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Humanities Planning Group Claudia Leeb


Assistant Professor
Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs

The Tragedy of Silence: Guilt and Democracy

This project draws on Hannah Arendt and Theodor W. Adorno to demonstrate that an adequate dealing with collective guilt feelings that result from a nation’s past crimes is necessary to create inclusive and functioning social and political communities. It draws on psychoanalytic textual interpretation to analyze court documents of Austrian perpetrators as well as recent public controversies around Austria’s hidden involvement in the Nazi atrocities to answer the question how perpetrating individuals and collectives deal with guilt. The analysis is concerned with three core questions. First, what are the mechanisms that contribute to a scenario where people are unable to distinguish right from wrong, and therefore commit crimes ordered from above? I suggest that a particular form of a total language produces morally disengaged humans—including the prevalence of stock-phrases, clichés, and an “objective language” that is drained of emotion (such as “granting a mercy death” for mass killings). Second, what allows those few individuals, even in the face of terror, to use their self-reflective judgment and not follow orders from above? Here I suggest that an embodied form of judgment, a feeling that things should be different, is central to counter totalitarian power. Third, what can we learn from this discussion to contribute that what happened does not happen again? I argue that an adequate dealing with guilt feelings, or a “working through the past” is central for post-crime generations, because it allows them to have solidarity with the victims of past crimes and counter the possibility of the emergence of new victims.