"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 24, 2014

Is There A Statute Of Limitations For Moral Responsibility?

In a recent book, Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany, Yascha Mounk ponders the question of national moral responsibility – is the Holocaust far enough in the past for Jews to exonerate Germany?  Will the death of the last German alive during the Nazi period be enough to free Germany from opprobrium and guilt?


There is a difference, of course, between finally accepting Germany as a democratic, free-market, enlightened republic; and forgetting the Holocaust.  While there eventually must come a time when Germany becomes an equal moral partner with the rest of Europe, there should never be a time when Nazi atrocities are shelved.  It is important to remember, study, analyze, and ponder the Holocaust so that it is not repeated – as is the case with the rest of history’s long list of brutal events.
Emma Green, reviewing the Mounk book in The Atlantic (1.24.14), and reflecting on the statute of limitation argument says:
Mounk answers hinged on whether it’s possible to draw a “finish line” on the moral burden of the Holocaust. Especially starting in the 1970s and ‘80s, a vocal group of German intellectuals expressed resentment at “being made to feel guilty” about crimes against Jews, arguing that there should be a statue of limitations of sorts on moral responsibility. If it were even possible for public intellectuals to artificially define such a boundary, Germany certainly hasn’t hit it; Mounk’s experiences suggest that young Germans are still struggling with their ethnic inheritance.
In other words, Germany still has a lot to pay, and at least another generation of young Germans must deal with their past.  This argument, however, falls into my second category – the continuing need to study and remember the past – and does not necessarily mean that Germany must still be excluded from the moral league of nations.


Mounk would reply that there is a difference between grappling with the moral concept of guilt and simpler reflection on historical events.  German twenty-somethings are not sure yet how to think of grandparents who might have been Nazis or SS Commandos who rounded up Jews and sent them to the camps. As long as anyone continues to grapple with moral uncertainties, says Mounk, the past is very much alive and should be kept so.

Mounk, however, dismisses American intellectual ‘guilt’ over slavery. It is not real guilt, he suggests:
Similarly, he pokes fun at the “liberal guilt among white Americans” about slavery and racism. In his view, these postures are inauthentic self-contortions that hurt more than they help: They reconfirm the differences between people of different ethnic backgrounds rather than carving out common ground.
He is both right and wrong.  On one hand, white Southerners who are the descendants of plantation slave owners are in much the same situation as the children of former Nazis.  While there was no Holocaust of black slaves, there should be at least some reflection on how and why Southern great-grandparents were so committed to slavery.


On the other hand, while slavery was nothing new or unique, the methodical extermination of an entire race was.  Slavery has been around since the cavemen, institutionalized in Greece and Rome, and still practiced in Africa.  The white slave owner of the South in 1850 was a product of 19th Century culture (Africans were inferior), Darwin, economics, and accidents of history (Jamestown, tobacco, cotton) and therefore could be excused if not exonerated for slavery. 

As Green points out, the legacy of slavery is felt by all Americans today.  While none of us should feel guilt over a historical event which took place in another cultural era, we should reflect on how slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction continue to take their toll.  Black Americans still struggle in the inner cities, white racism is still prevalent in the South; and that region is still less developed, more conservative, and more marginalized than the North – all at least partly due to slavery.
Mounk justifies his often weak argument about the importance of continuing to be wary and critical of Germany::
Mounk sees traces of old prejudice and solitary nationalism in the country’s politics: hostility toward Muslim immigrants; resentment about bailing out debt-ridden neighbors like Greece; reluctance to join Western allies on military missions in Libya and elsewhere.
This makes little sense, for countries like Denmark that were heroic in their bravery and courage and hid Jews from the Nazis, have exactly the same anti-immigration sentiments; and many countries, while not as wealthy as Germany, consider Greece irresponsible and not worthy of bailout.

Guilt is a term too quickly and loosely applied to historical events.  Once one starts looking through a moral lens, all countries look distorted and guilty.  The Queen of England has apologized to Kenya for Britain’s killing of the Mau Mau rebels, while those insurgents had more than a little blood on their hands.  France has a lot of explaining to do about Vichy France and its complicity with the Nazis.  Stalin and Mao should not be let off the hook for their murder of millions.  Nor should Pol Pot or Genghis Khan for that matter; or even 19th century Americans who in their push west, slaughtered thousands of Indians. Should Mongolia, Russia, China, and Cambodia bow penitentially for crimes and atrocities of the past?

Morality is relative and so is guilt; so neither should be applied to the study of history. Events have antecedents and consequences, nothing more; and while one can shake one’s head critically at the ignorance of other times, history has shown that there has been nothing but continual ‘ignorance’.  Men and nations have always been warlike, barbaric, immoral, and at times inhuman.
Reflect, consider, learn, and move on…without guilt.

Mounk and Green cite recent examples of anti-Semitism, notably a play by Fassbinder. Anti-Semitism still exists, they say, and for that reason Germany as a country has not yet expunged its demons.

However, this is a somewhat disingenuous argument.  Anti-Semitism is alive and well in many countries – in every one, for that matter, in the Middle East.  Many Arabs not only are anti-Semitic – a few ethnically insensitive jokes here and there – they hate Jews and want them removed from the face of the earth.  Everywhere else anti-Semitism is on the decline if only thanks to inter-marriage.

Young adults of Gen X in the United States are far more concerned with race and gender than ethnicity, and the concerns of Baby Boomers (Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, etc. were branded, stereotyped, and pigeonholed) not even recognized.  As these former ethnic minorities were folded into the general population, there distinctness faded.  They became Americans with no hyphenation.

In other words, Jews will eventually become Americans, Germans, or French with no unique ethnicity; and with that integration, discrimination and anti-Semitism will disappear.

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