Mises Wire

Home | Wire | The Myth of National Guilt

The Myth of National Guilt

  • david

Tags Media and CultureU.S. HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology


In my article of February 21, I discussed Susan Neiman’s important book, Learning From the Germans. She maintains that, owing to the crimes of the Nazis, Germans have a moral obligation to “work through” the past. They must acknowledge their responsibility for these crimes, even if they themselves had nothing to do with them. In like fashion, white Southerners today must acknowledge responsibility for the crime of slavery and, after the end of legal slavery, the continuing oppression of blacks.

Several readers of my article raised valuable points in their “comments,” and I’d like to discuss one of these in today’s article. Before doing so, though, I want to bring to the fore some remarks by H.D. Lewis in his article “Collective Responsibility.” This article, published in February 1948, was the basis of my criticism of Neiman, but Lewis raises other important issues in the article that help answer some of the questions that readers had.

Lewis distinguishes sharply between moral and legal responsibility. “The etymology of this word [‘responsibility’] suggests that it means ‘liability to answer,’ this being, of course, liability to answer to a charge, with the implication that if the answer is not satisfactory a penalty will be incurred. This is certainly the meaning of responsibility in the legal sense.” Lewis proceeds to say that, in this sense of responsibility, “there are some occasions, at any rate, when we share our responsibilities with others and are implicated in their wrongdoing.”

What does Lewis mean? He says,

Normally, the purpose served by the imposition of penalties requires the penalties to be inflicted on persons presumed to have offended, and on no others….But there are, however, exceptional cases where expediency requires proceedings to be taken against a group as if it were an individual entity. No account will then be taken of the guilt or innocence of individual members of the group….Suffice it for the present to note that, as a device for the achievement of practical ends, we have sometimes to accept collective responsibility. This is fully acknowledged in law, where a parent may in some respects be held to account for the conduct of children, or where a society or corporation may be proceeded against as a single entity or person.

Lewis goes on to say, “Extending the canvas still wider, we have the imposition of sanctions against a whole nation in the interest of international order….Reparations and similar measures adopted against an aggressor nation nature may be mentioned here.” Lewis has misgivings about these measures but soon arrives at his key thesis. These measures may be expedient, even though they lack perfect justice because they penalize the innocent: 

There will always be some intermingling of justice with injustice in human relations under any conditions we can anticipate. But what does this prove? Does it prove that the innocent share in the wickedness of the guilty, that the former are morally answerable for the ill deeds of the latter? Surely not. The question needs only to be stated plainly for us to see how foolish it is to allow our view of moral responsibility to be affected by imperfections in the ways in which members of society must deal with one another.

(In my opinion, Lewis is, as Murray Rothbard would have said, “weak on the reparations question,” but I won’t pursue that here.)

It is exactly this view of moral responsibility that Neiman challenges, and this was the crux of my disagreement with her in my earlier article. This leads to one of the issues raised in the comments on that article. One commenter wondered whether Neiman in fact supports the ascription of individual moral guilt to Germans and white Southerners who themselves committed no crimes. The commenter thought it wasn’t evident from my quotations from her book that Neiman thinks this.

She could be clearer about the matter, but she does hold the position I ascribed to her. She amalgamates shame and guilt, and it is some combination of these that she thinks Germans and white Southerners ought to have. She says, for example. “Guilt, it’s been argued, is directed, inward, and no one need know if you have it. Shame, by contrast, is what you see feel when you see yourself reflected through others’ eyes and you cannot bear to let that image stand. To overcome shame, you must actually do something to show others you are not inevitably caught in your, or your forebears’, worst moments” (p. 289, emphasis added).

She also says, “I doubt that guilt can be entirely separated from responsibility. What makes a young white man from Jackson [Mississippi] feel responsible for this corner of the Delta? Isn’t it at least partly the fact that members of his own family…had been the sort of softly angry racists whose views helped shape the world that would acquit a child’s killers?” (p. 233, the reference is to the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers).

One final citation. She says, “Shame hurts. Guilt hurts….They are not emotions we willingly feel. We seek admiration from the outside and peace from within, and we have powerful ways to deflect everything that threatens them. Rather than acknowledging our complicity in something shameful, we forget with remarkable ease. That is why memory is vital” (pp. 380–81).

It is because of her views about guilt and shame that Neiman demands the extraordinary measures I discussed in my earlier article. Germans have a moral duty to dwell on the sins of their ancestors, and so do white Southerners on what their own ancestors did. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

For Neiman, history is a nightmare to which she wants others to return.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Add Comment

Shield icon wire