Guilt: not an American tradition

guilt1From Quora, in answer to What do Germans feel about Holocaust movies, international student Johannes Adams gave an intriguing answer. His parents are German, though he was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He’s a citizen of both Germany and the US, and is fluent in both German and English.

Shame is an emotion that almost all Germans will feel when considering the last 100 years. We are ashamed of what our country, our forefathers and possibly even our grandparents did. And for good reason.

The Holocaust will forever remain a crime that words cannot, and should not be able to describe.

But here for me exists the main problem, and please bear with me even if it sounds morally disturbing and despicable. The German people have embraced their past, doing their best over the last 70 years to make amends to humanity and work towards a peaceful world .

We Germans accept the crimes of our people and country, allowing the collective guilt that exists already to pile up without an argument. We carry it, without protest, we feel guilty for something that happened long before we were born. As far as I am aware Americans do not actively feel bad about what happened to the Native Americans, in my experience my friends get quite hostile and defensive when I broach this topic. I think every current country and its people have something to be ashamed of, but usually these things are omitted from text books and generally hushed up.

But for the Germans, we continue to be told by all how horrible we were…

Germans should continue to feel differently towards the Holocaust even as history will continue to obscure and grey the horrid events of the past. Likewise I believe that the general trend of making 3rd generation Germans feel bad for things that they had nothing to do with must stop.

On the primary point: I think he is right that Americans don’t, and apparently never have, collectively felt guilt over the genocide of the American Indians or slavery or internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. It’s just not who Americans were/are. They are a “let’s move on” sort of people.

The truth and reconciliation process, in South Africa after apartheid, and in Rwanda after the terrible genocide of the mid-1990s, isn’t the American way, I don’t think. Had it been so, perhaps the problems of previous generations might have been ironed out, and we would not live in a country so racially polarized, still.

9 thoughts on “Guilt: not an American tradition”

  1. In New Zealand, successive governments led by both main parties have been attempting to make amends to Māori for what colonial governments did to them—confiscating their lands, chief among them. The British Crown had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with Māori chiefs in 1840, and as soon as the colony began to take more control over governing, it began to go back on the treaty.

    The Third Labour Government set up the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 to settle these historic grievances, and had great success. But nearly 40 years on, the process is still not complete.

    This has led to resentment from some Pākeha (people of European ancestry), and is a source of friction between Māori and Pākeha. So, while New Zealand has embraced its past and tried to make it right, that hasn’t ended resentment. New Zealand is certainly far more harmonious on racial issues than the USA is, but it’s not perfect.

    The problem, I think, is that no matter how much attention people pay to the wrongs of their collective, and no matter how much they try and make amends for the bad things done, that by itself doesn’t end racial conflicts.

    I think this is because it’s as important—maybe even more so—to concentrate on not being racist/doing racist things NOW in addition to making amends for the past. But I also think many societies fail to do this because we’re human beings and maybe some degree of hostility toward “the other” is hard-wired into us?


    1. No doubt that (to pick on a group) straight, white males in the US reject the notion of privilege because they are straight. white and male. Being two of those, I am recognizing mine, and being two of those, so do you.


  2. I lived in Europe and for a short time in Germany, and I can say Quora is right. Modern Germans are made to feel guilty about their behavior in WW2 in a way that I think is inappropriate, especially in light of the behavior of other nations. Germany didn’t engage in the Holocaust alone, but other nations, such as France and Poland, aren’t confronted with their role.

    With the Native Americans: when I visited Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian I was utterly shocked at how little I knew about the Native American Civil Rights movement. Can you name a major Native American civil rights leader? (I’m working on rectifying this as part of my summer reading.)


  3. Interesting premise. I haven’t really thought a lot about the general lack of guilt or shame in the makeup of the general American psyche, and I wonder if that is partly why activist-government liberalism has such a hard time of it. We don’t even feel particularly guilty or shamrful about the rivers of suffering caused by our own economic system.


  4. Those are useful.

    I know about some things – like Wounded Knee, history like The Trail of Tears – but almost everything I’ve ever read has been by white people about Native Americans, not Native Americans talking about their history or current issues.


  5. That’s a great website. Reminds me of Racialicious, which you also turned me on to.

    There’s academic stuff, which tends to be too focused on guilt and the past (imho), and then there’s stuff like Indian Country and Racialicious, which tends to be more real people talking with real anger, humor, etc. (imho). Both are really enlightening.


  6. This is a point that needs to be made over and over again. America interred fellow Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. EuroAmerican men instantly enslaved indigenous peoples when they hit the shores of “the New World,” which was not “new” at all. I mean, it was for the most part peacefully settled and managed just fine by people who had lived here for thousands of years! Then there was African slavery, the shame of which we still all carry.

    How about the Turks who drove Armenians out in 1915, raping women, killing children in the villages, and binding the men into groups to be left in the desert to die of dehydration? Check any Armenian family tree, and there will be a lot of “Died 1915” in there.

    The point is, just as racism continues in the United States, including the apparent, if tacit, acceptance of calling the president a “n*****” with no apology… and other high-profile cases that obscure the everyday barriers and slurs brown folks endure every day… is it any wonder that modern-day Germans want to say “enough”?

    Finally, I think it’s far too late for an effective truth and reconciliation process concerning the enslavement of African-Americans’ ancestors, as well as our indigenous brothers and sisters. That needs to be done when the acts are raw and new, such as in Rwanda. But what can we do, effectively, to make up for the sins of Stale Pale Males and the women who worked for them (like cattle, yet finally achieving almost equal rights because they are Anglo, like me?). Peace, Amy


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