As its name implies, collective guilt is the assignment of blame and hence penalities, opprobrium, etc. to a group of persons rather than an individual or small group held responsible for some catastrophic outcome.
- The canonical instance.
The most common and reference instance in our time is of course Nazi Germany. The spectrum of assignment of responsibility for the course of events ending the Second Thirty Year war in Europe ranges from assigning all of the responsiblity to Reichsführer Adolph Hitler to assigning it collectively to the entire German people, the latter corresponding to the subject.
The term is considered a false approbation in the case where modern Germans are held responsible for the actions of the generation of the the 1930s and 1940s. This is cogent since 1) most of the population in question weren't even born then; 2) with the loss of in excess of 5% of their population and the Nuremburg process resulting in the execution of much of the leadership of the National Socialist state and other compensation done, and the complete reversal of the political philosphy of that state, the debt/guilt is thought to be justly amortised; and finally 3) there were those individuals even at that time who resisted the Nazi state, for whatever this adds to the moral profile of the world historical individual that is das Deutsche Volk
- Maybe the second instance ...
Next, the general guilt that the European peoples bear as a result of their attempt to conquer the planet comes to mind. This has manifold instances from the relations of citizens of the USA of European ancestry to the prior occupants of geographic region in question as well as to the descendants of the forced African immigration. Like the prior instance this one is denigrated as a debt unpaid, albeit for less cogent reasons. These include: 1) the standard holding of the statue of limitations against later generations, whether or not they continue to reap benefits of an earlier generations crimes, and 2) arguments on the basis of scale since reparations are held to be infeasible due to the numbers involved.
- A relatively trivial instance ...
The above are of course all related to the current U.S. adventure in Iraq. It is a continuation in the modern era of precisely the same tendencies and perspectives which drove the perpetrators of the above collective acts. In the prior cases, there was a naked assertion of an intent to place the planet under the domination of Christian Europeans, in this case that takes the form of an assertion (accepted by relatively few at this point) that the policies enacted since the first Gulf war which have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis¹ and now thousands of Americans have as their sole and disinterested goal the bringing of democracy to the Iraqis and ultimately all of the people of the Arab middle east.
The outcome of this instance is of course uncertain at this writing. Should a stable bourgeois state friendly to Western interests be established, and should there be no countervailing force to Western Imperialism which could hold those responsible for the loss of life in so doing, then the paradigm of collective guilt will be held to be inapplicable in this case.
The assignment of guilt and blame can of course only be imposed on World Historical individuals by those who write history, i.e. the victors. The first two cases point to a general secular trend
which can be characterised as progressive
and increasingly moral.
¹ civilians not counting Iraqi regular or irregulars, although a purposeful attempt has been made not to count these casualties, the fuzzy number (i.e. η, 105
< η < 106
) mentioned can be verified starting with these references: