When an Apology Makes History : Importance of Germany’s gesture to Poland

On Monday, German President Roman Herzog accomplished a transaction between two countries that can be difficult even between two estranged friends. In Poland on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, Herzog said: “Today, I bow down before the fighters of the Warsaw Uprising as before all Polish victims of the war. I ask for forgiveness for what has been done to you by Germans.” Herzog did not go as far as politically possible. He went as far as humanly necessary.

The whole world knows the difference between “I am sorry for what I did” and “I am sorry you feel as you do”; between “I did wrong” and “I made mistakes,” and, perhaps most important, between “Please forgive me” and “Let bygones be bygones.” Different cultures have different rituals for the profound and necessary human transaction that is apology and forgiveness, but all know when the ritual has been performed and when it has been omitted.

Polish President Lech Walesa was wise not to defer to the feelings of those who thought no German should be in attendance on this occasion. “We do not give absolution to the murderers in Warsaw,” Walesa said, “but we do not pass those feelings upon the German nation.” If Walesa had fallen short of his own difficult standard, if he had not invited Herzog, this anniversary could have been just one in an endless parade. Courage made it historic.

Some have wondered whether the moral authority of Germany’s presidency would be buried with the admired Richard von Weizsacker, its last incumbent. Perhaps a few in Germany have even wished for this outcome. How often must Germany apologize? they have wondered. Where will it end? The list of any nation’s sins is potentially endless, and as the Psalmist cries: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” But some iniquities require the marking, and the slaughter that followed the Warsaw Uprising is surely one. Herzog has proved himself Von Weizsacker’s worthy successor.


His words in Warsaw will not be the last German words about the war, perhaps not even the last German apology. But in a sense the spotlight is now elsewhere. When will a Japanese Herzog go to Nanking and beg forgiveness of the Chinese “for what was done to you by Japanese”? On the difficult path of national truth-telling, Germany has clearly gone much further than Japan.

As for Russia, defeated, perhaps, but unrepentant of Stalin’s sins abroad, it has yet to take the first steps. President Boris Yeltsin stayed home from Warsaw. His representative was no major Cabinet officer but only Sergei Filatov, his chief of staff, who made a lame, evasive speech.

Americans, untouched at home by the war, cannot feel these moments quite as Europeans and Asians do, but the hope aroused is a world hope, and we too share it.