Offering Apologies for History
Apologies are definitely in. Pope John Paul II joined the budding
trend with his historic apology for the history of the Roman Catholic
Church. If we are not careful, floodgates will open before we know
The sight of a highly respected pope, visibly approaching the end
of his earthly existence, humbling himself and the great institution
he represents, cannot fail to move. But in this age of symbols and
gestures, in this age where, increasingly, reason is taking a back
seat, we had better be careful. Emotional outbursts already govern
where once the law and common sense ruled.
Who could have predicted a Hungarian complaining about emotional
outbursts? But times change. One major reason for my deep-seated
admiration of the English-speaking peoples was their ability to
live with their history. While Continentals constantly re-evaluated
and revised theirs, having to rename streets and buildings, arrange
belated and apologetic burials, and explaining to children why it
is now the other way around, the British were able to accommodate
centuries upon centuries of internal strife, beheadings and restorations
forming a continuous chain simply called "history."
In America, the liveliest debate used to be about calling the Civil
War a "War between the States."
All that is changing, and not for the better. Instead of Europeans
learning the infinitely preferable way of the English-speaking world,
we are adopting the invariably disastrous political routines of
The first national apology for past deeds came from Germany - well,
West Germany, or as it was then called, the Federal Republic of
Germany. It was entirely appropriate as it was offered to victims
of Adolf Hitler's "Final solution" or their immediate
offsprings. The act of a supposedly civilized country collecting
and carting off in cattle cars a certain specific kind of human
being for the purpose of extermination stand along - no because
of its bestiality, but because the intellect that had given us Martin
Luther, Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Wolfgang
von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Zeiss, Albert Einstein and
Thomas Mann was applied to the task.
Another appropriate apology might have come from Russia in 1991,
but did not - just as Russia kept the Eastern part of Germany, under
Russian occupation, from any participation in the goodwill effort
of the Western part.
But, lest the reader might detect a favorable view of apologies,
I must emphasize once again that these are very specific cases in
which both the protractors of horror-deeds and their victims were
On the other hand, for people who had not done any wrong to apologize
to other people to whom no wrong had been done, the proposition
is one only imaginable in the World of Affirmative Action. It is
unlikely that Africans will be asked to apologize to other Africans
for selling their ancestors into slavery, or for wiping out entire
tribes. It is unlikely American Indians will be asked to apologize
for the people they killed, scalped, mutilated. It is unlikely Egypt
will be asked to apologize for keeping the tribes of Israel in bondage.
No - apologies are demanded, and will be offered if we don't come
to our senses, buy those societies that have cared to record their
history, tried their best to learn from their history, and have
scaled mountains to make amends to those they now believe to have
wronged in the past.
In other words, apologies are demanded, and will be offered if
we don't come to our senses, by societies that engage in continuous
self-examination, to those whose exclusive focus is the criticism
History is a chain of events. History is a chronicle of acts by
humans. History is written not by the victors, as Karl Marx and
his disciples would have us believe, but by those who have an interest
to capture the past. Among these, the histories written in English
before the 19650s have been noted for their honest effort to portray
the past with the least bias possible.
The proposition that those of us living today would have done differently
and better, had we lived in the past, is sheer nonsense. It is thus
sheer nonsense that apologies perpetuate. And, of course, they establish
additional grounds for people to lay claim to the purse of others.
In other words, apologies are simply a new phase in the entitlement
Beyond that, the idea we would have acted differently is not only
preposterous, but exceedingly presumptuous. When we apologize for
our own deeds, we judge ourselves. Has anyone been authorized to
judge those long dead, on behalf of a nation?
Here is my challenge: Let us engage in a national - international?
- competition to write the history of the last 1,000 (2,000? 3,000"
4,000, 5,000?) years as it should have happened. The only requirement
is to arrive at the year 2000,showing a logical sequence and producing
a better world than we have today.
If someone can actually do that, it will be my pleasure, my honor,
my privilege to apologize.