What is collective guilt? It is, essentially, “guilt by association.” In other words, it is the belief that members of a group or race, although not directly related to committing some kind of atrocity by other members of that group or race are, in some sense, responsible for it. For example, certain Germans, particularly the Nazis, murdered millions of Jews in the Holocaust. Although other Germans did not directly participate in the murders, they are, by association, responsible for the Nazis atrocities.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who suffered in the Nazi concentration camps for almost four years and survived to tell about it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, vigorously opposed the notion of collective guilt, teaching that those who directly participated in the Nazi atrocities are responsible for and, thus, guilty of murder, not the ones who had anything to do with it. As a Jew, Frankl believed in the doctrine of individual accountability, which was taught by the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 18).
Shortly after being released from the concentration camps, Frankl began to oppose the collective guilt of Germans, making him rather unpopular in Austria.1 For instance, he wrote,
“In 1946, I lectured in the French occupation zone of Austria. I spoke against collective guilt in the presence of the commanding general of the French forces. The next day a university professor came to me, himself a former SS officer, with tears in his eyes. He asked how I could find the courage to take an open stand against collective guilt. ‘You can’t do it,’ I told him. ‘You would be speaking out of self-interest. But I am the former inmate number 119104, and I can do it. Therefore, I must. People will listen to me, and so it is my obligation to speak against it.'”2
Frankl realized that blaming all Germans or labeling all of them as “Nazis” would only consume his life with bitterness and hatred. While not forgetting the past, he moved on with his life and it was a beautiful, because he found a way to make sense of suffering and forgive those who so viciously tried to destroy him in body and spirit.
1. Viktor E. Frankl, Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography, trans. Joseph and Judith Fabry (New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press, 1997), p. 103.
2. Ibid. Italics are the publisher’s.