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Regret without Guilt
Article by Prof. Michał Wojciechowski

[The following is an unofficial translation by Wanda Sławińska of the article which appeared in the July 9, 2001, issue of the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita -- A large collections of Polish language articles published about Jedwabne by the Warsaw daily, Rzeczpospolita can be reached by clicking on the banner.]

Between the Scylla of Collective Responsibility and the Charybdis of Indifference

The discussion about Jedwabne is unfortunately furtively patronized by the principal of collective responsibility. Of course, no one will admit to voicing it as such, and, instead, there is talk of society's responsibility, national responsibility, guilt of the Poles or even the Church, or of a collective examination of conscience. These are vague descriptors, but they, doubtless, suggest that the subject of the guilt and responsibility are groups of people, and not individuals, and that we carry a certain type of automatic responsibility for the transgressions of preceding generations.

This is completely contrary to Christian and to civilized law, and even to common sense, as a person can sin, but a county, a parish or other communities cannot; there also is no Polish, Catholic, or Jewish guilt, although it can be the fault of a Pole, a Catholic, or a Jew, etc.

Some think that the understanding of collective responsibility, culpability and punishment pertains to Judaism, but even though the Old Testament in the old strata contains texts leading in this direction, in its final stand, namely, in the Book of Ezekiel, it categorically states that the guilt for sin rests only with the guilty. Furthermore, the principal of collective responsibility lies at the foundations of anti-Semitic stereotypes. Thus, in truth, Jews are the last people who would have an interest in its dissemination.

There is No "Societal Guilt"

Thinking in terms of collective responsibility, that is to say - even unwittingly - in the manner of the Nazis and the communists, characterizes not only the supporters of Gross's thesis, stemming from leftist and collectivist thinking patterns. For the reasoning of all those who feel personally offended by the charges against the group of Poles from Jedwabne, seem to be entirely similar. By way of retaliation, they reproach the Jews for the massacres by Soviet-Jewish partisans in Koniuchy, and, above all, for the collaboration by numerous Polish Jews with the Soviets, and, after the war, for their participation in the apparatus of Stalin's terror.

It is not just a question that this is a very unjust generalization, since there were many contrary situations. (Jews saved my own grandfather from a Soviet raid.) Rather, it is that for the crime in Jedwabne are responsible concrete criminals, and not, taken collectively, the Poles or, as the case may be, the Germans. In the same way, Jews cannot collectively be assigned the responsibility for the crimes committed by communists of Jewish extraction. Such an exchange of charges blemishes both sides. That is why on the monument at Jedwabne there should not be a statement about the responsibility of Poles, but of Nazism, just as on the monuments to victims of Soviet crimes, we do not write about the participation of Jews, Russians or Poles, but we mention the name of the ideology: Soviet or communist.

These types of charges bring to mind the blaming of Jews, as a group, for the death of Christ, while in legal and moral categories it burdens the actual perpetrators: the accuser, Kaifas, with his supporters and Pilate, the judge (and, in the theological context, all the people individually, as all commit evil).

Intermediate Responsibility

This does not mean that there is no form of guilt for the crimes of others. In Catholic catechisms we can find the enumeration of the so called sins of the others, that is committed by others with our encouragement, permission, justification, etc. However, even in this case, the guilt is characterized individually and it implies intermediary participation. It can have a greater reach when the crime has massive support. Hence the feelings of guilt among the Germans originates, since, in fact, a majority of them supported Hitler.

It is not correct, however, to speak of collective national responsibility, or responsibility for a nation, as we usually do not choose our belonging to a nation, and do not have a major influence on the behavior of its other members. To speak of national guilt, then, appears as a peculiar form of nationalism in reverse.

The matter emerges somewhat differently in organized communities in which the people cooperate knowingly and so can br jointly accountable. A nation should account for the actions of its functionaries. In the some way, a political party, an organized and free association, should be responsible for its actions. Certainly, in both instances, responsibility cannot be evaded by assuming a new identity, by re-emergence of the same institution under a different name. In the case of Jedwabne the Polish nation was, however, absolutely powerless, as was the Church.

The President of the Country or the Consciences

As is evident from the above, there is no reason for the official representative of the Polish nation to apologize for Jedwabne, because in so doing, he gives the impression that Poland shares the guilt (this possibly could be done by a representative of Germany, the actual authority!) In addition, the matter of moral responsibility, in no way, is in the purview of national authorities, even though they seem to think so. The President was elected head of state and he should be respected in this function also by his opponents. He was not elected, however, to be a moral mentor of its citizens and the attempt to dictate moral feelings, apologies, etc., on his part would be a baseless claim.

The attempt to embrace such a role probably stems from the fact that in general the state today has statist, even totalitarian tendencies, that is, it seeks to encompass all of life. It also originates with collectivism, which seeks subordinate to the community personal and individual actions. In this instance, the authorities seek tries to take possession of the spheres of ethics and religion. Hence it is worth here to recal the words of King Sigismund August, who, albeit in a different context, said that he was not the king of consciences.

Obligations to our Past

One should not conclude that the position assumed with respect to past events does not have an ethical dimension. That dimension is already present in the very determination of truth, the facts, and their moral expression - should we falsify the past, the guilt would be extant. In this regard both the manipulation of the Gross manipulation, which shifts the weight of responsibility from the Germans to the Poles, and the view that the participation of Poles was exclusively secondary and forced are unacceptable. Neither calumnies nor excuses! Incidentally, school textbooks should include the information that various forms of collaboration with the Germans and informers were relatively common, especially in the first half of the occupation, until the Underground State began to punish traitors. In particular, the victims of the "szmalcowniks" who prayed on the Jews run into the many thousands. Similarly, however, historical memory should not forget the offences by individuals of Jewish origin.

Besides stating the facts, what is needed is an active reaction. Sympathy, remember the victims and honor them are something obvious. The crime in Jedwabne, as the whole Jewish holocaust, should also be a continuous warning against national hatred, racial hatred, and especially against anti-Semitism. It should also be add that the property of the victims belongs to their inheritors (naturally true inheritors, and not the speculators who, under the guise of some foundation, seek to take over the estates of the victim of the holocaust). Similar restoration is due, it is clear, regarding all properties robbed after the war, be it from Poles, be it from Jews, by the communist government. It is necessary, therefore, in both the moral and material spheres to remove the results of past evil.

Aside from simple Justice

All of these are the requirements of justice. Ethics, however, and especially Christian ethics, aim to go further. Because, even though we do not need to be ashamed and to apologize for the sins of distant individuals, we are troubled by them, as we are troubled by the sins of those closest to us. We apologize, we regret, we pray to God for the victims and the guilty, understanding it as an act of charity and solidarity with our neighbors. We can take it upon ourselves, by the example of Christ, of our own free will. This kind of motivation is what underlies the numerous papal apologies taken by people of ill will as admissions of guilt by the Church. That is the type of basis of the propitiatory prayers of the Polish Episcopate relative to Jedwabne. In the secular context such acts would not be neccessary, yet if one believes that the dead live in God, and that the Church is a community that is timeless and salvific, then it makes sense to apologize to God for past evils committed by Christians.

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