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. 

Nor are those who hesitate to offer an apology free from reproach. In 2007 Tony Blair expressed his ‘sorrow’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade. Many doubted his sincerity because he had not actually used the word ‘sorry’. In fact, Emma Waterton and Ross Wilson, who analysed UK government texts produced around the bicentenary of the Act abolishing the slave trade (such as the prime minister’s speeches and publications from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport), identified what they called an ‘abolition discourse’, characterised by temporal distancing, the deferral of blame and responsibility. 

Such texts talked of how ‘profoundly shameful’ the slave trade was and expressed ‘deep sorrow that it ever happened’. Simultaneously, they drew attention to Britain’s role as one of the first countries to abolish the trade and the ways in which the 1807 Act shaped the progress and development of the modern world ‘into a new and more just moral universe’. Keen not to tarnish the national image of Britain as a benign and civilising country, these texts, Waterton and Wilson argue, obscured the fact that slavery itself lasted into the 1830s and that slave-owning at the time of the abolition was widespread and acceptable in early 19th-century British society. It did nothing to address the legacy of enslavement. Not only did Blair not apologise, but the texts produced by his government shied away from anything like taking responsibility. 

Accepting responsibility is a key condition of an apology and one of the reasons why some feel such words are meaningless. Almost a century after the 1919 Amritsar Massacre perpetrated by General Reginald Dyer and his troops against unarmed Sikh and Hindu civilians, David Cameron visited the capital of the Punjab and chose not to apologise for the massacre on the basis that it happened long before he was born and ‘I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek things you can apologise for’. This had not stopped him, however, from apologising, in June 2010, for the shooting of 14 civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in Londonderry. Nor did it stop him apologising to the families of the Hillsborough victims in September 2012, 23 years after the tragedy. He was alive when both those events occurred and so maybe he decided that it is okay to reach back into history, as long as it is the history of one’s own lifetime.

This is especially relevant this year because, in the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s challenge at Wittenberg, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has apologised for wrongs done on both sides as a consequence of the Reformation. He apologises as the descendant of the office-holders – Thomas Cranmer and Reginald Pole, among them – who were responsible. In this instance, some toleration of the act seems appropriate: repentance and forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message; apologising is written into the whole enterprise. But is it appropriate for the historically minded? The question seems to me to be less about responsibility than about the notion of cultural relativity. What should we make of an act that harms no one living, but slurs the dead? We are constituted by our history and bear its stigmata; identifying and owning up to wrongs done is a way to bring healing to the deep wounds that the past can leave. Should we judge the past on its own terms, or are there wrongs that transcend history?

Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities.

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