Moral complicity and collective guilt


Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

Jessica Park / Chief Illustrator

Earlier this month, the 93-year-old Oskar Groening, a former member of the Waffen-SS who was stationed at Auschwitz as an accountant, was charged as an accessory to 300,000 murders stemming from his time at the extermination camp. Groening is part of an aging coterie of former Nazis and SS members who are being prosecuted under a new German legal practice where former death camp workers can be held accountable for any deaths which took place in the camps, even if they did not physically kill anyone while working there.

During the proceedings, Groening stated that while he was morally guilty of these crimes against humanity, he was not legally guilty. Under this new type of trial, physical proof of agency in the murder of innocents is required for conviction. It is that burden of proof that has made convicting former SS or other Nazi Party members so difficult. Of the more than 6,000 SS soldiers that were alive at the end of World War II, the number that have been prosecuted and convicted is fewer than 50.

For Germany, complicity is a new way of considering crimes, but it has been seen in the United States for many years. For example, under U.S. law, everyone who is present during a lynching is culpable of the lynching. One editor studying prisoner-of-war (POW) camps found that in killings of inmates in which hundreds are involved, all are implicated in the crime, even if they threw no punches. However, that is rarely the case in practice, which is why proving direct involvement is so important to criminal cases.

This idea of being guilty for murder without physically committing the act had us thinking about the moral and legal implications. We agreed that Groening obviously knew the scale of the murder around him. In fact, most of the surrounding community in which these camps were placed were also eventually aware of what was happening. We did not agree, however, on a framework that defined guilt based on complicity. Some believed that Groening should be punished for his crimes, while others felt it would be irresponsible to do it now, after waiting decades to bring charges.

Some editors were also concerned about his age being a disqualifier, as well as the length of time in between the crimes committed and the present day. It will be the 70th anniversary of V-E Day on May 8, and for many, that seems like enough time to for individuals to be absolved of punishment for those crimes.

Discussion of individual guilt led to one of collective guilt. Some editors noted how the collective guilt of Germany for its atrocities was greater than any other country. Germany’s collective guilt for the Holocaust is interesting for a number of reasons.

First, Germany ultimately paid reparations to the Jewish people. For some context, the only group that the U.S. has paid reparations to is the Japanese Americans for their internment during the Second World War. These reparations were only paid in 1988, after consistent activism to right historical wrongs.

Germany also pays a significant amount of money to maintain historical sites where atrocities were committed. Auschwitz and other death camps and concentration camps are a constant legacy in the eyes of the Germans, in part because a physical presence is maintained.

We considered why Germany attempted to atone for its collective sins more than any other country. We believe that it is a combination of focused international pressure combined with its defeat in World War II.

The United States has never officially atoned for its use of slave labor or the genocide of Native Americans. We came to a pessimistic conclusion that we will only feel a collective guilt if someone makes us.