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January 29, 2005

Amitai Etzioni Dresses Properly for the Auschwitz Memorial

No virtual fur-lined olive-drab parkas for him:

Amitai Etzioni Notes: Are Germans still guilty for the Holocaust?: And yet, the lid refuses to be closed, the door to be shut. Many German colleagues and friends--and I myself--have a strong moral intuition that still there is something that must be treated, wounds that still need to be dressed and issues addressed. On examination, these concerns are best met by what I call the communitarian concept of communal responsibility.

Communal responsibility is based on the fact that we are born into a community and share its history, memories, identity, achievements, and failures. We are not simply individual human beings, who can retreat behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance," secure in our universal rights and historical innocence. We are also members of specific families and communities. We cannot help but share their burdens, just as we share in their treasures; their responsibilities as well as their privileges. Thus, an American inherits both the proud memory of the Boston Tea Party and the agony of slavery; both the marvelous work of the Framers of the Constitution and the slaughter of Native Americans; the vigilant protection of freedom--from Greece to Korea--and the killing of innocent children, women, and other civilians in My Lai. The memory of slavery is particularly telling. Abolished some 134 years ago, before the ancestors of most contemporary Americans had even immigrated, slavery is still part of the American past; we cannot erase or ignore it. Most important, our aggrieved past commands us all to act, not merely the sons and daughters of plantation owners. We are all co-responsible for that which our community has perpetrated and condoned, for both past sins of commission and omission.

In the same sense, just being a German means being part of both a great culture that gave the world Goethe, Kant, Bach, Schiller, Heine--and the Nazis. I am not saying that the brighter moments in all our histories shine to the same extent, nor that the darker ones are equally troubling. But I am pointing out that we are all members of a community, and as such, bearers of its burdens. Like others, I prefer the notion of responsibility over that of guilt, particularly when it concerns people who personally could not have been involved in the crimes committed. I do not hold that guilt is always harmful or inappropriate or a poor source of motivation for positive social and moral deeds. But it can generate negative feelings, and sometimes debilitating consequences. I know a fair number of younger Germans who are obsessed with Germany's past, who rather than drawing lessons from it, wallow in its wrongs. They turn morose and depressed, and are forever defensive and apologetic about their country. Unfortunately, like digging into an old wound, their pain does not lead them to make affirmative commitments. In contrast, the concept of communal responsibility calls attention to the fact that whether or not one is guilty in the personal sense, one has a responsibility to build on the particular past of one's community, drawing on its assets and learning from its liabilities...

He calls the argument "Communitarian." I prefer to think of it as Burkean.

Posted by DeLong at January 29, 2005 09:35 AM