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Forgiveness : Grandeur or Political Slogan?

On February 13, the prime minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, presented the official apology of his country to the Aborigines, particularly to the “Stolen Generation,” the children wrested from their parents and placed in institutes and with white parents. The words of the head of the government were unequivocal: “To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.” These words are destined to seal national reconciliation.

This example is not isolated. It appears in the wake of numerous official gestures that are supposed to ease the burden of the past. However, it invites examination. Politicians and diplomats have shown skepticism for a long time with regard to notions of reconciliation and forgiveness, not considering them to be part of the their purview. For them, these concepts echoed spiritual processes, which are quasi religious and limited to interpersonal relations. Now, since the end of the Cold War, more and more scholars in history, philosophy, psychology, political science, as well as politicians themselves, refer explicitly to these notions. Have they now proved themselves credible in international relations? Or are they raised just as slogans in the air?

This phenomenon is not radically new. Without doubt Willy Brandt symbolically crystalized this political aspect of forgiveness. In an official visit to Warsaw, the West German chancellor, his eyes welling, deep in thought, knelt suddenly before the memorial dedicated to the heroes and victims of the ghetto. Twenty years later, Vaclav Havel, president of Czechosolovakia, delivered the official apology to his German counterpart for the expulsion of Sudeten Germans at the end of World War II: “We did not expel these people on the basis of demonstrable guilt, but simply because they belonged to a certain nation. ... And, as is usually the case in history, we hurt ourselves more ... .” Ever since such examples have not stopped multiplying, from one corner of the world to the other. In each case, forgiveness and reconciliation are intimately linked. But does the association go without saying?

For some philosophers, like Hannah Arendt or Paul Ricoeur, forgiveness is not necessarily individual or private: it can just as well be a noble political act. From this perspective, forgiveness is the only means of opening up memory without provoking resentment or desire for revenge. It’s objective is neither to nourish an weeping wound, nor to erase memory. It is a question of breaking at once with debt and forgetting. Far from easing the past, it intervenes in it. It tends to modify it in giving it a different significance. It does not make what happen disappear, as if by magic. Instead it reveals other possible avenues from the past.

The notion of forgiveness as a prelude to reconciliation is attractive. However, it does not always allow us to disregard the principal problems of the political use of the pardon. The concept of forgiveness in the relationship of one community to another, more than in the relations between individuals, poses the question of representation at a double level: in most cases, it is the representatives who, on the one hand, ask for forgiveness for events they have not committed themselves and who, on the other, accept to forgive in the name of victims who are not themselves silent.

The need to repent on the part of the authors of incriminating events constitutes the first important argument against the legitimacy of a collective forgiveness. For what wrongdoings was Willy Brandt -- –whose opposition to the Nazis cannot be suspected– -- guilty? And what of Jacques Chirac, no more than ten years old at the time of the roundup of Vel’d’hiv -- –was he guilty? Everyone today agrees based on the facts that the perpetrator, like the innocent, can only be the individual. A government or a nation can never thus be guilty of their past. Nevertheless, we can posit that they would be the ones responsible for the manner in which they handle the inheritance of history.

The second great obstacle is the notion of the collective forgiveness rests with a certain faith with regard to the victims. In fact, doesn’t forgiveness go hand in hand with life? It is a gesture of courage that only the victims themselves have the right to grant. Consequently, the dead render complete forgiveness literally impossible. As the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch has written, “Let each one pardon the offenses that he has personally suffered, if he thinks it right. But the others, what right do they have to forgive? ... No, it is not for us to forgive for all the little children whom the brutes tortured as they amused themselves.”

In this sense, neither the state nor the people can purport to forgive. Despite these limits, nothing prevents us from recognizing that acts of recognition are destined to lead to new beginnings in relations between communities and between states. The presentation of official apologies cannot “repair” the injuries suffered by individuals themselves and those close to them, but it can contribute to the relieving of wounds and thereby give “a future to memory.” Our objective is thus not to be cynical about these events, but to place them in their own context. On the political scene, only a forgiveness that is metaphorical can be evoked.

Translation by Nathanael D. Robinson

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