The Innocent Bear The Guilt of The Guilty Ones
An essay by Gerhard Altendorf, Germany
Translated by Jochen Riess, Mexico.
(c) 2004

"...These were crimes against remembrance. We live by our memories, civilization means respect for history. It marks the standards of a culture."
Philip Kerr: The Second Angel 2000.

I. Contemporary mind does not consider history as a possible burden for future generations. Whatever may have happened is simply added to the body of history as just one more of many dark, even horrifying disasters and collapses in the course of history. The present political and social consensus rejects racism, xenophobia or discrimination of minorities and feels embarrassed by neofascist activities. Monuments of considerable artistic value have been erected to keep memories alive. Yet what actually happens confirms a saying of Jesus about the appropriation of historical experiences: "Their fathers have murdered - the sons build monuments."

It takes a generation before the cries for recognition of people killed by fellow men in an event of catastrophic proportions have softened down to a level, which will finally allow events to be converted into knowledge. So far neither a personal nor a collective answer has been given during the lifespan of both perpetrators and victims now nearing death. Certain individuals have however recognized, considered, remembered and analysed events in an attempt to find an answer to the painful question: "What must have happened to the humanity of human beings to make it all come true?"

Too many of those who survived have continued to suffer from what was done to them, whereas those who served as 'tools of evil' have made a contract with their conscience - " ... made a covenant with death, and with hell we are in agreement..." (Isaiah 28,15). They have not been tormented by their conscience, whilst many of their victims feel guilty for having survived. Whoever saw and did not act, whoever looked aside because he did not want to see, whoever did not see although he could have seen, even someone whose eyes could not see - they all are allies of the evil. Because the reality of evil seizing a person is not sufficiently explained by his or her individual constitution alone but has also to be understood as the individual reflection of a collective situation.

The burden of history - and the perception of this burden as a challenge to develop fundamentally new attitudes towards the psychic processes of experiencing reality - demand the insight that we have a duty to accept history and its consequences and to preserve a collective historical memory. The churches are in essence representations of such historical memory.

II. People who like ourselves live under the protection of a functioning legal system have frequently asked when confronted with reports about the persecution of the Jews during the Third Reich: "But why didn't they offer resistance, being so many?" The question reveals that the initial shock vis--vis the facts are secretly undermined by a contemptuous suspicion that 'they' must have allowed it to happen. In this way the often-demanded identification with the victims of history is prevented from taking place. It is obviously asking too much from people to face - even in retrospective - questions of collective guilt and individual participation, or to occupy themselves with the fate of individuals, or make any attempts to give serious thought to the problem. Instead the victim's situation is simply equated with one's own, assuming that 'they' must have contributed somehow to their own destruction. For surely the state would not have taken action against 'them' the way it did, would it?, had there not been something to provoke their fellow citizen's reaction.

Individuals or groups who appear as weaklings or as low achievers are generally punished with contempt. They give the impression of avoiding the combative conflicts of history and the struggle of life, whereas it is in reality an expression of their ability to suffer and endure the hardship, as in the case of the Jews. Their creative social abilities, which helped develop todays fairer social conditions, are hardly ever recognized. Why? It is the fate of those who were separated from and ostracized by the rest of society over a long period of time. They served a purpose inasfar as they provided a living connection to antiquity and pre-medieval culture and civilization, representing the original faith from which Europe's Christianity and its expression in Holy Scriptures developed. The prejudice against people considered inferior but useful was reinforced by all sorts of suspicion nourished by a basic inability to recognize and appreciate foreign and different talent. Jews were feared because of their superiority. This superiority can be explained as the result of maintaining over centuries an organized complex of historical experience, which they could have offered as their contribution towards the initial shaping of Europe's social synthesis.

Yet a productive communication with European society became, alas, impossible when the arising political and economic systems felt that they had to rely on aggressive means in their fight for power and survival. The leading groups of Europe like knights and territorial rulers felt that they had no choice but to secure and defend their own territory by all means. They established fixed boundaries and recognized as equals only those responding in equal terms. Hence there was no need for the Nazis centuries later to invent the type of the valiant fellow German and of the fighter entirely subordinate to his leader. They existed already as well established role models. They appeared as the only possible solution to protect man against his like. Filled with violent images one had to distrust human beings of a different cultural background. Members of society communicated with each other in ways, which alienated them from their true selves, concealing the full reality of being human behind the impressive but illusionary images of themselves, which they presented to the outside world. Only by splendor and despotism through which he controlled his environment, his property and his power would a man present himself among his contemporaries. The resulting human deficiencies contributed towards a state of consciousness, which neither could nor would allow the question whether or not it might deny mankind something essential. Any alternatives in conducting one's life that may have existed in those days were lost in the course of time. The cruel persecutions and suppressions, which followed, leaving their historical traces, provide proof enough that such alternatives were a dear necessity.

It was already evident by the time the Gothic cathedrals were built, that the defenceless attitude and the weakness of the victims provoked the authorities in power to commit atrocities far beyond intention and justifiability while the churches showed images of a crucified human being. These at least did not deny real experience. Menace and violence appeared as the one and only way to keep fellow man within boundaries, which he was obviously not able to maintain by observing what was demanded from him by his ethics. There was apparently no more interest in preserving the heritage received from the hands of the Jews nor in transmitting the words and the message of Jesus.

The church in her role as mediator of religious belief tried her best to correct the situation and avoid the constant irritation of either being victimized by or having to make concessions to the situation. What she had to offer as compensation for the hardships of reality was a sacramental act, which demanded confession of guilt and promised remission of sins in return. This act was however related to the story of a man who represented a much more ancient way of realizing human existence - a way which still claimed authority whilst fading into oblivion. In the worship of Jesus Europe's Christendom met with an identity, which it could accept only to the extent as it would serve but not challenge the social and political order which had been established under much blood and tears.

It remains a matter of fact to this day that the result of each process of consolidation faces the risk of serving the fiction that the enemy of our way of living as human beings in the context of our own specific culture as our form of representing human existence is to be found somewhere 'outside', where he stands ready to threaten or even destroy our own way which we consider as definite and absolute. The intimate coherence inside the boundaries of the different European societies which continued to grow through naturally expanding group-laws was reinforced by the certainty to possess the treasure of the 'true God' within one's own territory, and by the corresponding need to protect this treasure against all evil, greed and chaos lurking outside. The figure of a super-father of all nations, represented in and through secular rulers, had slowly absorbed the divine image of the Christian God, thus giving the impression that war was part of his 'higher' will. This was incompatible with the idea that unification or love for all members of the human race could be part of God's plan.

In this way the concept of borders assumed a new character. They became lines of destiny affecting the soul of man where they shaped the unwanted and split off - nevertheless desired and hoped for - energies, unfortunately in the same way as external forces, i.e. in a violent manner. Which is to say that henceforth also the inner life forces, which motivate action assumed the traits of aggressive hostility. No wonder then that the established tradition which speaks of the 'rafter in one's own eye' and of the 'splinter in the eye of brother fellow man' had already lost its effect. Our desperate attempts to maintain our personal identity make us wish to consider ourselves innocent even whilst involved in utterly suspicious circumstances. This claim of innocence will not be shaken even if confronted with proven facts. People who have given up their consciousness in favor of following given orders will accept that they can be held responsible for the consequences of their docile attitude, they are able to recognize and admit the experience of having been led and misled, as has been proven in various post-war trials against members of the SS and other executive branches of the system. What they were unable to recognize was the human face of their victims whom they considered mere objects to be dealt with.

III. The invitation (summons) to confess guilt and receive remission of sins were once constitutive elements in the central ritual of the Christian churches, although the solemn elevation of wafer and chalice would rather obscure than reveal the original simplicity of bread and wine in the Jewish tradition. It remains questionable anyway whether the majority of believers would have been able to really recognize and articulate their guilt and point out the moment in their lives when they experienced the reality of what Psalm 90 calls "Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance..."

Surely everybody will admit that one's guilt and whatever is considered as sin is placed before God's eyes. Yet with equal certainty a difference will be made among sins one will admit as personal guilt before one's own conscience and sins attributed to the group one belongs to. The confession of isolated incidents of personal guilt or errors is far from what the Jewish tradition understands by sin. We accept to be guilty in cases of consciously and/or individually caused guilt. A comprehensive concept of guilt comprising the totality of human existence could not develop within the framework of Europe's Christian categories. The ritual as practiced by the churches did not lead to a degree of true veracity as a prerequisite for a personal ability to accept the guilt of a generation, a nation or the totality of a whole culture or civilization. Concerning the secret - i.e. unrecognised - sins of Psalm 90, Christianity has remained deeply shy vis--vis the demands of the Jewish tradition. All attempts to reach split off or suppressed psychic contents in favor of a more comprehensive acceptance of reality are resisted whenever they appear as a threat to the security of one's own way of managing life. The churches, whose duty it would have been to mediate insight into the unrecognised network of guilt, were instead used to fulfil the need of important social groups and their members to feel exempted from historically existing connections with guilt which ought to have been uncovered.

It is not the intention of this essay to use the concept of collective guilt to denounce anyone in particular. The point is not to find somebody to blame for everything. To do so would only reveal a desire to remain at a distance. Even if the necessity to accept historical facts is recognized in principle it may well be neutralized in practice by the lack of ability and/or willingness to transfer historical experience. Much depends on the way in which it is done. To deal with the past as mere history is a feeble substitute (Ersatz) for a deliberate identification with the fate of the victims. We have therefore to speak about the centuries-old Christian history of Europe in such a way that the sacrifices it caused in the course of its development as the universally leading ensemble of culture and civilization remain visible and accessible to analysis. The inability/unwillingness to admit guilt characterizes the situation of a society, which claims to guarantee its members a guiltfree and sinfree existence - at least as long as they remain obedient members! To make this guarantee work requires the actual presence of someone who will serve as a scapegoat to receive the historical burden, which is felt by a majority in spite of all claims to the contrary. Any remaining feelings of uneasiness are reduced to the degree of personal and/or individual offences in the day-to-day interaction among humans or to the level of violations of existing rules of law and order. Long before the formation of the Germanic German under Hitler all awareness of any guilt by association through membership in a group with a common order had been removed from consciousness. The guilt, which I bear as a member of the comprehensive body called 'mankind', is withheld from the average consciousness to this day.

Our distrust as Germans against the Jewish history has also to do with the impression that any guilt in relation to fellow human beings cannot be eliminated by mechanisms of forgetting or suppression. We don't want to recognize that the deeds done and the justifying ideologies that went with them have an influence on our future history. We have an interest to secure our new social consensus by maintaining that sacrifices were required for the sake of a 'just cause'. This argument devalues the reality of sacrifice, because it allows the real cost of destroyed human lives to be (mis-)used for the purpose of securing the continued existence as a coherent group. Very rarely will historical experience be transferred by those who were condemned to death. They were not given the opportunity. As a result the nexus we share by fellowship as human beings remains hidden and unnoticed.

Even after more than thousand years of Christian history we feel still a need to defend our patterns of identity against everybody and everything that might appear as a threat. To put it differently: the Jewish identity, far older than the one, which developed in Europe, is met with resistance; it is experienced as foreign because it represents an identity which relates to a different historical background. Hence is any suggestion to discuss or pinpoint the sufferings placed on the Jews still met with the unwillingness of the heirs to involve themselves with this difficult past. Contemporary man does not see any need to do so. The more human relations are organized in terms of power and subordination, economic and financial superiority, the less it will be understood that man can be guilty in and through relation to fellow man. During the years of the Third Reich the majority of Germans were no longer able to recognize fellow man in every other human being. After centuries of a history influenced by the church the guilt over against the Jews is also the consequence of this very same Christian history of Germany. This inner nexus between the way in which the Christian faith was appropriated and the opportunity for blame which the presence of Jewish communities provided makes it impossible to declare fascism the only culprit. The 'inner enemy' to be fought was not any arbitrary mythological figure. It came about by accepting and functionalising a Messiah who cast a shadow upon those with whom he shared a history to which he responded with his whole life.

Apart from other strange minorities like the Gypsies it was mainly the Jews who retained in certain ways a human closeness to Jesus - not in faith or by any means of intentional identification, but simply by origin and tradition, Which made them the ideal target of projection for Europe's Christendom - and with them and close to them all groups and movements of dubious origin, summarily denounced as heretics. But unlike the heretics who were identifiable by their teachings, the Jews represented also an ethnic identity, which facilitated projection. And on top of that they remained socially segregated. Church life had assumed an ambiguous character. On the one hand the existing economic discrepancies and corresponding political tensions were reflected in the discrepancy between proclaimed ideals and the actual lack of their realization. On the other hand the church continued to claim in its teachings as well as in practice perfection and completion, which were identified with the ancient experience of transcendence, thus giving time and again the impression that it could be trusted. Yet at the same time this very same church responded to expectations forced upon her by circumstances. She was expected to accept the necessity that in spite of all Christian piety essential aspects of human life were to be limited to a mere potentiality and thus excluded from actual realization. Yet they remained virulent and were kept in sub-conscious motion through the process of sacralization by the church, affecting in unclear ways the limited conscious life of believers. In consequence the church and church life represented a borderline situation where one could meet particular aspects of humanity even though they were barred from actual experience.

The image of a human saviour was absorbed by the establishment of an external authority which appeared in place and on behalf of a paramount divine entity while retaining all the features of a powerful group-super-ego of ancient origin In this way the church managed to keep the ambiguity of Christian life within prescribed boundaries whilst supplying comfort and satisfaction in all aspects of human life through her presence.

All these highly exalted expectations, which found form and frame within the existing churches, were supported by an unconscious desire for actual fulfilment and a valid realization. It could have shattered the narrow limitations of everyday economic hardships and poor social conditions hadn't it been kept under control by the role of a Jesus who had been transformed from the figure of Saviour and Redeemer into the supreme position of an invisible judge and ruler after the example of worldly authorities. In other words: important aspects of a person's life remained projected onto somebody who was presented as a healing and redeeming figure. A hard pressed population channelled their hopes for the appearance of a true saviour into the veneration of Jesus Christ and into collective movements, which reflected the saving character of the Christian message. All the manifold political, economic and moral collapses affecting the population contributed towards an increasing closeness of the figure of a leader to the figure of a saviour.

The real "Fuehrer" Adolf Hitler benefited from all these hopes and projections, which had ever been directed towards a healer and saviour. Within the framework of our cultural system of values the place of the social super-ego, which determines and regulates the life of its followers was filled with the image of a Jesus who was to be the Christ. As a result he was not only deprived of his saving faculty but attracted a resistance and hatred, which could not be directed against the real authorities and their representatives. The fate of the real Jesus and his history were meant to provide an answer to the history of his people. His death implied no guilt. The saving power of that event was however obscured and hampered to unfold by subsequent developments. Neither the ritual transmission of salvation nor its theological interpretation was sufficient to compensate the lack of a real experience. Somebody or something had to be blamed for this essential lack. The fact that the Saviour had taken upon him all the old guilt did not prevent the search for new guilty ones who could be blamed. To understand why a man called Jesus of Nazareth took foreign guilt upon himself in order to invalidate the consequences of foreign guilt requires the insight and maturity of a productive life which has penetrated in its course all internal and external resistance so as to reach a point where the reality of guilt is accepted as of one's own making. Only such a life will be able to accept the self-caused guilt without blaming others. If and as long as a human being does not reach by his or her own insight this point of accepting the consequences of their own life, the alternative is structured as in the case of Jesus: Someone else must take the blame for the misery and the dark misfortunes of life. He must be sacrificed, following the example of ancient sacrificial rituals and of Christ's passion in the hope that it may bring salvation for the surviving majority. This logic implies that selected living human beings have to bear the sufferings of this world and God's grief through being killed by fellow human beings. The effect of this logic upon the average Christian is however disastrous. Killing 'God' individually and collectively by consent amounts to suppressing, rejecting and discarding what should and could have been the centre of his inmost spiritual life. Consequently he is unable to recognize his own guilt.

The lack of a true experience and understanding of what Christ actually could have meant in the lives of those who felt a deep longing for salvation leads finally to the accusation that the guilt for the continuing murder of 'God' must rest with the ones who directed this enormous message and the invitation to actually experience its truth towards people who had other intentions with the world at their disposal.

In this way the message of salvation through Jesus has remained a grandiose mythologeme, highly impressive and skilfully shaped, a fascinating presentation behind the veils of mystification - and hidden at its core the secret of becoming 'true man'.

To put it simply: it was no longer true that once upon a time one human being had died for the guilt of every human being, so that ever since the search for a scapegoat or others who as innocents would have to bear the guilt of the guilty ones was no longer required. Had the message of the crucifixion of Jesus, an episode in Israel's history, in its transmission through the antique Christianity been guarded and respected in its true meaning until the times when we started to organize the modern world, no voice could and would have shouted: "Death to the murderers of God!"

While the history of Israel as told in the Old Testament includes a clear recognition that it continually betrayed its true destiny in its permanent struggle for survival and that it was constantly criticized for it by prophets and seers, the Christian world felt obliged to falsify the results of its history in the process of shaping the new world called Europe. In need to find innocent victims to be persecuted 'in the name of God', a substitute was required for those who as the true culprits would have had to be judged or who should have cried for pardon and salvation.

The few survivors of the holocaust who were left to raise their voice did in fact cast down their eyes before those they had to accuse and charge - and nobody noticed their silence... The banality and the shape of our public awareness (or rather the lack of it) did not provide any resonance for voices that could not shout. The complex web of our past guilt is now meeting a generation who claim for themselves that they were not involved in what the fathers did and hence can enjoy 'the grace of being born later'. Here we find a basic lack of understanding historical connections combined with a basic lack of willingness to recognize guilt that exists even in the absence of individual proof or of publicly accepted responsibility. No doubt that the break at the end of the bellicose Third Reich in 1945 represents more than just another accident in an otherwise continuing sequence of history. Either we assume that a long history has definitely come to its end, so that in future it can only be told as a matter of the past - which could explain the strange ahistoricity of the present generation - or a long history is being forgotten because the beginning of a new era under new principles demands focussing on different strategies for life and survival. Neither reaction is particularly helpful. The responsibility for our history, which demands a change of consciousness, and attention for the psychic processes in the course of social reorganisation meets in our days with a generation, which has neither part nor interest in past conditions because they claim that history has entered a new chapter. Yet the accusation of guilt by the witnesses of the past requires a consciousness that defines itself not merely as the result of the existing social conditions. It calls for a permanent recollection of the fact that once upon a time there existed in reality a consciousness that was able to distinguish between what human beings ought to have done to each other as fellow human beings and what they had no choice but actually do as members of existing economic and political systems and under the influence of their ideological justification.

The time has come for the representatives of important public institutions to ask for pardon, to rehabilitate the victims and pay them compensation. The recognition that for more than thousand years the innocent had to bear the guilt of the guilty ones within the context of and facilitated by the church demands from the present members of religious systems a radical change in their ways of life. Yet the existing uncertainty about the foundations of a truly human existence prevents any recognition of being involved in a history of guilt. Which in turn weakens the ability to keep one's own convictions (which are theoretically accessible to analysis) in agreement with one's actual practice, and vice versa. To participate consciously in the sufferings of humans in the present depends upon the knowledge of sufferings of past generations. The present generation ought to accept the question whether or not they are willing and able to share the guilt caused by others, even if personally not actively involved. It is more than having to feel bad about it or cultivate a bad conscience. What is required in this situation are individuals and groups in our society whose social abilities will enable them to maintain their identity and integrity without resorting to violent or aggressive means. The Jews and many other social groups were not integrated as members of the surrounding society. They were not in a position to remind others of the limits they should respect, nor could they force them by means of resistance to maintain respect for others and for themselves and practice the Christianity of their faith.

The fact that Jews had no security in social terms, neither land nor the right to own it as proof of permanent residence made them appear as questioning concepts of national identity, property and social roles, thus threatening the accepted idea that being a nation was equal to possessing the land. What they did represent, invisible to the outside world, was an acute awareness of their history, which they maintained as the constitutive basis of their existence. Their contemporaries must have felt in various ways that whatever was done to Jesus was the consequence and expression of their own hopeless despair which made them delegate their own self-made destiny to the Jews.

The tragedy of all this is to be found in the fact that each new pogrom and each new ghetto organized under pressure from a self-created historical situation by people who were shaped as well as misguided by their Christian faith amounts to a persecution not only of the Jews but of a Jesus whom they had accepted as ideal and counterpart. Whatever the Christians did to defenceless and powerless people by whom they felt provoked were crimes against humanity which they committed against the Jesus who had been willing to bear without resistance the guilt of those who became guilty by killing him as an innocent. Unfortunately, the (hi)story of his life and death did not make future generations abstain from causing ever more pain to fellow man.

Each act of violence against Jewish fellow human beings committed by Christians amounts to condemning and destroying the matrix from which both the heavy ethical system and the never realized promises of salvation as proclaimed by the Christian churches have originated. The historical relevance and the sacralized reality of Jesus, a person of Jewish origin sharing the history of his people and by virtue of his decision becoming 'true man', represents such a challenge to the identities which developed under the historical conditions of the Occident, that the only possible reaction consisted in the unconscious resistance which produced such horrendous results. A Jesus acceptable within the social and religious standards of Europe would have required a form of religion and a consciousness mature enough to include the shadow aspects of the human psyche and its projections. Apart from the lonely paths of the saints it have been the Jews who in reality had to bear the consequences of following the example of Jesus. It took a thousand years to prepare the way which led to the annihilation of the Jewish people by the Third Reich, a way which time and again hinted its direction in advance, so that in the end it has become the history of Germany's (and other European nation's) collective shadow which overpowered this nation at the apex of its power and glory.


This page was created March 9, 2004 and updated on October 24, 2006.