The Hardest Word?

Is it ahistorical for public figures to say sorry for events that took place before they were born? The issue cuts to the heart of the relationship between the living and the dead.

The 1919 Amritsar Massacre depicted in a contemporary illustration. © Chronicle/AlamyThere is nothing like an apology to make people angry. I am not sure why this is the case. There is power in telling the truth about the past, as the success of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown. Yet, if a politician or religious leader offers an apology for a historic wrong, it feels jarring to many. It is dismissed as a meaningless, empty gesture that somehow causes more affront than comfort. Apologies are ridiculed; they provoke outrage and self-righteousness. Yet that has not stopped leaders from offering them. F.W. de Klerk apologised for Apartheid and Jacques Chirac for the Vichy French government deporting Jews. Pope John Paul II was the master of the historic apology. He offered more than a hundred apologies for the Catholic Church’s use of ‘violence in the service of truth’ over the ages: to Jews, women and those burnt at the stake; for the slave trade and for the Inquisition; for the treatment of Galileo; and for the religious warfare that followed the Protestant Reformation. 

Sorrow or sorry?

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