Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Silence

Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Silence

Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Silence

Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Silence


Politics and Guilt sheds new light on our understanding of the pervasive psychological and cultural effects of Nazism by examining the power of guilt in modern Germany. Usually seen as a psychological and intensely personal phenomenon, the effect of guilt on the collective arena of politics has been downplayed or misunderstood by many political scientists. Taking issue with Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, and Hermann Lubbe, Gesine Schwan argues that Germans must confront their Nazi past because the repression or lack of acknowledgment of guilt damages modern democracies. The Nazi perpetrators were not above the norms of good and evil, she asserts, but were conscious of their guilt and silent about it. The widespread psychological guilt in them and their descendents has adversely affected perceptions of political responsibility, marriage, and child rearing in modern Germany.

At a moment when past crimes are being exposed, reparation demands are increasingly common, and world leaders are apologizing and making amends for past mistakes and injustices, Schwan's analysis is timely and thoughtful, standing as the most sophisticated consideration of guilt in politics to date.


It may seem strange to make guilt the topic of a discussion—let alone an analysis—on the level of political theory. At best, such an undertaking might seem naïve; at worst, obscene. For does not talk of guilt involve a careless transfer of experiences and needs from daily life to the harsh business of politics, which calls for dispassionate analysis? Does it not conceal what is really at stake in politics: interests, structures, functions, organizations, governments, and, above all, power? What place is there in all of this for the individualizing and subjective word guilt?

But the questions run even deeper than that. Is it possible to come up with an unambiguous definition of guilt in the first place? Doesn't the word mean something different to everyone who uses it? And if we really take this matter of guilt seriously, is it not true that we are dealing with something so personal that any public use of the term merely renders it shallow, often reducing it to something simply sentimental or utilitarian? Or is it possible, after all, to come up with an analysis of guilt that is sober and meaningful as political theory and gets by without vapid moralizing or the attempt to inspire self-reproach in others? Are there perhaps good reasons for embarking on such an analysis? A random selection of press reports during the past few years compels us to reflect on these questions:

Two-thirds of the children in Rwanda were involved in massacres, often as both victims and perpetrators at the same time. The incoherent report of a sixteen-year-old prisoner culminates in the declaration: “I am innocent!” (Der Tagesspiegel, 12 December 1994).

Japan's parties quarrel over a parliamentary motion concerning war guilt. Opponents of the motion argue that the question of Japanese guilt is not clear and that trust is best created by silence. However, concession should be made where “the constant denials are threatening to harm business in new markets” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 March 1995). The Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Malaysians will not become reconciled with Japan as long as the Japanese refuse to take responsibility . . .

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