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Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl on Collective Guilt

Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl on Collective Guilt

Only in movies and books is the line between good and evil people always clear. In The Gulag Archipelago (Vol. 2), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn immortalized these words: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

Solzhenitsyn wrote those words in the 1960s. Viktor Frankl made similar observations in Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946. Frankl helps us dismantle the idea of collective guilt, a concept that has once again found its way into our cultural discourse with the advent of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives.

Utah Congressman Burgess Owens put it this way: “The core principles of the Marxist ideologue are not diversity, equity, or inclusion. They are instead discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry towards individuals thought to belong to the wrong group.”

His three years in Nazi concentration camps helped to forge Frankl’s book. Frankl observed, “It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing” about the character of the man.

Group identity told nothing about an individual’s capacity for “human kindness.” Frankl wrote:

The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible.

Frankl belonged to the “fortunate” few prisoners who, instead of being gassed, endured near-death existence from forced labor and starvation. When a foreman gave him “a small piece of bread” saved from his ration, Frankl was moved to “tears.” Frankl explained why: “It was the human ‘something’ which this man also gave to me — the word and look which accompanied the gift.”

Frankl described the truth he learned:

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the  ‘race’  of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

Frankl wrote as poetically as Solzhenitsyn later: “The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”

Shortly after his concentration camp was liberated, Frankl and his friend were walking across a farm field outside the camp. His friend began trampling on the sprouting oats. Frankl stopped him. His friend became angry and said, “My wife and child have been gassed — not to mention everything else — and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!”

Frankl realized, “Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

In his essay “The Case for Tragic Optimism,” published as an addendum to Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl further explains why he rejects the concept of “collective guilt.” It is, he wrote, “totally unjustified to hold one person responsible for the behavior of another person or a collective of persons.” To make his point, Frankl shared this story:

An American woman once confronted me with the reproach, ‘How can you still write some of your books in German, Adolf Hitler’s language?’  In response, I asked her if she had knives in her kitchen, and when she answered that she did, I acted dismayed and shocked, exclaiming,  ‘How can you still use knives after so many killers have used them to stab and murder their victims?’

To say there is no “collective guilt” is not to say there is no individual wrongdoing. A convict in an Illinois prison wrote Frankl to deplore how society gives the convict “a variety of excuses to choose from. Society is blamed and in many instances the blame is put on the victim.”

When Frankl addressed convicts in San Quentin, he reminded them:

You are human beings like me, and as such you were free to commit a crime, to become guilty. Now, however, you are responsible for overcoming guilt by rising above it, by growing beyond yourselves, by changing for the better.

Frankl would maintain that wrongdoing in the world cannot be attributed to group identity.

Man’s Search for Meaning is one of humanity’s most influential books because of its power to guide human beings to flourish by making meaning in their lives. The basis of making meaning is taking responsibility.

Those who are taught they are victims are taught to shift responsibility for their decisions onto someone else. Frankl didn’t live to see DEI initiatives or our modern culture of victimhood, but his words help us pierce the illusion of collective guilt and ground ourselves in truth: “No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

Image credit: “Viktor Frankl” by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE.

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