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Charles Maier's Reflections on Agency, History, and Collective Responsibility

From Charles Maier (1988), The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 0674929756), p. 14.

First, as typified by President Reagan... Bitburg history unites oppressors and victims, Nazi perpetrators of violence with those who were struck down by it, in a common dialectic. Bitburg history courts the danger that is reminiscent of Hegel's remarkable discussion of master and slave in The Phenomenology of the Spirit. It confuses the formal, logical dependence of victim and victimizer (there can by definition exist no perpetrator without a victim), with a shared responsibility for the wrong committed. As Primo Levy has written, both victim and perpetrator seek to deny the memory of the crime: "we are confronted with a paradoxical analogy between the victim and the perpetrator... but the offender, and only he, has set and triggered it, and if he has come to suffer from his deed, it is just that he suffers; whereas it is an iniquity that the victim also suffers, as indeed he or she suffers, even after many years."10

Second, Bitburg history finds it difficult to pin down any notions of collective responsibility. Admittedly the latter notion is one of the most problematic concepts for ethics or history. It is hard enough to assign individual responsibility, which is one of the thorniest issues, say, for judges, biographers, and others who must confront personal action. Individual responsibility has emerged as an especially difficult concept to apply to agents of bureaucracies or military hierarchies. Obviously it preoccupied Europeans especially as they debated the appropriateness of postwar judicial sanctions and purges against collaborators.11 It intervened as a problem in weighing the Bitburg site as one for public commemoration. But it is still a somewhat different issue from that of the degree to which West Germany as a national society accepts responsibility for the Nazi past, and for how long it must acknowledge such responsibility. In what sense does collective responsibility exist? Juergen Habermas's successive answers do that issue are considered in Chapters 2 and 5, below. The tentative and brief response, I would suggest for the moment, is that insofar as a collection of people wishes to claim existence as a society or a nation, it must thereby accept existence as a community through time, hence must acknowledge that acts committed by earlier agents still bind or burden the contemporary community. This holds for revolutionary regimes as well.

Insofar as past acts were acknowledged as injurious, this level of responsibility stipulates that whatever reparation is still possible must be attemped. West German leaders have accepted that responsibility, not with consistent good grace, but to a major degree. Nor does this responsibility have a time limit. Responsibility for a burdened past can justifiably become less preoccupying as other experiences are added to the national legacy. The remoter descendants of those originally victimized have a more diluted claim to compensation. But like that half-life of radioactive material, there is no point at which responsibility simply goes away.

10. Primo Levi (1986), "The Memory of Offense," in Geoffrey Hartman, ed., Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

11. The most interesting debates took place among the French. For the most ruthless position see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1969), Humanism and Terror, trans. John O'Neill (Boston: Beacon), who came close to arguing that whoever lost a political struggle could not protest the penalties that followed. To take part in a historical or political movement was to recognize that defeat was tantamount to accepting guilt. "We don't judge, we choose sides," says Henri in Simone de Beauvoir's (1960) fictional dramatization The Mandarins, trans. L.M. Friedman (London: Fontana), p. 144. See also Albert Camus' s (1958) The Fall, trans. Justin O'Brian (New York: Knopf), for a later attempt to think the matter through.

Death is a master from Germany

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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