My friend, the man who tried to kill Hitler

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“Who is to blame? Someone must be to blame.” The impulse to ask this question in times of distress is almost overwhelming, and control over the way in which the answer to this question is sought, is power. The proponents of Brexit won the referendum the moment they were able to convince a significant swathe of people that the causes of their genuine grievances were not (as they in fact were) changes in world trade patterns and specific decisions made by parliament, but orders issuing from “Brussels”.

This example shows the close connection between assignment of blame and assessment of causality. But Christianity adds a third component to this complex: “guilt”. “You caused this; I blame you; you should feel guilty.” One might say that just as science governs (or ought to govern) assessments of cause and politics watches over assignments of blame, guilt is the domain of religion. But if religions are as plural as forms of politics, are the congealed forms that guilt assumes equally varied? Might there even be religious traditions lacking a concept of guilt altogether, or which assign a central place to some other psychic configuration?

From the age of 12, I attended a Catholic boarding school run by Hungarian priests who had emigrated to the US after the failed uprising in 1956. My experience there suggests that “guilt” too is more fragile and variable than one might assume. Notions like sin, grace, repentance, forgiveness, salvation were a constant presence in the school. Teachers also tried to inculcate a clear sense of the difference between true and false, and also between right and wrong. Science told you the truth about the material universe, although it was not infallible on any individual matter at any time. Astrology was false because the constellations of stars and planets at my birth did not determine my fate. Compassion was a good thing, but killing people was (in general) wrong, although there could be extenuating circumstances (self-defence). No one ever suggested that these distinctions did not exist, although it was sometimes hard to see where they lay, and in individual cases good and evil could be almost inextricably intertwined. However, there was a notable and, in retrospect, remarkable absence of finger-wagging in my school, and little mobilisation of moral feelings of individual guilt in the service of social conformity. There was little appeal to what I came to think of as the guilt-ridden individual Protestant conscience.

Most anthropologists are familiar with the distinction that is made between cultures of shame and cultures of guilt. Shame is an emotion connected with external appearances, with how one looks to others’ visibility. To be ashamed is to be afraid to be publicly seen by other members of a group as having some disfiguring and dishonourable defect, which is not necessarily my fault. Archetypically, the earl of Oxford, in the famous story, was “ashamed to show his face” at court when, bowing low in obeisance to Queen Elizabeth I, he inadvertently farted, and so he went into self-imposed exile. Guilt, on the other hand, is supposed to be an internalised emotion connected not with how I look to others, but with something that I have done and for which I feel personally responsible.

At my school, we were familiar with this distinction through reading ER Dodds’s classic book on Greece, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). Dodds contrasted modern guilt-based moralities with the ancient Greek popular morality. Popular morality in the ancient world was not based on internal feelings of individual guilt, but on shame, and it was centred around public admiration and humiliation, visible signs of success and failure. Greeks thought about their relations to each other in terms of honour, prestige, standing, and aspired to be able to take appropriate pride in themselves and those with whom they were closely associated. Many years after I had left school, in one of his last, and in my view, his best, books, Shame and Necessity (1993), the philosopher Bernard Williams took up this old contrast between shame and guilt, arguing for the need to rehabilitate shame. Moral cultures based on guilt were not, as they were so often assumed to be, inherently superior to shame cultures. His argument appealed to the account Nietzsche gave in On the Genealogy of Morality about the origins of guilt from an internalisation of feelings of aggression towards others, which we cannot express because of our fear of the consequences. With this appeal to Nietzsche, the two-fold “shame/guilt” schema gives way to a three-part structure: moral cultures can be based on fear, shame or guilt.

Nietzsche, too, gave an indirect answer to another question that might seem an obvious one to ask about the views my teachers held. The more one emphasises the complexity, obscurity and indeed opacity of human motivation, the more difficult it is to ascribe guilt. This, Nietzsche claimed, is an important observation that ex negativo throws light on the origins of the modern concept of the self, including the purported sovereign self of liberalism. Rather than saying that I know myself and my motives clearly, therefore I can be held responsible for what I do, one must, Nietzsche thought, invert this argument. One of the reasons people are so keen to retain the idea of psychic self-transparency is that it is what lets us hold people accountable for their actions. Since I want to blame you and generate guilt in your soul, I must insist that you knew what you were doing. Father Krigler, the religion teacher at my school, would have been happy to accept the consequence: because we could never really know what we wanted or what motivated us, holding ourselves responsible was a complicated matter, as was assigning the kind of blame that was associated with the generation of guilt. But he would have added that we should not be so keen on assigning blame in this way – especially not to others – and that the Protestant insistence that it must be made possible to assign blame in that way (to myself and to others) was just another instance of his eternal refrain – that Protestants seemed to need to make the world simpler than it really was.

Krigler, in addition to his keen interest in psychoanalysis, had also assimilated some of the available anthropological material on the difference between shame-cultures and guilt-cultures. He was familiar with the three-fold schema of fear, shame and guilt, and used it frequently. We should, he said repeatedly, do what we could not to allow ourselves to be motivated by any one of these three powerful human impulses. They were all completely natural and also strong, but we needed to learn to act in ways that were as independent of them as possible. Obeying God’s command because of the fear of punishment was the sign of a low-grade human personality – Krigler would have said a “primitive personality”. The same thing was true if one was obeying from motives of shame. However, Krigler also was insistent that one should not do what was right simply to avoid guilt. A sense of individual guilt might in some sense be unavoidable, but it was a bad motive for action.

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Fear, shame and guilt might be unavoidable, even if undesirable, individual feelings, but one could also think of them as constituting a spectrum, with one or the other of them predominating at a given point. To explain what I mean, let me contrast something that happened in my school with an experience I had later, in the 1980s.

In the first example, Father Senje, the headmaster, was livid; it is the only time I saw him truly angry. We had as a substitute teacher a novice priest who had difficulty asserting himself in the class. We boys tormented him mercilessly as only schoolboys – who are infinitely creative in this domain – could do. He was presented with a continuous series of tiny acts of opposition, minor irritations and forms of sabotage; all of them trivial, but cumulatively trying indeed. Eventually, it became too much for him: one day he lost control of himself, dropped his book on the floor, and ran out of the classroom. Five minutes later Senje appeared and spoke to us. What he said was that we should all be ashamed of ourselves for having taken advantage of the weakness of this man. We were here in our own house, he had come to help us, he was clearly out of his depth, and we had dishonoured our class and the school by our conduct. I note that Senje appealed to all the classic elements of shame morality: the honour of the group, how things would look, our pride (or lack of it) in being certain kinds of people. He never asked the question who – which individual – had done what exactly, nor for what motives. I am not suggesting that Senje was proposing to cancel out 2,000 years or so of guilt-morality, but the focus was on shame.

My second example comes from 1982-83, when I became friends with Axel von dem Bussche in Berlin. Axel was the last survivor of one of the failed plots to assassinate Hitler. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant aristocrat and a former military man, a much-decorated war hero. However, in Ukraine he had witnessed what he was told was a mass execution of “bandits”, but since he was no fool, the scales fell from his eyes and he joined the resistance. Since he was also tall and blonde, he was asked to model and explain the advantages of the new winter Wehrmacht uniforms to Hitler and Göring at a military review. Axel equipped himself with a bomb that he was going to hide in one of the uniform’s largest pockets, and at the right moment he intended to embrace Hitler and then detonate it, killing himself and Hitler, and, if all went well, Göring too. However, the Allies bombed the facility where the uniforms were stored, and the resulting fire destroyed them, so that the review was called off before it was to take place. He was posted back to the front and was almost immediately wounded, losing a leg, and this wound saved his life because he was in hospital when the next assassination attempt on Hitler was made in 1944 – the bomb in the bunker of the Wolfsschanze – so he did not come under suspicion.

When I met Axel, what struck me most was the particular way in which his moral world was structured around his conscience. Even 40 years later, he could not forgive himself, but not so much for having failed to kill Hitler – his failure had not been his fault at all. Rather what obsessed him was that he had sworn an oath to the Führer, and yet had then plotted to kill him. The Führer was a monster, but this didn’t seem to matter to him as much as the fact that he had broken an oath he had freely sworn; the guilt for that pursued him to the end of his life. I was flabbergasted by this and had the sense that I had encountered a man from Mars, but I think I had just met a proper Protestant. Fear and shame played no role in this: in fact, Axel was universally feted after the war for what he had tried to do. His view still was, though, that Hitler’s crimes were Hitler’s guilt, but Axel’s violation of his oath was his own unending guilt. I still find this way of looking at the world extraordinary.

This is an edited extract from Raymond Geuss’s memoir, “Not Thinking Like a Liberal” (2022, Harvard).

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