German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for forgiveness from the Poles, for the Nazi tyranny conducted during World War Two, at the commemoration of 80 years since the outbreak of conflict in Polish city of Wieluń, on September 1st. Nothing new for Germany. The famous Kniefall von Warschau committed by the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970, was the first to have echoed throughout Europe. The Kniefall almost cost him the following elections, and it was considered excessive by almost half of the representative sample of Germans.
Why forgiveness? In the context of intergroup reconciliation, asking forgiveness may be crucial. Giving one may be impossible. Many victim groups have been asked to and forced to forgive. The need for forgiveness was often imposed to them, such in the case of Jews, which led to the repulsion towards it, as Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote, ‘forgiveness died in the death camps’. Forgiveness, in the eyes of the victims, means forget and accept. And no victim can or should forget. The war misdeeds are inhumane, immoral, and being like that, they are almost impossible to forgive.
Asking forgiveness means admitting the misdeeds of one’s own group. However, the symbolic quality of forgiveness asking that is often attributed to official apologies does not allow for them to be welcomed and praised. True remorse is what makes a difference, and what humanizes and legitimizes the perpetrator. When they are seen as human, they can be forgiven. Can be. May as well not be. True remorse is also what makes victims human, since their delegitimization is a necessity in conducting atrocities.
South Africa’s last apartheid president de Klerk apologized for the atrocities of his government, however, this apology was not considered sincere since he was seen as defending his party’s policies. Serbian president Boris Tadić apologized for the misdeeds committed by the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His apology was not welcomed nor accepted, since it was considered symbolic and insincere – he did nothing to ensure justice.
True remorse is what makes a difference, but who is ready to bear that burden on his back? Well, Willy Brandt. Bending the knee to the victims of the Nazi regime in Warsaw, regardless of his position of power and expectations of the majority of his people, and despite them, makes this apology credible. Makes it humane.