The responsibility of intellectuals - Dwight Macdonald

Max Lerner
Max Lerner

In the April 1945 edition of politics, Dwight Macdonald took aim at the collective-guilt mentality as embodied in one of his favorite targets among liberal intellectuals, Max Lerner. The article also affords a prime sample of Macdonald's wry, satiric writing style.

Submitted by Ross Arctor on November 12, 2014

The German people have let Max Lerner down. There is no other way to put it—they have failed him and damn near busted his big progressive heart. It seems that Lerner, all dressed up in his War Correspondent’s Uniform (see cut), was scooting along behind the advancing Ninth Army in his jeep when he came across a large group of German civilians. “It was a drizzly afternoon,” he writes (P.M ., March 4), “and they were clustered under a cement shed open at one end. There was a woman with a several-weeks-old baby, and there was an old man of 87. Most were men and women in their middle 40’s and above, with a scattering of children. They were almost all farmers.” They had been hiding in cellars for three days while American guns destroyed their village in the course of “the war that they themselves had brought on”. (How “they themselves had brought it on” not specified.)

Descending from his jeep, Lerner asked them: Are You Guilty? He records no reply from the baby, but the others answered that they had never trusted or liked Hitler, that they had always considered the Nazis criminals, and that they were Catholics and hence opposed for religious reasons to Hitler’s policies. Why then, asks Lerner with that implacable logic he shows when he is baiting someone who can't hit back, Why then, did you allow the Nazis to do these things? “With one accord they answered that they had yielded to force and to force alone.” But this doesn’t go down with Lerner; he points out to the shivering, bomb-dazed farmers that the people of France, Belgium, Poland, and Russia didn’t yield to German force; so why did they?1 This was a blockbuster: “They were silent.” (Different interpretations might be put on this silence.) Even after this, some of these simple peasants apparently didn’t understand the kind of animal they were dealing with; they had been accustomed, after all, to the civilized society of hogs. So they asked Lerner to put in a good word for their local police chief, who had used his official post (probably at the risk of his neck) “to shield them from the severity of the Nazi regime". We will omit Lerner’s reaction to that one.

“I came away heartsick and discouraged,” writes Lerner. "The crime of these people was cowardice and moral callousness rather than active criminality. . . . Nowhere did I find the moral strength to face the fact of guilt. Only protests that they were not responsible for what had happened." Even the baby apparently lacked a sense of responsibility for Hitler, which shows how deeply ingrained this moral callousness is in the German national character.

However, Lerner thinks there may be better material among workers than among the farmers and middle-class. (You can’t keep a P.M. editor discouraged for long.) “Indications in Aachen are that a substantial section of the working class is possibly salvageable.” So—if I may apply logic to Lerner himself—since what discourages him about the Germans is that so many of them deny they were pro-Nazi, the moral superiority of the Aachen workers must reside in the fact that they admit they were not forced to back Hitler but did so of their own free will and are hence responsible for the Nazis’ crimes. That the German working class was pro-Nazi thus becomes a source of satisfaction for Lerner. We may be pardoned for reacting to this novel information—hitherto unrecorded in studies of Nazi Germany— with less jubilation.

But Lerner was able to report in the same issue of P.M. a happier experience, one that seems to have restored his faith in human nature. He devotes a full page to describing, with a fullness of detail reminiscent of Cholly Knickerbocker, the thrilling visit of TWO SOVIET MAJOR GENERALS to the Ninth Army. These personages were as warming to Lerner’s big progressive heart as the German peasants were depressing. They were much better dressed, for one thing: “resplendent uniforms with long field coats of a rich purplish material, tight green trousers and long black boots, and gold stars glittered on their shoulder insignia”. Also they were much more Important.

Lerner delightedly reports the trivia of their visit: how a "military crisis” occurred when it was found that General Suslaporov’s name was spelled with a “t” instead of a “p”; how one of them “showed a rich command of American slang”; how the other patted a wall map as he passed it (significance not explained). Finally, they were Soviet generals, people’s generals, democratic generals, very inspiring generals altogether, generals on the Right Side, the People’s Side, the Yalta Side. Yes, they were clearly Max Lerner’s kind of people—the progressive, democratic, and victorious people, not like those wretched German farmers with their shabby clothes and shell-wrecked homes and hungry faces and their callous and cowardly refusal to lick the boots of an accredited P.M. war correspondent.

The same issue of P.M. reprints as an editorial an article from Free World by Thomas Mann. The 20th-century Goethe (pocket edition) pontificates about his fellow Germans (he doubts “the propriety of pity”) and regales us with selections from his diaries for the years 1933 and 1934. The key passage:

"The lack of sense for evil that large masses of the German people have shown was and always will be criminal. The tremendous spree that this ever thrill-greedy nation imbibed from the poisoned gin of nationalism ladled out by fools and liars must be paid for. [Not much of a sentence, that, for a Goethe, even pocket-size.—DM]. It is impossible to demand of the abused nations of Europe that they shall draw a dividing line between “Nazism” and the German people. If there is such a thing as Germany as a historical entity, then there is also such a thing as responsibility—quite independent of the precarious concept of guilt."

Now Thomas Mann himself belongs to that “historical entity called GERMANY, he uses the GERMAN language, he is a GERMAN. If we abandon “the precarious concept of guilt” and make an individual morally responsible for the deeds of the "historical entity” he gets himself born into, then I fail to see how Thomas Mann is not just as guilty as his fellow Germans trembling under Allied bombs and shells in the wreckage of their homes—those poor devils Mann has the bad taste and the inhumanity to judge in so Pharisaical a manner. If we abandon “the precarious concept of guilt”, then Mann’s position over here becomes precarious indeed. Is he or is he not a member of that “historical entity”, Germany?

It would be sad if the above specimens represented the sum total of “our side’s” thinking on the responsibility of the German people. But fortunately for the honour of the human race, there are many with contrary opinions. An especially dramatic instance is the Associated Press interview of March 8 with Sergeant Francis W. Mitchell, of New York City, who belonged to one of the first American units to enter Cologne. It has often been observed how much more brutal and blood­thirsty civilians are than those who do the actual fighting. Sergeant Mitchell’s remarks bear this out. He tells how the Germans crawled out of their cellars and brought out beer, bread, jam, and pretzels for the American troops. “They were mostly children and old people—just sort of helpless and glad they were not being killed. It’s hard to keep that icy front when people act friendly; also we Americans used to have some respect for old folks.” The order against fraternization with German civilians, added the Sergeant, works only when the M.P.’s are around. “We are supposed to hate people—to be very tough customers. But as soon as the fighting is over, it works just the other way—we begin to feel sorry for them.”

It is a great thing to be able to see what is right under your nose.

  • 1According to reliable sources, the above countries were all engaged in a war against Germany.