I have recently read ‘The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness’, Simon Wiesenthal’s memoir of his encounter with a dying SS officer. Wiesenthal, at the time still a slave labourer at the mercy of the barbaric Nazi regime, has been plucked from the ranks as a random Jew and coerced to the bedside of the SS man, who pleads with Wiesenthal the Jew, to forgive him for his crimes against the Jews. Wiesenthal refuses to say anything which might alleviate the man’s suffering but nor does he add to the dying man’s anguish by verbally refusing to grant forgiveness or by saying anything vindictive. He extricates himself from the encounter in silence, but the episode continues to haunt him.
After the war, Wiesenthal visits the man’s mother in an attempt, as he puts it, “to give me a clearer picture of his personality….and perhaps (in) the hope of exorcising forever one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life.” Wiesenthal refrains from disabusing the grieving woman of her image of her son as a ‘good boy’ and makes no mention of her son’s crimes. For a second time he has kept silent.
The second part of ‘The Sunflower’ comprises the responses of fifty-three well-known men and women from a variety of cultural, religious, academic and political backgrounds. My purpose in writing this blog is not to dissect any of those opinions, each of which has a profound logic of its own, but to interact with the theme as someone whose experience of the Holocaust has mercifully been only by proxy but whose training in the field of group dynamics might shed some light on the problems posed by Wiesenthal and his respondents.
To do so, I want to veer away from the question as it applied in extremis, that is to say, as it arose in the midst of the almost unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, and focus instead on the same question as it might apply to the numerous trivial experiences which punctuate our daily lives: is forgiveness a valid concept when a crime has been committed?
The story begins when wrongs are committed because people are not seen for who they are. The child who taunts another child in the playground as a Christ-killer is perpetrating a wrong every bit as injurious as the adult who physically assaults another on the assumption that the victim belongs to a group which poses a threat to the perpetrator. Both attitudes are based on false generalisations. The only differences are that attitudes acquired in childhood, which might once have been amenable to change, have become hardened over time and that individuals with those attitudes have acquired the power and the support of like-minded others to inflict grievous harm on an innocent party.
From this point on, the situation mushrooms, catalysed by adverse environmental factors such as poverty, disease or natural disasters, and by the emotions which thrive in those circumstances – fear, greed, suspicion, shame, envy, hatred and the desire for revenge. To whom are those emotions to be directed if not to any group identified as the source of such factors? The group which was once seen as a symbol of otherness has become a symptom of society’s ailments. Members of that group become something less than human, with all the terrible consequences that flow from that assumption.
Forgiveness follows a similar trajectory but in the opposite direction, like a reverse chemical reaction. If the child who has taunted his fellow schoolmate is talked to dispassionately by a responsible adult (parent, teacher or community leader for example) and told that he was wrong and that he must say that he is sorry (the childhood equivalent of asking for forgiveness), then there is hope of reconciliation. However, when a wrongful act is deemed a crime then a line has been crossed. Justice is called into play and if the accused party is pronounced guilty, the only way forward is a pragmatic one, through punishment, however mild or severe, and reparation.
To return to the case in point, Wiesenthal, already the victim of a horrendous crime because of his Jewishness, was seen by the Nazi as a symbol – ‘the Jew’. In fact, any Jew would have served the officer’s purpose. What Wiesenthal might have been going through as a person did not matter to the officer. He was, at that moment, a representative of the Jews and in the Nazi mind, the Jew was a symptom, the symptom of a defect or disease in society. The actions which flowed from that distorted assumption had culminated in the Holocaust. The SS officer had been a party to the crime of mass murder. The question of forgiveness had become irrelevant.