The Question of German Guilt (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy)
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Shortly after the Nazi government fell, a philosophy professor at Heidelberg University lectured on a subject that burned the consciousness and conscience of thinking Germans. Are the German people guilty?These lectures by Karl Jaspers, an outstanding European philosopher, attracted wide attention among German intellectuals and students; they seemed to offer a path to sanity and morality in a disordered world. Jaspers, a life-long liberal, attempted in this book to discuss rationally a problem that had thus far evoked only heat and fury. Neither an evasive apology nor a wholesome condemnation, his book distinguished between types of guilt and degrees of responsibility. He listed four categories of guilt: criminal guilt (the commitment of overt acts), political guilt (the degree of political acquiescence in the Nazi regime), moral guilt (a matter of private judgment among one's friends), and metaphysical guilt (a universally shared responsibility of those who chose to remain alive rather than die in protest against Nazi atrocities). Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) took his degree in medicine but soon became interested in psychiatry. He is the author of a standard work of psychopathology, as well as special studies on Strindberg, Van Gogh and Nietsche. After World War I he became Professor of Philosophy at Heidelberg, where he achieved fame as a brilliant teacher and an early exponent of existentialism. He was among the first to acquaint German readers with the works of Kierkegaard. Jaspers had to resign from his post in 1935. From the total isolation into which the Hitler regime forced him, Jaspers returned in 1945 to a position of central intellectual leadership of the younger liberal elements of Germany. In his first lecture in 1945, he forcefully reminded his audience of the fate of the German Jews. Jaspers's unblemished record as an anti-Nazi, as well as his sentient mind, have made him a rallying point center for those of his compatriots who wish to reconstruct a free and democratic Germany.
as a whole. There is no such thing as a national character extending to every single memberof a nation. There are, of course, communities of language, customs, habits and descent; but the differences which may exist atthe sametime are so great that people talking the same language may remain as strange to each other as if they did not belong to the same nation. Morally one can judge the individual only, never agroup. T h e mentality which considers, characterizes and judges people collectively is
power.T h e following possibilities are open to this defense: ( 1 ) It can twge differedation. Differentiation leads to definition and partialexculpation.Differentiation cancels totality and limits the charges. Confusionleadsto haziness, and haziness in turn has real consequences which may be useful or noxious but in any event are unjust. Defense by differentiation promotes justice. (2) T h e defense can adduce,stress and compare facts. (3) T h e defense can appealto ;rzu&raZ law, to hiurnan
appraisal-was widespreadamong us. Yet thetruth could be only a radical (‘either-or”: if I recognize the principle as evil, everything is evil and any seemingly good consequences are not what they seem to be. It was this erring objectiveness, ready to grant something good inNational-Socialism, which estranged dose friends so they could no longer talk frankly. T h e same failure of a martyrto manwhohadjustlamentedthe appear and sacrifice himself for the old freedom and against injustice was apt to
produced quite different results-a united Italy and later a world empire, although one which intheend crushedliberty, too. The 81 1 study of republican Rome is of great interest as showing how a militarydevelopmentand imperialism led a democratic people to the loss of liberty and to dictatorship. If geographical conditions leave a margin of freedom, the decisive factorbeyond guilt and responsibility is generally said to be the “natural” national character. This, however, is a refuge of
the Germans themselves-including the worst of fates: to be forced or tricked into serving as tools of further conquest and oppression.” T h e charge that we, under terrorism, stood by inactively while the crimes were committed and the regime was consolidated is true. We have the right to recall that the others, they let not under terrorism, also remained inactive-that pass, if they did notunwittinglyfoster,events which, as occurring in another country, they did not regard as their concern. Shall