‘What people do when words fail them’: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before the memorial to the dead of the Warsaw Uprising, 7 December 1970. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Sven Simon


When nations apologise

National apologies are a big deal: they acknowledge the past to help move everyone forward. No wonder they’re so hard

by Edwin Battistella + BIO

‘What people do when words fail them’: German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneels before the memorial to the dead of the Warsaw Uprising, 7 December 1970. Photo by Ullstein Bild/Sven Simon

In May 2016, when Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, some speculated that the president of the United States might offer an apology, on behalf of his country, for the bombing of that city at the close of the Second World War. Instead, in his joint press conference with Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said that his visit would ‘honour all those who were lost in the Second World War and reaffirm our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons’. The White House had announced before the visit that it would neither revisit the decision to drop the bomb nor apologise for it. The Obama administration judged that this wartime military action required no apology.

When do nations apologise? Nearly 30 years earlier, in 1988, the US Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act authorising apologies and redress payments to the Japanese Americans interred during the 1940s. Signing the bill, the US president Ronald Reagan said that ‘here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law’. Reagan’s successors, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, later sent individual apology letters to former internees as their claims were processed.

The apology for internment was a long time coming. In the wave of xenophobia following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the military removed nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese to what were euphemistically called War Relocation Authority camps. Those interred encountered hardship, suffering and loss. In 1944, with the Korematsu v United States court case, internment was declared constitutional. Some Japanese Americans were imprisoned for as long as three years. They were given a train ticket and $25. But no apology.

Then, 43 years after internment ended, the US Congress apologised. The path to apology began in 1970, with a call to action from the Japanese American Citizens League. A decade later, the US president Jimmy Carter appointed a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to recommend a course of action. Getting the apology was controversial, involving issues of cost and accountability, political consensus-building, and philosophical debate about whether later governments were responsible for the moral failures of their predecessors. But, in the eyes of many former internees, the effort was worth it. For them, it was a restoration of honour. For the US government, the apology was an admission of having wronged its citizens and a recommitment to justice.

Sometimes, a whole nation must come to grips with its collective past if it is to move ahead. This was the case for the 50-year process that Germany underwent following Hitler’s regime. With the Nuremberg trials and with reforms of the education system aimed at denazification, the Allied victors focused on accountability and re-education. West German politicians knew that they had to address wartime atrocities if Germany was to rejoin the community of nations. As a step toward this, in 1952 the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s government made a 3.5 billion Deutsche mark payment to the new state of Israel. Internally, however, Adenauer was advocating a national policy of forgetting rather than apology and remembrance. In his first address as chancellor in 1949, Adenauer had told the West German parliament that his government was determined to put the past behind. He was concerned with a resurgence of nationalism and sought to de-emphasise wartime guilt in favour of economic revitalisation.

In the post-war years, the German Right and Left would debate whether exploring the past would mire the nation in perpetual guilt, or whether a greater recognition of the past was a necessary step to national dignity. Contrition became the norm, so much so that when the later chancellor Willy Brandt went to Poland in 1970, he knelt before the monument commemorating the Warsaw uprising of 1943. Brandt’s action was widely viewed as a non-verbal apology, and he later explained that he ‘did what people do when words fail them’. In 1995, Helmut Kohl, the chancellor of a unified Germany, found the words. On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Kohl was unambiguously apologetic. Auschwitz, he explained, was ‘the darkest and most horrible chapter of German history … one of our priority tasks is to pass on this knowledge to future generations so that the horrible experiences of the past will never be repeated.’ The process of national apology for Germany was one of overcoming amnesia and acknowledging the past. But, importantly, the orientation was on the future. Germany saw facing and apologising for its past as a way to improve the lives of those to come.

It turns out that apology at the national level is not so different from the process that individuals go through in apologising for a serious harm. The first step is the recognition that there is something to apologise for, and that it is serious. This recognition – shared, ideally, by the offender and the harmed – informs the making of the apology itself. In its most sincere form, making an apology involves a naming of the offence, a condemnation of previous behaviour, and a request for forgiveness. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), the sociologist Erving Goffman described apology as splitting one’s self into two persons – a former guilty one and new one that condemns the past behaviour. The apologiser becomes a better person. Those receiving the apology are also changed by receiving a sincere gesture of respect. Honour is restored.

A national apology serves the same function as a personal apology, but on a different scale. A national apology asserts changed values, condemns past behaviour, and commits to different, better actions in the future. And it can bring about a reconciliation between those harmed and the nation that caused the harm.

The term ‘national apology’ can be a bit misleading. A national apology is different from the routine diplomatic ‘regrets’ that might be offered by one government to another. Diplomatic regrets are typically pro-forma statements offered to allow another government, presumably an equal, to save face. And they are sometimes insincere. Thus when in 1988 the USS Vincennes shot down a misidentified Iranian passenger jet flying toward it in the Straits of Hormuz, Reagan issued a statement saying that he was saddened, and that ‘We deeply regret any loss of life’ but that the shooting appeared to be ‘a proper defensive action’. Diplomatic regrets, but no apology.

A national apology, by contrast, involves a sincere condemnation of a serious, sometimes historic, national wrong. As with a personal apology, the first step is to recognise that a great harm has been done. That recognition can then lead to a broader exploration of the history of the harm, a retelling of what happened – the decisions, actions, values, scope, and individuals involved.

Government leaders might not have personal guilt for past national harms, but they are stewards of national values

When a national commission or a legislative body recounts a national injustice, that remembrance becomes an act of history that shapes and authorises the expression of the apology. But who is it that actually apologises? Often (but not always) it is the chief executive, but it’s important too for there to be a political consensus. For the US, the most unequivocal apologies are those involving both Congress and the president acting together. That was the case in the American Civil Liberties Act, introduced by a Democratic congressman and a Republican senator, passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, and signed into law by the chief executive. That was also the case in Australia, when the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd garnered bipartisan support for his 2008 apology to the ‘stolen generations’ of indigenous people and for the resolution that followed.

Sometimes, however, consensus is harder to achieve. That was the case for Japan’s prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, whose 1995 apology initiative found such conservative opposition in the national assembly that the word ‘apology’ was omitted. The resolution offered instead ‘sincere condolences’, ‘solemn reflection’, and ‘deep remorse’.

Even when consensus is achieved, national apologies are rarely unanimous. Some people will argue that a present-day government cannot apologise for the injustices of the past. An apology, they argue, is valid only if it is made by those who committed the original offence. Guilt for an injustice cannot be passed along from one generation to another. This view is too narrow. Government leaders might not have personal guilt for past national harms, but they are stewards of national values, and as such have a role in repairing historical injustices, and an ability to try to effect reconciliation and remembrance. While average citizens might not bear guilt for historical harms, they are nonetheless affected by its remnants, and they benefit from the social repair. So when the political system is strengthened by the renewed faith and participation of groups who have suffered injustices, all citizens benefit from the national reconciliation.

Do national apologies matter to those receiving them? In 2005, the US Senate voted to apologise for its use of the filibuster to stall anti-lynching laws for nearly a century – until the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act that criminalised the practice. Many, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), applauded the Senate’s apology. The NAACP viewed it as a step toward reconciliation and the official acknowledgement of past injustices. Others called it insufficient, because the apology was not connected to reparations or other remediation. For some who have been harmed, the naming and expression of regret, even if imperfect, are important steps in being heard and coming to a shared understanding of a harm. For others, such expressions will be incomplete and insincere without reform or redress.

The issue of redress came up in 2009, when the US House and Senate separately apologised for slavery and the Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation. However, the House and Senate could not agree on the wording of the apology. Both wrote that their branch ‘apologises to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow …’ But the Senate ended its resolution saying that ‘Nothing in this resolution – (A) authorises or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.’ So the Senate apologised, but also sought to indemnify itself. The House had expressed ‘its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds’ while the Senate chose instead to make known ‘its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal’. Apart from the subtle but profound different implications of those statements, in context, the lack of a unified voice undercuts the sincerity and force of a national apology, as well as its value to those receiving it.

National apologies are also difficult acts for which to raise sufficient political support. In particular, they are subject to accusations that ‘apology is a sign of weakness’. Even diplomatic regrets, for example the efforts in 1914 of the US president Woodrow Wilson’s administration to repair relations with Colombia and secure their recognition of Panama, can summon political opposition. The proposed treaty offered a payment of $25 million and included a sentence saying that the US government ‘expresses sincere regret’ over the interruption of good relations. The ‘regrets’ referred to a US intervention that supported Panamanian secession from Colombia, during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt and his supporters characterised the payments as blackmail and the regrets as an apology. Their opposition helped to delay the treaty until 1921. When it was passed by the new Warren Harding administration, the expression of regret was omitted.

Things haven’t changed much, when it comes to national apologies. When in 1998 Clinton acknowledged that it was wrong that ‘European Americans have received the fruits of the slave trade’, he was criticised by the Republican congressman Tom DeLay as ‘a flower child with gray hairs … apologising for the actions of the United States’. And in 2012, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made Obama’s supposed ‘apology tour’ a target of focused criticism. Romney even titled his campaign biography No Apology (2010), apparently intending to signal strength and resolve. This political framing was used to disparage Obama’s visits overseas and his acknowledgment of US policy failures. The method continues today, with political opponents of national apologies often seizing on the claim of the apology as an enfeebling act.

Despite all these challenges, the US has formally apologised often: for Japanese-American internment, for slavery and Jim Crow laws, and also for overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy, for Federal Indian policy, for the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, for the infamous Tuskegee experiments, and for Tuskegee-like experiments in Guatemala.

Other nations too have apologised: Japan for its Second World War militarism and atrocities – including a 2015 apology to Koreans for wartime sex slavery; the Soviet Union in the 1990s, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s apology for the Katyn Forest massacre of nearly 15,000 Polish officers in 1940, and Boris Yeltsin’s apology for the treatment of Japanese POWs; Canada, with Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the abuses of students at Indian residential schools from the 1870s to the 1990s; and Britain, with Tony Blair’s 1997 apology for the country’s role in the 19th-century Irish potato famine.

‘If I could turn the clock back and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it’

Debates about national apologies have similar dynamics around the world. When Australia held an inquiry into the mistreatment of generations of aboriginal children from 1910 to 1970, the investigation led to a report, more than 500 pages long, called Bringing Them Home (1997). In 1998, community groups established an informal annual day of atonement. But conservative Australian politicians resisted apologising. In 1999, the conservative prime minister John Howard expressed ‘regret’, but his administration pointedly noted that it was not responsible for the actions of past governments. Howard’s successor, Labor’s Rudd, made a bipartisan apology his first act as prime minister in 2008. The grassroots day of atonement, originally called National Sorry Day, has been renamed as Australia’s National Day of Healing.

Institutional resistance can pose a formidable obstacle to a national apology. This was the case in the Vatican’s response to abuses by paedophile priests. The ageing Pope John Paul II oversaw some reforms, but hesitated to take strong action. His successor Pope Benedict XVI recognised the problem had not been decisively addressed, but the Vatican response under him continued to be mired in internal debate over root causes. Finally, in 2014, Pope Francis gave a private Mass to six victims of Church sexual abuse in which he apologised in no uncertain terms. In the Mass he said: ‘Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness.’

Concerns about blaming predecessors can weaken national apologies. South Africa’s president F W de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, apologised in 1993 for decades of apartheid under the rule of the National Party. He offered ‘deep regret’ which he explained as: ‘If I could turn the clock back and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it.’ De Klerk could not bring himself to condemn the actions of his predecessors. He even said that, at the time, apartheid was considered an enlightened policy. De Klerk’s apology fell short in the eyes of many of South Africa’s black citizens who’d hoped that he would have condemned the policy outright.

Sometimes, national leaders overcome the need to present past actions as well-intentioned. President Clinton’s apology for the 40-year-long Tuskegee syphilis experiments is a good example. In those experiments, the US Public Health Service studied the effects of syphilis on African-American men in Alabama but never treated them. After the unethical methods of the study were revealed in the 1970s, the US government settled a class action suit – and established new protocols for research involving human subjects. But an apology did not come until 1997. Clinton personally delivered it in the White House to several surviving subjects and family members explaining that the government had ‘failed to live up to its ideals’ and ‘broke the trust’ underlying democracy. He reflected too on the nature of apology: ‘An apology,’ he said, ‘is the first step,’ and it entailed a commitment to rebuild trust and change for the better.

Since the Second World War, we have entered an age of widespread national reflection and, through apology, attempted reconciliation, which some suggest was ushered in by the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. National leaders are increasingly open to naming and exploring national wrongs, to reaching out to communities that have suffered, to repairing relationships, and to asserting new values. Not every apology is a perfect one, but it is heartening that nations are trying to bring people together through apology. Yet some things remain to be seen, in my view. Will national apologies be a step along the way to creating stronger national communities built on a recognition of past injustices and reconciliation? Or will they founder from lack of commitment and national amnesia? And, as political climates change, will national apology be sustainable, or will it come to symbolise a bygone era of attention to injustice?