George Mikes on the “Collective Guilt” Hypothesis

A few weeks ago, I posted a short excerpt from a book called Über Alles by George Mikes.  A refresher: Mikes was born in Hungary, emigrated to England, and became a reasonably famous English comic.  They sent him all over the world to write humorous travel books, which became huge bestsellers. 

Because he spoke fluent German, his publishers sent him to travel through Germany in 1953, to see how the Jerries were getting on.  The result is hardly brilliant.  Mikes himself reminds the reader routinely that he’s just a comedian, and that nothing he says should be taken seriously.  The book does, however, provide an intermittently interesting time-capsule of a foreigner’s take on immediate post-war Germany.

In a chapter called "Shall We Love Them?" Mikes addresses the "collective guilt" hypothesis.  He also, of course, takes a few more swipes at humans who are foolish enough not to be British:

I met altogether two persons in Germany who thought in a balanced, logical and unemotional way about the German problem. Both were Germans. I heard many intelligent, brilliant and illuminating things from others, but everybody else I talked to was carried away by emotion as soon as this so-called German problem was mentioned.  The English in England have no bitter feelings against the Germans, in fact, they like them better than they like the French and much better than the Americans. There is something paternal in their attitude. And they seem to believe that there’s something irresistibly funny in being German.

In Germany, however, with very few exceptions, this attitude changes to dislike. This antipathy has nothing to do with former Nazi crimes or anything of the kind. The British dislike the Germans because they have their hair cropped in a funny way; because they eat sandwiches with a knife and fork; because they are formal, stiff and click their heels; and because they work too hard and take themselves deadly seriously. The Americans, on the other hand, always have the past crimes in mind. The Germans killed 6 million Jews, consequently every tenth German must be a murderer; no, it is even worse: every German must be one tenth of a murderer. That is a matter of clear calculation for the Americans. Americans feel very strongly against the persecution of races, provided (a) it is white races that are being persecuted and (b) it is outside the U.S.  And outright killing goes too far, in any case.

Millions of decent and sincere Americans are outraged by the enormity of Nazi crimes (as millions of Germans are, too) but the same decent and sincere Americans are aware that the Germans are good and reliable anti-Communists. Being anti-Communist is the supreme virtue today. All Nazis must be forgiven if they are genuinely anti-Communists just as, some years ago, all Communists were forgiven if they were genuinely anti-Nazis. In ten years time it may be again the other way round, and so on and so on, until one bright boy notices one day that there is not much to choose between a Nazi and a Communist concentration camp. But the  Americans believe that they are faced with a dilemma. They detest murder but love anti-Communists. The solution: they make the Germans their trusted allies but go on distrusting them. The French, in turn, feel deep resentment on nationalistic grounds. Their country was occupied, devastated and looted by the Germans (rather than the Nazis-the French have longer memories than the Americans).

Now the defeated Germans are better off than the victortous French, and they are becoming stronger and more dangerous every day. And the French are compelled to help them to increase their strength and thus to increase their own peril. The Germans do not like to be regarded as murderers. They are touchy people.  Most of them are not aware of the general  resentment felt against them, and most of them had nothing to do with Nazi crimes, in any case they were victims of the Nazis themselves — they say. Those who speak of the duties of the individual under a dictatorship should try to carry out these duties themselves under such circumstances before they give lessons to others. The Czechs have a splendid record of democratic government, and what can they do? 

If we are murderers-say the Germans, who have heard something about the fact that the world takes a poor view of mass murder — then we should not be forced to rearm. One does not rearm criminals. But if we are to create a new army, then free our generals and clear the name of our soldiers who all fought bravely and obeyed orders in time of war. All these views (except, of course, the British view, the most logical of all) are expressed in violent terms and accompanied by vehement emotions. Solutions? — they ask. Oh, the world is in such a mess, we just cannot find a way out of this quagmire. –"

Nowadays, in the period of courtship and mating, when we all are vying for German favours but still whisper "assassins" behind their backs, I feel we should pose the question: are the Germans responsible for Nazism?  It is a question that is never asked today, as it is considered tactless to speak about it. People stare into space whenever certain tricky subjects crop up and pretend that the six million Jews, and I do not know how many hostages, are still alive. Well — are the Germans responsible for Nazi crimes or not? My answer is: they are not.

I have arrived at this conclusion with hesitation but now I utter it with the firmness of a person who has some doubts about his doctrines. I am, of course, one single voice. Not even a politician, only a writer. Not even a writer, only a humorist. So do not take me seriously. I hold no brief for the Germans, I am far from enamoured of them. There was nothing new in dictatorship even in the pre-Nazi era. Internal oppression and external agression were not invented by Hitler. There used to be dictatorships in France, England, Italy and in almost all the countries of the world, and there is dictatorship in many countries today.  So it is quite groundless to say that there must be something uniquely wicked in the German character because they established a form of government which — after all — is or was known to almost all other peoples. There are several answers to that. First, people point out that the Germans voted for Hitler and consequently are responsible for him. I am not going into the details of arithmetical jugglery to find out whether Hitler received a real majority or not. He came to power by legal means and about half the nation voted for him. But the other half voted against him.

And what did the pro-Nazis vote for?  Some for a strong hand; others for an extreme nationalistic policy; others against the Communists; others against Versailles; others against unemployment; others against weak and detested regime; others for militarism, uniform, and the goose-step; others for a strong anti-semitic policy. In other words many of them voted for ugly and repulsive ideas and the may be blamed to a great extent. Yet, hardly anyone voted for aggressive war, the killing of hostages, the execution of escaped prisoners of war, and the murder of six million Jews. All this was not in Hitler’s programme. The Nazi voters bear a large amount of responsibility; but the voters of 1933 cannot be made responsible for crimes committed six or ten years later.

3 thoughts on “George Mikes on the “Collective Guilt” Hypothesis

  1. Your site/blog is excellent.
    Thanks for the quote above from Über Alles by George Mikes.
    I read this excellent book some 40yrs back and lost my copy in my zeal to make others sharing my experience. It is now out of print and is ordinarily out of reach. Whereas How To Be An Alien is available online I could not find Über Alles.
    I shall be grateful for any guidance – buying an old copy online is not what I am looking for.


  2. Hello Mr. Sengupta,

    Send me an email (address can be seen in the about page) and we can work something out.
    TITLE: By Halves
    BLOG NAME: anglofritz;
    DATE: 04/20/2006 05:43:50 PM
    Nowadays, in the period of courtship and mating, when we all are vying for German favours but still whisper “assassins” behind their backs, I feel we should pose the question: are the Germans responsible for Nazism? It is a question…


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