Book Review: The Politics of Repressed Guilt: The Tragedy of Austrian Silence.

Claudia Leeb. The Politics of Repressed Guilt: The Tragedy of Austrian Silence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018

9 September 2022

The timing of Leeb’s work on genocide in Austria and the politics of repressed guilt makes it more relevant in the contemporary period, as neo-fascist political alignments are emerging in Europe and elsewhere. This book revisits the Nazi crimes of the twentieth century and discusses the experience and importance of individual and collective feelings of guilt in preventing further crimes. It is a significant addition to the existing scholarship on understanding atrocities in general and the guilt that follows, or should follow, post-atrocity in specific.

The book is comprised of five core chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, the author claims that she was ignorant of Austria’s involvement in Nazi atrocities until she was a psychology student at the University of Vienna. She claims this was due to the ‘problem of the silenced guilt of Austria’ (p.11). This silence compelled her to examine the concept of guilt, which then became a journey to reveal the fault lines causing racial, ethnic, and religious crimes in societies across the globe.

Key questions posed in the book keep the readers interested, for instance, what makes individuals and communities hostile against one another? How do perpetrators become morally disengaged? When do the perpetrators lose the ability to feel guilty for their actions? Why do communities evade collective feelings of guilt? And why it is essential to negotiate feelings of guilt, rather than escape them? In order to address these questions, and many more, the author relies on the Frankfurt School’s critical theory (Theodor Adorno) and psychoanalytic theory (Anna Freud). Adorno’s views on the Nazi crimes and collective guilt run throughout the book. However, Anna Freud’s psychoanalysis is employed primarily in the last two chapters. Leeb combines both theorists to highlight the need for individuals and nations to deal with individual and collective feelings of guilt. According to her that will create ‘embodied reflective judgments’—a mixture of rational thinking and emotional feeling. This book gathers an impressive amount of information from the archives for researchers working on Nazi crimes, holocausts, and atrocities. In each chapter, the author deals with the issue of legal, moral, and political guilt through her refined theoretical arguments supplemented with specific cases of trials to highlight the ‘no remorse syndrome’ of the perpetrators.

Chapter 1, Rethinking Reflective Judgement as Embodied provides a theoretical framework for Leeb’s work. In this chapter, she engages with Hannah Arendt’s well-recognised scholarship on the trial of Eichmann. While analysing the crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews, Leeb supplements Arendt’s argument regarding a ‘breakdown in thinking’ with the ‘breakdown in feeling’ (of guilt). Thinking and feeling cannot be understood in separation. Therefore, it is essential to develop an embodied form of reflective judgment. However, the author deviates from Arendt when claiming the relevance of collective guilt in shaping post-violence social conditions in ways that act as preventive mechanisms in the future.

Chapters 2 and 3 present the trials of Nazi crimes that occurred in Austria and use archival sources. The central argument is that subdued feelings of guilt result in poor judgments. Chapter 2 deals with the largest trial, of Frantz Niedermoser for committing euthanasia crimes against 700 to 900 patients in the psychiatric hospital in Klagenfurt, Austria. Leeb argues the mechanisms used by the Nazi regime robbed Niedermoser of the capacity to feel guilty and made him unable to think at the same time. She examines the process of conversion—how the thoughts of a euthanasia perpetrator can move from hesitation to execution. Niedermoser’s claim of ‘I do not feel guilty’ during the trial explicitly reiterates the author’s argument (p.69).  Chapter 3 begins with Agamben’s pivotal concept of homo sacer. It argues that the experiments conducted on the Roma and Sinti treat them as homo sacer figures. Leeb explains it with few trials such as in 1946, William Beiglbock was charged with the lethal scientific experiments conducted on Roma and Sinti in the Dachau concentration camp. He attempted to rationalise his actions by using racist constructions to avoid feeling guilty (p.99). Due to their failures to feel, Leeb debunks the claims of both Niedermoser and Beiglbock to be ‘caring doctors’, sympathetic towards those whom they were executing.

In Chapter 4 The Defense of Repressed Guilt: The Staging of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz the author uses the Heldenplatz play (1988) as a tool to explore proto-fascist forces in contemporary Austria by examining the controversies surrounding the play. The play was accused of making ‘false generalisations’ about Austria’s Nazi past. Bernhard is making pauschalurteil (sweeping judgments) about Austria’s involvement in Nazi crimes; and the play is nothing but eine glatte Tatasachenverdrenhung (a distortion of the facts) about Austria’s past. Heldenplatzsuffered a boycott and some people demanded Bernhard’s expulsion from Austria to prevent the staging of the play. Further, politicians from different political backgrounds unilaterally appealed for the cancellation of the play. Leeb uses psychoanalytic thought and Anna Freud’s analysis of defence mechanisms where the attacker turns into a victim to analyse the verbal and physical abuse against the play.  

Chapter 5 is an extension of the argument expressed in the previous chapter. Early attempts to establish a Holocaust museum, the Haus der Geschichte(House of History), in 1964 by Karl Renner went unrealised. When the plan resurfaced in the 1990s, it was opposed by Austrians as a means of fending off their repressed feelings of guilt. Shedding light on the collective opposition of the Austrian community, the author focuses on a proposal to establish a Haus der Zukunft(House of the Future). Leeb highlights Harald Mahrer’s (Secretary of State for the Sciences) argument that a Haus der Geschichtewould look only at the past. Mahrer argued that instead of ‘looking backwards’, Austria needed to look forward. As a critique, Leeb argues, firstly, that the Haus der Zukunftinitiative was an attempt to erase memories of Austrian involvement in Nazi atrocities. Secondly, it obstructs the ‘movement of unconsciousness feelings of guilt into the consciousness’. Leeb also argues that the initial attempt to locate the Haus der Geschichte in the museum of military history, which is located far out in Vienna’s third district or, alternatively in the peripheral districts of Simmering or Favoriten, were attempts to push feelings of guilt to the periphery (p.170). The opposition to the Heldenplatz play and the Holocaust museum unmute the silence of the Austrian public, scientists, and academics their role in the genocide of innocent lives. The Haus der Geschichte was eventually established on the Heldenplatz and part of the museum was opened in 2018.

In the conclusion, the author argues that a people’s judgment gets corrupted when they fail to negotiate individual and collective feelings of guilt. As a result, past crimes remain unrepaired with the possibility of reoccurrence. Further, ignoring ‘feelings’ to focus on ‘thinking and rationality’ cannot produce a critical judgment. All three elements are essential to constitute an embodied reflective judgment. Although the book engages with the Nazi crimes that occurred in Austria, the need to address collective feelings of guilt is valid across societies and cultures. From my perspective as a scholar concerned with caste atrocities in India, this book provides an interdisciplinary approach to recognise the problem of silenced guilt of an individual, community, and nation.

Dr. L David Lal,

Indian Institute of Information Technology Guwahati,