Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Through his analysis in Die Schuldfrage of various kinds of guilt, Jaspers espoused the individual and collective responsibility of the German people for the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. Jaspers hoped that this atonement would contribute toward the rebirth of a new Germany.

Summary of Event

As one of Germany’s most important existentialists, Karl Jaspers was no stranger to the idea of an isolated individual estranged from a hostile world characterized by struggle, suffering, guilt, and death. His life in twentieth century Germany meant that these ideas became realities for him. As a doctor he saw patients in borderline situations between life and death, and as a psychiatrist he saw individuals agonizing between sanity and madness. In his intellectual odyssey from psychopathology to philosophy, he used the methods of phenomenology to understand the anguished inner life of troubled humans. War crimes;World War II Question of German Guilt, The (Jaspers) Holocaust;collective responsibility [kw]Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes (1946) [kw]Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes, Jaspers Examines (1946)[Germanys Collective Responsibility for War Crimes, Jaspers Examines] [kw]Responsibility for War Crimes, Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective (1946) [kw]War Crimes, Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for (1946) [kw]Crimes, Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War (1946) War crimes;World War II Question of German Guilt, The (Jaspers) Holocaust;collective responsibility [g]Europe;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] [g]Germany;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] [c]Philosophy;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] [c]World War II;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;1946: Jaspers Examines Germany’s Collective Responsibility for War Crimes[01630] Jaspers, Karl Mayer, Gertrud Arendt, Hannah Heidegger, Martin

During his distinguished career as a philosopher at the University of Heidelberg, he was aided in his work by Gertrud Mayer, a gifted intellectual who was also his wife, and by colleagues such as Martin Heidegger and talented students including Hannah Arendt (later a renowned philosopher and writer in her own right). Jaspers was making progress in discovering a middle way between science and religion at the time Adolf Hitler Nazism came to power in 1933. Jaspers, an ardent anti-Nazi with a Jewish wife, was eventually forced from his administrative posts, denied the right to teach, and forbidden to publish (his previous books were also banned). Since he was not allowed to leave Germany, the couple had to spend the war years “hiding in plain sight.” Nevertheless, they were scheduled to be sent to an extermination camp on April 14, 1945, but this never happened, because U.S. troops occupied Heidelberg on April 1.

No longer an outcast, Jaspers quickly became a member of a commission whose responsibility was the reopening of universities. He served as a liaison between U.S. military officials and German academics, and he played a valuable role in the denazification of various institutions. During the winter semester of 1945-1946 he gave a series of lectures on Nazi crimes against humanity, as well as German complicity in these atrocities. He exhorted Germans to repent their offenses, and he hoped, through acts of expiation, that vibrant and free universities could be created within a rebuilt and moral nation. These lectures produced passionate responses among academics, students, and the public. Some Germans wanted to forget as expeditiously as possible all that happened under the Nazis, whereas others protested their innocence as powerless pawns in a totalitarian system. However, Jaspers also found listeners who shared his belief that Germans, in one way or another, shared the guilt for Nazi barbarities.

In 1946, Jaspers published his lectures as Die Schuldfrage: Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Frage (The Question of German Guilt, 1947). His lectures and book were discussed during the time of the Nuremberg Trials, when graphic evidence of war crimes helped to convict many Nazi leaders, several of whom were executed. The book was also directed against academics like Heidegger, who had supported the National Socialist regime and who had remained conspicuously silent about Nazi atrocities both during and after the war. Because so many professors had cooperated with the Nazis, it was difficult for universities to find qualified people for the many administrative and teaching positions open after the war. Jaspers addressed these and other problems in Die Idee der Universität Idea of the University, The (Jaspers) (1946; The Idea of the University, 1959).

A central theme of his critical work The Question of German Guilt is guilt, an issue that Jaspers confronted in his earlier writings as well. He believed that guilt is an inevitable consequence of the human condition because humans have free will. For example, by adopting one child, a couple, in effect, rejects other children (a reason for guilt). Because of the complexities of human interrelationships, whenever humans act (or fail to act) they are both free and guilty. Raised a Protestant, Jaspers was aware of the doctrine of original sin, which informed his philosophical analysis of guilt. Protestants consider original sin a result of Adam’s free choice in the Garden of Eden, but Jaspers considered each human choice to be made in the light of accumulated burdens from previous decisions. In The Question of German Guilt he showed how the decisions made by Germans in the past contributed to the atrocities of the Nazi period.

Jaspers also argued in The Question of German Guilt that the Germans are individually but also collectively responsible for Nazi crimes. He wrote that different levels of guilt (he makes several distinctions) existed among Germans. For example, he analyzed criminal guilt as a consequence of legitimate courts. This was the sort of guilt being determined by the judges in the Nuremberg trials. Jaspers believed that the children of the many Nazis who were found guilty of committing despicable crimes against human beings were not guilty because of their parents’ offenses. In other words, criminal guilt did not carry on through the generations because the guilt was determined by the courts.

Political guilt, for Jaspers, is the result of the heinous deeds of statesmen and citizens. This guilt can be called collective. German citizens were responsible for electing Nazi politicians, and they had to live with the consequences of their deeds. Citizens, merely by voting, were part of the creation of a totalitarian state. Jaspers states that “everybody is co-responsible for the way he is governed.” He was aware of many Germans who, during the war, rejoiced in Nazi victories and who tacitly tolerated the sufferings of the many victims of the Nazi regime. Their postwar response to justify themselves—that they did not wish to become victims of the Nazis—failed to vitiate their political guilt, because they were free to choose martyrdom.

In The Question of German Guilt, Jaspers also discussed moral guilt, which is rooted in a person’s conscience. Humans, according to Jaspers, cannot act except as individuals, which means that each human is morally responsible for every action, including whether to obey or disobey an order from a military or political official. Jaspers attacked the Prussian penchant for obeying orders, stating that every deed, even one resulting from an order, remains subject to moral judgment. Consequently, every German who participated in the preparation or execution of war crimes was morally guilty, even though they may have been obeying superiors.

Jaspers hoped that by realizing their collective guilt, the German people could transform their society from its state of physical and moral collapse into a highly developed and morally responsible democracy. However, Jaspers was not a utopian; he also realized that no ideal moral humans exist and that the idea of a perfect society is a myth. Nevertheless, humans are free to make good decisions, and Jaspers’s writings after The Question of German Guilt were full of his prescriptions for how to create a good German society and avoid constructing another evil one.


Although The Question of German Guilt eventually became recognized as one of Jaspers’s best political works, he was disappointed by the popular response from those to whom the work was primarily intended. Germans seemed to be more concerned with improving their material well-being, and the postwar West German economic miracle created a complacency that had little room for the analysis of guilt from an increasingly distant past. Jaspers, disappointed with West Germany’s direction, left his native country for Basel, Switzerland, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

During the 1960’s the questions raised in The Question of German Guilt became part of the debate over the fate of the captured war criminal Adolf Eichmann Eichmann, Adolf . In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt) (1963), Hannah Arendt argued that the immorality of Eichmann’s deeds came not from the monstrous nature of their perpetrator but from his thoughtless inability to realize their moral import (importantly, however, Arendt did not mean that the mass murder of Jews was banal, or commonplace). The phrase “banality of evil” became well known and controversial, and some evidence exists that Jaspers may have originated it. Whether the term was invented by Arendt, Jaspers, or someone else, Jaspers defended Arendt’s use of it, because she was probing the moral guilt of an individual. Arendt was unhappy about Jaspers’s attacks on West Germany and his advocacy of an over-idealized Wilhelmine state. Other scholars thought that Jaspers’s treatment of guilt did not really come to terms with the depth of involvement of the German people in Nazi crimes and the unique horror of the Holocaust.

In his final writings on German rearmament and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Jaspers returned to some of the themes of The Question of German Guilt. Just as he advocated a postwar Germany whose people had repudiated the moral errors of their past, so, too, did he want a postwar world in which countries were sufficiently united so that they might live, communicate, and work for the betterment of humanity in freedom and peace. War crimes;World War II Question of German Guilt, The (Jaspers) Holocaust;collective responsibility

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jaspers, Karl. The Question of German Guilt. New York: Fordham University Press, 2002. This English translation by E. B. Ashton is part of the Perspectives in Continental Philosophy series. Includes a helpful introduction by Joseph W. Koterski.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirkbright, Suzanne. Karl Jaspers: A Biography—Navigations in Truth. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. By drawing on his diaries and correspondence, this extensive biography emphasizes Jaspers’s life over the details of his philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rabinbach, Anson. In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Argues that The Question of German Guilt is a critical part of the history of how German intellectuals dealt with critical moral issues raised by two world wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schilpp, Paul, ed. The Philosophy of Karl Jaspers. 2d ed. Chicago: Open Court, 1981. Still considered the most significant publication on Jaspers in English, these twenty-four essays analyze various aspects of his philosophy, with an introductory autobiography and a concluding critical response to the essays by Jaspers himself. This updated edition includes a new section on Heidegger.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallraff, Charles F. Karl Jaspers: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Intended to give students a survey of the principal themes of Jaspers’s philosophy.

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