Apologizing for History
By Daniel Szechi on Mar 18, 2000
It seems as if apologies are becoming a regular part of business and politics. Pope John Paul II apologizes for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the long tradition of Roman Catholic anti-Semitism. British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologizes for the Irish famine of the 1840s. The Aetna Insurance Company apologizes for selling insurance against the escape of their slaves to slaveholders before the Civil War.
Such acts of contrition are good publicity. More important, from the point of view of professional politicians and savvy businessmen, they increase goodwill abroad and in the marketplace at home. They also cost nothing. The Vatican will not be paying compensation to the Christian dissidents butchered by the Inquisition, the British government will not be paying damages to the Irish driven into emigrating to the United States, and the Aetna Insurance Company will not be paying reparations to the African-American community.
But is it really possible for anyone to apologize meaningfully for something they never did to someone who is long dead?
It could be argued that great public apologies by heads of state and modern businessmen are powerfully symbolic and set things right by properly humbling the descendants of the original "criminals." Not so. Learning to live with the sins of our forebears is more important than grand public acts of contrition.
The great English writer Leslie Poles Hartley once observed that "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." He was right. In the 1200s the papacy "knew" that it was a righteous and good thing to authorize the hunting down, torture and execution of Christian religious dissidents. The British government that allowed the Irish famine to happen was acting in accord with prevailing opinion and the latest economic theories. The Aetna insurance salesmen of the pre-Civil War era lived and worked in a country where slave ownership was legal and the Supreme Court had ruled that pursuing and recapturing escaped slaves was a legitimate prerogative of the slave owner.
The key problem with symbolic apologies is that in a quiet, insidious way they release us from the obligation to know why the world we live in is the way it is. Our nation's and our community's pasts — indeed, every nation's and every community's pasts — are a mixture of things we can be proud of and things we should be ashamed of. Every nation and every community has done cruel, vile things to its minorities and its neighbors at some point in history.
So, technically speaking, the nations and the peoples of the world (and probably every company that has been in business for over 100 years) should be apologizing to each other constantly. And how absurd that would be.
We cannot change the course of history. The deeds of long-dead human beings, who committed acts both evil and good, have shaped both us and our institutions. Apologizing to the descendants of those who were persecuted and oppressed in ages past because some of our ancestors did terrible things to some of their ancestors is thus an empty, feel-good gesture with potentially bad consequences. It makes us feel better, and implicitly releases us from any obligation to understand what happened. After all, we did say "sorry," didn't we?
But, as my mother used to tell me when I was a boy, "sorry" does not always make it right. We still have to live with minorities and nations whose grief and resentment at the behavior of our forebears is not going to be removed by an apology, however humble. Better by far to study the history of our nation's and our community's relations with the rest of humankind. That way we may be able to avoid having our children and grandchildren apologize to the rest of the world for something we are doing right now.
Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.