Devlin on German Guilt

Back in 1999, I spent 3 weeks touring Germany with my brother.

When in Berlin, I was struck by the sheer number of public memorials devoted to the Holocaust. Unter Den Linden must have had, at the time, at least a dozen such memorials in its vicinity.

Sure, I expected there to be some, but it seemed everywhere I turned was another. It seemed… too much.

What immediately struck me is how… suffocating this constant barrage of atrocity-reminders must feel to ordinary Germans.

In “The Roots of German Self-Immolation”, F. Roger Devlin explores this theme:

… Germany is an especially easy target for the sort of emotional and moral blackmail. All of us in the West are supposed to be responsible for the ills of the rest of the world, but only Germans have had their identity entirely constructed on guilt for seventy years. The “denazification” process in post-war Germany was in many ways the original form of political correctness…

But perhaps the most typically German way of inculcating guilt is the Mahnmal. Dictionaries translate this word as “memorial,” but that does not capture the peculiar tone of moral condescension conveyed by the original. Mahnen, in German, is to admonish, as one admonishes a naughty child; the word also suggests ermahnen, to exhort. A Mahnmal is a memorial that speaks down to you, telling you what to think and feel, and above all suggesting that without the help of the good people who erected it, you could not be trusted to act decently, or even to keep from turning Nazi.

Thousands of such Mahnmäler are strewn at regular intervals across the German urban landscape.

A handmaiden of pathological altruism is pathological guilt:

Like so many European vices, moral self-flagellation is an unhealthy excess of a virtue: the capacity for self-criticism, the refusal to remain satisfies with what one is. European man could not have achieved great things in the absence of such a tendency to fight against his amour-propre. Today, European self-criticism is increasingly looking like a suicidal impulse. It is somehow fitting that the crisis is unfolding in Germany.

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