Collective Guilt

What excites me most in philosophy are the making and clarifying of concepts that are muddled in everyday thinking. Hannah Arendt is a great practitioner of this, and here is one of her brilliant distinctions.

Following the Holocaust, Arendt found it necessary to draw a distinction between guilt and responsibility. Guilt is to deserve punishment. Responsible is to have contributed to the coming about of certain states of affairs. One can be responsible, but not guilty, like a German citizen who supported the Nazi regime without really understanding its policies, without the intention to kill. In that case, it is just bad judgement. One can also be guilty but not responsible, as in the case of Eichmann (of, for that manner, many indifferent government bureaucrats), without whose help the state would function nevertheless—someone else would replace them—though simply by being in his position, to execute these orders, he cannot be absolved of guilt.

Politically, to say that everyone is guilty is to mean that no one’s guilty. She criticizes the rhetoric of “we are all guilty” in post-war Germany, for that merely absolve the guilt of who deserves to be punished. The ending to The Trial, for her, is just the danger that we all have to avoid (“‘Like a Dog!’ It was as if the shame of it must outlive him,”). However, Arendt also states that the principal feature of totalitarianism is the universalization of responsibility through the erasure of the private sphere. There, only the public is left, and even to live one’s everyday life is, to a certain extent, to be guilty of all that is happening around us. Indifference, under totalitarianism, becomes, already, responsibility. (Though, it has to be said, one is at least not guilty. And that is an achievement in a world that pushes men towards guilt.)

Here’s a chilling dialogue, oft quoted, that is apropos this distinction:

  1. Someone goes and interviews a Nazi concentration camp guard before the defeat
  2. Are people being killed here?
  3. “Yes”
  4. Are they being buried alive?
  5. “Yes”
  6. Are they sent to gas chambers to be slaughtered?
  7. “Yes”
  8. Do you know they are being captured and killed based on their race?
  9. “Yes”
  10. Do you feel guilty?
  11. “Yes, but we slowly got used to it”
  12. Do you know that the Russians are going to execute you?
  13. The guard breaks down in tears—”Why? I have done nothing wrong!”
  14. And, in some sense, they have not done anything wrong. When is it wrong to obey orders? (Hannah Arendt comments, with a tinge of her characteristic irony)

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