State of Atonement: What Do Leaders Apologize for and Why? A Yom Kippur Special

It’s not only regular individuals who apologize. Leaders, too, sometimes beg forgiveness for historical transgressions committed by their states. Who has asked for forgiveness from whom, when and why? Which apologies have backfired?

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Willy Brandt falling to his knee in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, in 1970. His message resonated
Willy Brandt falling to his knee in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, in 1970. His message resonatedCredit: DPA/AFP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

This past summer, a historic event occurred in New Zealand, though it was not widely covered internationally. Almost 140 years after the fact, the British Crown apologized to the Maori aborigines for the invasion of the village of Parihaka by British troops in 1881. The soldiers destroyed much of the village, arrested the men and imposed military rule. Their aim was to suppress the natives’ quiet uprising against European colonial occupation. New Zealand’s attorney general, Chris Finlayson, came to Parihaka to deliver the apology – and financial compensation. “The sense of grievance that arises from that history is anything but historical. It’s remembered, it’s lived every day,” he said.

One hundred and forty years may seem like too long to wait before saying “sorry,” but researchers have found that it’s never too late for a state to apologize for wrongs it inflicted on other states, nations or minority groups. Indeed, studies suggest that it’s sometimes preferable for a government to wait for an extended period before issuing an apology, in order to dull the pain and reduce the anger and resistance it’s liable to arouse, on both sides. For states, an apology is a political act, and the apologetic leaders (and the unapologetic ones, too) are, at base, politicians who are motivated by party, national, personal and other interests.

In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton and the House of Representatives apologized to the indigenous population of Hawaii for overthrowing the monarchy there and deposing the queen a century earlier. In 1893, American “agents and citizens” (in the words of the congressional resolution) abetted a coup against the queen of Hawaii; five years later, the island nation was annexed to the United States.

President Clinton also signed off on other formal apologies. In 1993, he apologized for the detention during World War II of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, who were thought to be a potential fifth column. In 1997, he apologized for the “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” – an unethical medical study which the United States carried out between 1932 and 1972 on some 600 African-American sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama.

A year later, while visiting Africa, Clinton dared to address, for the first time, albeit cautiously and hesitantly, one of the most sensitive issues in American history: the crime of slavery. “The United States has not always done the right thing by Africa,” he said in Uganda, adding, “Going back to the time before we were a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.”

Bill Clinton. Addressed the crime of slavery, albeit cautiously.
Bill Clinton. Addressed the crime of slavery, albeit cautiously.Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Washington Post claimed, and rightly so, that this could not be taken as a presidential apology for slavery. Clinton rejected the idea of expressing an explicit apology during his term in office. Commentators explained that there was insufficient public support for such a dramatic move, and that it was liable to exacerbate social tensions back home and thereby cause more harm than good.

It was only in 2008 that the United States took a significant step in this direction, 143 years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. That year, the House of Representatives apologized formally to African Americans for the first time for the institution of slavery and for discrimination against blacks. The preamble to this declaration stated that even though the act of apology “cannot erase the past,” it can help heal racial wounds “and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past.” Some states followed suit by issuing similar apologies of their own.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) speaks to members of the media during a news conference on Tweets
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) speaks to members of the media during a news conference on deleted Tweets to Cindi Lauper in his office April 12, 2013.Credit: AFP

Rep. Steve Cohen, a white, Jewish Democrat from Tennessee, who was behind the apology initiative, told Haaretz at the time that he thought it was the most natural thing to seek forgiveness for prolonged abuse, and that he couldn’t understand why it had taken so long. He added that the Jewish people always remembers the meaning of slavery, and that at Passover, while speaking about the Exodus from Egypt, they also remember those who became slaves in America. His critics alleged that he was politically motivated, attempting to curry favor with black voters in his constituency.

Still, no American president has apologized for slavery in in a direct, personal way. Not even the first and only black chief executive, Barack Obama, who missed an opportunity to do so in 2015, the 150th anniversary of the historic declaration of the abolition of slavery in Texas, an event still commemorated as Emancipation Day (and also as “Juneteenth”).

There are various reasons for this presidential reluctance when it comes to slavery. One is the fear that an apology from the highest office in the land would trigger a demand for reparations.

Barack Obama in Hiroshima in 2016. Came “to mourn the dead.”
Barack Obama in Hiroshima in 2016. Came “to mourn the dead.”Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Brian Weiner, a professor of political scientist at the University of San Francisco, addresses this issue in his 2005 book “Sins of the Parents: The Politics of National Apologies in the United States.” An individual apology, he notes, is made face to face, privately, so that its sincerity can be gauged. In contrast, when the president of a great power apologizes to a population group for wrongs inflicted on it – in this case, more than a century earlier – how can the sincerity of the leader and of the state be measured? Here, the demand for financial compensation comes in as “proof” of the apologizer’s intentions. This can make a political apology a difficult-to-impossible task for certain governments.

The most famous case of compensation being paid by a country for its past crimes is the Reparations Agreement signed between West Germany and Israel in 1952, seven years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Germany undertook to give both Israel collective compensation (which took the form of goods being transferred on an unprecedented scale) and Holocaust survivors personal compensation.

Initially, there was fierce opposition to the agreement both in Germany and in Israel. Some survivors were outraged by the idea that the worst murderers in human history would pay reparations for crimes that are beyond atonement. For this reason, the Hebrew word used in the agreement is shilumim – payments – and not pitzu’im – compensation – in order to avoid creating the impression that Israel thought it was possible to make up for the Nazis’ crimes to survivors and the victims’ descendants.

Critics of the accord argued that Germany’s motives were not aboveboard. Ultimately, it helped that country regain its rightful place among the world’s nations. However, the agreement was not accompanied by an apology in the usual sense of the word. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer did not ask for forgiveness nor did he offer an admission of guilt, which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion needed in order to justify the negotiations on the reparations, as historian Tom Segev noted in 2008 in one of his weekly columns in Haaretz. Adenauer finally agreed only to mention crimes committed “in the name of the German people” – newspeak terminology that was parroted by many successive German politicians who found it to be an elegant way to apologize without really apologizing. Indeed, within Germany, according to an article published this year by the Australia-based online magazine Aeon, “Adenauer was advocating a national policy of forgetting rather than apology and remembrance.”

Wait and see

Johannes Rau addresses Israel's Knesset
Johannes Rau addresses Israel's KnessetCredit: Peter Andrews / Reuters

Germany needed long and painful internal work before it could even begin to apologize in a direct manner for its past crimes. There was also concern that excessive occupation with the past could leave the country wallowing in guilt.

The breakthrough was initiated by Chancellor Willy Brandt. In 1970, on a visit to Poland, Brandt knelt at the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The gesture did not constitute an explicit apology, but the message resonated far and wide. He later explained that he did what one does “when there are no words.”

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Chancellor Helmut Kohl stated that the “darkest and most awful chapter in German history was written at Auschwitz.” Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel added that “for Germans, Auschwitz is the symbol of our deepest shame.”

Since then, the heads of the German state have regularly reiterated the words “shame,” “guilt” and “responsibility.” In 2000, a full apology was voiced, in German, from the Knesset podium. The German president, Johannes Rau, stated at the time: “Before the people of Israel I pay humble tribute to those who were murdered I ask forgiveness for what Germans have done.”

Five years later, Rau’s successor, Horst Koehler, addressed the Knesset. “I bow my head in shame and humility before the victims,” he said. But the then-leader of the opposition in the House, MK Yosef Lapid, himself a Holocaust survivor, rebutted the president by asserting, “The rules of forgetting and atonement do not apply to the annihilation of a third of the Jewish people,” and “We will never forgive what Nazi Germany did to us.”

Willy Brandt visits Israel and meets with then Prime Minister Golda Meir
Willy Brandt visits Israel and meets with then Prime Minister Golda MeirCredit: GPO

Many agree that the Holocaust is by definition an unforgivable crime. Politicians won’t admit it, but in order for apologies for crimes of this magnitude to be effective, it’s sometimes better to wait. For how long? Until as few as possible of either the perpetrators or their victims remain alive. The former are liable to justify their deeds, deny them or even blame the victims; the latter might “damage” the prospects for the success of the apology by refusing to accept it.

In any event, Germany has fulfilled completely the necessary conditions for apologizing, as set forth by experts on the subject. The full formula appeared in 2009 in the journal Political Psychology. An article by three researchers from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, which publishes the journal, found that a genuine apology, whether personal or political, contains six necessary elements: “(1) remorse (e.g., ‘I’m sorry’); (2) acceptance of responsibility (e.g., ‘It’s my fault’); (3) admission of injustice or wrong doing (e.g., ‘What I did was wrong’); (4) acknowledgement of harm and/or victim suffering (e.g., ‘I know you are upset’); (5) forbearance, or promises to behave better in the future (e.g., ‘I will never do it again’); and (6) offers of repair (e.g., ‘I will pay for the damages’).”

The second element is of particular importance, as it will help fight the tendency of some of the public to cast responsibility for their troubles onto the victims. The final element, as noted, is proof of the apologizer’s seriousness.

The researchers add several more elements, specific to apologies by states. The most important of these is an expression of present-day, high regard for the minority that was harmed by the state in the past. This element is particularly significant in demonstrating to the group in question that the state truly wishes to establish better relations with it and not just acknowledge a historical injustice even as it continues to mistreat the group.

Although not everyone will agree with these guidelines, it’s clear that the content of the apology and the choice of the words that constitute it are of prime importance. Sometimes uttering words such as “we regret,” “we apologize” and even simply, “sorry,” are more meaningful than the act of taking responsibility. Thus, in 2008, New Jersey did not make do with trite phrases about “shameful history” but expressed “profound regret” for having practiced slavery, making it the first state in the North to make such an acknowledgment.

Nonetheless, apologies by politicians can be a far more complex matter than interpersonal expressions of remorse. One reason for this is that the wrongs for which heads of state apologize are more serious, more prolonged and affect more people. In addition, such apologies are also geared to a future audience and are aimed at not only the victims and their descendants, but also at the general population, most of whose members had nothing to do with the injustices that were perpetrated.

Bill Clinton and Janet Reno
Bill Clinton and Janet RenoCredit: Doug Mills / AP

In many cases, other emphases are more important than the word “sorry.” For example, in his apology to the victims of the syphilis experiments, President Clinton said, “You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged.”

Queen Elizabeth II also assumed full responsibility when she apologized for the harm done by British colonialism to the Maoris in New Zealand in 1863. She expressed “profound regret and apologies for the loss of lives because of the hostilities arising from [the] invasion and at the devastation of property and social life which resulted.”

In 2006, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the “head tax” that his country imposed on immigrants from China between 1885 and 1923, he emphasized that the custom was “a product of a profoundly different time [that] lies far in our past,” in order to assure future generations, too, that Canada would never again introduce such measures. In the same year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, apologizing for Britain’s role in international slave trade, went even further, stating, “It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time.”

The Polish case

President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland during the Reyjavik Summit
President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland during the Reyjavik Summit.Credit: U.S. government via Wikipedia

Not all governments are eager to apologize. In fact, most states never express contrition for the wrongs they commit. In her book “Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics,” from 2008, Jennifer Lind, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, writes that, in general, apologies are not part of the modus operandi of the United States and of many other countries. In some cases, states seek to diminish the gravity of their actions or even deny them outright. Turkey, for example, refuses to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenian people, let alone apologize for it.

In some countries, such as Poland, the question of apologizing for past injustices has become increasingly divisive of late. The Polish case is also an example of the politicization of apologies. In recent years in this country, it’s become clear also that an apology by one government is not binding on a subsequent government. As such, the whole point of government apologies becomes questionable.

In 2000, the revelation that Poles were involved in the massacre of hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in the town of Jedwabne in 1941, brought about a lengthy and painful process of national stocktaking in the country. The Polish president at the time, Aleksander Kwasniewski, apologized in the name of the Polish people and dedicated a monument commemorating the victims. “For this crime we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. This is why today I beg pardon in my own name and in the name of those Poles whose conscience is shattered by that crime,” he said in the 2001 ceremony in Jedwabne.

But 14 years later, when Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski reiterated the apology – saying, “The nation of victims was also the nation of perpetrators,” and “Difficult and painful episodes in our history must not be hidden” – his remarks triggered a fierce counter-reaction and became a contentious issue in the 2015 presidential elections. The rival candidate, the rightist Andrzej Duda, who won the election, accused Komorowski of tarnishing Poland’s reputation and asserted that it was time to stop apologizing for what others did: in this case, the German Nazis, in his view. More recently, to underscore the fact that Poland was itself a victim of Nazism, there have been renewed demands in the country to receive (additional) reparations from Germany.

In the past, Poland obtained a (justified) apology for crimes committed against it by others. In 1990, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev apologized for the Soviet massacre of thousands of Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest. This followed decades of attempts by the Soviet Union to deflect responsibility for the massacre and to blame it on the Nazis.

In a different form of addressing the evils of the past, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 order to investigate the crimes of the apartheid regime. The 300 members of the commission, which operated until mid-1998, took testimonies from more than 21,000 victims and witnesses. The commission was authorized to pardon perpetrators who confessed to their deeds. Among those who testified was F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who had abolished apartheid in 1994, and was the last white person to hold that office. “I apologize to the millions who over the decades suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination,” he declared.

Is a “truth commission” a vital step on the road to genuine apology by a state for crimes it committed? “The truth depends on the past: One must confront the legacy of past horrors or there will be no foundation on which to build a new society,” Priscilla Hayner, an expert on truth commissions and transitional justice, writes in her 2011 book “Unspeakable Truths.” “Bury your sins, and they will reemerge later If the conflicts of old are confronted directly, it is surmised, these conflicts will be less likely to explode into severe violence or political conflict in the future.”

Here, then, is another reason to apologize. If the apology is successful, it can lead to the resolution of conflicts and to a healing process. One condition for success is nonresistance to the apology by the majority of the nation – those citizens who were not directly involved in inflicting the injustices. Surveys show that apologies for historical events are liable to generate strong objections among the majority, who may feel they are being accused unjustly of doing harm to others long ago. That opposition can mount if the apology entails reparations to be funded by the taxpayer.

Hence, experts recommend that governments state clearly that the present population is not to blame for the sins of the past. Governments should also emphasize that today, in contrast to the past, authorities are behaving differently. An example of such an assertion cited in the Political Psychology article: “The injustice occurred long ago, when the laws, values, and beliefs were very different from what they are today.”

Yet it’s worth remembering that it’s not always possible or desirable to apologize. In cases in which the victimized group does not speak in one voice, the leader will find it difficult to ask for forgiveness and to turn over a new page with those to whom his apology is aimed. The same is true if the majority of the nation adamantly opposes an apology to one of the minority groups.

“Apologies are not cheap,” notes Thomas Berger, professor of international relations at Boston University, and author of the book “War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II” (2013). “It is not simply having your leader say, ‘I’m sorry’; it means a whole set of policies, including compensation, educational policies, commemoration policies, how to remember the past in museums, at cultural sites, and through holidays and events. I call it the official historical narrative of the state,” he stated in an interview to the Boston University website.

That is probably why President Obama refrained from apologizing for his country’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, toward the end of World War II. Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016, but, contrary to widespread expectations, he did not apologize but made do with saying he had come “to mourn the dead” and that the “lesson of Hiroshima” had been learned. The background to this was the assessment by the Obama administration that the military action taken by the United States to end the war does not call for apology.

Serial apologizers

One Israeli politician who experienced the acrid aftertaste of controversial apologies is former prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak issued two apologies that initially appeared to be “historic” and were acclaimed as “dramatic,” but which ultimately failed to achieve their goals and became targets of derision, anger and criticism.

In 1997, as head of the Labor Party, Barak asked for “forgiveness” from the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent) who live in the “development towns,” as they’re called in Hebrew, for the anguish caused them in Israel’s early years by the party he headed and its forerunner, Mapai. “We haven’t always honored and esteemed the tremendous pioneering role played by the generation of the transit camps, the moshavim and the development towns in building the state,” Barak said, adding, “Telling the truth helps to draw people closer together.”

Barak surely did not anticipate the ferocity of the reaction to his remarks. “The Mizrahi public ridiculed the gesture and viewed it as fake, with salient electoral aims; the Ashkenazi public saw it as pretentious and as a betrayal of the memory of the founding fathers,” columnist Uzi Benziman noted in Haaretz. Benziman termed the apology a “PR stunt” that smacked of “gimmickry and manipulation.”

Clinton and Barak
Ehud Barak (L) and Bill Clinton meet at the White House, July 19, 1999.Credit: Reuters

Every Israeli politician since has been wary of using apologies for political ends. Neither those to whom Barak apologized nor those in whose name he spoke accepted the apology. Thus, the late Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, who served as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office in the 1950s, said, “I personally did all I could to integrate immigrants; I don’t feel that I owe anyone an apology.” And Yitzhak Navon, who was Ben-Gurion’s aide and later Israel’s president, described the fine line between “expressing sorrow,” “forgiveness” and “regret”: “One can express sorrow over suffering and identify with the pain, but not ask for forgiveness,” he said. “Forgiveness means that we are regretful, and the Labor movement across the generations has nothing to regret. The truth is complex. One can express sympathetic sharing but not ask for forgiveness, because there was no malicious intent here.”

The demand for the state to apologize to Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world has recently surfaced again, this time from the families of the Yemenite children who disappeared during Israel’s first years. They also want reparations for the wrong done them, whose full dimensions are not yet known.

In 1999, when serving as prime minister, Barak again expressed sorrow, this time for the suffering caused the Palestinian people by Israel. Again, this apology had no long-term effect – shortly afterward the second intifada erupted.

Still, others followed suit. In 2007, President Shimon Peres visited Kafr Qasem and apologized for the massacre of dozens of villagers by Border Police troops in 1956. “An extremely harsh event happened here in the past, for which we are very sorry,” he said. Peres’ successor, Reuven Rivlin, made history by becoming the first serving president to visit that same village on the anniversary of the massacre. “The criminal killing in your village is an anomalous and dark chapter in the history of relations between us, the Arabs and the Jews who live here,” Rivlin declared in 2014. He also laid a wreath on the monument commemorating the victims.

Rivlin did not ask for forgiveness directly but said that, as president of Israel, he was standing before the families of those who were killed and wounded, and “feels the pain of the memory together with you.”

What effect did his and Peres’ remarks have? Did they increase understanding or improve relations between the state and the residents of that town? It’s hard to know, but it’s worth noting that two years later, on the 60th anniversary of the massacre, no state personage was invited to or attended the ceremony in Kafr Qasem.