Karl Jaspers’s “The Question of German Guilt”

“That in fact all the people pay for all the acts of their government… is a mere empirical fact; that they know themselves liable is the first indication of their dawning political liberty. It is to the extent of the existence and recognition of this knowledge that freedom is real, not a mere outward claim put forth by unfree men.

“The inner political unfreedom has the opposite feeling. It obeys on the one hand, and feels not guilty on the other. The feeling of guilt, which makes us accept liability, is the beginning of the inner upheaval which seeks to realize political liberty.”

Over the last two days I’ve spent some time reading The Question of German Guilt by Karl Jaspers (E.B. Ashton, translator), which is based on lectures Jaspers gave in Germany in the aftermath of World War Ⅱ when he was allowed to teach again (his Jewish wife, and probably his politics, had gotten him kicked out during the Reich).

I came to this book for a few conscious reasons — most immediately because I had some store credit at a used book store, but more to the point because I had gone through a Hannah Arendt phase a while back (see, for instance The Picket Line ) and knew that Jaspers was a big influence on her, and also because I was curious enough to read through the University of Colorado report about the deceptive scholarship practiced by Ward Churchill.

Churchill, from the looks of things, is a shifty character who is dishonest in the way he argues. His brand of dishonesty, at least that portion that has been well-documented by the University of Colorado investigative committee, would be considered par-for-the-course (or probably insufficiently disingenuous) if his career was as a politician or pundit, but hurrah to the University for holding him to a higher standard.

He was investigated because during the height of post- jingoism, denouncing him became a cause célèbre amongst the flag-waving set. He’d made an attempt to derive rhetorical power from calling the victims in the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” and this succeeded beyond his wildest dreams as he became, in the scope of every right-wing rifle, “that librul professor who thinks the people in the towers were Nazis who deserved to die.”

He was not misquoted, or even really misinterpreted much. This was really what he meant to say. In his words:

Let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire — the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved — and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” — a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” — counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in — and in many cases excelling at — it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

When I argue for tax resistance, I often argue that being a taxpayer means that you share in the responsibility for how the money you give to the government is spent. This argument of collective responsibility gets tangled up in arguments about collective guilt and, inevitably as Ward Churchill reminds us, collective punishment. And I’ve found it very hard to explicitly delineate how such things work in a way that is useful and satisfying.

Issues of collective guilt and collective punishment also come into play in defenses of the U.S. and its actions, for instance in arguments about the decision to go to war in the nation of Iraq in retribution for the crimes of the person Saddam Hussein, or in the excuses for “collateral damage” in airstrikes.

I hoped that Jaspers, in analyzing “German Guilt,” might have some better answers.

He starts of by trying to pin down what is meant by “guilt,” as he believes we’re using too general a term and that this is part of our difficulty. In his system, there are four varieties of guilt, which I’ll try to briefly describe:

Criminal Guilt
These are “acts capable of objective proof and [which] violate unequivocal laws.” Only individuals, not groups, can be criminally guilty (although in some circumstances it can be a crime merely to belong to a criminal organization). Charges of criminal guilt come from outside of the accused and guilt is judged by a court of law. The court is not concerned with trying to make the accused a better person so much as trying to give justice to the victims. Anyone may accuse someone of criminal guilt and may have a valid interest in justice being done. The proper response to criminal guilt is atonement.
Political Guilt
This is guilt that citizens bear for the deeds of statesmen and citizens, and means that all citizens face the consequences for the deeds of their nation. (Political guilt may apply to various sorts of groups of people, not just nations, though it is national guilt that is focused on here.) This doesn’t mean that individuals bear moral or criminal guilt for the acts done by other individuals in the name of the state. Political guilt falls on people who oppose the régime in power as well as those who support it. Charges of political guilt come from outside of the accused, and guilt is successfully judged by the victorious party in a war or capitulation. As with criminal guilt, anyone may accuse citizens of political guilt and may have a valid interest in justice being done, and the successful judges are not so much interested in the fate of the guilty nation so much as they are in administering “justice.” The proper response to political guilt is accepting liability and making reparation, though in reality this amounts to total submission to the demands of the victor. Individual political liability properly “is graduated according to the degree of participation in the régime.”
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.” Only individuals, not groups, can have moral guilt. It is mostly an internal matter — I may accuse myself, but should only advise others out of loving concern for them, not of a desire to punish. My judge is my own conscience, and those “friends and intimates who are lovingly concerned about my soul.” Moral guilt cannot be erased or atoned for, but it becomes part of what you have to work with from the time you judge yourself. The proper response is penance & renewal.
Metaphysical Guilt
This is the most abstract and, for me, difficult to understand. It seems in part to be something like “survivor’s guilt.” You notice that some people have sacrificed everything, heroically or quixotically, and you feel guilty for deciding to survive instead. Your guilt is also a portion of a guilt for humanity in general for failing to live up to an ideal justice that we can all vaguely envision but never come close to living up to — even for such an ordinary human thing as favoring friends and loved ones rather than treating humanity in general wholly impartially. You can’t avoid metaphysical guilt — if you could, you’d be like the angels, and free from the other forms of guilt as well — and like moral guilt, once you’ve got it, it’s yours to chew on for all your life. Like moral guilt, it’s something to deal with inside of you and is not really the proper business of other people. Your proper response to metaphysical guilt is to transform your self-consciousness before God, losing your pride in favor of humility. He described how a German might feel this form of guilt in this way:

It was possible for us to seek death in humiliation — in when the Constitution was torn up, the dictatorship established in sham legality and all resistance swept away in the intoxication of a large part of our people. We could seek death when the crimes of the régime became publicly apparent on , or with the lootings, deportations and murders of our Jewish friends and fellow-citizens in , when to our ineradicable shame and disgrace the synagogues, houses of God, went up in flames throughout Germany. We could seek death when from the start of the war the régime acted against the words of Kant, our greatest philosopher, who called it a premise of international law that nothing must occur in war which would make a later reconcilement of the belligerents impossible. Thousands in Germany sought, or at least found death in battling the régime, most of them anonymously. We survivors did not seek it. We did not go into the streets when our Jewish friends were led away; we did not scream until we too were destroyed. We preferred to stay alive, on the feeble, if logical, ground that our death could not have helped anyone. We are guilty of being alive.

It is the distinction between political and moral guilt that Jaspers spends the most time trying to define.

First, he says that the choice of being politically aloof is not really available to us. “Every human being is fated to be enmeshed in the power relations he lives by. This is the inevitable guilt of all, the guilt of human existence. It is counteracted by supporting the power that achieves what is right, the rights of man. Failure to collaborate in organizing power relations, in the struggle for power for the sake of serving the right, creates basic political guilt and moral guilt at the same time.”

But even if you resist the temptation to remain aloof and take care to avoid moral guilt, “all citizens of a country [are] liable [that is, ‘politically guilty’] for the results of actions taken by their state… [T]he liability is definite and limited, involving neither moral nor metaphysical charges against the individuals. [But i]t affects also those who opposed the régime and its actions.”

When the political power fails to limit itself properly, when it works against what is right instead of for it, to the extent you contribute to this power either actively or passively (as the power will arrange the prerequisites for “passivity” to its benefit), your share of political guilt will also be moral guilt.

Political guilt, and the liability for it, is the only legitimate collective guilt, Jaspers says, and he limits it in many ways. First of all, it is very much the result of “victor’s justice” and “might makes right.” The stronger, more forceful adversary decides the crime and punishment, and none of this really contains much in the way of larger moral lessons.

(Jaspers believes that the rule of force can, under favorable circumstances, give way to the rule of “Right” — “a natural law to which both victor and vanquished may appeal.” At this point, politics stops being the essentially arbitrary rule of the most powerful and starts becoming a collective intellectual project to discover and delineate the extent of “Right.”)

Secondly, while the proper punishment is the whims of the victor, mitigated perhaps by magnanimity and international norms and laws, the proper response of the guilty individuals is more-or-less to grin and bear it and to spread the effects of the punishment justly among themselves. As time passes, the effects of political guilt dim and die away.

Okay, now that we’ve got some definitions out of the way, Jaspers turns to an example of the posters that started turning up in occupied Germany featuring a picture of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the caption “You Are Guilty.” Who is “You” and what kind of “Guilty”?

Jaspers says that when Germans are accused of being guilty, this might mean political, moral, or metaphysical guilt — any of which is likely true, though moral and metaphysical guilt are properly the sorts of things that people wrestle with internally and are not properly the subjects of accusations by others. To the extent that it is meant to mean that Germans are criminally guilty, it is false in the majority of cases. Jaspers also considers that it may just be meant as a curse, something like “you assholes!”

He spends some time discussing the ongoing Nuremberg trials, and the prosecution strategy of Robert Jackson, the American prosecutor.

He hopefully sees this trial as a magnanimous attempt by the allies to transform their hard-won opportunity to impose whatever form of justice they choose on conquered Germany into an opportunity to establish the precedent of using an appeal to Right rather than an appeal to force to try these political crimes:

For the first time, and for all times to come, it is to make war a crime and to draw the conclusions… The undertaking may appear fantastic. But when the stakes become clear to us, the event makes us tremble with hope…

…The essential point is whether the Nuremberg trial comes to be a link in a chain of meaningful, constructive political acts (however often these may be frustrated by error, unreason, heartlessness and hate) or whether, by the yardstick there applied to mankind, the very powers now erecting it will in the end be found wanting…

It will either create confidence in the world that right was done and a foundation laid in Nuremberg.… Or disappointment by untruthfulness will create an even worse world atmosphere breeding new wars; instead of a blessing, Nuremberg would become a factor of doom, and in the world’s eventual judgment the trial would have been a sham and a mock trial. This must not happen.

Jackson certainly seemed to have this in mind. He thought that the international law he was helping to invent in Nuremberg “represents mankind’s desperate effort to apply the discipline of the law to statesmen who have used their powers of state to attack the foundations of the world’s peace” and said “let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”

By now, the dream of an international order of states in which impartial law makes the rule of force obsolete should seem almost as silly as the utopian communism that shared its century. For some reason this was less obvious sixty years ago, when authoritarians and classical liberals alike saw a world government as the natural extension of their dreams. Clearly the United States, despite Jackson’s rhetoric, has been unable to resist the temptations that being the biggest bully on the block brings — it has enshrined the might-makes-right principle into a more-or-less explicit plank of its foreign policy, with no principled internal opposition worth the name, and has proven international law and its firm prohibition on aggressive war to be an unenforceable modernist prose-poem.

Putting that digression aside, while the Nuremberg prosecution was attempting to fix the specific criminal guilt of a specific number of defendants, it was very explicitly not trying to say anything about the guilt of the German people — not even its “political guilt” as Jaspers would have it, which had anyway (in his system) already been pronounced by virtue of the allies subduing and ruling a defeated Germany.

Political guilt being a fait accompli, and criminal guilt being decided by tribunals like the one at Nuremberg, there remains moral and metaphysical guilt, which each German must deal with individually or in a spirit of humble cooperation with each other. You cannot compel another person to feel moral guilt, or even to evaluate it in himself (I’m going to follow Jaspers and/or his translator and use masculine pronouns as neuter pronouns — sorry if this gets your goat). To feel guilt, you must be self-motivated by honest conscience and a willingness to repent if necessary.

There are a number of reasons a German who is not criminally guilty might nonetheless feel morally guilty, and Jaspers enumerates some:

  • “living in disguise” — some Germans pretended to be loyal to a government they loathed, throwing their Heil Hitlers and hiding their real thoughts.
  • “false conscience” — others really believed that they were doing the right thing, were acting in a spirit of idealism and self-sacrifice from noble intentions, and did not realize for a long time that they were supporting evil — such a person becomes guilty “by haziness, by unwillingness to see, by conscious seclusion, [or] isolation of his own life in a ‘decent’ sphere.”

    He gives the example of a soldier who “kept faith with his comrades, did not flinch in danger and proved himself calm and courageous” but because he did these things in an evil cause, he bears moral guilt:

    Duty to the fatherland did not by any means lead consistently to obedience to Hitler and to the assumption that even as a Hitler state Germany must, of course, win the war at all costs. Herein lies the false conscience. It is no simple guilt. It is at the same time a tragic confusion, notably of a large part of our unwitting youth. To do one’s duty to the fatherland means to commit one’s whole person to the highest demands made on us by the best of our ancestors, not by the idols of a false tradition.

    It was amazing to see the complete self-identification with army and state, in spite of all evil. For this unconditionality of a blind nationalism — only conceivable as the last crumbling ground in a world about to lose all faith — was moral guilt.

    …“This is an order” — in the ears of many these words had and still have a ring of pathos as if voicing the highest duty. But simultaneously, by shrugging off stupidity and evil as inevitable, they furnished an excuse. What finally turned this conduct into full-fledged moral guilt was the eagerness to obey — that compulsive conduct, feeling itself conscientious and, in fact, forsaking all conscience.

  • “straddling” and “inner assimilation” — the attempt to find a silver lining, looking at the Nazi disaster and suspending judgment.
  • “self deception” — believing that if you just bide your time things will change on their own, or that when the German army wins the war or Hitler dies the state will change for the better on its own, or that it’s best to try to work from within the system, or that it would be better to avoid politics and just work subtly for spiritual uplift in the hopes that future generations will benefit. Also the belief of people who didn’t join the opposition until the war was clearly lost and who now feel like this means they don’t have to wrestle with moral guilt. “Whoever took part in the race mania, whoever had delusions of a revival based on fraud, whoever winked at the crimes then already committed is not merely liable [that is, ‘politically guilty’] but must renew himself morally. Whether and how he can do it is up to him alone, and scarcely open to any outside scrutiny.”
  • using passivity as an excuse — in other words, claiming that because you did no overtly criminal acts you have no moral guilt either. “The political performers and executors, the leaders and the propagandists are guilty.… But each one of us is guilty insofar as he remained inactive. The guilt of passivity is different. Impotence excuses; no moral law demands a spectacular death… But passivity knows itself morally guilty of every failure, every neglect to act whenever possible, to shield the imperiled, to relieve wrong, to countervail. Impotent submission always left a margin of activity which, though not without risk, could still be cautiously effective. Its anxious omission weighs upon the individual as moral guilt. Blindness for the misfortune of others, lack of imagination of the heart, inner indifference toward the witnessed evil — that is moral guilt.”
  • “running with the pack” — I was unable to distinguish this by his description from “living in disguise,” above.

He also warns against using his system of dividing up different varieties of guilt as a method of hiding from your own guilt, the way a child might hide unwanted peas under a chicken bone. Then he discusses four ways in which a person might try to avoid taking moral responsibility or to mitigate guilt:

  • Jaspers says that it is valid to note that after a certain point, effective resistance to the Nazi régime from inside German-controlled territory really was suicide. People complied because the alternative was torture & death.
  • Some people try to say that the whole Nazi period was a matter of fate and inevitability for reasons of geography and history, and that individual choices and decisions didn’t really mean much. Jaspers says that there are grains of truth in this, but that they aren’t very convincing as excuses for individual behavior, though they might serve as good warnings to similarly-situated nations.
  • That other people and other nations are also guilty is not a very good excuse either, but it is true that most of the nations of the civilized world failed to stand up to Hitler just as the people of Germany failed, and they should do their own soul searching. But the purpose of this discussion is to understand German guilt.
  • You will occasionally hear the sophomoric sigh “we are all guilty” or that we are all capable of the same horrible crimes and that but for the grace of God, we too would turn into Klaus Barbie. Jaspers dismisses this as “dishonest haziness.”

If a German manages to get past these and other such tempting excuses, he will morally judge himself and quite possibly find himself morally guilty (to add to the political guilt he shares). What comes next is to purge this guilt (without ever fully atoning for it) through restitution, inner renewal and metamorphosis.

There are also many ways to dodge the responsibility to own up to your moral guilt and face the consequences, for instance:

mutual accusations
finding other people who you think are more guilty than you and spending your time worrying about them instead of yourself. There’s not much to be gained trying to morally or metaphysically judge anyone but yourself.
trying to out-do other people in how guilty you proclaim yourself to be, using confessions of guilt in a self-aggrandizing way. It’s better to do the work quietly and internally.
seeing your moral guilt as really something good and noble when seen from the right perspective.
“dodging into specialities intrinsically correct but unessential to the guilt question”
for instance, reiterating that innocent Germans were victimized too or arguing that because you have already suffered enough you shouldn’t also have to confront your guilt. On the contrary, “We should question ourselves, should pitilessly analyze ourselves; where did I feel wrongly, think wrongly, act wrongly — we should, as far as possible, look for guilt within ourselves, not in things, nor in the others; we should not dodge into distress. This follows from the decision to turn about, to improve daily. In doing so we face God as individuals, no longer as Germans and not collectively.”
dodging into a generality
some idea that “ultimately justice will be done” or “from the point of view of the universe and eternity, none of this really matters” or “Germany was chosen to exemplify mankind’s sins” or “by our suffering we have already atoned.”

None of these excuses works, and they all have the effect of diminishing us.

This tendency not to take ourselves seriously as individuals paralyzes our moral impulses.… serving in turn to divert men from the sober task of doing what is really in their power — from improvement within the sphere of the comprehensible and from the inner transformation.

The proper response to German guilt has two parts: making amends, which includes paying the reparations demanded by the allies but also means individually seeking out and assisting those wronged by the Nazi régime (“Our life remains permitted only to be consumed by a task”) — and purification:

[P]urification is an inner process which is never ended but in which we continually become ourselves. Purification is a matter of our freedom. Everyone comes again and again to the fork in the road, to the choice between the clean and the murky.

As people begin to take responsibility for themselves and for the consequences of their decisions, this will be the method of reforming the political realm:

Political liberty begins with the majority of individuals in a people feeling jointly liable for the politics of their community. It begins when the individual not merely covets and chides, when he demands of himself, rather, to see reality and not to act upon the faith — misplaced in politics — in an earthly paradise failing of realization only because of the others’ stupidity and ill-will. It begins when he knows, rather, that politics looks in the concrete world for the negotiable path of each day, guided by the ideal of human existence as liberty.

In short: without purification of the soul there is no political liberty.

There is an element of “I am the professor, I’m in the front of the room, I have a theoretical edifice, you listen and write it all down good” about all of this. Jaspers doesn’t really argue his position so much as he declares it, leaving it to stand or fall on how much it matches your own intuition.

I appreciate his attempt to separate categories of guilt, since no generic category seems capable of carrying all of the weight that the concept typically bears — this itself is enough to vault me to a new and more interesting level of confusion on the subject. And I especially like the way he links the inward work of taking responsibility and self-judging with the outward work of fighting for liberty in the political sphere, in the quotes that lead off this page.

in which British women’s suffrage activist and tax resister Dora Montefiore for six weeks held off the bailiffs who had come to seize her property and sell it off to pay her taxes.

(See also: The Picket Line .)