Shrinkwrapped has written a series of thought-provoking posts on the survivor guilt of post-WWII Europeans, and how they might be dealing with it. Well worth reading. Three parts have been already written, and a fourth is planned.
He writes of an ex-patient of his (“Gudrun”) who seemed to take on the burden of guilt for what her parents–who were not high-level Nazi functionaries but ordinary Germans–did (or didn’t do) during World War II. Her extreme sense of shame about her mother’s family’s failure to protect and save Jewish neighbors caused Gudrun to sabotage her own life in many ways, and to decide never to have children.
In Part III of the series, Shrinkwrapped connects the present-day pacifism and passivity of many Europeans with their failure to face their own guilt about their (or their parents’) behavior during World War II.
There is no question that Europeans were deeply traumatized by both World War I and World War II in a way that we Americans–who fought in both wars but did not experience destruction on our own soil, nor were we faced with the sort of “Sophie’s Choice” decisions that many Europeans faced–may find it hard to fathom. Part of the European experience was their own relative guilt in the Holocaust, and this was not just true of Germans. The example of the maternal family of Shrinkwrapped’s patient “Gudrun” is an excellent one: they were faced with the choice of trying to save their Jewish friends and neighbors at the risk of danger to themselves, and they chose their own safety over heroism. They were not evil people, but they were passive when they might have been active against evil. Every European who was not an active member of the resistance during the war, and their children and children’s children, must on some level deal with the issue of guilt.
Some, of course, deal with it through denial or even identification with the aggressor. Some just aren’t troubled by such concerns and consider the past the past. Some, such as Shrinkwrapped’s patient, are tortured by guilt even though they, as individuals, bear none (Gudrun wasn’t even alive during the war). We don’t know enough about the human heart and mind to explain such differences; we merely note them.
Shrinkwrapped writes that the source of current European attitudes towards the Jews may also be found in their WWII experience and the need to deny feelings of guilt that, if accepted, might threaten to overwhelm them, as they did Shrinkwrapped’s patient:
The European elites show a great deal of pathology in their culture. They attempt to deal with their shame by attacking what they see as the source of their shame. If the Jews would only disappear, the memory of the Holocaust could be consigned to the distant past and never thought of again.
I would phrase it somewhat differently. I don’t think the desire is for the Jews to disappear, exactly. But I think the desire is to prove the Jews to be as guilty as the Europeans were, and thus to absolve the Europeans of guilt for participating in and cooperating with the Holocaust in such great numbers. And if the Jews and/or Israelis should happen to disappear as a side-effect of the present-day attitude of the Europeans, then so be it.
This can be seen in the eagerness with which explicit and frequent comparisons are made between Jews–especially Israelis–and Nazis. And, in a separate but related phenomenon, I think it’s at least partly behind the comparison of Bush to Hitler. If the Israelis/Jews (and American Presidents) are as bad as the Nazis and their European collaborators, this serves a double function: first, it norms Europe’s behavior during WWII (“see, there’s nothing special about the guilt of Europeans, move along now”); and second, it can even be seen as justifying the Holocaust, as well (“Jews are evil, so it was okay for us to cooperate in attempting to destroy them”).
Anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism not only both have a long history in Europe (the first phenomenon is an ancient one; the second has existed for centuries), but they both have a more recent function, and that it is to deflect and sooth European guilt. As the case of Shrinkwrapped’s patient indicates, guilt can be an extremely unpleasant and sometimes even unbearable emotion. It’s not so surprising that people will do what they can to avoid feeling its ravages.
One other thing about guilt and Europe. There is some connection between guilt and religion. No, it’s not at all necessary to believe in religion to feel guilt. But guilt is an emotion specifically addressed by religion: when it is appropriate for a person to feel it, and the various ways for which it can be atoned. It’s beyond the scope of this particular post to go into the manner in which different religions answer these questions; but suffice to say it’s one of the major tasks of religion to try to give people a way to assess guilt, and then to expiate it.
Europe has become far less religious in recent decades, and perhaps the loss of this mechanism for dealing with guilt is another reason the emotion has to be so strongly deflected there. What remains as a tool for dealing with guilt is the somewhat secular religion of psychiatry and psychology, and Shrinkwrapped’s tale of his patient’s treatment reveals some of the limitations of that approach to the problem.
Would Gudrun–and other European survivors and their children–be helped by mechanisms such as the Catholic confessional, or Yom Kippur and other Jewish mechanisms for expiation (please see this fascinating discussion of the Jewish attitude toward repentance and forgiveness)? Perhaps.
In any event, Europe’s unshrived and denied guilt can go on to produce monsters: