A Good Guilt
“As for myself, I wish there would be … No [German] government-approved memorials, no finishing touches. My request to the German people would be that they create for themselves a concept of good guilt—an honorable one. And within it, a proud guardianship of memory. My father would like that.”
Survivor Marian Marzynski (Marzynski)
“Don’t let it happen
again,” I replied. I explained that I don’t hold him accountable, but
that he has a responsibility to make sure the Holocaust never recurs. He
was very sensitive to my concerns and I could tell he felt somehow
responsible for his country’s crime. We had a cordial conversation and
shook hands, but I never saw him again.
To me, this signifies a shift in the way the memory of the Holocaust must be commemorated. For the last sixty years, we have meted out justice by punishing Nazis and paying reparations to survivors—all a tangible and active way of righting the Holocaust’s wrongs.
Soon, no one on the planet will have been complicit, responsible, or directly victimized by the Holocaust. Now, the new generation must embrace the intangible pall of the Holocaust as a driving force to do good. The world and especially the European countries complicit in the Holocaust need to assume the collective burden of the Holocaust and transform it into a “concept of good guilt.”
This notion of global responsibility is not new or unique. Twenty years ago, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Egil Aarvik commended Elie Weisel in his Nobel Prize Presentation Speech for charging the world with a notion of responsibility and good guilt:
[Wiesel’s] mission is not
to gain the world''s sympathy for the victims or the survivors. His aim
is to awaken our conscience. Our indifference to evil makes us partners
in the crime. That is the reason for his attack on indifference and his
insistence on measures aimed at preventing a new holocaust. We know that
the unimaginable has happened. What are we doing now to prevent it
happening again? Do not forget, do not sink into a new blind
indifference, but involve yourselves in truth and justice, in human
dignity, freedom, and atonement. That is this Peace Prize laureate''s
message to us. (Nobel)
Germany also has not adequately adopted this notion of “good guilt.” A study by the independent research institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for two German media outlets found that one in two young Germans (24 years or younger) cannot identify the term “Holocaust” (Rensmann). Lars Rensmann, German educator and professor of political science at the University of Munich, explained to the PBS documentary program Frontline that most German students spend only two hours each week studying history, leaving little time for learning about the Holocaust. “[The Holocaust] finally needs to become an important, if not central part of education, just like other subjects,” explains Rensmann. “Increased efforts in teaching about prejudice, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust are overdue” (Rensmann).
However, lack of education is only part of the story. The other is that many young Germans resist learning about the Holocaust. Rensmann explains: “You have a fair amount of students who are more strongly opposing Holocaust remembrance than previous generations. They seek a ‘normal’ German national identity and feel the Holocaust is too much of a burden” (Rensmann). If German students consider the Holocaust an accusation and a strike against their culture or identity, it makes sense that they would avoid the topic.
But this perception reinforces the beauty of “good guilt.” Revisiting Aarvik’s speech, “[Wiesel’s] mission is not to gain the world''s sympathy for the victims or the survivors” (Nobel). As Aarvik emphasizes, the point of good guilt is not to accuse today’s generation of Germans of wrongdoing. Instead, it is to encourage them to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. Good guilt urges Germans to transform the burden of their country’s past into an impetus to do good. Most important, I believe fewer German youth would be resistant to learning about the Holocaust given this positive, productive, and non-accusatory way of acknowledging the past.
The world needs a new way of memorializing the Holocaust. Today’s system of doling out punishments to perpetrators and giving reparations to survivors will be impossible in a few decades. At the same time, many of the lessons of the Holocaust appear to be lost on the world, as evidenced by recent genocide and human rights abuses. Lastly, some Germans today who had no part in the Holocaust feel wrongly reviled and shun learning about their country’s past iniquities.
These problems demand a new way of memorializing the Holocaust—a role that I believe good guilt fulfills. Good guilt recognizes that we no longer need to place blame, but instead need to work together to protect the Holocaust’s memory and ensure that injustice never occurs again. Good guilt does not ignore the iniquities of the past but addresses them and emphasizes learning from them. The concept upholds the highest ideals of cohesion, honor, peace, and justice.
Which brings me back to my German exchange student friend. If he were to ask me the same questions today, I would reply that he and I have an obligation to those that died in the Holocaust to hold ensure that humanity makes the world more just and frees the world of genocide and intolerance.
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