There is nothing special about being German

Below is a text I wrote after reading “Lust for suffering” (Lijdenslust) from the Jewish writer Marcel Möring. He writes about the nonsense of the television priests and therapists who promise instant happiness. He thinks that we should accept suffering as a necessary part of our life and he even thinks that happiness is just an illusion. Although I don’t agree completely with what he says, I find his views interesting. However, in this post I don’t want to write about his ideas about happiness in general but about what he said about the role of Germans with regard to the post-war generations.

Marcel Möring says that he thinks that the generation of Germans who were born after the war should not take the guilt upon them of the horrors and crimes of the war. People are only responsible for their own actions, they should not feel responsible for what the generation before them did. And it is dangerous to allow the younger generation to romanticize the German feeling of guilt and suffering. When these feelings of guilt don’t stop, something new will grow on it, a feeling of bitterness and a feeling of being special as Germans, with the role they played in the history. This while Möring thinks that young Germans shouldn’t feel special at all. They should realise that they did host the inhuman and destructive ideology of fascism, but that it was in fact by accident that this happened in Germany. This terrible beast, the “Nazi beast”, could have been hosted anywhere, just as well in the Netherlands, in the US or among the Eskimo’s. There is nothing intrinsically beastial in the nature of Germans.

While travelling through Germany, Möring met many young Germans with a very old feeling of guilt, a feeling which is becoming more and more “German”. The idea that the offenders / committers of crimes would bare children who are criminals themselves, by definition, is ridiculous. The children and the grandchildren cannot be held accountable for things they didn’t do themselves. The belief that the destiny of future generations would be determined by past generations, that the new generation would carry the dust of the history, comes from the idea that a free will doesn’t exist, that we would completely be determined and imprisoned by our history, as an inevitable chain of events which we cannot change.
I wanted to make a remark here – Möring does not mention this – that this idea can also be found with Heidegger; the idea that the future is fixed, determined by the past. The idea e.g. that Germans are autochthonous because of their being rooted in the German history, something which doesn’t count for Jewish Diaspora. This makes them totally unfree, a people is determined by the history of that people, there is no way that an individual can liberate him or herself from that. Then a people can have a special mission or role, as opposed to other peoples. Their speciality is based on their ethnicity / roots and it is inevitable. No other people can replace that speciality and the related mission.
Möring protests against this idea, there is nothing special about being German and there is no special German role or mission.

It is good to know the history of your people, including what exactly happened in the Second World War, but Germans should not create an intrinsic inevitable everlasting “German” feeling of guilt. Such a feeling is dangerous, unjustified and incorrect. In fact we don’t have to be afraid when a people feels strong, the most dangerous are feelings of weakness, sufferance and anger about perceived injustice. The embittered suffering in which we don’t consider our pain as a necessary part of our lives, but as something reproachable, is dangerous. When the suffering is abstract and it is impossible to point a clear cause for it, then an everlasting scapegoat with mythical proportions should be appointed. In this way the Jews were appointed as scapegoats before the Second World War. So to prevent a people from being named as scapegoats, these sentiments of drowning in feelings of an endless suffering and frustration should not be accepted. To drawn in such romantic feelings of an endless suffering prepares the ground for a war like the Second World War (at that time in the 30s there was also such a feeling of suffering, frustration and deprivation). The healthy idea that Germany is a normal country with a normal people, like any other, could in the long run be replaced by the unhealthy idea that Germans will for ever be guilty of what they have done in the war, and that through that, they have become victims of their own guilt. This intoxicating perfume of feeling injured and hurt, combined with the feeling of being a special chosen people with a mission, this makes that bitterness and hate can grow very fast.

I think this analysis from Möring is fundamental. Human beings should always consider each other as being completely equal in their humanness, there are no special peoples, not because of their enrootedness, and not because of their role in history neither. We are all equal so it is not possible to consider your own people as special and superior, which could otherwise then be used as a justification to appoint another people as inferior, as scapegoats, which means that their rights can be taken away, they can be discriminated, excluded from society. We are all equal, discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture or religion can never be justified. Different countries play different roles in history, these roles don’t stick to a people, other countries could have played the same role. There is nothing wrong with being German, there is something very wrong with Hitler because he started the Second World War. It would have been just as wrong if he had been French or English or Jewish Diaspora, for that matter.

In my opinion this is why Heidegger’s philosophy of enrootment is problematic. Germans are determined to be authentic, Jewish Diaspora is determined to be rootless. As a consequence Heidegger refused job applications from Jews at his university. It is this historic determination which makes that different ethnicities are no longer equal and that some peoples can be discriminated, it was this philosophy that Levinas protested against in his commentaries about the philosophy of Hitlerism and Heidegger’s philosophy.

I feel you're overlooking one factor, which is 'time'. It was very appropriate for the Germans to feel guilt of shame in the years after the war. And because only now the last people who were adults back in '45 are dying, this feeling of responsibility was to endure for quite a long time. Only gradually the younger and completely innocent generations took their places in the German population. It's not illogical the the were influenced by the general sentiment. It would be remarkable if the would have been completely indifferent to it. But of course, they in fact have nothing to do with the crimes of the past, which gives time the chance to erode the sentiment, and allow the Germans to become an ordinary people once again.

To be honest, it wouldn't be bad if in other countries that once commited crimes against humanity (e.g. slave trade, genocide of the american natives by European nations, the atrocities of Japan in WW2) had a little more historical awareness of it, lik the Germans do. They often feel a deep ethical superiority and consider this a heritage of centuries: a completely unjustified representation of history in my opinion.
Thank you for your comments who bring a nuancing / refining into my post.

The factor time is important indeed, the question of which generations we are talking about, how long ago the war was taking place, from their perspective.

I also think, while rereading my post, that it would be good to add more statistical information.

Marcel Möring talked to young Germans who had internalized a romanticized sentimental feeling of eternal guilt and deprivation. How common is that feeling actually among young Germans, or did he meet a small minority with such sentiments, by accident?

I looked at the internet but I could not find much information about a German feeling of eternal guilt. Maybe e.g. something here, if I search well: http://timewitnesses.org/english/stories.html

So I don't know if the phenomenon that Möring describes is common or not, and that is of course relevant information.

But still, even if it would turn out to be a rare phenomenon nowadays, I still find it important to analyse it and to show why these collective feelings of guilt can be dangerous.

In an interview between Anil Ramdas and Eveline Gans (Jewish writer) in "De Groene Amsterdammer", Gans says to Ramdas:

"I don't see why Germany would not be a normal country. The only difference with other countries is that Germany has to learn how to live with their past. It's a fact of life that a people cannot get rid of their past. The Second World War belongs to the collective German history and will never dissappear out of this history. The German past should be kept alive as a collective memory, and past on to future generations.

But this doesn't mean that individuals should feel a neverending paralysing feeling of guilt because of this.
She says that she doesn't support the idea of a collective atonement / repentance. Sentimental feelings of guilt are even dangerous. If it is impossible to talk about it in an open way, it will at best lead to irritation and in the worst case to aggression.

This danger of drowning in sentimental feelings, leading to frustration and aggression, is the same as what Möring warned for.

The central topic of my dissertation is formed by the negative irrational immoral images that people invent about others or about themselves. The people that Möring spoke to while travelling in Germany, had negative emotional immoral images of themselves. The creation of that kind of images should be stopped, that is all that I wanted to say.

I didn't say that What Germany did in the war was not so bad in fact, that it was so long ago that we can stop talking about it now, or something. I don't want to relativate the Holocaust. There is nothing wrong with a remaining German awarenes of the crimes that were committed by Germany in the war.

A feeling of ethical superiority of a people is never justified.
That is the same dangerous process of reducing individuals to a category.

The country Germany with Hitler as their leader has started the Second World War. Many Germans have committed serious crimes during that war and they should feel guilty about that. But people who didn't commit any crimes, who resisted against Hitler, should not feel guilty for what they have not done. They maybe do feel ashamed of being German, not because there is something wrong with the race / ethnicity / culture of Germans, not because they are a people of war criminals, all of them. The feeling of being ashamed of being German is then a feeling of being part a country which has done such terrible things. There is nothing wrong with Germans in general, there is only something very wrong with what the country has done to the world from 1940 to 1945.
Here is the link to the interview with Eveline Gans:

*passed on to future generations
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The fifth comment here, posted by me, I removed and republished as a separate blog post...

Thanks for this posting. As a direct descendant of Germans, I have always refused to assume the guilt for the crimes of others. My immediate family didn't even go to any of the two wars, as they emigrated to Brazil in 1913 and before, however I do feel pressed, especially by my Jewish friends, to accept some kind of guilt, what I refuse to do.
Marcel Möring has a healthy and refreshing view on the subject. I wish more people would see things with such clarity. I am extremely tired of living in a world with so much blind hatred against the other and so little self-criticism of the self. (Americans are grand on it.)
I agree with hiddekross when he says that it would be good if other nations had more historical awareness of their own crimes. Maybe the Germans could share a bit of their guilt with other Europeans, U.S. Americans, Japanese and Koreans? Or with peoples that contributed to the enslaving of their own, like certain African nations?
I took the liberty of copying your post to my blog. Please let me know if it is alright.
Thank you for your comment. Good to get replies from the other side of the world and nice to see my text at your blog as well.

"I am extremely tired of living in a world with so much blind hatred against the other and so little self-criticism of the self."

I couldn't agree more...
Having lived in Germany, I think I can say many people my age there don't feel guilty, but rather feel they have a special responsibility as Germans to be careful about what they say or do with respect to war, xenophobia, etc. A friend of mine felt like she had to be extra careful to be unassuming on a holiday in Israel, for example.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: more people could benefit by leading an examined life.
I did see a bit of shame still: another friend (a bit older) read the English info signs in Westerbork rather than the German ones, a bit like he was trying to stay undercover. This also had to do with fear: the same guy had been beaten up in a French village simply for being German.
Time does play an important role, and don't forget the war generation isn't quite gone yet: my direct colleague avoids talking to her grandparents, as all they can talk about is how much better things were during Hitler's reign. It literally made her sick when she was taken to visit them as a child. Nowadays, she chooses not to be in touch at all.
There are two sides on this issue. One: the collective awareness and responsability of the German youth still shapes German society and politics for the better. Two: these same things may put a heavy hand on the head of each German individual, depriving them from many positive feelings of exhilaration, or out of bounds happiness.

You, Ester/Marcel seem to pay much attention to 2) but you ignore 1).
Thank you for your comments, I can imagine the positive side effect you mentioned.

And good to hear the concrete experiences of somebody who has lived in Germany, Letty...
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