Some polemical thoughts on ‘national’ historical responsibility

by Carl Pierer


German foreign policy often talks about a particular historical German responsibility, some special status that Germans have inherited after World War II[i]. Even left commentators, usually internationalist in outlook, seem to accept such a notion uncritically[ii]. But what role does the concept of ‘nation' play in this context?

Ernest Renan writes in « Qu'est-ce que une nation ? »:

Or, l'essence d'une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup des choses en commun et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses. (…) Tout citoyen français doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe siècle.[iii]

At first, a seemingly straight-forward cynical remark. But in the revised edition of his hugely influential “Imagined Communities”[iv], Benedict Anderson realises that Renan takes ‘la Saint-Barthélemy' and ‘les massacres du Midi' as being understood, without the need for further explication. Anderson rightly asks: “Yet, who but ‘Frenchmen', (…) would have at once understood that ‘la Saint-Barthélemy' referred to the ferocious anti-Huguenot pogrom launched on 24 August 1572 by the Valois dynast Charles IX and his Florentine mother (…)”[v]? Secondly, as Anderson points out, there is something paradoxical to the demand that every French citizen must already have forgotten these atrocities, which immediately afterwards are supposed to be known.

Anderson's ingenious insight is that this particular way of talking about historical events supports the idea of an ancient community, which was always there and finds only now its political manifestation in the ‘nation'. In this way, it is not that these atrocities were inflicted by one community against another, but are to be understood as ‘fratricidal' episodes of a common family history: “Having to ‘have already forgotten' tragedies of which one needs unceasingly to be ‘reminded' turns out to be a characteristic device in the later construction of national genealogies.”[vi] Of course, as Anderson does not fail to point out, this idea is fittingly illustrated by the US-American ‘civil war': presented as a war between ‘brothers' always to be re-united into the sovereign nation that is the USA, and not as a war between two sovereign states, it seems only fair to suppose that this narrative would be wholly different had the South not lost the war[vii].

If Anderson is right in this respect, it casts some scepticism on the notions of ‘national' guilt or ‘national' tragedy. From a point of view that claims to transcend the concept of nation, it becomes very suspicious to talk about a particularly ‘German'[viii] historical responsibility, for – analogously to Anderson's analysis – such an idea would inadvertently deliver support for the imagined community of Germans. It would give substance to the idea that there is a community of Germans who, collectively, have committed certain historical crimes and furthermore that there is a continuity to a present German community, which takes up their ancestors deeds as their history. But a certain sense of continuity, a notion of historic responsibility, seems desirable – if only to overcome the naïve attitude to historic remembrance: look at what these barbarians did to each other back then, lucky us living in more civilised times.


In today's more-than-ever mobile society, should integration into a society not demand identification with this society's history? If so, the nasty episodes should not be exempt. An absurd thought that someone should work and consume, live in a certain society, perhaps even participate in its ‘democratic' political system and so willingly adopt this society; yet not ‘identify' with, as it were, or accept that society's skeletons in the cupboard? The expat, who pretends to have severed all ties to her ‘country of origin' and instead becomes an ardent advocate of her newly found home yet refuses to accept the society's disturbing heritage, is always haunted by the spectre of hypocrisy. Conversely, in a time where it seems more and more consensual that we do not accept as given the most intimate aspects of our identity (our sexuality, our gender, etc.), why should the arbitrary fetters of birth bind us to some location's historic guilt?

How, then, is it possible to account for the continuing relevance of these skeletons in a middle way, without either making them a ‘national' heritage, or denying their contemporary weight?

Of course, they are a memorial to all of humanity to the atrocities humankind has inflicted on itself through its history. Yet, to understand them merely as such makes them devoid of their meaning for they get abstracted from their particular historical setting. The Holocaust as a general horror, abstract and ahistorical, becomes banal. It seems that on such an understanding, a complete list of the most horrific crimes against humanity, maybe even ranked according to the absolute number of people killed, would be the heritage of humankind as such[ix].

Perhaps an alternative way is to understand these crimes as essentially located. This should not be misunderstood as some esoteric ‘understanding of the place we live in'. Rather, it is the material presence that grounds the abstract horror, thus contextualising it. Rendering oneself in the place where a historical event took place adds a very different dimension to one's understanding; isn't the haunting aspect of visiting a concentration camp is the realization that the theoretically known terrors took place here, amongst these very stones?

Because the house, the town in which these crimes have been committed are tangibly there, they give a sense of reality to these events[x]. Now, since we choose which historical place we inhabit, we thereby also choose this place's historical heritage. Furthermore, if it is no longer the society, the imagined community of the ‘nation', which inherits the history but instead the geographical place, the activity of remembering can no longer be abused in a ‘national' discourse. [xi]


So perhaps the international left should cease talking about the Germans having a particular historic responsibility as Germans, but instead about people individually, who chose to live in a place where horrific crimes were committed.

[i] As, for instance, here:

[ii] E.g. Bernd Ulrich here:


[iv] Anderson, B.: Imagined Communities, Revised Edition, Verso, London, 2006.

[v] Anderson (2006), p. 200

[vi] Ibid., p. 201

[vii] Similarly, a tragedy is declared as ‘national' and victims (who might not in the least be interested in this ‘nation') are appropriated into a narrative that sees the ‘nation' as a victim, with a ‘national' minute of silence, a ‘national' day of mourning, and the like. Isn't this thought illustrated by Hollande's infamous response to the attacks in Paris (“We are at war!”) claiming the victims of the attack in the name of the French nation? Civilians are not at war.

[viii] Obviously, there's nothing particular about Germans here. Manifestly, “Austrian” could just as well stand in for “Germans”. Moreover the same idea could be phrased in terms of British, French or Belgian (colonial) responsibility or indeed any other ‘nation'.

[ix] Isn't this attitude particularly well captured in the joke: “I really don't understand why the Jews complain so much about their 6 million dead – the Russians suffered 20 million.”?

[x] This thought is already found in Céline's great anarchist novel Voyage au bout de la nuit : « L'esprit est content avec des phrases, le corps c'est pas pareil, il est plus difficile lui, il lui faut des muscles. C'est quelque chose de toujours vrai un corp, c'est pour cela que c'est presque toujours triste et dégoûtant à regarder. » (Céline, L.-F.: Voyage au bout de la nuit, Folio, 2000, p 271)

[xi] The lingering problem here is how to account for the radical cosmopolitan, who refuses to identify with any place at all. But it is not too surprising that the notion of ‘historic' responsibility should not make much sense if applied to a person who rejects all commitment and permanently guards an ironic distance.