- The Politics of Repressed Guilt: The Tragedy of Austrian Silence by Claudia Leeb
What form of guilt for the crimes of the Third Reich concerns Austria? Can political guilt be passed down through the generations? How should Austrians engage productively with collective and individual feelings of guilt? These and other questions have been a main focus of political discourse in Austria in the last decades. With the rise of the far right in both Europe and the United States, addressing these concerns has become all the more pressing. While many recent contributions to this ongoing memory debate perhaps all too optimistically highlight Austria's increased willingness to question its official historical narrative, Claudia Leeb sets out to define the means by which Austria's relationship to the past continues to be characterized by "immense repression" (9).
Drawing mainly on early Frankfurt School critical theory and psychoanalytic theory, Leeb argues for the importance of what she terms "embodied reflective judgment." This form of judgment, which requires both critical thinking and intuitive feelings, works to negate the artificial dichotomy often drawn between the mind and the body. It is a useful corrective against defense [End Page 122] mechanisms used by guilty nations and past scholarship that devalues the role of emotions in making critical judgments. Recognizing thinking and feeling as deeply connected, Leeb claims, is essential for an authentic (and long overdue) engagement with Austria's past collusion with the Hitler regime. She demonstrates this claim convincingly in comprehensive analyses of a wide variety of sources that demonstrate that the suppression of feelings of guilt leads to a reduced capacity for critical thinking.
Leeb lays the groundwork for her discussion of history, memory, and emotions with a critical analysis of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. By putting Arendt into conversation with Theodor Adorno, Leeb highlights the central differences in their conceptualizations of individual and collective guilt. In so doing, she successfully situates her notion of embodied reflective judgment within a broader theoretical context. Leeb engages more sympathetically with Adorno, finding Arendt guilty of a "one-sided focus on thinking and rationality at the expense of feeling and emotion" (2). Drawing on Adorno's concept of non-identity, Leeb introduces the "moment of the limit," a concept she previously developed in her Power and Feminist Agency in Capitalism (2017). Through the moment of the limit, or the moment agency becomes possible, Leeb insists that resistance to totalitarianism is an option.
Leeb substantiates her theoretical framework with two disturbing case studies of actual Austrian Nazi perpetrators: the case of Dr. Franz Niedermoser, a psychiatrist who "euthanized" countless patients in a Klagenfurt hospital, and Dr. Wilhelm Beiglböck, a professor at the University of Vienna, who tortured and murdered Roma and Sinti inmates in the Dachau concentration camp. Leeb identifies and dismantles the defense mechanisms used by not only perpetrators in the courtroom but also lawyers and court "experts" who, in their continued use of racist constructions and Nazi euphemisms (for instance, Umsiedlungsaktion to refer to forced deportation), further obscured the extent of Austria's responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust. Such defense mechanisms, she argues, are the result of both a lack of feeling and an inability to think critically. Perhaps most compelling in these chapters was the exploration of the highly educated classes' frequent use of defense mechanisms that rely on the presumed divide between the body and the mind. This challenges the recurring claim that it's primarily working-class individuals who are most susceptible to authoritarianism.
In the final two chapters, Leeb moves beyond her discussion of individual guilt and examines the defense mechanisms that contemporary Austrians [End Page 123] make use of to avoid collective feelings of guilt. She boldly intervenes in the continuing heated (and frequently violent) debates around the staging of Thomas Bernhard's drama Heldenplatz. Challenging recent contributions to the current Heldenplatz debate that claim Austrians have successfully come to terms with their history, Leeb insists that Austria's judgments continue to be flawed and paranoid when it comes to the Nazi past...