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Guilty by Association: the Anatomy of Historical Guilt

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On the 18th of January 2017, Björn Höcke, a leading member of German right-wing party AfD, sparked an outcry through his criticism of the Holocaust memorial, or what he sees as “a monument of shame”. Hocke’s erroneous arguments for Germany to stop atoning its Nazi past were, naturally, faced with widespread criticism. However, it was the replica of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial secretly erected outside the home of Höcke, as a form of protest and rejection of his beliefs, that proved this to be a salient moment of realisation – the seeds of collective German guilt had been sowed deeper than anticipated.

Insoluble Questions

At its core, guilt is an interiorized self-concept and an experience of repression. Historical guilt has been deeply entangled into our identities; one is destined to be marked as either a victim or descendant of oppression. There is a dark side to all history. All our ancestors simply cannot be painted as plaster saints or images of perfection. This makes the perennially asked questions around guilt somewhat insoluble. Will America face up to the ghastly reality of slavery? Will Serbia ever indicate any form of guilt for the Kosovo War? When will the Turkish government recognise the horrors of the Armenian genocide as empirical truth? An archaic moral problem prevails: to what extent are we morally responsible for the wrongdoings and blunders of our past governments or leaders?

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Guilt and Identity

Guilt, at its core, remains an issue of identity. Thousands of years of the paradoxical progression in both war and civilisation has conditioned humans to a tendency of viewing the world and others around us through a kaleidoscope of past struggles or prosecution. Thus, making us quick to draw the line between history’s vicious oppressors and destitute victims. This only morphs the complicated issue of guilt, and the relation to identity, into sheer absurdity. It is the overriding issue of responsibility that interconnects guilt and identity. April 2015, for example, marked the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, where 1.5 million Armenians were killed by direct killing, malnourishment and odious torture. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 fled into permanent exile in Russia – an ancient civilization was obliterated from its homeland of 2,500 years. Yet in Turkey, these events have never been officially recorded and acknowledged as truth by the government. Turkey’s wilful historical blindness is closely attached to the beginnings of Turkish identity, a concept vaguely lost in time somewhere between the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Turkey has ultimately considered themselves successors of the Ottomans instead of successors of the Byzantines, making their attempted detachment or association of the genocide as Ottoman almost intractable. Despite this, one universal truth remains and that is, as Taner Akçam puts it: “The attempt to justify and rationalize the death of a whole nation” still “must itself be considered a crime against humanity.”

The Wounding Instrument of Guilt

Historical blindness and willful denial of events has grave consequences, it is the “wounding instrument” of guilt; making it hard for victims to feel connected to their culture without “defining oneself in opposition to it.” Internalised guilt through wilful historical blindness “strives to reshape history in order to demonise the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators”. It is this tendency to demonise the victim that makes up the initial mark on the intrinsic sequence of historical guilt. This seems to be more palpable in the first years after events that stimulate the nerving wave of guilt. In the case of the recent war in Kosovo, which only officially ended 20 years ago, there is a clear inability to deny the ICTY’s estimated 13,500 deaths of Albanians in Kosovo and thousands of incidents of rape and torment. This is due to the reality of the intervention of NATO-led by the United States, in order to “reverse the continuing human-rights abuses that were being committed against the citizens of its Kosovo province” on March 23rd, 1999. It seems that Serbia has dealt with the burden of guilt through demonising Kosovo’s victims or adopting the tendency of demeaning the real atrocities of the war in Kosovo. However, ironically, it is also guilt through complete denial or rejection of the past wrongdoings of our governments, that seems make up the astronomical pinnacle of internalised guilt. It must take vigorous humiliation for one to make the choice to completely wipe out the dark parts of a nations’ history – only so that the onerous weight of guilt becomes more bearable.

Clearly, “the ideological conception of a victim makes such a phenomenal difference in terms of social practice.” Due to the enormous progression in the proving of integrity of past events, our perception of ‘the victim’, in this relentless cycle of stamping history’s tyrants and victims, has changed. The very conception of a victim proves challenging in some instances; however, it is a line that historical guilt seems to draw fairly easily. Yet, the creation of a dual dimension of victims and oppressors is all-encompassing. In recent years, this has led to a self-flagellant form of guilt – nowhere is this clearer than in “white guilt”, a force that has strived from the “knowledge of ill-gotten advantage” and benefitting from an immoral system. It has been 154 years since the end of slavery in America. Yet, the encumbrance of the reality of the horrific reality of slavery is deeply rooted to the appreciation of the existence of “white privilege”. Whilst this is necessary to the psychology of white guilt and historical understanding, privilege is not inherently bad; it is what we do with it and how we use it alongside our historical guilt that brings about change.

Collective Responsibility

A united slogan of second-generation and contemporary Germans has been: ‘Collective guilt, no! Collective responsibility, yes!’. This view of moral responsibility raises more moral implications as the responsibility and burden of guilt is quickly embedded into a whole nation. Do those who acted on the decisions made by those in power or even those who did nothing to protest or stop the bodies of power bear significance? In the words of John Stuart Mill, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” This is notably tangible when it comes to collective responsibility and historical guilt. How is it that guilt still manages to be experienced by generations after those who committed the various misconducts? It is true that specific individuals who centralised and held power in the case of Nazi Germany, such as Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Eichmann share an undeniably fundamental degree of personal responsibility towards the Holocaust. However, where those who signed Hitler’s Nazi “Final Solution” order more guilty than the guards at Mauthausen, who tortured 197,464 prisoners. The imprint of guilt is pervasive. Yet it cannot be fully attributed to one individual or vessel of power as the essence of guilt lies in the distribution of responsibility. Rarely is it the case that a single serpent blights the garden of Eden.

Theoretically, history and events of the past should be locked away tightly with a layer concrete. However, this simply cannot be the case as the continuous element of history intensifies once the omnipotent burden of guilt takes over; making historical interpretation susceptible to mutation of sequences of events. The nature of guilt over history was proven to be profoundly complex due to the moral questions on what constitutes guilt, what establishes responsibility and how these are interconnected. Atrocious ethnic crimes of the past have inevitably become disembodied. Rarely is there idyllic existence and condemning the past and gaining a feeling of ‘guilt by association’, without stepping up for the choices we make every day, proves hypocritically futile.

The essence of guilt undeniably involves a morphing into outbursts of interrogations of moral responsibility. This becomes entirely burdensome when we consider the fact that guilt does not have a set ‘expiry date’ – it lacks a ‘half-life’. Nevertheless, the presence of guilt through the course of history will remain a core aspect of our personal and national identities; we are bound by common guilt in one way or another.


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