There is a moment of gut-wrenching horror in Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. 

It begins with Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, at the bedside of a fatally wounded German soldier.

“I am resigned to dying soon,” the soldier said to him. “But before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace.” Comforted by Wiesenthal’s attention, the soldier began to confess to his role in a barbaric war crime where around two hundred Jewish men, women, and children were marched into a house and burned alive.

“I must tell you of this horrible deed,” cried the soldier. “Tell you because – you are a Jew.”

The soldier begged for the forgiveness that would grant him a peaceful death. His voice quivered, his hand trembled; his exhaustion and remorse were palpable. But Wiesenthal said nothing. He turned and left the soldier without a word.

A day later, he found out the soldier was dead.

The Sunflower poses an invitation. In wondering if Wiesenthal acted rightly, the reader also considers what they would do if faced with the same dilemma. “What would you do?” Wiesenthal himself tasks philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and genocide survivors with answering the very same question, many of whose responses become the bulk of the book.

Many of us will not find ourselves in such a harrowing situation. But some will. Victims of crime can be invited to participate in restorative justice programs where they face the person who has wronged them. One in five Australian women above fifteen years old has been sexually assaulted or threatened – usually by someone they know. In these cases, a victim may face an ethical dilemma they haven’t chosen. To either grant or withhold forgiveness. Often, it’s an uncomfortable place to be.

Should we forgive those who have wronged us? What makes someone worthy of forgiveness? Can forgiveness be wrong?

After all, forgiveness is difficult. Doubly so at the moment we’ve been wronged. But by meditating on the ethics of forgiveness and understanding when someone can be forgiven, we can ease the difficulty of an arguably more important event – when we wrong someone else.

In Wiesenthal’s case, the genuine remorse shown by the German soldier is what troubles him. He believes the soldier is truly sorry for what he did. This is a point some of his respondents in The Sunflower question, but even in debating Wiesenthal on this point, their insistence reveals remorse to be crucial. If someone is remorseful, we can at least think about forgiving them. If not, perhaps they haven’t earned it.

But what is genuine remorse? It’s obviously more than the non-pologies theologian L. Gregory Jones calls “spinning sorrow”. Remorse involves acknowledging your responsibility and wrongdoing. “I’m sorry you were offended” isn’t an acknowledgement you did anything wrong, and for that reason doesn’t seem to express any remorse.

But it goes further.

Genuine remorse relies on a commitment not to perform these kinds of actions in the future. It is what makes it difficult to believe the apologies of repeat offenders – it’s their commitment to change we doubt. But if such commitment is a crucial element of earning forgiveness, then we will need people to understand the full nature of their wrongdoing. Here, we challenge the remorse of the dying soldier.

The horror of the Holocaust depended on the systematic denial of Jewish personhood. They weren’t seen as individuals – people with lives complex, unique, and infinitely valuable. Instead, they were objects to be treated as others saw fit. But by treating Wiesenthal as ‘a Jew’ and therefore uniquely capable of forgiveness, isn’t the German soldier doing the same thing? Isn’t he perpetuating the worldview that led to the massacre in the first place? By questioning if he has actually understood the nature of his wrongdoing, we also question if his remorse is genuine.



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Political apologies can raise similar questions. Some resistance to Australia’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations reasoned that the people apologising weren’t the ones who had done anything wrong. The claim here is if we haven’t done anything wrong, we don’t need to be forgiven; and if we don’t need to be forgiven, why would we apologise?

This perhaps misses an important consideration. If we continue to benefit from a past wrong and fail to address the source of the continued disadvantage, there is a sense in which we’ve prolonged the wrongdoing. However, it also calls our attention to the role of status in forgiveness. I cannot offer an apology for a wrong I haven’t been involved in; and equally, I cannot forgive unless I have been wronged.

Similarly, those who would point to the National Apology as evidence that Aboriginal Australians should now ‘move on’ from the past seem to presume that they are licensed to forgive – or at least pass judgement on the failure to do so. There seems to be an assumption that if someone can apologiseon behalf of a group than others can forgive in the same way. What if we question that assumption?

Eva Kor was a Holocaust survivor who offered forgiveness to Josef Mengele, doctor of the notorious ‘twin experiments’ in Auschwitz. Her actions brought criticism from other survivors, who said Kor wasn’t entitled to offer forgiveness on behalf of others. Nor should she pressure them to forgive when they were not ready.

Jona Laks, another ‘Mengele twin’, refused to forgive him. In Mengele’s case, this is understandable, but what if there was genuine remorse, a commitment to change, and steps to address the wrongdoing? Would it be wrong to refuse forgiveness?

On some occasions, it seems so. For instance, we consider pettiness – when someone is unable to move past very slight or non-existent wrongs – as a vice, or a mark of bad character. I’m not suggesting a Holocaust survivor (or any Jewish person) who refused to forgive the Nazis under any condition was being petty, but this takes us to the question posed earlier.

Are some things unforgiveable?

Maybe. Hannah Arendt believed unforgiveable crimes were those for which no punishment could be proportionate to the crime itself. Where no punishment or atonement is possible, no forgiveness is possible. For Arendt, these crimes are an evil beyond redemption.

In contrast, French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued conditional forgiveness was not forgiveness. By withholding forgiveness until considerations (like remorse) are met, we are, morally speaking, forgiving someone who is already innocent. Only the unremorseful person remains guilty, and only the unremorseful person actually needs forgiveness. As a result, Derrida concludes with a paradox: only the unforgiveable can be truly forgiven.

Derrida traces his thinking back to religious traditions where forgiveness is unconditional and uneconomic. It is a gift, not a transaction. This is a view L. Gregory Jones believes is centrally important to avoid “weaponising forgiveness”.

I think it’s important to remember that forgiveness should always be a gift and not an expectation. It’s unfair to expect any person who has been victimized, especially if it’s raw, to be ready to forgive.

And — this is particularly important in domestic violence and other kinds of forgiveness — the expectation of forgiveness is also used as a weapon to punish and perpetuate a cycle. It’s often the case in domestic violence, for example, where the abuser will come and say, “you need to forgive me because you’re a Christian” and the person feels obligated to do that. All that does is perpetuate and intensify the violence rather than remedying it

So how should we think about Wiesenthal’s case? It seems he had no duty, and maybe no right, to forgive him. The authenticity of the soldier’s remorse is unclear, and his death means he had no further opportunity to address the wrongdoing. And even if his remorse was genuine, is it proportionate to his contributions to the murder of two hundred men, women, and children?

It may all come down to what he wanted to see when he looked in the mirror.

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