Ethics & International Affairs

Review Essays

The Guilt of Nations?

Jeffrey K. Olick

On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2003), 224 pp., $23.95 cloth.

Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration, Norbert Frei, trans. Joel Golb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 365 pp., $35 cloth.

Romantics at War: Glory and Guilt in the Age of Terrorism, George P. Fletcher (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 272 pp., $24.95 cloth.


“What responsibility do ordinary people bear for atrocities committed in their names? According to modern democratic sensibilities, responsibility is an individual affair. The idea, as in Exodus (20:5), that the sins of the fathers could be delivered unto the third and fourth generations goes against the grain. It seems to be part of the collectivistic thinking that characterizes modernity off its rails, a pre-modern remain that produces outbursts of racism, nationalism, and genocide. That is not to say that we are not interested in accountability for political crimes. International human rights entrepreneurs have pressed for holding dictators accountable and have supported efforts to obtain reparations and other forms of redress. But we are very careful to avoid charges of “collective guilt,” which often sound more like the problem than the solution. We don't want to start a culture war or clash of civilizations!

…In contrast to the Mitscherlichs, Sebald is thus very much a man of his times, free of the older orthodoxies of the West German memory wars. For decades, the politics of memory in West Germany was divided between those who feared “too much” memory and those, like Jung and the Mitscherlichs, who believed Germans needed to work through their (collective) guilt if they were to overcome the symptoms of repression. Sebald does indeed pose a strong ethical and political-cultural imperative to remember, but his lecture was controversial because the lost memory it laments is that of German suffering, which heretofore has been the rallying cry of the extreme right. In this regard, Sebald is only one example of a surprising recent interest in the memory of German suffering from the left…. How legitimate is this new interest in German suffering, previously associated with nationalist revanchism and discreditable positions? The answer depends on the purpose…”

Jeffrey K. Olick is Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. He is the editor of States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection (2003), and the author of In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949 (forthcoming, University of Chicago Press). He is currently working on another book, The Sins of the Fathers: Collective Guilt and National Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1949-1995.