A Good Guilt
By Daniel Leifer
Boulder, CO


“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.”

Holocaust Survivor Marian Marzynski (Marzynski)

Last year, I spoke to my high school’s diversity class about being Jewish in America. What I recall was not the talk but a question I received afterwards.
A student walked up to me and identified himself as a German exchange student. He explained that I was one of the first Jews he had ever met and asked me how he should feel about his country’s role in the Holocaust.

“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.
I have often thought about that conversation. Why should that student feel guilty for a crime he never committed? And what gave me the authority to tell him how he should feel? These questions define a new era of memorializing the Holocaust, generations after the atrocities occurred.

The age of the Nuremburg trials has passed, and the generation of Germans that were complicit in the mass execution of six million Jews is succumbing to old age. The generation that has replaced them had no role in the iniquities of their ancestors. Similarly, very few Holocaust survivors remain. Within decades, the living reminders of the horror of the Holocaust will be no more.

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)

But although this concept is old, “good guilt” has a newfound immediacy today. Dr. Shimon Samuels argued at a lecture that I attended that the world has already failed in this mission of “never again.” Samuels, director of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Europe, argued that today’s escalating anti-Semitism and the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur show that the international community is shirking its responsibility to adopt the lessons of the Holocaust. (Samuels)

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.

Works Cited

“A Jew Among the Germans.” Dir. Marian Marzynski. Frontline. PBS. KRMA, Denver. 31 May 2005.

Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990. Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997.

Rensmann, Lars. Interview. Frontline. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/germans/germans/education.html>. 19 May 2005.

Samuels, Shimon. Keynote Speech. CU Holocaust Awareness Week. University Memorial Center, Boulder, CO. 6 Feb 2006.


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