A Question of Collective National Guilt
Is there such a thing as collective national guilt?
This question is appropriate right now given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the apparent widespread popular support this brutal war receives from the Russian population. If reports are accurate (and I’ve seen no evidence that leads me to believe the contrary), as much as 80-85 percent of the Russian population supports the war. A large majority appears to support the mass bloodshed — enthusiastically so. Accordingly, this revelation subjects all Russians to the “collective national guilt” question.
Let’s make this discussion more personal with an example we can all understand. Let’s say that on this day you meet someone for the first time. This person you know nothing about is introduced to you simply as “a Russian.” What’s your first reaction?
Given current events, I think the first thing most of us would want to know — does this person support Vladimir Putin and the Russian war effort? And in the absence of any added information, we can predict with some degree of accuracy that this new acquaintance is probably “pro-Russia.” We make this assumption based on overwhelming data from the poll numbers. This is a reasonable assumption.
Stereotyping people is wrong, of course. It’s harmful to draw any final conclusions based solely on generalities. Certainly, national origin should never be grounds for acts of violence or discrimination. However, we all make stereotypical judgments to some extent. Even subconsciously. When we have nothing else to go on, most of us lapse into generalizations. Should you doubt this, then simply ask yourself what image immediately comes to mind about a person from Saudi Arabia. Now, what image comes to mind about a person from Iceland? Don’t tell me they’re one and the same and you reserve judgment. Stereotypes ring (at least partially) true for a reason.
With apologies to Godwin, in the aftermath of World War 2, every German and Japanese person was subject to the question–what was your role in the war? Those suspicions and curiosities were natural. Will the same question be raised about Russians, particularly if this conflict continues indefinitely and kills many thousands more? How much do the Russian people deserve to suffer, if and when the opportunity for retribution, reparations, and even revenge rises? Should ordinary people, many presumably apolitical in this terrible conflict, pay a price later for the actions of their despicable leaders and cruel fellow countrymen?
Can an entire nation, a people, and a culture be “collectively guilty” of war crimes and crimes against humanity? If so, how does this apply to Russians in 2022?
I admit to being undecided on these questions.
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