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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Reader author speaks on collective guilt

Published: February 6, 2009
Section: News

Image Gallery: “Collective Guilt?”

GUILT:  Bernard Schlink discusses collective guilt at rapport treasure hall tuesday.<br /><br /><i>PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot</i>

GUILT: Bernard Schlink discusses collective guilt at rapport treasure hall tuesday.

PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot

Award-winning “The Reader” author Bernhard Schlink discussed his new book “Guilt About the Past” and the intergenerational nature of collective guilt on Tuesday.

Schlink, who is German, lectured on the reasons why a person or a group of people can become intertwined with a criminal’s guilt, at an event sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies,

Schlink said, “Collective liability is not taking responsibility for your own actions. It’s taking responsibility for one’s own solidarity with the criminal.” He described this feeling of solidarity as two individuals regarding each other as equals to the point in which one person’s actions can be, in part, credited to the other. Schlink detailed how in a community, collective responsibility can be felt when one belongs to a family, an institution, or a people.

Schlink connected his hypothesis of collective guilt to what Germans experienced prior to 1945. While some perpetrators were ejected from their social circles for the crimes they committed during WWII, others remained “inside the circle of solidarity.” On the Germans who did not exclude the criminals, he said, “[By] not renouncing, not judging, not repudiating…one became entangled in another’s guilt.” The only way one could avoid guilt was to sever ties with the criminals.

Since it was impossible to cast out or punish all of the perpetrators it was just as impossible to escape the feeling of shared guilt. Thus, Schlink explained, Germans were forced to turn to other means of assuaging the guilt. There were two options: “night of the long knives,” illegal violent revenge, or punishment through the state. He deemed both methods to be insufficient in castigating those who performed acts against humanity.

Schlink also discussed how a perpetrator’s guilt is passed down to his or her children. He posed the question, “Is it necessary for the [perpetrator’s] children to find themselves entangled in the whips of guilt, as well?” He concluded that it is almost inevitable, “[The] guilt sits and waits for them to recognize it.” However, he went on to claim that while guilt was inherited by the first generation after the war, it was barely passed down to the second generation, and not at all to the following generations.

In order for there to be collective guilt, he explained, “Community solidarity has to be experienced.” First, there must be some form of relationship with the perpetrator, a solidarity. Second, there has to be a choice to disassociate with the criminal and a refusal. Schlink gave the example, “We have the actual option to break with our parents, [but] we don’t have the option to break with our great-grandfather.”

For future generations, Schlink commented that the path was uncertain. “[They have] the freedom to decide if identity arises from history or from the here and now.”