Collective GuiltRead Now
On my recent holiday vacation, my partner and I visited Germany for about 10 days. The trip allowed me to gain understanding of my partner’s deep German roots while benefitting from her fluency in the language and culture. I’ve found inspiration and vitality in traveling to other cultures and Germany proved to be especially moving. Their mix of social democracy has made them the Western leaders in renewable energy, allows everyone full health insurance, and makes them one of the leaders in accepting refugees from Syria. It amazed me that at no point on the (remarkably clean) Berlin subway did anyone or any machines actually check our tickets- we could have easily rode for free for our entire visit. On the autobahns (highways), drivers pass on the left at speeds nearing 110 mph then quickly move to the right to allow faster vehicles to overtake them.
There seems to be a collective trust that members of society will do their part and always think of others in their decisions. Conversations with Germans ranged in topic on how to shower more efficiently, the simplest and cheapest way to live, and how to balance the needs of the refugees with the needs of German citizens.
Germany has become the leader of the free world after being the center of nearly a century of global warfare and conflict. From the first battles of World War I in 1914, through Hitler’s rise and fall, and the nuclear tipped panic of the Cold War – Germany has known nothing but strife and hardship. Once the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and East and West Germany reunified there was a national urgency to make progress. Importantly, this progress has been made with a keen awareness of the stunning mistakes of the past.
Throughout the entirety of the country there is open acknowledgement and remembrance of the inconceivable atrocity of the Holocaust. In the very center of Berlin stands the eerie and massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a monument to collective guilt. Regarding the holocaust a German said ‘This is our strength – we learn from our mistakes.’ Germany is collectively guilty of the most heinous crime against humanity, but they do not hide this fact. They acknowledge it, debate it, and inform the next generation of the lessons they learned. All German school children are required to visit the camps – which are all free to the public (with one small exception).
Importantly, Germany has distinguished between guilt and shame – a lesson that can easily be applied to individuals and their own sense of personal history. Some will argue with me on this point, but I do not feel that shame is a helpful emotion. When we make a mistake and become ashamed we hide from others and ourselves. It is the hiding and the repression that generally amplifies our mistakes or makes us repeat them. If we do not realistically look at our problems we have little chance to solve them. On the other hand, guilt is felt when we make a mistake, acknowledge it, and vow to correct or not repeat it. Germany has chosen to embrace its guilt and has instilled a national value of self-examination – a value we may all hope to cultivate. While there is a right-wing movement alive within the country, there still seems be a collective ethos that allows Germany to effectively plan for the future well being of its citizens and the world.
Humans are imperfect – we make errors in judgment and belief. This fact should not be seen as an allowance or excuse for flagrant behavior, but as an opportunity for us to continually improve as individuals and as a species. Through honest self-examination and kindness towards others we may hope to live peacefully and happily.
1/20/2018 01:24:11 pm
I do appreciate the collective trust and worldly responsibility in the German culture--I never thought of it as a product of WWII atrocities and like the connection you draw. What you seem to have noticed during your visit is what made me fall in love with the culture and the people!
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