How long must societies face penance for past sins? Individuals have it easy – there are either statutes of limitation or you die; either way, it’s over. Human societies, on the other hand, are virtually immortal organisms; individual cells die, but the whole lives on. According to some, so do guilt and shame. Or at least they should. Recently, “The New York Times Magazine” ran “the 1619 Project”, which argues that pretty much everything in the United States is and has been irredeemably tainted by slavery. Several high profile Democrat presidential hopefuls have now come out in favour of “reparations” to the descendants of slaves. Incidentally, for those unfamiliar with history, slavery ended in the United States more than 150 years, or about six generations, ago as a result of the bloodiest war in America’s history. The US is as much removed from slavery now as Russia is from serfdom or Great Britain from the “dark satanic mills” and child labour. Neither country is, to the best of my knowledge, planning to compensate the great-great-great-great-grandchildren for the work and suffering of their distant ancestors.
As you can probably gather by now, I’m not a big fan of collective responsibility sustained over centuries. The early Old Testament philosophy of “sins of the fathers” being visited on their children was already getting outdated by the time of Prophet Ezekiel in the Babylonian exile around 500BC and has been progressively eliminated from our thinking ever since (with some unfortunate exceptions, such as the Jew being blamed for “killing Christ” in some quarters until quite modern times). But thanks to the reinvention of Marxism through the identity politics, our societies seem to be regressing to a place where whole categories of people are again being blamed not just for contemporary misdeeds but also for those of previous generations.
In some ways, and contrary to the song, “sorry” is now one of the easiest words. As with anything else in oversupply, its value is rapidly diminishing. It’s time we returned “sorry” to the sphere where it properly belongs – that of individual or personal responsibility.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has asked Poland for forgiveness during Second World War commemorations.
Speaking as he attended a ceremony in the Polish city of Wielun, where the first German bombs fell 80 years ago, Mr Stenmeier said: “I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for forgiveness.”
The German president, who was joined by his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, also condemned the “desire to annihilate” that started the conflict.
The pair attended a ceremony in Wielun in the early hours of the morning, where a minute’s silence was observed.
No one familiar with history needs much reminding about Poland’s suffering during the Second World War. Six million people dead (including 3 million Polish Jews), or around 1 in 6 of the pre-war population, and the economic and social infrastructure of the country devastated; altogether the largest comparative loss of all the war’s actors, as became the country right in the middle of the fury, “the bloodlands” between Hitler and Stalin. If Soviet republics were independent states (as they are now) only Belarus (which lost a quarter of its population) and Ukraine would have overtaken Poland in the grisly tally. There is no doubt what the German war machine and occupation (with some contribution from the Soviets) had wrought.
But… An overwhelming majority of Germans alive today were born after the war or at best were children during it, as is the case with most Polish people. There are very few, and with every day fewer still, both the perpetrators and the victims left. German politicians have in the past accepted a form of collective responsibility for the Nazi years and sought forgiveness on behalf of their country on several occasions (including Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, known in Germany as “Kniefall von Warschau”). Such forgiveness has been offered in the past too, including by the Polish Catholic bishops in 1965 (in the run-up to the millennium of Polish statehood and adoption of Christianity a year later) to their (West) German counterparts, in turn asking for forgiveness for the (lesser) sins committed by the Polish people against Germans in the past. Whatever one thinks of such gestures (and the then communist government of Poland certainly didn’t think much), they at least enjoyed the benefit of greater contemporaneity with the historical events in question as well as greater relevance to the living. But the war we’re still talking about started 80 years ago and finished 74 years ago – I would argue it’s time enough to put the past behind, not in a sense of forgetting, which we never should, or forgiving, which as I argue is beyond us now, but of unending moral and material reckoning.
There is, of course, an obverse to every apology:
As commemorations started, Poland has repeated demands for compensation from Germany for the losses it suffered during the conflict.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview with German media: “We have lost six million people, many more than any other country that has received vast reparations. It is not fair. It cannot be this way.”
An official commission has been working in Poland on the updated estimates, which could possibly top 1 trillion Euros.
Respectfully, I suggest this matter should also be laid to rest. Whatever the rights or wrongs of not having been compensated post-war (Germany has refused to pay other formerly occupied countries too), the war reparations ship has sailed some time ago. It’s absurd that Germany should start paying now, three quarters of a century after the fact. An average German today has nothing to apologise for, having had nothing personally to do with the Second World War; similarly, an average German today should not be paying money for damage and suffering that his or her relatives might have played a part in inflicting a long time ago. We need a historical statute of limitations too.
Somewhere in the Vilnius district in what is now the independent Lithuania there are lands and properties that used to belong to my great-grandfather. They have all been requisitioned and nationalised after Red Army ejected Germans from the Baltics in 1945. Even though today’s Russia remains by and large proud and positive of its communist past and the mayhem it has caused (unlike Germany, which has bent over backwards to repudiate its Nazi past), I still don’t expect Vladimir Putin, or for that matter an average Russian, to apologies to me for the actions of the Soviet state, its agents and its people almost 30 years before I was even born, which deeply affected people in my family who are long dead. Neither do I expect compensation or restitution after all this time.
History is what it is; often dark, brutal and ugly. But our moral responsibility as individuals extends only to our own actions and no further. I might feel terrible about a lot that’s happened in the past, but I cannot apologise and seek forgiveness for things done a long time ago by somebody else, even more so a dead somebody else, and I cannot be expected to pay others for harm done to their ancestors. What we owe to the world and others is to do our best today and in the future. As for the past, we should learn from history, not keep paying for it.