War & Peace- The Politics of Apologising

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been to places that have affected me beyond the normal holiday feeling. In Nuremberg I visited Dokumentationszentrum, a museum that documents the details of the rise of the nazi party and hitler’s ascension to power. The museum is in the southern district of Nuremberg, on the remains of the nazi rally grounds. Without question this was not a pleasant visit to a museum as I was used to over the cause of a normal holiday. Hence I was in two minds about going to the museum in the first place. I’m a student of politics and history, I studied International Relations at University so I’m ever fascinated by world events and history. The best and worst of humankind and the minds that shape them. Still, nothing prepared me for the museum; from the quiet radicalisation of the third reich to the global and catastrophic aftermath, deaths of so many, hatred that swept the world and engulfed the minds of many like a raging flame. From the early nazi rallies, to deaths at the concentration camps, everything is well documented in the museum. In various rooms are documentaries showing rare footage and stories about key members of the party and the Nuremberg trials. In the last room before the exit is a documentary about the survivors, Jewish and German, who share their feelings on what life was like at the time. Ignorance and intolerance, acceptance and indifference. Even pride, one survivor, himself a nazi soldier expressed the pride he felt “as a peacock” during the marches, he even demonstrated the way they marched and the gun ceremony. It was hard not to be disgusted yet harder to imagine the pain and suffering of the ostracised. Another pair of sisters talked about how they were ignorant, or chose to be, of the fate of their Jewish neighbours, yet were surprised that the führer would tolerate such treatment. One day your Jewish neighbour was there, the next day they weren’t and you knew what happened to them, where they were taken. Some were complacent others were helpless. One day you spoke to your relative, the next you didn’t. Death; cold and silent. One day you were friends the next you were enemies. Hatred. Home became a strange land bristling with anger.


What stayed with me at the end of the exhibition is an installation called The Track (featured image) where 60,000 names of Jews, place and date of death written on little cards, littered the train track. 1 name represents 100 for the 6 million Jews who were killed. On the brick wall are names of concentration camps where the Jews met their deaths. For a long time I stood there, transfixed, looking at the names on the cards I couldn’t help wondering what happened to them, birthdays, families, what their children’s children are doing today, where they are, how they are…

The same week I was in Nuremberg was when President Obama visited Hiroshima, the first American President in 71 years to visit the site of one of mankind’s most grevious atrocities. “Expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” Harry S. Truman said these words in warning to Japan and on 6th and 9th of August 1945 respectively, the rain of ruin fell when US war planes dropped atomic bombs on cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, Little Boy the bomb, delivered on the Enola Gay killed 140,000 people and 100,000 seriously injured and maimed, many still living with the effects of the atomic bomb. As I watched the events unfold in Hiroshima, President Obama’s visit to the cenotaph, listening to his words, acknowledging the hatred that coloured that time, he said the right words, evoked the right emotion, and did everything short of apologising- we’d been informed that there would be no apology from the President. Watching the American election unfold, listening to the rhetoric from Donald Trump the hate he spews, the divide he builds and the difference he mocks, it is not a far stretch to imagine this is how world conflicts start. Idealogical differences led to the cold war, the breakdown of relations between the US and Cuba led to sanctions and suffering, the Berlin Wall and the physical and emotional divide etc. Difference led to the deaths of 6 million Jews. Difference led to 400 years of slavery. Difference led to economic sanctions against a nation and its people.

Soldiers going into war are guided by rules of engagement and principles of the law of combat which forbids the intentional murder of the innocent hence every war should strive to avoid civilian casualties at all costs- the intentional use of force to kill the innocent is contrary to these principles. Believe it or not, war has principles. Laughable right? The attack on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki was well thought out and intended to cause devastating consequences to Japan. It did. It still does. The failure to apologise over the years only justifies this amoral act and regardless of how moving President Obama’s speech was, anything short of an apology only gives power to future government to flout these principles.This is not to say the action was not as a reaction, Japan has its own share of apologies to make, but acknowledging wrong should never be taken as a sign of weakness. To borrow from a favourite movie of mine, Remember the Titans, attitude reflect leadership of the past and present, and determines actions of the future. When it comes to apologies between nations there is this political dance that ensues and when the apology comes it is often with great fanfare and due to public pressure. Some 359 years after he made a statement of fact, Pope John Paul II made one of several apologies on behalf of the Catholic Church to Galileo for stating that the earth revolves around the sun. After an online campaign, Gordon Brown, in his time as Prime Minister, apologised to Alan Turing code breaker and WWII hero when the British government found out he was gay and threatened to imprison him if he didn’t seek treatment. Turing killed himself in 1954. Pressure from campaigners amongst them Norm Mineta, internee descendant, saw the passing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which addressed and apologised to the Japanese-Americans interned during WWII and reparations of $20,000 to victims.

Willy Brandt- Warsaw Ghettos Uprising

One of the most significant forms of apology for the Holocaust was Kneifall von Warschau, a gesture of apology and penance by Willy Brandt, who fled nazi Germany in 1933 to fight for the resistance, on a visit to Poland in 1970. The visit coincided with the commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and during a visit to a monument in their memory, Brandt dropped to his knees and remained there in silence for a time. Though this did not endear him to his homeland at the time, they deemed it too submissive, it would make this gesture a symbol of courage and peace as he sought forgiveness, not only for himself but for his people. This was one of the contributing factors to Brandt receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. He would later describe that moment as one where words failed him and it remains one of the most significant images of all time, one that marked a turning point in German’s history long after WWII when the world remained sceptical.

While some argue that an apology by a US president for dropping the atomic bombs would be a disservice to those who lost their lives in service to their country, I take the contrary opinion. An apology would not only honour their legacy, it would also be an acknowledgement of their bravery when called upon to serve, a calling they answer without question of their fate. An apology is for them. Those words, I’m sorry, is not an admission of weakness but a show of strength. It shows our humanity at its best especially when acknowledging the worst of times. It makes one brave and taller amongst men- qualities that have become rarer in the world of today.

As human beings we have an astounding capability to love and hate, be awesome and be terrible in the same vein. Most battles and wars are fought over principles of good versus evil and imagine how many wars could have been avoided if only we showed empathy for one another, respect, and how many wounds we heal if our leaders said those words; I’m sorry.