The tribunal of conscience

To those who were brought up in the Western tradition of conscience— and who was not?—it seems only natural to think of their agreement with others as secondary to a solitary decision in foro conscientiae [in the tribunal of conscience], as though what they had in common with others was not an opinion or a judgment at all, but a common conscience.

Hannah Arendt, Civil Disobedience

The New York Times had quite an interesting opinion piece the other day concerning the recent trial of Oskar Gröning for crimes against humanity as a Nazi in World War II. Although the author’s commentary is interesting in its own right, it is to the comments section that I would like to address this post; specifically those that believe the German people should not be held accountable because they were merely following the “common conscience” of the time.

In her essay Civil Disobedience, Hannah Arendt discusses at some length the dilemma that people can discover themselves in when they find their individual consciences to be at odds with the common conscience of their society. Do they have a right to resist? Can the right to resist be enshrined in law? What protections from the law do or should people have who choose to resist?

Entwined with these questions, of course, is the moral obligation to resist. If you find yourself at odds with established doctrine, do you have a moral obligation to resist regardless of the outcome? And if you choose not to, can you be held accountable for cowardice or complicitness by future generations?

There are many who say that the German people should be absolved from the Holocaust and other atrocities of World War II, as most of them were merely following the established doctrine of Germany at the time. But shall we give the American slave-owners a pass too? After all, slavery was the established doctrine in America two hundred years ago. People who owned slaves were just doing what people did back in the day, right?

Except that they weren’t. Even two hundred years ago, slavery was nearly unique to the United States amongst most other countries at the time, and there was robust debate within the United States as to the right of one human to own another. Thus, the doctrine utilized by slave owners to reconcile their conscious was not the uniform doctrine in the United States, but merely the doctrine of those who owned slaves and their enablers. The people who owned slaves, and their enablers, did so because they were slavers who thought it was ok to own slaves in contrary to most of the rest of the world. Nothing more.

Likewise, a similar argument could be made against the German people. The Holocaust may have been the “solution to the Jewish question” devised by the Nazis, but it was certainly a solution unique to the Germans, and one for which the rest of the world was aghast once it was discovered. And while the extermination of millions of Jews may have been conducted largely unknown to the majority of the German public, the harassment of the Jews certainly was not. Thus, much like the slave owners, the doctrine utilized by the German people to reconcile their conscience was not some uniform “common conscience,” but merely the doctrine of German exceptionalism, of those who disliked Jews, and their enablers. They may have been caught up in the moment, but it was a moment they heartily embraced, in contrary to most of the rest of the world.

The example of the Holocaust is not something for which the German people of the day should be absolved: it is something that should be forever enshrined in history as an example of the consequences of intellectual and moral turpitude on a grand scale. The Germans followed their path not because they had no other choice, but because they were either morally complicit, or too intellectually lazy to choose otherwise. The true heroes of the German people were those with the moral and intellectual fortitude to resist that in whatever way they could. This may sound overly harsh and removed from the issues of the time, but to suggest anything less is a way of enabling such collective atrocities in the future.

When the war ended and the Germans were freed of the spell of the Nazi party, there was—and still is—much soul searching as to how they could have been collectively complicit in such atrocities. And this is something that will come to haunt Americans, too, when the current torture fever and Islamophobia runs its course, much as we struggle now with reconciling the internment of the Japanese during World War II, or the long struggle of civil rights in this country. But make no mistake: there is no moral cover in following the herd. Either you believe what it believes, or you resist in the means available to you. Where atrocities are concerned, the tribunal of history will make no room for moral ambiguity, collective or otherwise.

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