German collective guilt

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"These atrocities: Your fault!" — a poster showing the concentration camps to the German populace. The text accuses Germans as a whole of doing nothing while atrocities were committed.[1]

German collective guilt refers to the notion of a collective guilt attributed to Germany and its people for perpetrating the Holocaust and starting World War II.


Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote an influential essay in 1945 about this concept as a psychological phenomenon, in which he asserted that the German people felt a collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) for the atrocities committed by their fellow countrymen, and so introduced the term into German intellectual discourse. Jung said collective guilt was "for psychologists a fact, and it will be one of the most important tasks of therapy to bring the Germans to recognize this guilt."[2]

After the war, the British and US occupation forces promoted shame and guilt with a publicity campaign, which included posters depicting concentration camps with slogans such as "These Atrocities: Your Fault!" (Diese Schandtaten: Eure Schuld!).[3]

The theologian Martin Niemöller and other churchmen accepted shared guilt in the Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis (Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt) of 1945. The philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers delivered lectures to students in 1946 which were published under the title The Question of German Guilt.[4] In this published work, Jaspers describes how “an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany”[5]. Additionally, Jaspers believed that no one could escape this collective guilt, and taking responsibility for it might enable the German people to transform their society from its state of collapse into a more highly developed and morally responsible democracy. He believed that those who committed war crimes were morally guilty, and those who tolerated them without resistance were politically guilty, leading to collective guilt for all.

The German collective guilt for the events of the Holocaust and beginning of World War II has long been an idea that has been pondered by famous and well-known German politicians and thinkers. In addition to those mentioned previously, German author and philosopher Bernhard Schlink describes how he sometimes feels as if being German is a huge burden due to the country’s past. According to Schlink, “the reason the European crisis is so agonising for Germany is that the country has been able to retreat from itself by hurling itself into the European project” [6]. Schlink also believes that “the burden of nationality has very much shaped the way in which Germans view themselves and their responsibilities within Europe”, and he describes how Germans see themselves as Atlanticists or Europeans rather than as Germans. Schlink sees this existing guilt becoming weaker from generation to generation.[citation needed] Thomas Mann also advocated for collective guilt:

Those, whose world became grey a long time ago when they realized what mountains of hate towered over Germany; those, who a long time ago imagined during sleepless nights how terrible would be the revenge on Germany for the inhuman deeds of the Nazis, cannot help but view with wretchedness all that is being done to Germans by the Russians, Poles or Czechs as nothing other than a mechanical and inevitable reaction to the crimes that the people have committed as a nation, in which unfortunately individual justice, or the guilt or innocence of the individual, can play no part.[7]

Political use[edit]

The idea that Germans bore collective responsibility for Nazi crimes was used as justification for the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia and other countries.[citation needed]

In today’s world, Germany has become known for its acceptance of massive numbers of refugees from a number of countries. This acceptance of refugees is still seen in Germany today by some as German collective guilt for World War II, and a need to prove to the world that it is a new and changed country. Gotz Kubitschek, a prominent German publisher, journalist, and far right-wing activist believes that German guilt is a major factor in accepting refugees, and it leaves a lasting impact on German culture. He has described Germany as “a nation constantly pondering its guilt, a nation that wonders if it should exist”[8].  These sorts of ideas regarding refugees and collective guilt play a pivotal role in politics in Germany today.[citation needed]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beattie, Andrew H. (2019). Allied Internment Camps in Occupied Germany: Extrajudicial Detention in the Name of Denazification, 1945–1950. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-108-48763-4.
  2. ^ Jeffrey K. Olick, Andrew J. Perrin (2010), Guilt and Defense, Harvard University Press, pp. 24–25, ISBN 978-0-674-03603-1
  3. ^ Jeffrey K. Olick (September 2003), "The Guilt of Nations?", Ethics & International Affairs, 17 (2): 109–117, doi:10.1111/j.1747-7093.2003.tb00443.x
  4. ^ Tracy Isaacs, Richard Vernon (2011), Accountability for Collective Wrongdoing, Cambridge University Press, pp. 196–199, ISBN 978-0-521-17611-8
  5. ^ "The Question of German Guilt | book by Jaspers". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-05-05.
  6. ^ Connolly, Kate (2012-09-16). "Bernhard Schlink: being German is a huge burden". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-05-05.
  7. ^ Suppan, Arnold (2019). Hitler–Beneš–Tito: National Conflicts, World Wars, Genocides, Expulsions, and Divided Remembrance in East-Central and Southeastern Europe, 1848–2018. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press. pp. 739–740. ISBN 978-3-7001-8410-2. JSTOR j.ctvvh867x.
  8. ^ Somaskanda, Sumi (2017-06-22). "A New, New Right Rises in Germany". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2020-05-05.