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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 44 October 22, 2022

Who feels Guilty? | Subhash Gatade

The Question of German Guilt’ Versus Indian / South Asian Guiltlessness (?)’

Friday 21 October 2022


"That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented." — Karl Jasper ín the BBC Documentary Series ’The Nazis : A Warning from History’


"Are the German People guilty?”

It was the year 1945, the Nazi government had hardly exited the scene, when Karl Jasper [1], then a Professor at Heidelberg University, Germany who had himself suffered during the Nazi regime, broached the question in a series of lectures.

A question which bothered lot many people and was widely whispered then.

It was exactly after eight years that he had returned to teaching because he had to resign from teaching in 1937 because of his Jewish wife and later also faced publication ban. It was also rumoured that he along with his wife would be sent to a concentration camp but somehow it did not happen and when American troops occupied Heidelberg, he had resumed his teaching.

While the lectures did not gather much attention immediately but later their compilation in the form of ’The German Guilt’ became a classic of sorts and was translated into other languages as well.

Situation within Germany was very much in the flux then, and for thinking people itself it was rather a difficult task to comprehend it, think afresh about their own ’complicity’ or ’neutrality’ in the earlier period their ’guilt’ and make a new beginning.

Under these lectures Karl Jasper talked about distinctions between guilt and corresponding degrees of responsibility, according to him ’criminal guilt’ belonged to those who had violated the law and have been convicted for it ’, political guilt included entire citizenry of a modern state who are presumed to bear the deeds of the government, under moral guilt he talked about the personal responsibility one bears before one’s own conscience for one’s own acts. His fourth distinction as ’metaphysical guilt’ was considered perhaps the most controversial one, because it talked about responsibility that survivors feel towards those who suffered .. guilt which arises among innocent persons in whose knowledge / presence the crimes were committed (excerpted from Introduction to 2000 edition of the book by Joseph W Koterski)

As of now one does not want to get into the merit of his arguments or the pluses and minuses of his categorisation ( more knowledgeable people must have written about the issue, critiqued it as well) but for us it is important to know that this intervention was symbolic of the great churning within the German society and its sincere attempt to look at the past dispassionately.

Secondly, the lectures were neither the first nor the only attempt to understand how German society let happen the ethnic cleansing of 6 million Jews and others, or how ’ordinary Germans’ became ’willing executioners of Hitler’s diktats’.

For students of German history this little attempt by Karl Jasper and its initial muted reaction among the German public does not at all appear surprising, one can imagine the dazed situation in which it found itself, true that ’crimes of Nazism against humanity’ were no more hidden and barring its diehard supporters, these exposures had opened up troubling questions before the rest of the German population about its ’complicity’ at various levels but still people were finding it difficult to open up.

Of course after the humiliating defeat Germany had faced at the hands of the allied powers, which was now under the complete control of the allied forces- divided into American, British, French zone - also zone / region under Soviet Russia, the issue could no more be avoided as well.

With exit of Hitler and its regime from the scene the issue of ’denazification’ had come on agenda and the idea of ’collective guilt’ and ’collective responsibility’ which was already discussed at policy levels of the allied forces was a now given concrete shape.

One learns that in the initial days of these ( denazification) operations, when allied forces controlled Germany, German citizens were taken to concentration camps, exposed to corpses of victims of Nazism there, asked to bury them, and posed penetrating questions about whose guilt was that these things were let happen.

Much water has flown down the Rheins, the Danubes, the Oders since then but the process of ’exorcising the German Society of Hitler’, has not stopped.

Search for apportioning responsibility for the dark period, its roots in the German society etc is still on.


A cursory glance at the last 75 plus years of German history (earlier West and East Germany and later United Germany) could also be interpreted as a conscious attempt by the German people to ’come to terms with the past’

No doubt, there have been ups and downs, there have been moments when it appeared that German society is slipping back to earlier brutal phase but wiser sense prevailed. All these period there have been influential voices among academics, intelligentsia and leading public intellectuals who had strived to keep the moral compass of the society intact.

Less than 15 years after the fall of Hitler West Germany witnessed a large wave of anti-semitic violence across the country after possibly a ’minor looking incident at Cologne’’ when a Synagogue there was found defaced. The mayhem had not yet subsided but it was during that period only philosopher, critic Theodor Adorno presented his essay “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” over the Hesse State Radio  (February 1, 1960) which received wide attention.

‘...the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive. National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.’ [2]

If we look at present day Germany , there are reports of neo-Nazi groups coming up and engaging in targeting Jews or even other immigrants [3], there are also reports of popularity of right-wing mainstream political party like Alternative for Deutshland(AfD) which is anti-immigrant but the whole society has refused to get swayed by this rhetoric.

Perhaps one of the high point of the changed Germany was when the country welcomed thousands of immigrants from mideast countries with open hands - when Angela Merkel was premier of the country - and instituted a policy of their assimilation in German society [4]

A country which had once sent millions of its own citizens to Concentration camps and later to gas chambers was embracing these ’refugees’ from faraway land, who belonged to a different culture and religion.

If holocaust could be considered the ’biggest crime against humanity’ in the 20 th Century, this ’resurrection’ of Germany rather German people in a different way, should also be underlined as another of humanity’s great feet to ’deal with the past’.

Countries, regions which have undergone similar mass violence have much to learn from this experience.

We are told how for a long time the book ‘Mein Kampf - My Struggle’ by Adolf Hitler was not officially banned in many parts of Europe but was unavailable and in Germany itself there was a ban on reprinting it till 2015.

In fact, Germany used to have an approach of outright banning all Nazi memorabilia, symbols etc for a long time although it was undermined somewhat over the years. The unavailability of the book was a conscious move on part of the state to deter people from getting exposed to the racist diatribe. One could also see it as an attempt by a people to turn a new page in their lives, whose parents or forefathers and mothers might have played a part in it or might have strengthened the anti-human agenda of the Nazis and the Fascists by keeping quiet or submitting to their authority.

The ban remained in place till 2015, seventy years after Hitler’s death and a new heavily annotated 2,000 page volume was made available by the Institute of Contemporary History, a taxpayer funded institution. For more than six decades printing and publication of ’Mein Kampf’ - Hitler’s book which provided a road map of sorts for his bloody operation was prohibited in Germany.

The role of the media in preparing the populace to look back at history dispassionately and the way a ‘sense of guilt’ about the ethnic cleansing in the thirties and forties still pervades among large section of people, despite the fact that hardly anyone among them personally played a role in it - as they were born much later.

In major cities and towns of Germany you can see Holocaust museums and memorials being built up with people travelling to these sites to comprehend the ’madness’ which had engulfed the earlier generation.You still find school students being taken to museums or holocaust memorials to apprise them of the darkest period in German history. In fact Holocaust is a mandatory part of Germany’s educational syllabus.

One can as well look at reminiscences of ordinary citizens which discuss how countries ‘faced up to their Nazi past’. Here is one Bruni de la Motte sharing experiences about the then East Germany [5]

I was born and grew up in the German Democratic Republic. Our schoolbooks dealt extensively with the Nazi period and what it did to the German nation and most of Europe. During the course of their schooling, all pupils were taken at least once to a concentration camp, where a former inmate would explain in graphic detail what took place. All concentration camps in the former GDR were maintained as commemorative places, “so that no one should forget”.

There are small or big experiments going on there still, where one can easily see how anti-semitism is being handled by the present day generation.

For example one recently heard about efforts of a German organisation comprising of Jews, to tackle anti-semitism in schools where its volunteers, most of them from from health, education and software industries - whose number is more than three hundreed - who visit schools, universities and sports clubs in pairs to apprise the students and youth about the diversity of Jewish life in the country. There are still around a 0.275 million Jews in Germany. [6]

This campaign which has been renamed ’Meet a Jew’ had its origins in the 2014 meeting of of Jewish people from different background - both liberal as well as conservative - where they organised a 90 minute ’ask me anything sessions for Rent a Jew’ so that others can interact with Jews much beyond their connections to Holocause or Israel. [7]


You come across another type of little ’memorials’ not only across Germany but Europe called as Stolpersteine. ‘ Stolper’ is to ‘stumble’ in German and ‘stein’ is ‘stone’ which are put at the place from where the Jewish family was deported and sent to a concentration camp. They are basically brass plates where the name of the victim(s) is engraved and the date of her / his expulsion from the place as well as death is embossed.

The idea behind them is basically to raise awareness about what happened in late thirties and early forties, when millions of innocents - Jews, Romas, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals or even political dissidents - were sent to gas chambers or brutally killed by the Nazi regime.

According to commentators such ‘stumbling stones or blocks’ can be ‘[f]ound in 1,200 cities across more than 20 countries in Europe’ making them ‘[t]he world’s largest memorial of its kind’ [8].

What is remarkable that these stolpersteins are less than thirty years old and are a ‘[b]rainchild of the artist Gunter Demnig, and the first stolperstein was created in 1992, which marked 50 years since Heinrich Himmler signed the Auschwitz decree to deport Jews and other ‘undesirables’ for mass extermination.’ ( -do-) Demnig who believes in a Talmud saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”.  [9] installed the first of its kind at the City Hall in Cologne which demarcated the path that the first deported Jews in his city of Cologne took to the train station.

Question arises what has made the project possible where one witnesses younger and younger people contacting Demnig and his team of associates to install such stolperstein in their cities, remembering the last place where such victims of Nazism ( occasionally survivors also ) lived. No doubt many such young people would be practising Jew themselves or had relatives who perished during those bloody days but what is worth emphasising is that why there is general acceptance of installing such memorials even among broad population.

We need to remember that it has been more than seventy years that menace of Nazism - which witnessed ethnic cleansing of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Roma and others - was defeated by the Allies.

Despite this long hiatus this idea to remember the dead in a unique manner, which assigns some humanity to the victims who were much stigmatised before their death is still getting new converts. Remember, every such moment of ‘stumbling’ not only helps one to contemplate but also provides one an opportunity to inspire one’s own humanity as well as connection to others, which is in fact act as a basis for prevention for future atrocities.

We still come across examples where people who once been part of the Nazi machinery and who had never opened up about the ignoble role they played during those times, ready to accept publically about the shame they feel about their ’complicity’ at some level.

Gunter Grass, the German novelist, poet, sculptor who won Noble Prize for literature ( 1999) for his novel ’The Tin Drum’ - who is remembered for dealing with moral dilemmas of post war German society - himself declared in 1999, about how [10] he had a ’buried past’ and how ’he was 17, he was drafted by the Waffen SS, the military branch of the notorious Nazi corps that played an important role in the Holocaust and other atrocities’


The past is never dead. It’s not even past.‘— William Faulkner

No doubt, when today we are witnessing a changed world, where anti-immigrant, exclusivist rhetoric is gaining new currency at the world level, where India the biggest democracy in the world is passing through one of its most troubling phases since independence, there is much to learn from German people’s attempts to do away with their rather detestable past and turn a new leaf.

How does one look at the German experience in post second world war period?

An experiment which offers enough hints to come out of a situation of internecine conflicts and establish broader unity. Does it offer any lesson for rest of the world / us?

There is every possibility that this experiment to come to terms with the past could be easily belittled by the obvious fact that the allied forces had then occupied Germany after world war II for a considerable period and they ’forced’, ’coerced’ the German masses to abide by its diktat.

There is definitely a grain of truth in these claims but it can be considered only a partial explanation of the phenomenon.

Why this search for collective guilt continued even after the ’occupation armies’ formally left or the reins of the regime were handed over to local rulers. Why it became an integral part of society’s churning.

One feels that by focussing on the ’external forces’ we are effectively denying any agency to the German people themselves who could think of what is right or what is wrong for them in the long run.

It also denies the possibility that societies can self-reflect upon themselves and try to fight their own internal asymmetries, exclusions in their own way.

There are enough examples in history where one can see how the thinking people of a country / region initiated processes which ultimately precipitated great changes in the society as well as state.

As an aside let me mention here about the Protestant Reformation which had its beginnings in Germany itself when in the year 1517 Martin Luther - a priest himself - questioned the role of Catholic Church as an intermidiary between people and god and neither Germany nor Christianity remained the same again.[Here we do not want to go into details of how the Protestant Reformation happened, how developments in society at the political, economic and technological level ( development of printing and publication of books etc ) facilitated this rebellion agains the stranglehold of the Catholic Church over people’s lives.]

There are enough examples before us - in this era itself - where societies have made genuine efforts to revisit the troubled past and make a new beginning.

Much is known about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by South Africa under Nelson Mandela where a genuine attempt was made for reconciliation where victims and perpetrators were both called basically to uncover truth about human rights violations during the apartheid regime. If under the Nuremberg Trials, emphasis was on Prosecution of Perpetrators, here the emphasis was not on prosecution. When the world at large was moving from retributive justice to restorative justice, this was considered an apt response on part of the new regime which had taken over after the defeat of apartheid regime.

What is less reported that South African experience is not an exception.

In fact as per an article which appeared in Indian Express ’[m]ore than 50 countries which have experienced histories of fratricide established truth and reconciliation commissions tasked with documenting and understanding past horrors in the hope of healing and lasting peace. [11]

What one further learns that they have erected national museums and monuments as a reminder to future generations of the tragic events of the past and the importance of forgiveness, unity and compassion and a common destiny. (-do-)


"When the wound stops hurting, what hurts is the scar."— Bertolt Brecht

(quoted in ’Old Sins’ - Amarjit Chandan, Caravan, September 2022)
Looking at these experiences of countries / communities dealing with a troubling, violent past and making a sincere attempt to turn a new leaf in the lives of people it is quite natural to ask how do we who live in this part of South Asia - who have experienced similar internecine violence more than 75 years back which led to division of this region - fare in this background.

Can we really say that whether we ourselves - who have experienced tremendous mass violence at the time of partition - have strived our best to revisit the past and underline how to turn a new page in our lives.

This is an open question and everybody will have her or his opinion about this but if we look closely we can see that yes there have been monographs, books written about that period, studies have been conducted, recently attempts are on ( at least in this side of the border) to build memorials to that bloody period but one always has that feeling that slowly and silently we have developed an amnesia about that period.

Whereas world is moving from retributive to restorative justice, we are ’discovering’ retribution, there is no forgetting, there is no attempt at presenting a balanced narrative but peddling a one sided narrative. The whole idea behind start having ’Partition Remembrance Day’ is essentially this only.

Neither we want to remember the scale of violence where around one million people died within few months - a figure much comparable to the genocide of Armenians - which is still denied by the Turkish regime - 1913-15 which witnessed killing of 1,500,000 Armenians ; or the Nazi Holocaust ( 1938-1945) - where estimated 6,000,000 Deaths ( of Jews, Gypsies, Communists etc) or one can talk of genocide in Rwanda: 1994 when when Hutu militia killed Tutsis and even moderate Hutus within a period of 100 days and the number was around 800,000 Deaths etc, nor we want to comprehend that still there is no closure.

If one can look at the Nuremburg trials as some sort of closure to the Holocaust under Nazi regime ( no doubt there were lot of problems involved) or we can think of cases of genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia Herzogovina being dragged before the world court, the killing of one million people in this part of South Asia has yet to witness any closure.

Whether it is because unlike Holocaust, or even genocide of Armenians or in Rwanda ir Bosnia, it is rather difficult to point out at the perpetrator(s) ?

Whether it is because complicity in the violence is at many levels?

Whatever might be the claims of communalists of various shades, unlike the Holocaust, in Partition, both sides were guilty of violence.

We can look at histories of violence within families, which were silenced.

Perhaps the need of the hour is that we break ’official amnesia about the horrors of partition [12] and ’educating ourselves on the worst sides of our nature and our past practices of horror

It is important to do so because our silence or unwillingness to share how we slaughtered our own when they were negotiating across borders, when independence from the British Yoke suddenly arrived and which was accompanied by division of the country, it has ensured that the ’[p]ractice of organised mass slaughter will continue and the impunity that characterises it will flourish. For we have a constitutional, political, legal and social amnesia about the horrors that accompanied our founding.’ (-do-)

More about it sometime later!

(This writeup is part of on-going discussion around Partition within New Socialist Initiative, a left ideological — political platform)

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