Palestine solidarity protest in Berlin, 2018 | Credit. Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr - Photo: 2024

Gaza War: Europe, Israel and the US Form the Triangle of Guilt

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

‘Z’ originally published this article under the Creative Commons licence.

COIMBRA, Portugal | 26 February 2023 (IDN) — In 1947, Karl Jaspers published a short book entitled The Question of German Guilt (Die Schuldfrage)[1]. It was the time of a Germany devastated in body and soul, a pariah people, disgraced before the whole world, a disgrace to humanity, ruled in an authoritarian and military way by the victorious Allies. Jaspers proposes four types of guilt: criminal guilt, political guilt, moral guilt and metaphysical guilt.

Criminal guilt is the guilt of those who violate national or international law and who must be judged by the courts (in this case, the Nuremberg Tribunal). Political guilt is the guilt of all the citizens of a state that committed such atrocities, regardless of the active or passive role they played in their occurrence. Moral guilt is the guilt of each individual before their conscience, a guilt that is not erased by the mere fact of having obeyed orders, the co-responsibility for having done nothing to prevent such monstrosity, such barbarity, even if doing something involved risking one’s life. Finally, metaphysical guilt (a particularly controversial concept) is the guilt of having survived so much unjust death, of having witnessed so much crime, even though you were innocent; it is, ultimately, guilt before God.

Although very rich, the distinction between modes of guilt proposed by Jaspers does not include a mode of guilt that seems to me to be crucial in Western modernity. I’m talking about historical guilt, the guilt of a people having participated in or consented to the complete or incomplete extermination of another people. It can be said that Nazi barbarism targeted a distinct people, the Jewish people, but the truth is that it also targeted homosexuals, gypsies, the disabled, Slavs and that the Jews were as German as their murderers, even though Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and many other Jews were also exterminated.

Historical guilt is the existential ballast that remains at the heart of a people who objectively benefit from the unjust sacrifice of another people, even if that sacrifice took place long ago. In Western modernity, colonialism and all the atrocities that accompanied it (genocides, slavery, forced labor, deportations, robbery of land and of cultural goods) are the main ballast of historical guilt and, therefore, the one that most notably justifies reparations.

I won’t comment on Jaspers’ metaphysical guilt because I don’t recognize myself in the religious presuppositions that support it, but all the others, plus historical guilt, have every relevance to understanding and judging the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people.

Let’s start with historical guilt. In different but convergent ways, Europe, the US and Israel share the same kind of guilt. It’s a deeply intertwined history full of complicities and antagonisms. Europe spearheaded modern colonialism and justified it in the name of a principle that has been adopted in multiple situations up to the present day, the principle of civilizational superiority anchored in racial superiority.

The creation of the State of Israel

This principle has had three main manifestations: the principle of the chosen people of the American colonialists, the racially superior people of the Nazi Germans – the people of the masters (the Herrenvolk)—and the chosen people of the Hebrew God. The specificity of this last manifestation lies in the fact that the Jewish people both fell victim to Nazi racial superiority and became the executioners of the Palestinian people by assuming the form of a Zionist state. From their immense tragedy as victims, the opportunity was created for them to become aggressors.

In other words, the creation of the State of Israel is the double result of the heinous crime against the Jewish people (halved as a result of the Holocaust) committed by the Germans during the Nazi period. It is also the result of modern European colonialism, which made the creation of the State of Israel possible in a British colonial protectorate, the territory of Palestine, a typically colonial creation and occupation (settlers colonialism), carried out against the will of the peoples who lived there.

But the reciprocal imbrication of the multiple refractions of colonialism and racism does not end there. Israel and the US share the same genocidal drive that underlies European colonialism. The USA was originally a colony which, on becoming independent from England, became a colonial state and, as such, possessed genocidal DNA. The USA is the country we know today thanks to the genocide of the indigenous peoples, just as the State of Israel has from the outset been a colonial state in whose matrix is inscribed the genocide of the Palestinian people, a genocide committed drop by drop since 1948, and now in the process of being consummated with the most savage brutality.

The State of Israel, whatever the outcome of the ongoing atrocities, is being considered a pariah state by many countries and a good part of the world’s public opinion. Just as Germany was after the defeat of Nazism. Two questions arise here.

The condition of a pariah state

The first question is why the USA, despite also being based on genocide (the genocide of the indigenous peoples), has never been considered a pariah state. The Indian authorities certainly did, so scandalous was the violation of the trap treaties between the colonialists and the native peoples, but their voice was rarely heard. Moreover, apart from all the political conveniences, apart from the fact that the interests of the State of Israel have a well-established presence within the US Congress, apart from the fact that we don’t know which of the two states is a client of the other, the difficulty for the US to condemn Israel ultimately lies in the fact that they both share the same condition of the original genocide.

By delegitimizing Israel, the US would be calling its own history into question.

The reason why the US was not considered a pariah state by the international community is because, at the time of its foundation, more than ninety percent of the planet was under the domination (effective or indirect) of modern European colonialism. We were at the height of the European colonialist orgy. Today, on the other hand, we are living through the agony of an international order that was created precisely after the Holocaust so that no more crimes of this kind would be committed.

When mentioning criminal guilt, Jaspers considers that the Nuremberg tribunal, despite all its legal limitations and the fact that it represented the justice of the victors against the vanquished, signified the embryo of a new international order in which it would once again be possible to speak of humanity as a whole and the equal dignity of all human beings.

This order would in fact emerge shortly afterwards with the creation of the UN and all the conventions and treaties that followed to prevent the repetition of such atrocities. NATO itself was not only created against the Soviet Union. It was also created against Germany. The embryo of this international order had emerged after the First World War with the creation of the League of Nations and, although this was largely ruined by Nazi expansionism, it was in the name of its principles that defeated Germany was considered a pariah state.

As Jaspers predicted, “the world will distrust us for a long time” (2000: 10); and he added that this was what characterized the condition of a pariah state. The order created in 1948 has been subverted since 1991 (the end of the Soviet Union) by the country that led it, the USA. It is in the name of this order that Israel risks becoming a pariah state. If this order collapses, what comes next belongs to the realm of maximum uncertainty. With the complicity of the US, Israel is dealing itself a potentially fatal blow.

Victory or defeat?

The second question concerns the political significance of Israel’s military action in Gaza. Germany was considered a pariah state because it was defeated. In 1938, the Times of London published an open letter from Churchill to Hitler in which Churchill, among other things, wrote:

“If England had suffered a disaster comparable to that which Germany suffered in 1918, I would pray to God to send us a man of his [Hitler’s] strength of mind and will” (2000: 88).

Is Israel winning this war or being defeated?

On the battlefield, it is difficult to answer, but in the judgment of the international community, it can already be concluded that Israel has been morally defeated. The international order erected in 1948, despite being filled with the rhetoric of universal values, was an imperfect and unjust order. It did not condemn colonialism and, in the same year that the UN was created and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed, the colonial state of Israel was created and the Apartheid system was institutionalized in South Africa.

Despite all this, the new order called for the recognition of humanity as a whole, made up of peoples, communities and individuals endowed with equal dignity, and for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. This positive side is still present in the minds of some political leaders and in the imagination of global public opinion.

Witness South Africa’s courageous complaint against Israel at the International Court of Justice, followed by other converging complaints from other countries. Equally courageous was President Lula da Silva’s statement on February 17 at the opening of the 37th African Union Summit against Israel’s military operations in Gaza and all the international turmoil it has caused.

This international order has been violated with impunity by the US, and everything suggests that Israel will follow suit, making its interests prevail.

Is it possible, under these conditions, to speak of defeat? According to Immanuel Kant, war must be conducted in such a way that reconciliation is possible at the end of hostilities (2000: 48).

It is well known that Hitler conducted the war in clear contravention of Kant’s wisdom.


Reconciliation is not possible with an exterminated people or dismembered corpses. This is the way the Israeli armed forces are conducting the war in Gaza, routinely committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. You will certainly argue that the victors dispense with reconciliation. But in today’s world, which dares to think of humanity as a whole and the equal dignity of human life, we are all Palestine. With this Palestine in the broadest sense, reconciliation with Israel will never be possible, whether we win or lose the war on the battlefield. Palestine’s great victory has been to transfer the criterion that decides victory or defeat from the battlefield to the field of international ethics. And in this field Israel is definitively defeated.

As Jaspers said bitterly about his country, the world will distrust Israel for a long time.

This mistrust is not a mistrust like any other. It is distrust of the political structure that claims to represent a people that was the victim of Hitler’s brutality and that all the world’s democrats defended against the virus of anti-Semitism that long preceded Hitler’s extremism and that continued after Hitler in the thinking and actions of far-right groups.

How is it possible that this extreme right today dominates Israeli politics and its international propaganda invests against all those who have defended the Jewish cause?

We, who have always fought against anti-Semitism, have not been wrong. Israel is tragically mistaken. It is crucial that we do not confuse the Jewish people with the Jewish state of Israel. It is crucial that the world’s democrats prepare themselves for two very difficult fights.

On the one hand, to continue defending the Palestinian people, certain that, with the exception of the US, colonial states have never won, and colonized peoples have managed, at the cost of much innocent blood, to win their liberation. Palestine will win. On the other hand, I welcome the citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews, who at the end of the war (it always ends) will feel that only negative characteristics unite them: the political, moral and metaphysical guilt (for believers) of having consented to or survived such savage cruelty; the distrust of the future world towards a people who, having suffered so much, we thought incapable of causing the genocide of another people; the sense of doom of being seen as a non-community after centuries of struggling for a common identity.

I strongly condemn Hamas’ violent actions against the civilian population, but I refuse to consider Hamas a terrorist organization[2]. Israel is a colonial state and history teaches us that colonized peoples have always sought a peaceful solution to end colonial domination. They resorted to armed struggle as a last resort. I still remember well how the Portuguese press in 1973 considered Amílcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau), Samora Machel (Mozambique) and Agostinho Neto (Angola) to be dangerous terrorists who were disturbing peace and order in ” our overseas provinces”, the term used by colonial-fascism to refer to the Portuguese colonies.

A year later, these same “terrorists” were celebrated in their own countries as heroic liberators of their homeland. Thanks to the role that the anti-colonial struggles had played in overthrowing the fascist regime, the new heroes were also celebrated in Portugal, which had finally been liberated by the Carnation Revolution (April 25, 1974) from Salazar’s 48-year dictatorship. That was only fifty years ago. History has a patience that exceeds the patience of humans.

[1] Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt. Translated by E.B.Ashton. New York, Fordham University Press, 2000.

[2] The use of tunnels against the oppressor was also used by the Jewish resistance, for example in the Warsaw ghetto and the Novogrudok ghetto (today Belarus). See Colin Miazga, Paul Bauman, Alastair McClymont, and Chris Slater, “Geophysical investigation of the Miła 18 resistance bunker in Warsaw, Poland” First International Meeting for Applied Geoscience & Energy Expanded Abstracts, (; Eran Zohar, “Jewish subterranean operations in major east European ghettos” Holocaust Studies A Journal of Culture and History. Volume 26, 2020 – Issue 1,1-37; Betty Brodsky Cohen, “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Novogrudok Tunnel Escape”, The Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2022.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is the emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. His most recent book is Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice. [IDN-InDepthNews]

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Photo: Palestine solidarity protest in Berlin, 2018 | Credit. Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr

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