Guilt About the Past
UQP, $26.95 pb, 141 pp
This is a book about a very specific past, that of the Third Reich, and the way in which it produced guilt in the next generation, but its lessons can be generalised. Bernhard Schlink shows how that guilt has withstood the institutional strategies of history, law and politics to erase it. Schlink, born in 1944, belongs to the generation burdened with the moral repercussions of the war and the Holocaust. Many of the parents, teachers, judicial officers, bureaucrats and professors who rebuilt Germany were implicated in Nazism, and many young Germans – Schlink among them – found themselves guilty by entanglement. This theme runs centrally through Schlink’s fiction – notably The Reader (1997) and Homecoming (2008) – and now through these six essays, given originally as lectures at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Schlink’s first essay deals with collective guilt. Has responsibility for the crimes of the past encompassed the children of the perpetrators? No, there is no collective responsibility in this sense, he argues, but there is a responsibility imposed by collective guilt – not the individual guilt of a tortured conscience, but guilt by association with those responsible. Guilt is ambiguous in Schlink’s usage: it is both a psychological state arising from the accident of being born into postwar Germany, and a consequence of failing to take moral responsibility for renouncing solidarity with those who live in denial. How does one come to stand in a relation of solidarity with evil-doers? According to Schlink, it can happen just by belonging to a family or a people. It is a question of moral luck. The consequent guilt might be psychological, but the remedy is moral. In the choice to repudiate solidarity with the guilty, the next generation can forge a new identity and find release from guilt. This is all very well theoretically, but is it practicable? Of course not, and Schlink recognises that were this requirement imposed on postwar Germans it would have been impossible to discharge. It is hard, then, to see what his attack on solidarity amounts to other than the articulation of a condition that must be lived with.