The following text has been automatically reproduced by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) algorithm. It may not have been checked over by human eyes. For matters of precision please consult the original pdf.

The German as pariah

The German as pariah
Karl Jaspers and the question of
German guilt
Anson Rabinbach

A great deal has been written about Heidegger’s
involvement with National Socialism, and still more
about his notorious silence about the crimes of the regime
to which he lent his support and enthusiasm. Much has
been and will continue to be said about the connections
between his early philosophy and his political attitudes.

But, apart from Habermas’ s scant references to his role
after 1945, Karl Jaspers has received hardly any
attention. This is especialy odd, since in the 1950s
Jaspers and Heidegger were the undisputed giants of
postwar German existentialism, conjoined in numerous
depictions linking Heideggerian Dasein to the
irreducibility of man’s existence brought into relief by
the limit situation described by Jaspers’ Existenzphilosophie. Jaspers’ name was so often coupled with
Heidegger’s that he once considered writing a book about
their differences under an epigram from Cicero’ s De
oratore: ‘People are always used to thinking about both
of us together, and whenever people talk about us, they
feel they must render judgement about us through
comparisons. But how dissimilar is each from the other.’ I
Nevertheless, before 1933 such comparisons were
not entirely arbitrary. In the early 1920s Heidegger and
Jaspers regarded themselves as a Kampfgemeinschaft, a
kind of philosophical duo resolutely struggling together
against the official Kantianism of the day. Heidegger’s
Being and Time (1927), like Jaspers’ early work on the
Psychology of Worldviews (1919) and his Reason and
Existence (1935), are – despite their disparities explorations of how being is encompassed by what
Jaspers called the ‘immanence of the world’. Only their
earlier intimacy and fidelity to each other explains why
Heidegger’s commitment to the Nazi revolution was
experienced by Jaspers as so total a betrayal.

During the Nazi years Jaspers steadfastly chose to
remain in Germany, despite his well-known antipathy to
the regime and his removal from the University in 1937.

For Arendt, ‘what Jaspers represented then, when he was
entirely alone, was not Germany but what was left of
humanitas in Germany. It was as if he alone in his
inviolability could illustrate that space which reason
creates and preserves between men. ‘2 Unlike Die geistige
Situation der Zeit (The Spiritual Situation of the Age),
Jaspers’ 1931 jeremiad against the ‘despiritualization of
the world’, Die Schuldfrage (The Question of German
Guilt) was the first contribution to what Habermas called
the postwar consensus of the Federal Republic,
establishing the connection between a collective German
responsibility (Verantwortlichkeit) and a democratic
political identity.3 Jaspers later recalled .that Die
Schuldfrage was written at the moment that the crimes of
National Socialist Germany were first made ‘apparent to
the entire population’.4 But he was practically alone in
publicly acknowledging that fact. Moses Moskowitz,
who reported on conditions in Germany for Commentary
Magazine in the summer of 1946, wrote that ‘To date no
one (except the philosopher Jaspers) has arisen in
Germany to exhort his people to repentance and
expiation for the mass graves of Jews dotting half the
European continent. ‘5
After the war Jaspers, who was by then in his sixties,
abandoned the traditional reticence of the Germany
academic philosopher to enter the public realm. As ‘the
symbol of changed times and attitudes’ , during the 1950s
and 1960s he intervened forcefully in the great controversies over Germany rearmament and reunification.

Jaspers was no longer a philosophical outsider, but had
become the ‘Preceptor Germaniae’ of a new postwar
Germany, the public advocate of moral reversal and a
repudiation of the ‘national state thinking’ that had
characterized previous generations of German
philosophers. 6 In postwar Germany Heidegger’s silence
was a political statement; that Heidegger chose silence,
while Jaspers spoke often, and to as broad a public as

Radical Philosophy 75 (JanlFeb



possible, is of enormous political significance. When
Jaspers noted that in postwar Germany ‘no one can in
honesty withdraw from political activity and
cooperation’, he seemed to be speaking of Heidegger’s
militant silence. 7 Moreover, his advocacy of the
‘European Spirit’, of the unity of Western and nonWestern metaphysics, was clearly directed against
Heidegger’s continued insistence on the ‘German’ roots
of his thought. In his fateful report to the Freiburg
University Senate Committee in December 1945, which
led to the teaching ban imposed on Heidegger in January
1946, Jaspers noted that Heidegger ‘certainly did not see
through the real forces and purposes of the National
Socialist leader’.8 Their philosophical divergence was
emblematic of a wider disjuncture between speech and
silence in postwar German society: between the larger
private world of silence and the public world of official
declarations – what Ernst Nolte derisively referred to as
the gap between the pays reel of the Stammtisch (pub
table) and the pays legal of officially sanctioned
ritualistic commemorations of the crimes of Nazism. 9
Jaspers’ association with the postwar revival of
humanism, and the linking of political freedom and
democracy with the rhetoric of ‘guilt’, ‘atonement’ and
‘penalty’ (reparation) in Germany, was a way of reestablishing what Jaspers called the ‘unconditionality’

of good and evil in politics. In contrast to Adorno’s
undifferentiated reading of Jaspers as the ideologue of
postwar existentialist vapidity, Habermas stresses the
break in Jaspers’s thought, above all his insistence on a
communicative concept of reason, and, more
importantly, his view that only under the conditions of
free communication among political equals could a new
German polity be created. to
If theoretical or practical reason proved powerless to
prevent politically sanctioned murder, how then, Jaspers
asked, can the nihilistic threat be removed without either
opting for some illiberal volonte general, or entirely
giving up on modernity and returning to some more
traditional framework, for example, that of religion? His
answer was an unambiguous embrace of the values of
the ‘West’, that is, of Anglo-Saxon democratic
liberalism. Jaspers’ response thus helped produce what
Habermas has called the ‘basic consensus’ of the Federal
Republic, the implied connection between political
‘responsibility’ and political identity in the framework
of a neo-Kantian ethics. This connection, which
Habermas has called ‘postconventional identity’, has
been – and will no doubt continue to be – called into
question as Germany enters a new era of national
reconstitution – of reunification. For this reason it is of
interest to return to the conditions of the original


formulation of this consensus – not only for the purposes
of defending its original intent, but also to inquire into
some of its weaknesses.

A cursory comparison of the text of Jaspers’ Die
Schuldfrage (The Question of German Guilt), published
by Piper Verlag in 1979, with the first edition that
appeared with Lambert Schneider Verlag in Heidelberg
in 1946 reveals that a preface has been deleted in the
later version. This absence is understandable, since
Jaspers’ opening remarks, directed at his audience in the
Alten Aula of Heidelberg University, would have been
superfluous twenty years ago. But the fact that they were
necessary in 1945/46 makes us aware of the geistige
Klima (spiritual climate) that surrounded Jaspers’ words:

mistrust, scepticism, and the cynical attitude that after
the collapse of the Nazi regime the occupation authorities
were now imposing their ideological and political
requirements on Germany. Such requirements, though
they claimed to be the opposite of those commonly
spoken and heard in the same room for the past twelve
years, were in essence the same – a kind of spiritual
diktat; this time, however, from the West. ‘It is not the
way of thinking, but only the direction of the aggression,
or fraudulent glorification, which has altered.’ To
confront this mood directly Jaspers remarked:

All thought and research is, of course, dependenf
on political circumstances. But the important
distinction is whether thought and research are
coerced by political power and employed for its
own ends, or whether they are left in peace because
the authorities want to preserve the freedom of
research. 11
What primarily interests me in these and other
remarks directed at the military government is the fact
that Jaspers did not hide the way his own thoughts
conformed to the ‘political circumstances’. This,
however, can be interpreted as both conformity and, to a
certain extent, refusal to accommodate to circumstances.

Jaspers was certainly sympathetic to the American
authorities to a degree. He was present at a meeting of
‘reliable’ dignitaries organized by the CIC (Counter
Intelligence Corps) in 1945 that included Alfred Weber,
Gustav Radbruch, Regenbogen and Alexander
Mitscherlich, and he had the trust of Edward Hartshorne,
the man responsible for German ‘re-education’ at the
university level. However, in the complicated intrigues
and conflicts between the university (and its rector, Karl
Heinrich Bauer) and the CIC, Jaspers sided with Bauer
in his efforts to restrict the extent of denazification at the

University of Heidelberg, which was still closed. 12
Jaspers called Germans to a new ‘organization of
responsibilities’, one that was only possible in
collaboration with the occupying powers. He rightly
recognized that it was in fact a situation in which the
majority of the population would not or could not accept
the distinction between National Socialism and foreign
occupation, and that his remarks were designed not only
to explain the difference but to make that occupation
useful: ‘Then loyal integration into the wider context of
the emergent world order would be a matter of conviction
and real trust.’ 13 But this, I believe, only helps clarify the
context of Jaspers’ text. More importantly, from the
standpoint of 1996, I would argue that the ways and
means that Jaspers chose to argue his case are of lasting
consequence. For this reason I propose to examine his
rhetorical strategy from the perspective of the
controversies that have rolled over German intellectual
life since the 1987 ‘Historians’ Dispute’ (we might speak
of a half-decade long Normalization Dispute from
Bitburg to Unification).

My intention is neither to praise nor to bury Jaspers,
as was so often the case in the late 1950s and mid 1960s
when he stood at the centre of controversies over
rearmament, Verjiihrung, and, when he represented for
many conservatives Landesverrat (treason), and figured
at least for some on the Left, like Adorno, as the
representative figure of the exculpatory ‘jargon of
authenticity’. Rather, I want to examine Die Schuldfrage
from the perspective of the formation of a political and
cultural narrative, a story which, at least for a specific
generation of Germans, had authority, plausibility. In the
very ruins of National Socialism this narrative was
effective, precisely because it could rebuild the
intellectual and cultural edifice that had been blown to
bits by the end of the war. Thus, what interests me in this
text is how it exemplifies one of the first strategies of
confronting the National Socialist past. This was only
possible, I should add, if its source was above all the one
philosopher of repute who remained in Germany
throughout the entire National Socialist era, who never
collaborated with the regime, who was married to a
Jewish woman, and, finally, who was identified with a
‘cosmopolitan outlook’. Thus, Jaspers’ Die Schuldfrage
is the founding text ofthe new narrative ofthe ‘European
German’, of a neutral, pacifist, and, above all, ethical
Germany. Yet, at the same time, what interests me is the
ambiguity of this narrative, particularly as it concerns
the relationship between Germans and Jews.

In this regard I would like to pose three questions.

First, how did Jaspers’ self-conscious choice of a highly
theological language of guilt and innocence (Schuld und

Unschuld) law and grace (Recht und Gnade), evasion
and purification (Ausweichen und Reinigung), contribute
to the emergence of a profoundly important idea and
reality, the self-perception of Germans as a ‘pariah
nation’? Second, how did the ‘question of guilt’ lead to
the self-image and ideal of a nationless and cosmopolitan
Germany as the ‘Weg der Reinigung’? Third, was there,
perhaps unconsciously, a transposition or ‘change of
place’ that occurs for the first time in this text, and
subsequently in popular attitudes, between Germans and
Jews? To put it more simply, how did it come to be that
the German people, who had been a nation-state with
catastrophic consequences, could, taking the historically
nationless Volk, the Jews, as the model of a process of
self-humanization, themselves reverse the process? And,
vice versa, how could the Jews, whose very humanity
came from their condition of statelessness, in the wake
of their own catastrophe, now deserve a state to protect
them? Changing places: Germans and Jews; from nationstate to cosmopolitan citizenry; from cosmopolitan
statelessness to a Volk with their own right to a nationstate. This theme, which is ambivalent at best, is, I
believe, the unacknowledged core of the story that
Jaspers proposes.

No single intellectual in immediately postwar Germany
contributed more to the reorientation of German philosophy toward a reconceptualized Western humanism
than Karl Jaspers. His change, most evident in his articles
of 1945/6, and in his Die Schuldfrage, exemplifies a
unique personal reckoning and transformation in the face
of the catastrophe. In what was at once a moral journey
and a philosophical reorientation, Jaspers attempted to
break decisively with the anti-liberal, anti-political and
anti-Western elements of his earlier critique of reason,
deeply rooted in German idealism – especially in Jaspers’

own prewar thought. Jaspers’ student, the writer Dolf
Sternberger, who, along with Jaspers and the literary
critic Werner Krauss, founded one of the first intellectual
journals in postwar Germany, Die Wandlung, once
recalled that ‘only the experience of Hitler’s dictatorship
made Karl Jaspers into a political philosopher.’ 14 Indeed,
Sternberger wrote, ‘a different Jaspers emerged out of
the obscurity of oppression.’ 15 The title of Jaspers’ first
postwar lecture series, ‘Von der geistigen Situation in
Deutschland’ (On the Spiritual Situation in Germany)
self-consciously recalled and commented on Jaspers’

1931 Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Though its
illiberalism and hope for a future ‘respiritualization’

cannot be confused with sympathy for National
Socialism, Die geistige Situation der Zeit exemplified the


melancholic pathos of anti modernity and the nostalgia
for ‘substance’ and ‘authority’ typical of the conservative
revolution of the 1930s.1 6 It is worthwhile recalling, if
only to underscore the contrast, that in that work Jaspers
condemned Marxism, psychoanalysis and racial doctrine
equally for ‘having destructive tendencies in common’.17
In his opening remarks to the 1945/6 lectures, Jaspers
emphasized his larger purpose: to provide a moral
guideline for German reconstruction, an ‘ethos’: ‘the
drafting of an ethos, that remains for us – even if this is
the ethos of a people regarded by the world as a pariah
people.’ 18
The possibility that the Germans are or might be
regarded as a ‘pariah people’ is perhaps the most
important yet overlooked theme is Jaspers’ writing
during this period. An admirer of Max Weber, Jaspers
derived his understanding of the concept of the pariah
from Weber’s own admiration for the ‘tarrying
endurance of the Jews’. In his Ancient Judaism, Weber
portrayed the ethos of the pariah people as one of social
exclusion and worldliness, combined with an inner
anticipation embodied in the ecstatic visions of the
Prophets. The suffering of the Jews in exile was the path
to inner purity and collective redemption. Yet, as Hannah
Arendt pointed out, social isolation was not without its
benefits: exclusion from power was a powerful impulse
to private humanity. For Jaspers, the Germans too, in an

Hitler contemplating the bust of Nietzsche


astonishing reversal, had now become a people deprived
of their national existence and excluded from the
community of nations because of the enormous suffering
they had inflicted on others, above all the Jews. Their
state destroyed, their country under foreign rule, their
leaders in flight or in custody, Germans now occupied a
position not unlike the one occupied by the Jews – in an
ironic twist, they had begun their own political diaspora.

Die Schuldfrage is an attempt to provide a guide to
the wanderings of the German spirit in this new
incarnation as a stateless spectre. But it also delivers a
warning: if Germans do not complete a moral selfeducation, this condition might become permanent.

Though its larger goal was to herald emancipation from
the nation-state and the beginnings of a new world
citizen, a politics ‘with a cosmopolitan intention’, it
provided the Germans with a programme for citizenship
in this new collective. As Arendt recognized, the new
global human solidarity envisioned by Jaspers is a
restatement of Kant’s ideal of ‘perpetual peace’, and a
rethinking of his history from a ‘cosmopolitan
standpoint’ .19
If the solidarity of mankind is to be based on

something more solid than the justified fear of
man’s demonic capabilities, if the new universal
neighborship of all countries is to result in
something more promising than a tremendous

increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat
universal irritability of everybody against
everybody else, then a process of mutual
understanding and progressing self clarification on
a gigantic scale must take place. 20
This necessary self-clarification was both internal and
external; it was predicated on a break with the major
philosophical traditions in the West which conceived of
thought as an isolated and solipsistic process:

Jaspers is as far as I know, the first and only
philosopher who ever protested against solitude,
to whom solitude appeared ‘pernicious’ and who
dared to question ‘all thoughts, all experiences all
contents’ under this one aspect: ‘What do they
signify for communication’ .21
For Jaspers, expression and truth were never distinct.

Thinking is a practice that occurs between individuals;
communication is not secondary to truth, not mere
representation, but central. Although as a mandarin
intellectual of the old school Jaspers remained somewhat
sceptical of parliamentary politics, he was also a pluralist
in the sense that he believed diversity and variety across
cultures to be the basis for a universal philosophy, not
evidence of its impossibility. Habermas’s view that
modem ethics takes as its starting point the human
communicative potential given in speech owes much to
Jaspers’ emphasis on the political significance of
‘limitless communication’ between, against and within

Jaspers’ humanism was not predicated on the formal
universalism of Kant, nor on the visible community of
the nation, nor on the language of ‘rights’, but on the
ideal of a moral existence achieved through
communication with others, what he called Existenz. For
this reason Jaspers always insisted on the public
character of his utterances, and on the necessity of a
public process of spiritual reconstruction. ‘Everything
base in public life can be corrected only in and through
public life’, he remarked. 22 This is perhaps Jaspers’ most
important contribution to the intellectual reconstruction
of postwar Germany: the insight that a public life is only
possible in and through a constitutionally sanctioned
liberal polity; that political freedom and public
discussion were indispensable to producing the political
‘transformation’ of Germany. Political freedom,
according to Jaspers, begins when the individual feels
responsible for the political acts undertaken in his or her
name. Though Jaspers was far less interested in the
formal elements of a new parliamentary system – parties,
interest groups, trade unions, and so on – he focused his
attention on the moral element, what he believed was the

unique element, in the German experience.

Jaspers was well aware of the obvious contradiction
between the historical circumstances of Germany in
1945/46 and the message of the Schuldfrage: German
guilt was established by outsiders, imposed by force of
arms and under political dictatorship: ‘We live in the
situation of “vae victis”. ’23 Yet this situation was not one
of barbarism. The opening to the West, the redirection of
German politics, was governed by the fact that the
political identify of the Germans was prescribed and
imposed from above and outside. The victors, Jaspers
added, were peoples who recognized ‘human rights’,
indeed whose history was bound up with their very
elaboration. Western values were thus imposed on
Germany from outside in an authoritarian manner, but
they were not discredited. A more serious inhibition to
their acceptance was the condition of Germany itself.

Political responsibility emerges only in authentic
communication among autonomous individuals, a
communication that was by Jaspers’ own admission
practically nonexistent in the atmosphere of ruin, hunger,
grief, dissolution, hypocrisy and four-power occupation
that existed at that time.

Nonetheless, Jaspers still perceived a possibility for
renewal in German cultural history in 1945: ‘We have
lost almost everything: state, economy, the secure basis
of our physical existence, and even worse than that: the
valid norms that bind us all together, moral dignity, the
unifying self-consciousness of a people.’24>This loss was
accompanied by an entirely new circumstance: the
disappearance of the National Socialist powers at large;
the end of independent German statehood; the
‘dependence of all our collective acts on the will of the
occupying powers, which liberated us from the National
Socialist yoke’ .25 But even if political initiative was
limited to the narrow scope of this situation, the
possibility of speech was present for the first time: ‘We
may now speak publicly with each other, let us now see
what we have to say to each other. ’26 A risky enterprise,
allowing Germans to speak after the collapse of the Nazi
regime. No doubt Jaspers was aware of this danger when
he wrote those lines in the introduction to the first volume
of Die Wandlung (The Transformation): ‘We have
changed inwardly and outwardly in twelve years. We are
still in a process of further change, which cannot be
foreseen.’ The new journal was not conceived
programmatically; it was to permit free ‘meditation and
discussion’. But it was also based on certain principles:

on a recognition of the ‘common origins of humanity’

and on a rejection of the ‘true evil of Nihilism’, of
‘contempt for humanity’, and of ‘heinous cynicism’.27
In an autobiographical sketch written in 1957, Jaspers


recalled that he was one of the few who believed that
‘since 1933 it was probable, and since 1939, certain, that
the events in Germany meant the end of Germany. Finis
Germaniae.’ What would such a complete breakdown of
the German polity represent? As Jaspers recognized, ‘so
many German persons, speaking German, partakers in
the events originating in the lost German state, would
survive. What shall they do, what gives their existence
value, do they remain Germans and in what sense do they
have any task?’28 These questions led Jaspers to his most
important conclusions. First, Germany is no longer a
political entity. Neither the German empire nor the ‘Third
Reich’ were more than a ‘short-lived political episode’.

Second, the tradition of German Idealism is still a source
of cultural identity: that which is still German, which
‘lives in the great spiritual realm, spiritually creating and
battling, need not call itself German, has neither German
intentions nor German pride, but lives spiritually from
things, from the ideas of worldwide communication’ .29
In short, the end of German political existence can now
bring into existence the true German – the universal

Germans could find solace in the foundation of
history (Grund der Geschichte) and in solidarity with that
which ‘human beings throughout the world experienced
in extremis, even if these values were despised in their
own Fatherland’ .30 But how could the twin evils of
nihilism and anti-humanism be avoided; how could the
anamnestic solidarity of Germans with the other peoples
of the world be established – how could Germans cease
to be citizens of a narrowly circumscribed nation state
and become world citizens?

If Jaspers might appear both excessively optimistic
and naive about the potential offered by the political and
moral collapse of Germany, his attitude towards the
allied occupation was much more pessimistic. He
considered the American occupation – which he
experienced in Heidelberg – to be ‘disastrous’. The
blanket criterion of ‘party membership’ excluded all
those from political office whose competence might be
useful, while the imposition of democracy from above
simply substituted ‘for the authority of the Germans
selected by you (the American army) the authority of
party hacks, party bureaucrats and their directors’. The
prospect for democracy was not good. ‘But not until
twenty years have expired can Germany be ruled by men
who are freely elected.’ Jaspers did not think that the
German pariah should be permitted a political life until
‘the power of reasonable men – who exist in Germany,
and I believe in good measure – has matured’ Y What
would that maturity entail, morally and politically? These
are the questions first posed by the Schuldfrage.


Die Schuldfrage was delivered as part of a series of
lectures at the University of Heidelberg during the
Winter Semester of 1945/46. 32 Its overriding theme, the
renewal of a German polity through communication, is
simply stated at the beginning: ‘We must learn to speak
with each other’ (7). This process, Jaspers added, is far
more than an inner-German affair. It alone could deliver
‘the indispensable basis on which to speak with other
peoples’ (10). Before Germany could re-enter the
community of nations, it had to undergo a process of
political and moral self-clarification, accomplish a
restoration of speech from the very ruin of language and
politics. What all Germans had in common in 1945, apart
from individual experiences of suffering in war and
dictatorship, was only the negative experience of being
‘a “vanquished nation” (besiegten Staatsvolk) delivered
up to the mercy or mercilessness of the victor’ .

Twelve years of official public propaganda created
many different ‘inner attitudes’, but permitted no
common mode of speech, no public language of
communication. The possibility of bringing into public
speech the private experiences of the Nazi era was made
possible only by the victory of the allies. Despite the
circumstances of occupation, the ‘opening of the doors
of the German penitentiary’ from outside made the
‘German soul dependent on this liberation’. Every
German suffered losses, but no loss was as great a~. the
loss of ‘a common ethical-political foundation’. The
result was profound atomization, the absence of any
social solidarity, deep mistrust and suspicion between
those who had supported and those who feared the
regime. And yet, Jaspers remained convinced, ‘Germany
can only return to itself when we Germans find each other
in communication’ (14).

Throughout the text Jaspers adopts the soothing and
comforting tone of a stem but sympathetic teacher: the
overriding mood is pedagogical, the familiar technique
of a teacher reasoning together with his or her students.

Of course, there is always something slightly disingenuous about this tactic, the sole voice. But he also
adopts the collective ‘we’, a voice which is conducive to
communication. There is no finger pointing, no selfserving rhetoric:

Affect speaks against the truth of the speaker. We
will not strike ourselves pathetically on the breast
in order to insult others; we will not praise
ourselves in self-satisfaction, which is only an
effort to make others feel ill. But there should be
no inhibitions created by self-protective reticence,
no leniency via silence, no comfort through
deception. (9)

By depriving the reader of a judging authority, Jaspers
writes as part of his own audience: ‘In such speech no
one is the judge of the other, each is at once accused and
judge’ (9).

Jaspers has a clear agenda: first and foremost the
separation of political responsibility from other forms of
guilt. The four concepts of guilt which take up the bulk
of the text are familiar. Jaspers distinguished criminal
guilt, political guilt, moral guilt, and metaphysical guilt.

Each is weighted differently, and it is clear almost from
the outset that Jaspers is far less concerned with the first
than with the last three. Moreover, it is really with the
third and fourth categories – moral and metaphysical
guilt – that Jaspers is most seriously preoccupied.

Political guilt, though it remains critical to the idea of
‘responsibility’, also remains elusive, and, apart from a
few very indirect references, does not distinguish the
different ways that citizens might demonstrate
responsibility for the acts of a criminal dictatorship.

Given the persistent controversy over the legal and
moral basis of the Nuremberg trials, as well as the
overwhelming inconsistency of those lesser courts which
dealt with those accused of crimes during the Nazi era,
Jaspers’ few sentences devoted to criminal guilt,
‘objectively demonstrable actions which transgressed
against clearly defined laws’, are barely adequate.

Jaspers simply relegates this subject to the authority of
the occupiers. The other sections of the text concerned
with criminal guilt simply restate the classification
worked out in the Statute of the International Military
Court: the crime of waging aggressive war; war crimes;
crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, Jaspers argues for the legitimacy of the
Nuremberg trials and against the commonplace opinion
that they were a national ’embarrassment’, or that any
tribunal of victors against the vanquished is outside the
framework oflaw. He rejects the tu quoque defence (that
the victors committed the same crimes) and, most
importantly, points out that the trials made manifest the
most ‘monstrous’ consequence of the crimes committed
by the Nazis. Hitler and his minions repudiated Kant’s
famous dictum that ‘no act should be undertaken in war
which makes a later reconciliation impossible’, a crime
which encompasses all the others and accounts for the
irreparability of the German question.

Political guilt, on the other hand, refers to those
whose political office implies responsibility for the acts
of state taken by a particular regime. But – and this is
perhaps the most important aspect of Jaspers’ definition
– it also includes every citizen of that state, since ‘each
human being is responsible, for how he is ruled’ (17).

Political responsibility is a direct consequence of

political decisions undertaken in the name of the
members of a polity whether or not they consent tacitly
or explicitly: it requires ‘reparations’ (not yet explicitly
financial), or the ‘loss or limitation of political power
and political rights’ (21).

In contrast to political responsibility, moral guilt is
borne only by individuals. Each individual is responsible
for his or her’own acts. The moral authority of the
individual conscience supersedes all other authorities.

‘Any haziness concerning this basic fact is as much a
form of guilt as the false absolutizing of power as the
single determining factor in events’ (19). Moral
deficiency is the cause of all crime: ‘The perpetration of
countless tiny acts of indifference, comfortable
adaptation, cheap justification of injustice, indifferent
promotion of injustice, participation in the public
atmosphere which disseminates unclarity and as such
makes evil possible’, all of that constitutes moral guilt
and requires both ‘penance and renewal’ (Bufie und
Erneuerung ).

Metaphysical guilt is by far the most ambiguous and
difficult to grasp of the four categories. It refers to a basic
solidarity between human beings which makes each
responsible for all the justice and injustice in the world,
‘in particular for the crimes that are committed in their
presence and with their knowledge. If I do nothing to
hinder them, what I can do, I am guilty.’ This guilt,
however, is borne neither by states nor indiyiduals, but
‘by God alone’. However, recognition of this guilt
requires an even greater inner transformation than does
moral guilt. It requires a destruction of pride. This inner
transformation ‘can lead to a new beginning of active
life, but only when combined with irreducible awareness
of guilt which, in humility, takes its stance before God,
and conceives of all acts in an atmosphere that makes
arrogance impossible’ (21).

Jaspers conceives of these four categories as distinct
spheres of responsibility, but also as distinct spheres of
action and retribution. Law might affect criminal and
political guilt, but not moral or metaphysical guilt. The
former are determined ‘externally’ by the victors (as
punishment, as juridical restrictions on Nazi office
holders, as general proscription on political
organization); but moral and metaphysical guilt remain
outside the sphere of legal action; they are matters of
individual conscience since ‘no one can morally judge
another’ (23). Collective guilt is thus a contradiction in
terms: ‘It is against all sense to make a whole people
responsible for a crime’, and it ‘is against all sense,
morally to indict an entire people’ (24). Since only
political responsibility is in any sense collective,
collective guilt only has meaning as political


responsibility, never as moral or criminal guilt.

‘Collective guilt of a people or of a group within the
people can never exist – except as political responsibility
– neither as criminal, moral, nor as metaphysical guilt’

(25). This distinction is at the core of Die Schuldfrage.

The political implications of Jaspers’ distinctions are
clearly stated in a brief section entitled ‘The German
Questions’. If Germans are collectively responsible for
the political acts of the Nazi regime, they are not
criminally liable for them, nor can they be made to bear
the full weight of their moral or ‘metaphysical’

responsibility by others. If in fact ‘the Nuremberg trials
removed the burden of criminal guilt from the German
people, their moral and political complicity was made
even more clearly evident by the fact that the regime was
acting in flagrant disregard of any known moral or legal
principle – including those of the defendants
themselves.’ 33
Jaspers is also concerned with the various plans (for
example, the famous Morgenthau plan) already put
forward before the war’s end to ‘cut up Germany’, to
‘restrict the possibility of reconstruction’, and to ‘allow
it no peace in a situation between life and death’ (30).

Although not directly addressed, his argument also seems
to speak against ‘denazification’ as an externally
imposed moral imperative. Finally, the question of
German guilt is also a political question about the future
of Germany: ‘It is the question whether it is politically
sensible, rational, safe and just, to make an entire people
into a pariah people.’ Although Jaspers does not fully
elaborate on this question, it is clear that his answer is
that Germans are politically, morally and metaphysically
responsible for the crimes of the Nazi regime, but that
the absolute majority is not guilty of any criminal act,
and that therefore to declare Germany a ‘pariah nation’,
to punish its people as ‘inferior, without worth, and
criminal, an ejection of humanity’ is unjust and inhuman
(31). This transposition is worth emphasizing. Did
Jaspers believe that the Germans were being unjustly
placed by the occupiers in the position of the Jews? Or
did he welcome the new pariah status of the Germans as
an opportunity? The first position is consistent with Die
Schuldfrage; the second emerges more clearly in his

What is clear is that for Jaspers, as for Hannah Arendt,
with whom he begun an intense and lifelong correspondence in 1945, human solidarity only becomes
meaningful in the context of political responsibility
(Haftung), for example, with the destruction of the
nation-state. His remark, ‘Now that Germany is
destroyed, I feel myself for the first time uninhibited as a
German’, affected Arendt deeply and can be understood


in this context. Regardless of any individual guilt that
can be ascribed, and irrespective of moral self-scrutiny,
political responsibility requires that each citizen is
accountable for everything that a government or state
undertakes in his name. However, under the shock of
recognition that the nation-state is also capable of
relieving mankind of its humanity – an annihilatory,
totalitarian state deprives its citizens of solidarity political responsibility extends beyond the borders of the
nation-state. According to Arendt, this insight is Jaspers’

most important contribution to the revision of Kant:

Just as according to Kant, nothing should ever
happen in war which would make a future peace
and reconciliation impossible, so nothing,
according to the implications of Jaspers’ philosophy, should happen today in politics which
would be contrary to the actual existing solidarity
of mankind. 34
Arendt, however, focused even more sharply on political
responsibility: for her it was not simply moral guilt but
the active engagement of citizens as moral actors that
was missing in the tradition of the nation-state (and, by
implication, in Die Schuldfrage as well).

As an attempt to formulate the principles of postHitler political methods which transcend the nation-state
– that is, as a document of pan-Europeanism – Die
Schuldfrage should be read in the light of two other texts
Jaspers produced in the same period: ‘V om europaischen
Geist’ (On the European Spirit), a lecture on European
unity which he delivered in Geneva in September 1945,
and historical epic, Vom Wesen und Ziel der Geschichte
(On the Essence and Goal of History) (1949). In both of
these works Jaspers developed some of the larger
implications of his postwar philosophy of Existenz. In
194617 Jaspers put forward the view that ‘Metaphysical
ideals are not taken as straightforwardly true, but each
stands for the truth of some realm of faith.’ As Habermas
commented, this philosophy of history brings humanity
together ‘coercively’ in order to ‘grasp its chance for a
fragile solidarity’ .35 But, in a letter of 19 October 1946,
Jaspers conceded to Arendt that this solidarity which he
included in the concept of metaphysical guilt ‘has
nothing to do’ with the kind of political solidarity – or
citizenship – she envisioned. In fact, he notes,
the demand for political solidarity is only valid
where the cooperation of a larger part of the
population can be counted on. This was frequently
there in Italy under Fascism. It is in Germany
simply not present, and cannot be immediately
demanded. It emerges only from the total context
of living with one another. 36

In other words, ‘solidarity’ as Jaspers conceived of it was
largely a metaphysical concept (before God) but not a
political one, not something which could be achieved
among Germans.

Germans therefore seem to be incapable of the
political solidarity and active moral behaviour that would
qualify them to become citizens either in Arendt’s or
even in Jaspers’, more ecumenical, sense. They are in a
state of tutelage, one which requires a moral confrontation with their own guilt, and if possible the
metaphysical recognition that would allow them to
surpass the narrower horizon of political and moral
responsibility. But since they cannot achieve this they
must remain, in some sense, a pariah people.

Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Judenpa8, 1943

‘dismemberment’ of Germany could not be counted
among the other misfortunes suffered by Germans after
the war: it might even be considered a blessing.

The break that Jaspers embodied was a major caesura
in the political and intellectual constellation of the
German philosophical tradition. His work was a clear
repudiation of the dream of a German hegemony in
Central Europe, and of the ‘special path’ which severed
German thought and politics from the traditions of the
Enlightenment. Jaspers also broke decisively with the
ideal of national identity as the basis for German social
cohesion in the post-Hitler era. Rather, he saw the very
lack of national and moral cohesion as an opportunity for
reconstituting any future polity along new lines. Finally,
and most importantly, he gave intellectual support to the
emergence of a minimum ‘national consensus’ in
German political life: that any future German state would
become responsible for the crimes of the former, that
political responsibility – whatever form that might take:

reparations, trials of criminals, education – would be an
integral part of postwar Germany.

Jiirgen Habermas, in his role as chief protagonist of
the Historikerstreit, invoked Jaspers to re-emphasize the
continuing necessity of this commitment and the need to
criticize the neo-conservative attempt to destroy that
long-established consensus, to reject the reassertion of
the national-state tradition, and, above all, to substitute
for a new and cleansed ‘national identity’ w~at Habermas
has called the ‘post-traditional’ political identity of
postwar Germans. 37


For it is only in the untroubled consciousness of a
break with our disastrous traditions that the Federal
Republic’s unreserved openness to the political
culture of the West will mean more than an
opportunity that is economically attractive and
inevitable in terms of power politics. 38

Jaspers’ central role in the intellectual development of
post-1945 Germany cannot be underestimated. He
embodied the casting off of a certain type of German
intellectual tradition, identified with pre-1933 German
Romantic philosophy and still embodied in the stance of
Heidegger- insular, anti-humanist and anti-Western. His
embrace of the values of the Enlightenment – though
mediated through a Protestant existentialist world-view
– provided the orientation point for Germany’s first
major confrontation with the Nazi past. Moreover,
Jaspers inaugurated the rejection of the liberal tradition
of power politics closely identified with Max Weber:

Staatsraison belonged irredeemably to the context of
events that led to the German calamity. Germany could
henceforth belong to the community of nations only by
rejecting the tradition of the nation-state. Thus, the

Jaspers’ legacy requires that the memory of Auschwitz
continue to be part of German political consciousness:

‘to keep alive, without distortion, and not only in an
intellectual form, the memory of the sufferings of those
who were murdered by German hands.’39
Habermas’s explicit acknowledgement of Jaspers’

significance for the moral reconstitution of postwar
Germany should not, however, obscure some of the
lingering weaknesses of Die Schuldfrage. The separation
of German guilt into two spheres, moraVmetaphysical
and criminal/political, gave considerable support to the
so-called ‘silent’ Vergangenheitsbewiiltigung (coming to
terms with the past) of the immediate postwar years. It
encouraged the view that politics and morality were
distinct and separate spheres, and that Nazism could be
regarded as an unfortunate political episode attributable


to Hitler and his fanatical acolytes. The concept of
metaphysical solidarity, with its manifest religiosity and
pomposity, justifies some of Adorno’s bitterest
comments in his diatribe against the apologetic rhetoric
of postwar existentialism, The Jargon of Authenticity.

Jaspers’ emphasis on absolution, authenticity and
decision was in no small part responsible for much of the
public language of the postwar era, which, as Adorno
contemptuously remarked, ‘grasped at the banal, while
elevating it and enshrining it in bronze at the very heights,
much in the same manner that fascism cleverly mixed
the plebeian and the elite’ .40
Jaspers’ strict separation of political and moral
responsibility also permitted the political culture of the
early Federal Republic to substitute financial reparations
and public declarations of responsibility for what might
have been more effective and less ritualized attempts to
reveal the truth of the Nazi past. It helped to discredit
denazification, though admittedly these efforts were
haphazard and poorly executed. Despite Jaspers’

insistence on communication, Die Schuldfrage was still
written in the language of German Idealism, with its
oblique references and ethereal prose. Yet Jaspers’

failure to name the crime against the Jews (although it is
obliquely referred to), or to elaborate on the nature of
National Socialism’s ‘singularity’, did not fully discredit
the exculpations that Jaspers refutes. The work’s very
sobriety, as Arendt recognized, was in no small part
exculpation by understatement.

Even the most courageous aspects of Die Schuldfrage
cannot be considered unproblematic. Not only did the
repression of National Socialism in the 1950s have its
social and psychological consequences (authoritarianism, anti-communism, die deutsche Dumpjheit [German
stuffiness] – as the generation of ’68 often called it), but
the acceptance of responsibility (in Jaspers’ sense) also
contributed to the permanent ‘oversensitivity’ of many
German liberals and leftists to all forms of oppression,
the compUlsive need to identify with ‘victims’, and the
projection of the ‘fascist imaginary’ onto contemporary
events. A permanent consequence of the superior
‘coming to terms with the past’ represented by Jaspers’

Schuldfrage was an ‘exaggerated superego’, especially
evident in the protagonists during the intense debate over
the Gulf War in 1991. Ironically, in the aftermath of the
national self-assertion of 1989/90, the Gulf War
confronted Germans with a choice between peace and
politics; between absolute innocence and the democratic
commitment to a lesser evil. The aftershock of German
guilt, especially in the peace movement, turned a
legitimate anxiety of ecological disaster caused by war
into the apocalyptic image of world-liquidating war:


authentic sympathy for the suffering of war victims, and
of the Kurds and Shi’ites persecuted by the war, turned
into moralizing self-justification. The result was not a
simple pacifism but the inverted nationalism of the
eternally penitential nation.

Yet, despite these more problematic aspects, Die
Schuldfrage was an important beginning. It raised all of
the issues that have subsequently been part of the West
German confrontation with the past for more than four
decades: abnormality versus continuity; national identity
versus the burden of memory. Jaspers was the first to
break decisively with the characteristic stance of preNazi German philosophy, with its neo-romantic critique
of Western decadence and lack of spirituality, so
characteristic of both conservative and certain Marxist
trends in German philosophy after 1870.

Jaspers was also the first German philosopher who
remained in Germany to identify the centrality of
Auschwitz for postwar German political consciousness.

His contribution above all else was to insist, in
Habermas’s words, that
Auschwitz has become the signature of an entire
epoch – and it concerns all of us. Something
happened there that no one could previously have
thought even possible. It touched a deep layer of
solidarity among all who have a human face. Until
then – in spite of the quasi-natural brutalities of
world history – we had simply taken the integri~y
of this deep layer for granted. At that point a bond
of naivete was tom to shreds – a naivete that as
such had nourished historical continuities.

Auschwitz altered the conditions for the
continuation of a tissue of historical life and not
only in Germany.41

1. Hans Saner, Karl Jaspers, Rowohlt, Hamburg, 1970, p.


2. Hannah Arendt, ‘Karl Jaspers: A Laudatio’, in Men in
Dark Times, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1955,

3. 1tirgen Habermas, ‘On the Public Use of History’, The
New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the
Historians’ Debate, trans. and edited by Shierry Weber
Nicholsen, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 233.

4. Karl Jaspers, ‘Nachwort 1962 Uber meine “Schuldfrage”, ,
Die Schuldfrage, Piper Verlag, Munich, 1965, p. 84.

5. Moses Moskowitz, ‘The Germans and the Jews: Postwar
Report’, Commentary 112,1946, p. 8; cited in Frank Stern,
Im Anfang war Auschwitz: Antisemitismus und
Philosemitismus im deutschen Nachkrieg, Bleicher
Verlag, Tel Aviv, 1991, p. 11.

6. See Klaus von Beyme, ‘Karl Jaspers – Vom
Philosophischen Aussenseiter zum Preceptor Germaniae’,
in Hartmut Lehmann, ed., The Spirit of Heidelberg 1945,
German Historical Institute, Washington DC, forthcoming


7. Karl Jaspers, ‘A Reply to my Critics’, in Paul Arthur
Schlipp, ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, Open Court,
La Salle, 1981, p. 753.

8. Hugo Ott, ‘Martin Heidegger und der Nationalsozialismus’, in Heidegger und die praktische
Philosophie, edited by Annemarie Gethmann-Siefert and
Otto Poggeler, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1988, p.


9. The historian Immanuel Geiss recently consecrated this
state of affairs as a necessary ‘balancing act’ between
public remembrance and private forgetting: ‘Even
Germans cannot literally think unendingly about the
“Holocaust”, which they did indeed bring about. As an
abstract formula for the necessary balance between
remembrance and forgetting – both necessary in
themselves – we might perhaps consider the distinction
between public and private, collective and individual
action, the former parallel to collective shame and guilt.

Collectively, and in the public sphere, the memory of the
Holocaust must indeed be kept alive also in Germany, in
general and historical writing, in the media and in public
discussion, on days of commemoration, on memorials,
and in concerts. In their individual and private lives,
however, those who were not part of the circle of
perpetrators in the narrower sense may be allowed to
forget in between times.’ (Translated from Die HabermasKontroverse: Ein deutscher Streit, Siedler, Bremen, 1988,
p. 151.)
10. See, for example, Jtirgen Habermas, The Philosophical
Discourse ofModernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, Polity
Press, Cambridge, 1987; Seyla Benhabib, ‘Kritik des
“postmodemen Wissens” – Eine Auseinandersetzung mit
Jean-Fran~ois Lyotard, in Andreas Huyssen, ed.,
Postmoderne: Zeichen eines kulturellen Wandels,
Rohwohlt, Hamburg, 1986.

11. Karl Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage, 1st edn, Verlag Lambert
Schneider, Heidelberg, 1946, p. 12.

12. Renato de Rosa, ed., Karl Jaspers Erneuerung der
Universitdt. Rede und Schriften 194516, Verlag Lambert
Schneider, Heidelberg, 1986, pp. 400–422.

13. Ibid., p. 374.

14. Dolf Stemberger, ‘Jaspers und der Staat’ , in Karl Jaspers
Werk und Wirkung: Zum 80 Geburtstag Karl Jaspers, R.

Piper, Munich, 1963, p. 133.

15. Ibid., p. 134.

16. See Ralf Dahrendorf, ‘KuIturpessemismus vs.

Fortschrittshoffnung. Eine Notwendige Abgrenzung’, in
Jiirgen Habermas, ed., Stichworte zur ‘Geisigen Situation
der Zeit’, vol. 1, Nation und Republik, Suhrkamp,
Frankfurt am Main, 1979, p. 223.

17. Karl Jaspers, Die geistige Situation der Zeit, W. de
Gruyter, Berlin, 1931, pp. 142f.

27. Ibid., p. 28
28. Karl Jaspers, ‘Philosophical Autobiography’, in The
Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, p. 64.

29. Ibid.

30. Jaspers, ‘Geleitwort’, p. 29.

31. Jaspers, ‘Philosophical Autobiography’, pp. 68, 69.

32. Karl Jaspers, Die Schuldfrage: Von der politischen
Haftung Deutschlands, Piper Verlag, Munich, 1987.

References in parentheses in the text refer to this edition.

33. See Martin Low-Beer, ‘Verschamter oder missionarischer
VOlkermord? Eine Analyse des Ntirnberger Prozesses’, in
Babylon: Beitrage zur jiidischen Gegenwart, vol. 1, 1986,
pp. 55-69.

34. Ibid., p. 549.

35. Jiirgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, trans.

Frederick G. Lawrence, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.,
1983, p. 47.

36. Karl Jaspers to Hannah Arendt, 16 October 1946, Hannah
Arendt Karl Jaspers Briefwechsel 1926-1969, edited by
Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, Piper Verlag, Munich, 1985,

37. On the Historikerstreit, see Anson Rabinbach, ‘German
Historians Debate the Nazi Past’, Dissent, Spring 1988,
pp. 192-200; Charles Maier, The Unmasterable Past:

History, Holocaust, and German National Identity,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1988;
Richard J. Evans, In Hitler’s Shadow: West German
Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past,
Pantheon, New York, 1989.

38. Jtirgen Habermas, ‘Historical Consciousness and PostTraditional Identity’, The New Conservatism, p. 251.

39. Jiirgen Habermas, ‘On the Public Use of History’ ,in ibid.,

40. Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity,
Routledge, London, 1986, pp. 6-7 (trans. altered).

41. Jtirgen Habermas, ‘Historical Cons;iousness and
Post-Traditional Identity’, in The New Conservatism,
pp. 251-2.

University of Essex
promoting excellence in research, scholarship and education

1 year MA
3 year Doctoral Programme

MA course components on Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche,
Heidegger, the Frankfurt School, Phenomenology
and French philosophy

18. Stemberger, ‘Jaspers und der Staat’ , p. 135.

19. Hannah Arendt, ‘Jaspers as Citizen of the World’, in The
Philosophy of Karl Jaspers, p. 541.

Personalised PhD supervision in a department very
highly rated for research and teaching

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p. 543.

22. Stemberger, ‘Jaspers und der Staat’, p. 137.

23. See, for example, ‘Die Erneuerung der Universitat’,
(1945), in Karl Jaspers, Hoffnung und Sorge: Schriften
zum Deutschen Politik 1945-1946, Piper Verlag, Munich,
1965, p. 31.

24. ‘Geleitwort fUr die Zeitschrift “Die Wandlung'” (1945),
in Jaspers, Hoffnung und Sorge, p. 27.

25. Ibid.

Staff participating: Jay Bernstein, Simon Critchley,
Peter Dews, Alexander Garcia Duttmann,
Fiona Hughes, Stephen Mulhall and Mark Sacks
Applications and information: Graduate secretary,
Philosophy Dept., University of Essex,
Wivenhoe Park, Colchester C04 3SQ


26. Ibid.


Download the PDFBuy the latest issue