Germany's collective blame phobia

Germany's collective blame phobia
Photo: DPA

The Germans have a particular phobia – they live in constant fear of being blamed for something. A commentary by Der Tagesspiegel's Malte Lehming.


People don't always make the best choices, even if their aims are honest. Realizing this can be painful but it doesn't debase our common morality. We have to try to do what's right without presuming that our choice would automatically be so.

The Germans collectively made themselves so guilty for what happened between 1933 and 1945 that they've been trying to avoid being blamed for anything else ever since. They can't stand to leave any trace of their existence and are compelled to calculate their choices decades in advance. It's a particular form of German angst that was long confused with a general fear of concrete catastrophes. But aversion to nuclear energy, environmental destruction, global warming, war, contaminated food, and even having children are all based on the same fearful foundation: How do I avoid contributing to calamity?

This question at first sounds honourable enough. In times of war, in Afghanistan for example, the Germans hardly care what happens to their own soldiers, but are intensely worried about what their troops do to others. While the military brass in America, Britain and France usually have to justify their own heavy casualties, the biggest scandal in Germany revolves around a botched air strike called in by a German colonel that left scores of Afghan civilians dead. Other nations consider this a particular form of self abuse – the Germans love to flagellate themselves.

There are countless examples of this über-eager German compulsion to take the collective blame for some misery somewhere.

When a textile sweatshop collapses in Bangladesh, it's not the building's architect or the local authorities responsible, but rather German consumers buying the cheap t-ships produced there. It isn't just the neo-Nazi Beate Zschäpe and her four accomplices in the dock at the NSU terror trial, but rather Germans' collective racism. And German drivers whose big German cars spew too much CO2 into the air are to blame for floods in Asia, famine in Africa and violent hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Not forgetting, of course, the euro crisis. Seeing unemployment soar across southern Europe while protesters portray Angela Merkel with a Hitler moustache on her upper lip, many Germans contritely ask themselves if their chancellor's austerity drive is causing widespread despair.

Everyone seems to overlook the fact that there is no real austerity – the 17 eurozone members took on €375 billion in new debt last year. Spain's deficit tops 10 percent of its GDP, as it does in Greece. France will break the EU's deficit limit both this year and the next.

We can undoubtedly construct chains of causality between our own actions and greater calamities, however, this can quickly damn us to indecision and impotence. Isn't driving a car an act of gross negligence? Everyone has seen the statistics! Shouldn't pedestrians be forced to wear helmets in the event of an accident? Doesn't eating strawberries from Spain and avocados from Mexico incur steep transportation and energy costs? And anyone crazy enough to have children inheriting record debt and climate catastrophes might as well just go to the casino and spin the roulette wheel.

Maybe we Germans are tripping up ourselves with our constant paranoid assessment of the consequences of our actions. For example, do we even know that organic food is really better? Perhaps a century from now, people whose bodies have learned to cope with chemicals and artificial aromas will have developed some evolutionary advantage. And are we certain that Bangladeshi factory workers will benefit from making t-shirts more expensive, or will they simply be thrown into unemployment and greater poverty?

Living life leaves a mark. Living also causes unforeseeable consequences. In the end, living requires the courage to make decisions even when the upshot isn't yet clear.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.



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