The Guilt



The Guilt


Article. Report on concentration camps recently overrun by allies. Asks who will be held responsible and then lists culprits and questions whether people hold any responsibility. Some discussion of totalitarian states and Nazism. Mentions Versailles treaty and set up of Wiemar republic contribution to rise of Nazis.



Temporal Coverage

Spatial Coverage





Two newspaper cuttings



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TERRIBLE reports and photographs have come from the concentration camps and slave labour camps over-run by the Allied armies in Nazi Germany. Many of the facts were known: what the reports do is to drive home the full depravity of the horror. Who shall be held responsible for this abyss of perverted cruelty, scarcely believable, scarcely paralleled in the whole history of human inhumanity? First, the Nazi leaders and the Gestapo and S.S. men who ordered and inflicted the tortures; it will not be long now, we may hope, before most of them are caught and dealt with as war criminals. Whatever punishment international law imposes on these monsters will be trivial compared with the enormity of their misdeeds. A harder question is how far the indictment should extend to the German people at large. They cannot escape responsibility; history will see to that. But what exactly is the general, as opposed to the particular, guilt?

The primal sin of the German people in this matter lay in allowing Nazism to be born, to breed, and to fatten in its own filth. Once the infamy was admitted to power, by the will (or sufferance) of millions of individuals, those individuals could only repent at the cost of their own destruction. Fascism and Nazism must be strangled at birth or they themselves will strangle civilisation. That is the point of which every nation must take note.

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We in Britain too easily forget what it means to live under a ruthlessly efficient terrorism. Modern weapons vastly increase the power of a few who control these arms to suppress the resistance of the many. Once such a system is firmly established, the critic and the rebel have little chance. To call for opposition is to call for martyrs indeed. Who can confidently say that he would protest publicly against the government if he knew at any time his rooms would be invaded and he himself hurried into darkness, where death would only be a release from torture? And not only he, but, worse still, his dear ones and dependents would be utterly in the grip of the Terror. That was the normal expectation of a liberal-minded man in Germany after Hitler came to power.

But why did the Germans tolerate Hitler’s rise? “Mein Kampf” had given them ample warning of what to expect. Nazism was brutal from the first; its leaders gloried in their contempt for all humane canons of behaviour. And yet millions of Germans supported, cheered, voted for these gangsters in uniform, long before the argument of terror was in general use. The huge German Socialist and Trade Union Movement, which might have stopped the odious tyranny in its own interest as well as for the sake of world peace, collapsed with astonishing speed and completeness. The appalling extent of unemployment and poverty in the early thirties had broken the workers’ will to resist anyone who reopened the factories. They did not ask to what sinister ends the wheels were now turning. Bread (even with bondage) was sweet in the mouth.

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When all allowance has been made for the political and economic causes of Nazism, we have to admit the national characteristics, too. It is dangerous to generalise about national traits: history so easily reverses judgements. The Austrians were regarded by our forefathers as the typical tyrants, cold and brutal. Later they were deemed, rightly or wrongly, to be a gentle and genial tribe of experts in the manufacture of cakes, coffee, and waltzes. But there does appear to be a persistent strain in the German character of fierce brutality above and fatal docility below. There is a worship of power, both by those who rule and those who serve. And this is deadly to all decency. “The strongest poison ever known came from Caesar’s laurel-crown.”

In drafting the Versailles settlement the Allies were blind to this strain. They approved the setting up of the Weimar Republic on ostensibly democratic lines. They failed to see that it might only be a façade. Many Germans had no will to make the Republic work: their instinctive allegiance remained with the army leaders who were bent on restoring the nation’s military might and found in Nazism an ideal instrument. And so, during the years when the Nazi movement could have been resisted, the German people allowed it to wax and condoned its excesses. Passively, they let the Nazis enlist their children and train them to be bullies and torturers. That was when they earned the judgement which is now falling upon the Reich.

But in forgiving the early excesses of Nazism the German people were not alone. Hitler had plenty of foreign admirers in those days. His eminent visitors returned extolling the marvellous discipline which the Nazi régime had imposed on the working-class. They applauded him, even when it was perfectly well known what was going on in the Concentration Camps. Some closed eyes and ears to this: others took the easy way of declaring that what occurred behind the scenes in Nazi Germany was no concern of ours. Never shall this happen again.

* * *

No punishment of Nazi Germany, however grimly earned and justly executed will suffice without a full and general admission that Nazism and Fascism are evil beyond endurance wherever they appear. Where such a system is allowed to root, the spread of the venom is certain. The Nazis have carried on, with their appalling German thoroughness, the work begun by Mussolini and his Fascist thugs. It was they who taught Hitler his technique of murdering the opposition to save the trouble of answering to it. Their island-prisons set an early model, later far surpassed, of political persecution, as practiced by Fascism (in its various guises) in Spain, Greece, and later on in France. Must we always forget the Italians’ guilt because they smile at us? We do not suggest that a dictatorship of the Left offers a bed of roses to its critics, but the long-drawn sadism of the Fascist and Nazi concentration camps has no parallel among the admitted severities of other regimes. Where life is hard, as in Poland and Russia, imprisonment is likely to be even harder But that does not make a Belsen.

The German torture-camps are a witness against the German people who, having seen the growth of Fascism, permitted their own even viler brand of that pest to arise and flourish. They are witness also against those in other countries who stopped their ears to the cries of democrats, liberals, Jews, and all the myriads on the rack. And how many of us can claim to be wholly innocent upon this heavy count of having played the Gallio in these fatal nineteen-thirties?


“The Guilt,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 24, 2024,

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