Is it possible to speak of one people’s guilt before another? Is it necessary? Is it correct? The 20th century saw the emergence of the concept of collective national guilt and the need for “atonement.” This concept was extremely important in postwar Germany, although the people atoning were often not the ones who committed war crimes, published racist laws, herded Jewish and Roma people into concentration camps, or gassed children, but people born after these terrifying events who felt responsibility for the immeasurable amount of collective guilt.
In the 21st century there have been increasing discussions about the historical guilt of one people before another, and today’s politicians are condemning crimes of the colonial era and extending official apologies to the ethnicities that suffered. The latest example is Canada, where a mass burial site of children was discovered on the territory of a former Indigenous residential school in British Columbia. Children from local communities that followed a traditional lifestyle were forcibly sent to these kinds of residential schools in Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such was the policy of forced assimilation, which destroyed families, communities, and, as we now know, the lives of many of these children (the school did not even register the deaths of the hundreds of children whose remains have now been found). Canada has previously apologized to Indigenous peoples for this brutal policy. Now the prime minister has stated that this grim find is a “a painful reminder of the tragic and shameful history of our country,” and the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations tweeted that “Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities. Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families”
Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that stole Indigenous children from their communities. Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families. The loss of children who attended these schools is unthinkable.
— Carolyn Bennett (@Carolyn_Bennett) May 29, 2021
Another big story is Germany’s recognition of its responsibility for the Herero and Namaqua genocide. These peoples lived on the territory of what is now Namibia and were subjected to brutal persecution in 1904-1908, when they were wiped out by the German Kaiser’s troops, who drove them into concentration camps and tormented them with hunger, thirst, and back-breaking labor. Germany has expressed its readiness to extend an official apology and give Namibia one billion euro “as a gesture of recognition of the intolerable suffering” of the ancestors of Herero and Namaqua people living today. Interestingly, however, Germany categorically refuses to call this “coordinated development aid” reparations, which is to say that it is taking moral – but not legal – responsibility for the genocide. Germany previously refused to extend an official apology for decades and only expressed its willingness to gradually return the victims’ remains – dozens of skulls were taken to Germany in the early 20th century, where they were placed in museums or “used for research” (long before the Nazis adopted their notorious “racist laws”!).
Germany is not the only country to face the problem of returning the human remains (which are stored in the museums and other similar places of the colonizers) of peoples who have been enslaved and discriminated against for centuries (). In the same way, the problem of acknowledging guilt before Indigenous peoples for poisoning children in residential schools and destroying traditional communities, languages, and ways of life is not only Canada’s problem.
Obviously, the guilt of Europeans before Africans – for both past and current sufferings – does not just concern the Germans, or even just other countries (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, the US) that divided Africa up into colonies and turned Africans into slaves. Aside from these countries, the Soviet Union and China were also involved in post-colonial wars, battles for resources, exploitation, and ethnic conflicts in 20th-century Africa. For now it’s difficult to imagine what gestures the heads of these states could make today to recognize “intolerable suffering” and express their guilt before peoples (and not just African peoples) who have suffered from colonial and post-colonial policies, from racism, from discrimination, and from mass murder
Crimes should be called crimes. This is important. And what can still somehow be fixed should of course be fixed (returning stolen items, burying the dead, acknowledging previously denied cultural, social, and economic rights and supporting the exercise of these rights). So then do we still have to talk about the guilt of one people before another? Should the descendants of racists and slaveholders make amends? I think that in today’s deeply interblended world, it’s not so important who is whose descendent and what our distant ancestors did personally (and what people they even represented anyway). We have inherited not people of the 19th and 20th centuries, but ideas, a value system, which need to be judged severely. Until very recently, the people of the civilization that we all belong to (be they German, Canadian, French, or Russian) believed that children could be taken from “Indians” (the Chukchi, the Kamchadals, the Evenki, various Indigenous peoples) “for their own good,” even though they never would have allowed their own children to be treated in the same way. That skulls and other remains of “savages” could be taken off to faraway countries and displayed in museums. That, in the end, a land populated by other peoples can be “discovered,” that the flag of another country could be raised over it, and that these peoples could be driven off into the desert, herded into a concentration camp, or made into slaves.
There is only one explanation for these utterly savage notions of civilized people: racism, that is, the depraved and criminal idea that one people is somehow better than another, that there is some kind of collective abnormality or collective guilt. This guilt can be found in things that are completely made up: Christians sometimes rationalized slavery by saying that Africans are the descendants of Ham, who insulted his father, Noah (cf. the argument of anti-Semites that “Christ was crucified”). In the US, lynch law was most often inflicted on the African American population – this also reflects the racist presumption of collective guilt for individual crimes (people often speak wrongfully about “ethnic crime” in our times, too .
It seems more correct to place responsibility for made-up or real events in the distant past not on entire peoples, but on those individuals, regardless of nationality and ethnicity, who now assert that they are better than others solely by birthright and who tolerate hate crimes, which they justify with their open or concealed racism. When we see frontier justice and pogroms in our time, we should not deceive ourselves and assume it’s the victims “own fault” (“savage,” “dangerous,” “interlopers”) — it’s better to stop the crimes of racists now and condemn not just their actions, but the fallacy of superiority (which is still often shared by most of the other people around) than it is to later apologize and make “gestures to recognize intolerable suffering.”