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. 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. Karl Jaspers — took his degree in medicine but soon became interested in psychiatry.
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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. 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.
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 not misquoted, or even really misinterpreted much. This was really what he meant to say. In his words:. True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. 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.
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.
Issues of collective guilt and collective punishment also come into play in defenses of the U. 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. 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. Political guilt, and the liability for it, is the only legitimate collective guilt, Jaspers says, and he limits it in many ways. 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. To the extent that it is meant to mean that Germans are criminally guilty, it is false in the majority of cases. 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…. It will either create confidence in the world that right was done and a foundation laid in Nuremberg. This must not happen. Jackson certainly seemed to have this in mind. 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. 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.
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:. 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. It was amazing to see the complete self-identification with army and state, in spite of all evil.
But simultaneously, by shrugging off stupidity and evil as inevitable, they furnished an excuse. 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:. 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:. This tendency not to take ourselves seriously as individuals paralyzes our moral impulses. 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 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 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. 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.
See also: The Picket Line 4 November
Karl Jaspers’s “The Question of German Guilt”
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. 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. Churchill, from the looks of things, is a shifty character who is dishonest in the way he argues.
The Question of German Guilt
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