‘What people do when words fail them’: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before the memorial to the dead of the Warsaw Uprising, 7 December 1970. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Sven Simon (image edited by Web Investigator)
National apologies are a big deal: they acknowledge the past to help move everyone forward. No wonder they’re so hard
In May 2016, when Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, some speculated that the president of the United States might offer an apology, on behalf of his country, for the bombing of that city at the close of the Second World War. Instead, in his joint press conference with Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said that his visit would ‘honour all those who were lost in the Second World War and reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons’. The White House had announced before the visit that it would neither revisit the decision to drop the bomb nor apologise for it. The Obama administration judged that this wartime military action required no apology.
When do nations apologise? Nearly 30 years earlier, in 1988, the US Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act authorising apologies and redress payments to the Japanese Americans interred during the 1940s. Signing the bill, the US president Ronald Reagan said that ‘here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law’. Reagan’s successors, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, later sent individual apology letters to former internees as their claims were processed.
The apology for internment was a long time coming. In the wave of xenophobia following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the military removed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese to what were euphemistically called War Relocation Authority camps. Those interred encountered hardship, suffering and loss. In 1944, with the Korematsu v United States court case, internment was declared unconstitutional. Some Japanese Americans had been imprisoned for as long as three years. They were given a train ticket and $25. But no apology.
Then, 43 years after internment ended, the US Congress apologised. The path to apology began in 1970, with a call to action from the Japanese American Citizens League. A decade later, the US president Jimmy Carter appointed a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to recommend a course of action. Getting the apology was controversial, involving issues of cost and accountability, political consensus-building, and philosophical debate about whether later governments were responsible for the moral failures of their predecessors. But, in the eyes of many former internees, the effort was worth it. For them, it was a restoration of honour. For the US government, the apology was an admission of having wronged its citizens and a recommitment to justice.
Sometimes, a whole nation must come to grips with its collective past if it is to move ahead. This was the case for the 50-year process that Germany underwent following Hitler’s regime. With the Nuremberg trials and with reforms of the education system aimed at denazification, the Allied victors focused on accountability and re-education. West German politicians knew that they had to address wartime atrocities if Germany was to rejoin the community of nations. As a step toward this, in 1952 the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s government made a 3.5 billion Deutsche mark payment to the new state of Israel. Internally, however, Adenauer was advocating a national policy of forgetting rather than apology and remembrance. In his first address as chancellor in 1949, Adenauer had told the West German parliament that his government was determined to put the past behind. He was concerned with a resurgence of nationalism and sought to de-emphasise wartime guilt in favour of economic revitalisation.
In the post-war years, the German Right and Left would debate whether exploring the past would mire the nation in perpetual guilt, or whether a greater recognition of the past was a necessary step to national dignity. Contrition became the norm, so much so that when the later chancellor Willy Brandt went to Poland in 1970, he knelt before the monument commemorating the Warsaw uprising of 1943. Brandt’s action was widely viewed as a non-verbal apology, and he later explained that he ‘did what people do when words fail them’. In 1995, Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of a unified Germany, found the words. On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Kohl was unambiguously apologetic. Auschwitz, he explained, was ‘the darkest and most horrible chapter of German history … one of our priority tasks is to pass on this knowledge to future generations so that the horrible experiences of the past will never be repeated.’ The process of national apology for Germany was one of overcoming amnesia and acknowledging the past. But, importantly, the orientation was on the future. Germany saw facing and apologising for its past as a way to improve the lives of those to come…