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Writer Martin Walser Reflects on the Difficulties of Living with German Guilt (October 11, 1998)

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Before one swallows all of this as a justified censure of one’s lack of conscience, one would like to ask in return why, for example, in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, which after all did not begin to appear until 1795, there is no mention of the guillotine. And when I see myself subjected to moral and political censure in this fashion, a memory forces its way into my consciousness. In 1977, not far from here in Bergen-Enkheim, I had to give a speech, and I used the occasion back then to make the following confession: “I find it unbearable to make German history end in a product of catastrophe, however bad its recent course has been.” And: “We must grant as little recognition to West Germany, I say, trembling with my boldness, as we do to the East. We must keep open the wound called Germany.” I think of this because once again now I tremble with my own audacity when I say: Auschwitz is not suited to become a routine threat, a means of intimidation or moral bludgeon that can be employed on any occasion, or even a compulsory exercise. All that comes into being through ritualization has the quality of lip service. But what suspicion does one invite when one says that the Germans today are a perfectly normal people, a perfectly ordinary society?

Posterity will be able to read one day, in all the discussions concerning the Holocaust Monument in Berlin, what people stirred up when they felt themselves responsible for the conscience of others: paving over the center of our capital to create a nightmare the size of a football field. The monumentalization of our disgrace. The historian Heinrich August Winkler calls this “negative nationalism.” I dare to assert that this is not a bit better than its opposite, even if it appears a thousand times better. Probably there is a banality of the good too.

Anything you say to someone else, you should say exactly the same to yourself, at the very least. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s really nothing but wishful thinking. To speak of one’s own failings in public? All of a sudden this too becomes just a phrase. The fact that such outcomes are difficult to avoid must have something to do with our conscience. When a thinker criticizes “the full extent of the moral and political degradation” of our government, apparatus of state, and party leaderships, then the impression cannot be avoided that he considers his conscience clearer than those of these morally and politically decadent souls. But what does that really feel like – a purer, a clearer, an immaculate conscience? To protect myself from further embarrassing questions, I will call to my aid two intellectual giants whose understanding of language is beyond question: Heidegger and Hegel. Heidegger in his 1927 work Being and Time: “Becoming certain of not having done something does not possess the character of a phenomenon of conscience. On the contrary: this becoming certain of not having done something can sooner mean a forgetting of conscience.” That is, put less precisely: a clear conscience is as perceptible as the lack of a headache. But then it is said in the paragraph of Being and Time about conscience: “Being guilty is part of being itself.” I hope that this won’t once again be understood right away as a convenient phrase for letting off the hook those contemporary obscurantists who don’t want to feel guilty. And now Hegel. Hegel writes in his Philosophy of Right: “Conscience, that deepest inward solitude within oneself, where all that is external and all that is limited disappears, this thoroughgoing withdrawal into oneself.”

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