Why Russians should take collective responsibility for the war

How to apply the experience of overcoming Nazism in Germany to modern Russia

Some Western intellectuals prefer to call Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine – a Putin’s war or a Kremlin’s war. And they have an explanation for this: they say that ordinary Russians are not guilty of the crimes of the authoritarian regime. Some also appeal to the fact that Russian culture is a part of the world’s culture, and therefore all Russian people cannot be blamed for what is happening in Ukraine. In short, they are convinced all the blame lies solely with Putin’s regime. However, eighty years ago, the West took a completely different position regarding Nazi Germany. Just like it is now, no one denied the importance of German culture, but it was the German people who were to blame for the Nazi crimes – all of them, not just Adolf Hitler and the elite of the Third Reich. The principle of collective responsibility for war and war crimes was at the heart of Western policy toward Germany. What exactly did this principle entail? And was it justified?

People are guilty of crimes committed by the state because they are citizens of this state. Because any power in the twentieth century comes from the people. First, the people choose a political force or at least allow it to come to power because it promises to fulfil their wishes, obvious ones or unspoken. Secondly, if the government later starts committing criminal acts and the people do not oppose it, then they secretly approve of these crimes.

The American occupation administration carried out the denazification and re-education of the German people. The latter was large-scale. The Germans were forced to visit the execution sites and mass graves of concentration camp prisoners, and sometimes to bury their remains. Information posters about Nazi crimes called “These crimes are your fault!” Were hung everywhere in the cities. To obtain food stamps, Germans had to watch documentaries about Nazi death camps. The arguments “We didn’t know” or “We didn’t do any of this” were not accepted: everyone was guilty. But denazification on the other hand was more nuanced. According to it, all German citizens were divided into 5 classes: acquitted (Entlastete), sympathisers (Mitläufer), those whose guilt was insignificant (Minderbelastete), guilty (Belastete) and the main culprits (Hauptschuldige). The punishment depended on the class the person was assigned. The Germans were to be classified by the courts. But it is important to mention that all officials and soldiers of the Third Reich fell into the category of “guilty”. Even if it was not established whether they were directly guilty of the crimes, they were found guilty because they belonged to the state apparatus of the Third Reich.

On October 19, 1945, the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany published a document entitled “Stuttgart guilty plea” (Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis). In it, the Evangelical Church of Germany pleaded guilty to deviating from Christian principles and virtues during the Nazi regime. The wording was rather vague due to the internal conflict within the Church itself. But on the same day, the initiator of the guilty plea, Martin Niemöller, delivered a sermon that journalists briefly relayed in simple terms: German Christians are guilty of Nazi crimes because they “did nothing, said nothing, did not take responsibility” (“das Nichtstun, das Nichtreden , das Nicht-Verantwortlich-Fühlen”). Thus, Germans were guilty not only because they were German citizens and had done evil. They were also guilty of not opposing, not disagreeing, and not holding themselves accountable.

Finally, in 1946, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers gave a course of lectures, which he later published as a book called “The Question of German Guilt” (“Die Schuldfrage”). In fact, Jaspers derived the basic principles which Germans should have followed while assessing their Nazi past. First of all, he identified four types of guilt: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical. Criminal guilt is the commission of crimes directly. Political – to be a citizen of a country that commits crimes. Moral – to carry out criminal orders. Metaphysical guilt is not to resist crimes that are being committed. We now know the most about moral guilt, because a decade and a half later Anna Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” was published: evil is banal because it hides behind the excuse: “I only obeyed orders!” This was the way Nazis criticised the Nuremberg and other trials of the Nazis: how can people be tried for violating laws that did not exist at the time? Even then, Jaspers made it clear that man not only blindly follows written laws, but has an inner moral compass. Metaphysical guilt is somewhat more complex. If in the first three cases a person is guilty of not preventing evil from happening, then this is a situation where a person is powerless to stop crimes from being committed. But the person’s fault is that he/she is watching the crime being committed with indifference – and does not even express a disagreement.

However, all these types of guilt are individual. The only type Jaspers considers collective is a political guilt. People are guilty of crimes committed by the state because they are citizens of this state. Because any power in the twentieth century comes from the people. First, the people choose a political force or at least allow it to come to power because it promises to fulfil their wishes, obvious ones or unspoken. Secondly, if the government later starts committing criminal acts and the people do not oppose it, then they secretly approve of these crimes. After all, Jaspers exclaims, power no longer has a divine aura! Centuries of revolutions and beheading of the kings have shown that the people can overthrow any government if they wish. And that is why political guilt is collective: it is the citizens who have allowed the state apparatus to commit crimes. Even if they did not vote for this government, they did nothing to stop it. And here one can not hide behind the excuse “I’m not interested in politics.”

We could have stopped here. If in the text of Jaspers we replace the Germans with the Russians and Hitler with Putin, we will get an explanation why the Russian people are collectively guilty of attacking Ukraine. After all, we have already heard the same excuses. The same explanations that the Russians are not guilty of Putin’s crimes. And seventy-six years ago, Carl Jaspers explained why these excuses are worthless. Even more: in the 21st century, we live in an information society, so citizens have much more means to fight the dictatorship, or at least not remain silent about its crimes. Social networks allow anyone to express their position. In Jaspers’ time, the state controlled both the media and the possibility of mass protests. It is much easier to coordinate people now, as our Revolution of Dignity or, for example, the Arab Spring has shown. However, even if this seems dangerous or risky, Putin’s Russia has a fairly secure channel of “feedback”: the government regularly conducts surveys to measure citizens’ sentiment – whether or not they support the government’s actions. This is not a social media post or a video on YouTube or a TikTok for which one can be detained in Russia, but anonymous feedback. And the situation in recent years showed that Putin is sensitive to such signals. After all, any government, as Jaspers and also Max Weber said, is based on what people consider legitimate, the right to do what the government does. And there is one more dimension: it is now more difficult to restrict access to information. It is difficult to resist propaganda even now, but it is tenfold easier than in Nazi times. One can always find alternative sources of information to those controlled by the state.

But one question remains: does collective guilt help rectify the situation? On the surface the answer is no. First, Jaspers’ text did not immediately affect German political life. Second, the active denazification conducted by Americans was not very effective: in the early 1950s, more than a third of Germans believed that the extermination of Jews was justified, and Hitler was not such an evil. Moreover, during 1949-54, West Germany gradually granted amnesty to all Nazi criminals. However, all efforts were not in vain. During the 1950s, the government of West Germany renounced criminal guilt in order to reconcile German society. But collective political guilt continued to be a principle of German policy, both foreign and domestic. In 1953, attempts to revive a right-wing or nationalist party in West Germany were finally buried, and by the 1960s, German society had already spoken openly about its collective guilt over the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. The author of these lines has the impression that Jaspers’ text was simply resting “in a drawer” until later, although it wasn’t forgotten. But it became an instruction to action only in the 1960s.

Was it possible to do without the idea of ​​collective guilt? Mostly such questions are answered: “History does not like the subjunctive mood”, but Germany was divided into West and East Germany, which had different historical policies. And so now we have some material to compare. Interestingly, by the end of the 1950s, the communist East Germany was following the same trajectory as West Germany: first the trials of the Nazis, and then their amnesty. Only East Germany relied on another foundation: self-liberation, not collective guilt. The Socialist Party proclaimed itself the successor to the Social Democrats, who were in opposition to the Nazis even during the Third Reich, and East Germany’s “birthday” was the liberation of Buchenwald, which in mythology of East Germany was carried out by the prisoners themselves. Thus, in this paradigm, Nazism appeared as something external to East Germany. Moreover, Marxist ideology gave a simple explanation of where it came from: Nazism was a product of capitalist relations. Thus, it was no longer the Germans who were to blame, but an abstract socio-economic formation – capitalism. And eighty years later, the differences between East and West Germany are striking. In particular, in the level of support for neo-Nazis and right-wing radicals. For East Germans, Nazism is not their own fault, so their resistance to xenophobia and racism is significantly weaker.

If the principle of collective political guilt is not applied to Russia now, the problem will not be solved, but simply pushed into the future, and not too far away. And then Russian imperialism will return, yet with the face of another dictator.

If the principle of collective political guilt is not applied to Russia now, the problem will not be solved, but simply pushed into the future, and not too far away. And then Russian imperialism will return, yet with the face of another dictator. And the recipe for overcoming Russian imperialism is quite simple. First, there is the need for pressure from the West – the constant emphasis on the collective guilt of Russians for the crimes of Putin’s regime. Secondly, the readiness of the Russians themselves to bear political responsibility. Because thorough, radical changes cannot come only from outside. Only incentives can be external, but change must be carried out and initiated by Russian society itself. And this means taking responsibility for a state called Russia.

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