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Labor Action, 2 June 1947


Irving Swanson

A Contribution to an Important Problem:

Is There Such a Thing as
“Guilt of the German Nation”?


From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 22, 2 June 1947, pp. 3 & 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


>We are printing the following article as an interesting contribution to a complex problem. Other contributions have appeared in the New International, especially two articles by Shirley Lawrence on German National Psychology. This article is printed here as being of interest to our readers. Some of its material is not directly political in nature, and for that, as for the article as a whole, the author takes individual responsibility.


THE May issue of Commentary magazine contains two articles which pose a central issue of our time: human solidarity or the abyss. Solidarity is seen not as a utopia, but as the minimum requirement for . survival.

The Last Days of the Warsaw Ghetto was taken from stenographic notes of a speech made by Ziviah Lubetkin, one of the few Jewish survivors of the Nazi rule of Warsaw. Is Every German Guilty? by Paul Massing, a German antifascist who was in a Nazi concentration camp. We will not speak about the article on the Ghetto. Those who want to try to feel the experiences, no matter how remotely, of its terrible ordeal are advised to read the article. But the Ghetto will be always present in any discussion of the question: is every German guilty? For never before have we been faced by such a horror as gas chambers and crematoria. And the question: is every German guilty? arises when it is shown that large numbers of Germans were involved in the exterminations. The German army was directly involved in the mass murder of civilians and war prisoners; German industrialists provided furnaces quite willingly for the crematoria; German scientists took advantage of the super-abundance of human guinea-pigs to do “research work.” This seems to be more than condoning what someone else was doing, and more than being a mere bystander.

Certainly, the average person, when he tries to analyze how these human beings were capable of doing what they did, is justified in asking: how? It is precisely this inability to understand “how” that has made many people in the United States and elsewhere believe in the individual and collective responsibility of the Germans for the crimes of Nazi-ism. And the fact is that it is much more difficult to show how each of the imperialist powers is equally guilty with Germany in the Second World War. Even the atom bomb loosed by the Americans on cities that included men, women and babies is not sufficient in the eyes of most people to equate the German and American imperialists.

The atom bomb still retains a certain “civilization” to it in the sense that its destruction is done only indirectly, whereas the crematoria and gas chambers are fed their human victims directly by human hands. So that we believe it is more in order to answer the question: is every German guilty? than that of merely saying “Germany was fascist capitalism, America and Britain democratic capitalism; they are both capitalist. And since the war was the result of capitalist rivalry, for control of the world’s markets and sources of supply, then all the capitalist nations are equally guilty.” The above formulation is essentially correct, but a more particular answer is required with regard to the atrocities.

Commentary Discussion

Paul Massing’s article is a very good refutation of the idea that the German nation is guilty collectively. The charge that he tackles is that found in Victor Bernstein’s recent book Final Judgment: The Story of Nuremburg [sic!], which is based upon documents made available at the Nuremburg [sic!] Trial. In this book Victor Bernstein traces the history of the Nazi regime, including a detailed record of the extermination of the various peoples carried out by the Nazis, which included six million Jews, part of which number were the more than 300,000 Jews of Warsaw. And either through accomplishing Hitler’s work voluntarily, like the top leaders of the regime; or hy mere participation under routine discipline, like regular army troops; or by condoning even though not participating; or even though not participating or condoning, nevertheless doing nothing—the entire German nation is guilty. On this basis the charge of the collective German guilt is made.

To break down the all-inclusiveness of the above definition of guilt Massing takes up some concrete experiences from his own life. He relates an incident that happened when he was in a concentration camp. One of the prisoners escaped but was recaptured, The camp administration gave the camp prisoners a choice: either discipline their fellow prisoner, or the entire camp would suffer punishment. That night a group of prisoners broke into the sleeping quarters of the escapee, in which Massing also slept, tore the unfortunate man out of his bunk and beat him ferociously. Twelve’ hundred men, anti-fascist prisoners. witnessed the scene. Only one man dared protest and he too was beaten into unconsciousness. And Massing says: “it was not I." We can reconstruct some of the motivations involved in this action and draw some conclusions. Evidently the punishment threatened by the camp administration was of a severity that in its mass would far outweigh the beating given to one man.

But let us agree that the prisoners still should not have done the Nazis dirty work. Obviously the prisoner who had attempted to escape would not thereby have gone scot free. His fate would have been certainly as severe as that administered by his fellow prisoners. I am trying to indicate how we have here insoluble difficulties that men are thrust into when everything is life or death and no leeway, no room given for what we call the ordinary norms of conduct. We might profitably ask ourselves what we should have done in this same set of circumstances. As Massing asks: I kept quiet while my comrade was tortured; am I too guilty?

How Assess Guiilt?

After the war he received a letter from his sister in which she told how night after night when the bombers came over she nevertheless drew hope from the thought “that the terrible destruction would help rid us of the brown plague.” Nevertheless she never did anything herself to overthrow the brown plague. Was she guilty?

His mother, witnessing the arrest of the only Jewish family in their small town, could only meet their eyes with a look of futility. She did not cry out or protest in any way. Was she too guilty?

It is obvious, in our opinion, that this all-inclusiveness is far from real since it would indict all of humanity, Which in similar circumstances would undoubtedly act the same way. But if we must indict all of humanity then the case breaks down since to say all are responsible is to absolve the German nation of any particular guilt. And we find ’ourselves adopting the circular formula: Humanity’s ills are Humanity’s fault, a generalization that makes understanding completely impossible.

There are motivations for the actions of different sections of the German people, especially those who did net cry out or fight against the Nazi crimes. And thfese motivations spring not from a German biologic or national character, but are common to all men in similar circumstances. These Circumstances were the effective control ofan absolute totalitarian regime that directly related life or death to submission or resistance.

Let us test this idea by breaking down the German nation into two groups: (1) Those who performed Hitler’s crimes as their own, and (2) those who either participated under the discipline of a totalitarian regime or who did not participate but yet did not fight the crimes. Let us take this second group and examine the alternatives facing these people under the Nazi regime.

  1. Suicide. If they wanted no part of Hitler’s work they could have effectively accomplished this through suicide. This suicide would have absolved that particular individual from potential guilt. It is, however, true that since this would have rendered him completely ineffective in the struggle against Hitler’s crimes, we would have to call him guilty if we use the all-inclusive definition of guilt.
  2. Insanity. A person might disintegrate in the face of the terrible choices facing him. He would thus not be used in the wiping out of the people. He would thus have escaped guilt. But he also would have been totally useless in the struggle against Hitlerism. Would he thus be guilty?
  3. Doing What You’re Told or Not Speaking Out. As an individual you might not have done what you were told or you might have spoken out. This would probably mean death. Your death as an individual has to be examined in the light of it being an effective or ineffective means of fighting against the crimes. Before the power of the Hitler machine the uselessness of individual terror becomes too apparent.

Alternatives Under Hitler

We can state definitely that under certain circumstances the alternative facing the individual in a fascist regime are either submission or death. And who will say that submission thereby becomes guilt?

To get even further at the root of the difficulties prevailing or the plane of individual existence under a fascist state let us take the case, not of the Germans, but of the Jews. Was not the possession of a labor card by a Jew precious above all things? For the right to work for the Nazis meant the right to live. And one doesn’t live or die only for oneself. There may be a wife, aged parents, small children ... Were those who rushed to get labor cards guilty of helping Hitler?

In fact this dilemma applies to the whole question of Jewish agencies appointed by the Germans to administer for them, the Jewish Council, Rehousing Office, Tax Office, etc. They administered for the Germans, even having to choose which Jews should go to the death camps. But what was the alternative of refusing this “self-administration”? To quote Massing, “Under the Nazi terror, characteristics of different social and national groups were dissolved in the merciless struggle for individual survival.”

Then is there no way out? Must we all be “guilty”? Is resistance impossible? To this we can say: on an individual basis, yes. But we can also say: if it is organized Mass resistance it is possible. The resistance movements in the occupied territories are ample evidence. And here we raise the question as we believe it should be asked: Can the German people be held responsible for not having organized mass resistance against the exterminations?

Firstly let us point out that the atrocities cannot be separated from the question of Naziism in general. Anti-Semitism was an integral part of German fascism. The Jew became the incarnation of everything and anything that was hurting Germany. The Jew is the unifying force of Nazi “philosophy” in all its labyrinth of contradiction, inconsistency, and falsehood. It was therefore quite logical for Hitler to use the extermination of the Jew to be all to his fate by making every German an accomplice in his crimes so that no group or individual might hope for exoneration after his downfall,” as Paul Massing writes. So we cannot separate the atrocities from Naziism in general. And likewise we cannot separate the question why did not the Germans organize mass resistance against the exterminations from the question why did not the Germans organize mass resistance to Nazism in general.

Why No Revolt?

Why did not the German people overthrow the Nazi dictatorship? Once again we can turn to the Jews. Why did literally millions of Jews go to their death meekly? They had nothing to lose. They were going to the death camps and they knew it. Why did they not in just utter desperation resist, and if they had to die, die fighting. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the real example of Jewish resistance has an explanation for those who think. The uprising was organized by politicals, by people who had .an ideology, who had understanding of the events and who knew how to organize. In short, there were leaders and parties, the levers of mass resistance. This then was essentially lacking the German people: Leaders and parties. Their total destruction had been wreaked by Hitler, not a potential enemy escaping. It was therefore necessary in the crucible of events to forge a new anti-fascist leadership. Under the best of circumstances this takes time. For a disoriented, atomized German people, faced by an enemy that threatened the destruction of a defeated Germany, the German people were not capable bf creating that leadership to organize a mass resistance. These are the facts but not a judgment, a warning not a verdict.

But what of those who committed Hitler’s crimes because they were their own? How did anti-Semitism become gas chambers and crematoria? For these our explanation must be a general one since the individual psychology bf each cannot be examined. They are the pre-barbarisms. They are the image of men In the abyss. They represent in human terms the culture of capitalism in its death agony, that this is not the madness of individuals but much more is borne out by the high-universal apathy shown toward the fate of the victims of the gas chambers and crematoriums. The image of the pre-barbarism casts his pale reflection.

And so? Where are we when we have come to the conclusion that the guilt of the German is the guilt in each of us, actual or potential? Do we now throw up our hands and await the great mutual destruction? This much at least we can say follows: A stop has got to be made somewhere. The charge of German individual and collective guilt helps only to further engender hatred between the peoples.

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