwords of the 1950s (as they were in Japan). Not until the rebellious generation of the 1960s did children begin to question the part played by their parents. Then, in the 1970s, younger teachers started introducing the topic into the curriculum. Now it is an integral part: children - starting at age 6 or 7 - study the Holocaust at increasing levels of detail three, and possibly four, times in their education through to 18. Baden-Württemberg spends £60,000 a year on educational trips to “memorials of National Socialist injustice.”


Now, of course, the fact of, and responsibility for, for the Holocaust is manifest everywhere - in books, television programmes, newspapers and in many, many memorials. Just on my ride from Friedrichshain to the Brandenburg Gate, I cycled over many Stolpersteine - 'stumble stones' marking houses whose Jewish inhabitants had been murdered - past the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe at the Brandenburg Gate and past the Deutsche Historische Museum with its exhibition that chills to the marrow. The image I took of the sleeves above is of one display, as is the Nussbaum below.

The Prisoner by Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944)


Part of the DHM exhibition is a newly-acquired painting by George Grosz which portrays Hitler as a monster reigning over an underworld of mass death and destruction - Hitler in Hell. The national significance of the anti-Nazi sentiment expressed by Grosz was evidenced by the fact that the painting was unveiled at the DHM by the Minister of Culture.

The Grosz is quite something in context - out of context, I think I prefer this anti-Nazi street advert:



Incidentally, I also cycled past a lot of children's playgrounds - created in spaces where the rubble from our bombing had been cleared. These 'spaces' are all over Berlin - the children are well served - and how do we feel for having dropped 68,500 tons of bombs on the city (which from memory works out at 30 tons per inhabitant).


So, seventy five years on, what are the consequences of the collective guilt in Germany?


For philosopher Bernhard Schlink being German is a "huge burden" and he believes it is propelling Germans into a broader European identity - to escape responsibility and guilt: "We Germans tend to prefer to see ourselves as world citizens of a world society, as free citizens of a free world, as Atlanticists or Europeans rather than as Germans."


Asked the same question, Mary Holbrook, the Wolfson winner (and I have great respect for Wolfson winners - the Race Marshal is one) said: “One thing that struck me is how many Germans of the second and third generations after the war have a heightened moral sense of responsibility". The man on the bicycle and his accompanying Wolfson winner would second that.


Yascha Mounk, the young German-Jewish author of Stranger in My Own Country - A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, believes that: "In Germany, there’s collective guilt about Jews and the Holocaust; in America, a similar phenomenon shapes discourse around blacks and slavery. Each new generation matures into its role as steward of historical hatreds; although the legacies of genocide and enslavement become refracted through time, young people can’t escape the grievances of prejudices past."


And for him, sadly, the manifest presence of the Holocaust in Germany meant that, growing up, he suffered "a swirl of small, subtle experiences of 'otherness', including classroom call-outs, awkward jokes told by friends, and offensive interviews with potential employers". He may not have started school feeling like a “stranger in his own country,” but everyone else expected him to feel like one. Because he was the subject of a stereotype, he came to confirm the stereotype itself: Jews are different from Germans.

Then, of course, these days, there is the rising, right wing Alternative for Germany party. In the 1970s some German intellectuals resented “being made to feel guilty” about crimes against Jews, wanting a statue of limitations on moral responsibility. This sentiment now finds echoes in the speeches of AfD spokesmen: “German history is handled as rotten and made to look ridiculous” and Germans are “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital”.


I have been staring at the Wannsee villa and its poisonous legacy for too long. Time to head off to Potsdam and a day of ice baths and rest. No post tomorrow but on Monday there will be a treat provided by the film director James Norton. You probably saw the film on Gauguin he made recently for tv and for the National Gallery. On Monday he takes us on a tour of the Babelsberg Film Studio: in preparation, have a look at Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg talking about "The Blue Angel" - https://youtu.be/zpR7St8c_rg

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