Saturday, March 18, 2006

Forgiveness and Responsibility

About a year ago, I got into an extended internet discussion with a man born in Germany who was angry that people still held Germans responsible for what the Nazis did. I didn't disagree with his point; I find the suggestion that one can blame someone for evils committed by their ancestors utterly idiotic. The real problem came when he expanded his argument:

"The sole criminals were Hitler and the Nazi generals and officers. Ordinary soldiers, such as my father, had nothing to do with it. It was Hitler and the Nazis who planned and committed these terrible crimes."

This was the point at which we parted ways. (There were a few other bizarre tidbits he had included, as well, including the suggestion that the Jews were partially responsible for their destruction by not having anticipated the Holocaust and tried to make themselves stand out less, or avoided incurring the wrath of the common German, as well as the claim that no one could have anticipated Hitler's genocidal program, and also that even when concentration camps were in full swing, "almost no one" outside the camps had any idea what was happening inside- I guess they just thought they were having a massive weeny-roast.)

After tossing around this charming bit of "blame the victim", we began to really fight over the question of personal responsibility within a context of coerced slaughter. That is to say, how responsible were "ordinary" German soldiers who were forced into committing attrocities?

I argued that while there were certainly mitigating circumstances- and these varied quite a bit, as we're talking about millions of incidents and cases- that people who participated in murders still held some element of responsibility, even if it was not enough to, for instance, try them in a court. Furthermore, to claim the contrary, that there was no responsibility among any of the German populace who "went along" with the Nazis, coerced or freely, is to insult and denigrate the many people who actually DID resist the Reich, and either actively helped save Jews or others, or directly refused orders to kill. Those people are heroes, and it disgraces their actions to lump them in with people who offered no resistance.

Now, this is not to say that I am condemning those in the second group. I for one have no idea how I would have acted in a similar circumstance, and it is entirely possible I would have offered no resistance, either. But that would not change the fact that I was making a conscious choice to do nothing, that is to say, to submit to the Nazis.

I argued for the existance of a spectrum of responsibility. There is more to consider than a mere "innocent" or "guilty". We are not juries who must restrict themselves to a simplistic dualism of "all-or-nothing". To suggest that every German (to say nothing of other non-Jews) must either be designated a "Hitler" or a "Wallenberg" is simply a false dichotomy. In any war, there is an established hierarchy, and the people doing the actual killing are far from the only ones responsible.

My "friend" charged me with using an extreme model of collective responsibility, which I denied. My suggestion was, in fact, highly individualistic, as it was entirely determinant of what actions an individual person engaged in. I do not think that every citizen of a state that commits a crime is responsible for that crime, and I certainly don't believe in blaming people for things that they had no control over. People who weren't born, for instance, cannot be said to have been in any way responsible for the Holocaust. The spectrum model establishes the framework in which more specified and detailed issues of responsibility can be examined and determined. It is absurd to argue that every German is EQUALLY responsible as the soldiers of the firing squad, or the officers doing the planning of the invasions and executions. However, I think we can say that there are determining factors which influence the degree of responsibility. Actively resisting the Nazis puts you at one end of the spectrum; actively helping them places you at another. In each situation a person found themselves, they made choices, and those choices dictate which end of the spectrum they wind up at (or not. It's entirely possible that many Germans were somewhere in the middle- they didn't fight back; they didn't actively help Jews, but maybe they didn't actively help the Nazis, either. Maybe they had an opportunity to inform on someone and didn't, for instance.)

The issue gets even more complex when we turn our focus from the general populace and apply it to people who, on a regular basis, were faced with the most brutal of orders, and who lived with a very real threat of death if they refused. What degree is their responsibility? Again, I argued for a spectrum approach. A coerced killing, I said, had a different "value" than one made on one's own volition. However, I maintained, it still "counted". Would I have done differently, if I was a concentration camp guard, or a kapo, or an informer? Would I have had the courage and integrity to refuse if I had a gun in my hands, and I was told to execute someone? I don't know, and that was why I said such incidents could, depending on details, well fall into the category of extenuating circumstances. All that aside, however, they were still responsible, if only partially, for that death. Even if it there were extenuating circumstances, and even if they were, legally and "morally" (depending on your belief system- Judaism says you can't kill to save yourself), absolved, they were still involved, and they still did it. They made a choice to not rebel, to not join the line of prisoners instead of fire on them.

The man attacked me. Have you no empathy, he said? No compassion? You would have locked up or killed every German male over the age of fourteen?

No, I responded. Having some partial responsibility is not necessarily in of itself an offense punishable by a court. They may not have been strictly, legally, "guilty". And I am not saying that every German that didn't kill themselves, flee the country, or joined the resistance was the same as Eichmann. But the choice to "go along" still carries with it a moral responsibility, regardless of how understandable it is. I also pointed out that "responsibility" was not the same as revenge (I wondered if he had heard of the various anecdotes told of Abba Kovner and Abba Eban- two men so dissimilar!- who had both spoken of the need for a post-war "counter-Holocaust" of Germans.)

I repeated: Powerlessness does not buy one a "get off the hook" free card. I can give those people my understanding and perhaps sympathy, but they are still responsible for whatever they did. To argue otherwise, to say that as soon as someone invades your country, all responsibility is thrown out the window, is to essentially suggest that responsibility does not exist in the first place. At what point does one draw the line? If the government threatens to throw me in jail if I don't do something, am I free of responsibility? What if they just threaten my livelihood, or my reputation? Does it have to be the government? Can anyone threaten me and thereby eliminate any responsibility for my actions?

I said that the only alternative to this minimalist theory was to go in the other direction: one is always responsible for whatever one chooses to do, and there can be a number of mitigating circumstances to potentially alleviate guilt, but NOT responsibility. This means that many Germans, Poles, Italians, and so ons carried varying degrees of responsibility for what happened to their nations' Jews and other "undesirables"- somewhat analogous to being an accessory to a crime (in many cases, rather remote accessories). This does not mean they necessarily should have been punished for it- this is a moral judgment, not a legal one.

Nevertheless, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the role that these people played. Not every German was a murderer, but the Germans were part of a society which carried out those murders. If they knew, or when they knew, and continued along with business as usual, they allowed that society, and its actions, to continue, and they have to live with that. In that respect, they do hold responsibility. Of course not every German should have been punished for Hitler- but that doesn't change the fact that this responsibility still existed. This responsibility does not automatically condemn them, or libel them. It simply exists, and what that means is something that will have to be evaluated in its own time.

The solution is not, as my friend did, to defensively shout that only Hitler was guilty or responsible, because this not only white-washes the actions of millions of people, without whom the Holocaust could not have occured, but also maligns those who DID fight back, who DID stand up, and were willing to -and often did- pay the price. It is also important to realize that most people were not "purely" innocent or guilty- some Jews were saved by Nazi officers. Are those officers not guilty for the deaths they caused in issuing or carrying out orders? And yet, simultaneously, their good deeds cannot be blotted out, either. Even Oskar Schindler had some blood on his hands- even if only partially.

The issue is not "who should have been punished", or in demonizing Germans. It is, rather, realizing that members of a society share at least some responsibility for what that society does. This is a primary element of any large group. My point was never to either alleviate or massively generalize issues of responsibility, but rather to properly assign it. People are responsible for what they do- and don't do. Always.

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