The issue of German guilt, responsibility and atonement

The mass murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other “unworthy of life”, in concentration and extermination camps during WWII, is often seen as “the archetype of international crimes” (Van Baar). Almost 70 years later, the past remains a matter of opinion rather than a fact, as it was shortly after the war. Who is guilty and who became guilty through their passive “collaboration”? Undoubtedly, Germany, through Hitler and Nazism, shares blame to a great extent. What is considerably interesting and more important in the twentieth century to analyze is the passive and active ways in which Germany expresses its atonement for its role in the genocide in hope of cleansing the national guilt and responsibility.


Firstly, the actions taken by some organizations created at the beginning of the 21st century, and also the organizations founded after the end of WWII, represent symbols of moral and political restitution. For instance, the political tourism promoted by The German Falken (The Union of Socialist Youth) had a widespread impact, mainly due to the visits to symbolic Holocaust sites, to pay homage to the victims of the Nazis. One notable event represents the visit to Auschwitz in 1960, when representatives of a Falken delegation engaged in several memorial rituals: they laid wreaths, recited poems, and intoned Brecht’s Lied der Moorsoldaten. Additionally, the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste), a German peace organization was founded in 1958. One of its significant actions was the two weeks stay at Auschwitz in 1967. Young Germans engaged in 8 hour long volunteering activities such as cleaning the site of weeds, grass, soil, while also uncovering important artifacts such as spectacles, toothbrushes, coins, or even bones. These organizations kept on promoting such activities during the years ahead, emphasizing their obligation to honour the victims of the regime.

Secondly, personal apologies on behalf of Germany are also part of this country’s national Entschuldigung (apology, exculpation) programs regarding the Shoah. For example, the gesture of penance of the social democratic Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, in 1970 truly made an impression. During a visit to a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, after laying down a wreath, he unexpectedly knelt. Brandt’s gesture remained in history under the name of Kniefall von Warschau (Warsaw Genuflection“), a symbol of recognition of guilt on behalf of Germany. This arbitrary apology was beautifully voiced by a reporter- “Then he who does not need to kneel knelt, on behalf of all who do need to kneel but do not, because they dare not, or cannot, or cannot dare to kneel”.


Similarly, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, was the first in her position to visit Germany’s original concentration camp in Dachau in 2013. Like Brandt, she laid down a wreath and met with a survivor of the camp.

Additionally, another controversial visit at Auschwitz was that of a German head of the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2006. The Pope bowed in front of the “Death Wall”, and also kissed both cheeks of a Jewish survivor. He expressed his wish to “implore the grace of reconciliation” in his speech. Although he may not have clearly expressed the responsibility of both Germany and the Catholic Church –as a passive accomplice- for the Holocaust, his visit was seen by the audiences (but not by the Jewish people) as an attempt to cleanse the past guilt of these two.

Obviously, the numerous monuments and counter-monuments in Germany, such as Mahnmal (Berlin), the “Warm Memorial” (Buchenwald), the thousands of Stolpersteine (a monument created by Gunter Demnig which commemorates a victim of the Holocaust) are ways of both commemorating the Jewish victims of WWII and attempting to clean the national guilt. Such commemorations clearly underline Germany’s acknowledgment of her mistakes and wish for public forgiveness.

In any case, after WWII, taking sides without making a moral claim became impossible. The world has been split among perpetrators, victims, and by-standers. Academic debates have tried to conceptualise the issue of responsibility and guilt, just as we have discussed during an academic tutorial. In particular, we discussed the Karl Jaspers essay, ‘The Question of German Guilt’.

After the Second World War, the murderous events of the first half of the twentieth century lent renewed energy to international efforts to define and protect human rights. One contribution to this literature, which addressed the question of the collective responsibility for the German people for the criminal actions of their government, was a brief book simply entitled Die Schuldfrage [The Guilt Question] by the German physician, psychiatrist, and existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish and who hid Jews from the authorities, distinguished between four types of guilt:

Criminal guilt comes of violating unequivocal laws and is capable of objective proof. Jurisdiction rests with the court.

Political guilt involves the deeds of statesmen and implicates the citizens of a state for “having to bear the consequences of the deeds of the state whose power governs [them] and under whose order [they] live.” Jurisdiction rests
with the power and will of the victor if the state should be defeated militarily. The exercise of political prudence serves to mitigate arbitrary power.

Then there is moral guilt: “I, who cannot act otherwise than as an individual, am morally responsible for all my deeds, including the execution of political and military orders. It is never simply true that ‘orders are orders.’” “Jurisdiction rests with my conscience, and in communication with my friends and intimates who lovingly concerned about my soul.” This is why it is always important to have wise counsel at hand.

Jaspers’ last category, metaphysical guilt, is a little more troubling if taken to an extreme. It owes more to the Hindu concept of karma than to Christianity to the extent it neglects to consider the irreducible reality of sin and the crucial importance of divine forgiveness. But still it makes a sound point: “There exists a solidarity among men as humans that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world [this confuses man the creature with God], especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail whatever I can do to prevent them, I too am guilty.”

The issues of responsibility and guilt are complex and still garner discussion, both in academia and outside of it, and as we agreed, atonement, communication and connecting carry equal importance towards the elimination of antisemitism.

By Anca Rujan

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