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The German president asks for ‘forgiveness’

The German president recently asking for “forgiveness” was a pitiable empty gesture.

By Paweł Jędrzejewski, editor of the Polish Jews Forum.

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“I stand before you today and ask for your forgiveness for the crimes committed by Germans here.”

So spoke German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on April 19, 2023, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 80th Anniversary.

It was indeed a historic moment, if only because Steinmeier is the first German president to speak in the same place where German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt on December 7, 1970.

And what exact crimes did the Germans commit here?

They murdered innocent human beings –– from infants to the elderly –– with hunger, horrible living conditions, denial of medical care, random shootings, and burning alive.

In the summer of 1942, the Germans transported almost 300,000 people from Warsaw to the gas chambers of the Treblinka death camp. And here –– in this very place –– they cruelly and intentionally murdered the remaining 50,000 in April 1943, burning house after house to exterminate the last inhabitants hiding in basements.

And how has Steinmeier’s gesture of asking for forgiveness been viewed? Most mainstream media commentators have been positive and understanding.

I definitely do not share that opinion. In any way whatsoever. But I’m well aware my opinion is pointless.

Because what really matters is what those innocent victims would have thought about his words.

Before such a meaningful, symbolic moment, the President of Germany should’ve considered the matter a bit more deeply, analyzed the subject comprehensively, and not acted so hastily. By merely skimming over the surface of an issue that concerns monstrous acts of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by his countrymen, he implicitly ignored the responsibility belonging to the last few individuals still alive from that generation.

First and foremost, let us note that President Steinmeier didn’t actually apologize for the crimes of the Germans. In fact, he avoided an apology and focused directly on asking for forgiveness for these crimes. This is an essential and profound difference with significant consequences.

An actual legitimate apology requires only acknowledgment from the person being apologized to. That’s why an apology is profoundly different from asking for forgiveness. Forgiveness expects much more, primarily the absolution of sins.

So let’s take a look at statement by statement, omission by omission.

First, was the German president not aware of the single most preeminent issue? That there are simply crimes for which forgiveness is utterly impossible, precisely the crimes committed by Germans in 1943? Doesn’t he know that for the crime of intentional genocide, there is no forgiveness? It’s impossible.

Second, shouldn’t he have done a bit more research to find out what an ethic much older than the “topical identity ethics” prevailing in the modern Western world, where it’s far too frequent and fashionable to apologize easily for historical wrongs, says about asking forgiveness and the conceptual gravitas of forgiveness itself? After all, Jewish ethics –– especially repentance and forgiveness –– play such a central role in the religion and the people that Yom Kippur, its most important religious holiday, is entirely dedicated to those very tenets.

Jewish ethics that derive from Judaism –– even if only superficially known to secularized Jews today –– represented the fundamental ethical template for the vast majority of those murdered in the ghetto. It is according to the timeless rules of Judaism that they would judge the crimes committed against them. These ethics had and will always have wise, insightful, and illuminating axioms, especially related to the laws and principles of forgiveness.

The primary axiom here is simple and direct: only a person wronged can forgive the wrongdoer, the one begging for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a matter exclusively between the offender and the victim; there is no middleman.

Moreover, neither can be replaced in any way. That’s why offenses against people are more serious than offenses against God, because even God will not forgive those who have harmed others, precisely because they’ve never been forgiven by those whom they wronged.

That logical presumption leads to the second axiom: that one cannot –– must not –– forgive in someone else’s name. And it’s particularly significant that one can never forgive on behalf of the murdered. There’s never forgiveness for murderers, because only those murdered could forgive them in the first place.

Quite simply, forgiveness is impossible when the ability to do so –– along with life itself –– was taken away from the murdered by the murderer.

The third axiom is that only the offender can ask for forgiveness. The perpetrators of German crimes had their chance to be forgiven in the decades after World War II. While they of course couldn’t seek forgiveness from those they’d murdered, they could at least beg forgiveness from their immediate families.

That’s exactly why asking “forgiveness” for genocides committed by the Germans during World War II –– during the Holocaust, in the Warsaw Ghetto, or the entire occupied capital of Poland –– is nothing but a gesture at best and a superficial, ill-considered “act of pity” devoid of moral sense at worst.

And that’s how it’d be perceived by most victims. Rightfully so.

Moreover, if President Steinmeier was going to ask for forgiveness from the Jews, shouldn’t he have confirmed what they’d think about “asking” to be “forgiven” for genocide?

Doesn’t he know the famous “Sunflower,” a Simon Wiesenthal short story that deals with this exact issue? Didn’t he consider the eminent German lawyer Robert Kempner’s foundational opinion as deputy prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials?

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“Only the Lord of life and death has the right to forgive thousands of crimes.”

Such basic knowledge could’ve been obtained from any book on Jewish ethics. If Steinmeier had even read just a prologue he’d have known that the true, lasting, and meaningful single-sentence statement uttered during the Ghetto Uprising 80th anniversary commemoration should’ve read like this:

“I stand before you today and I am fully aware that I cannot ask for forgiveness for the crimes committed here by the Germans, because only the victims could ever forgive them. And they are all dead. So these monstrous crimes of genocide cannot be forgiven. The Holocaust will never be forgiven.”

And would that statement have concluded his speech in Warsaw? Absolutely not!

Only after words like those could the Federal Republic of Germany President truly “ask” for forgiveness –– the forgiveness of all other faults. Those committed by Germans after World War II, by the German state for decades and by German law for generations, all elements intentionally and systematically protected countless German murderers during the Nazi period from accountability, responsibility, and fair punishment.

Throughout the post-war decades, the German state did everything it could to protect guilty criminals from justice. It was no longer the Nazi regime, no longer the NSDAP, no longer Hitler’s dictatorial administrative state. No, this was the genuinely democratic and supposedly law-abiding Federal Republic of Germany.

Historians say that of the hundreds of thousands of people actively and knowingly involved in genocide, 99% were never brought to justice. In the 60-year period from 1946 to 2005, of all those brought to trial, only 6,656 individuals were convicted. However, the majority never ended up in a prison cell because the time spent waiting for their sentences was considered “time served.” And countless others were released early due to alleged ill health or advanced age.

“The vast majority of perpetrators got away with it.” So declared Mary Fulbrook, a professor of German history at University College London, on CNN.

According to official data presented by the German Ministry of Justice in 2016, in the late 1950s as much as 77% of senior administration officials were former members of the Nazi party –– shockingly a higher percentage than the share of Nazis during Hitler’s rule. The numerical superiority of former Nazi officials in ministry positions enabled them to protect war criminals and perpetrators of genocide. The German authorities actively and intentionally pretended the problem didn’t exist.

After the war, the Ministry of Justice of the newly established Federal Republic of Germany decided to use the Criminal Code of 1871 to “try and acquit” Nazi criminals. According to the law contained therein, the accusers had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person brought before the court acted on his own initiative and was aware of the illegality of his act. Without it, he couldn’t legally be convicted of murder.

So when hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings –– Jews, Poles, Soviet POWs, the mentally ill, and many more –– were murdered on the orders of Hitler or Himmler, the state functionaries subordinated to them (regardless of rank) could essentially and effectively defend themselves with the argument that they’d only carried out the orders of their superiors.

This meant that an SS man who directed people to the gas chambers could not be convicted of murder or participation in a crime. Only when he chose a victim from those standing in line in front of the gas chamber and shot that individual in the head could he be convicted because he showed “excessive zeal.” Not to mention the need for credible witnesses in a court of law, most of whom were simply unavailable because they’d died after a dozen or so minutes in the gas chambers.

Therefore convictions were virtually impossible. And the German courts knew it.

Examples? I’ll mention just five names from a list of thousands:

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Heinz Reinefarth, Karl Streibel, Kurt Franz, Wilhelm Koppe. They were all responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles.

Waffen-SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski executed 35,000 Jews in Riga and was directly responsible for massacres in Minsk and Mogilev and the intentional murder of civilians in Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising. However, he was brought to trial only in the 1960s and convicted not for these crimes at all, but for participation in the “Night of the Long Knives” and for the pre-war murder of six German communists. The crimes of genocide committed by him as SS leader were never brought to trial.

Heinz Reinefarth, whose troops murdered about 50,000 residents of Warsaw in the Wola district in a couple of days. Not only did Reinefarth avoid any punishment, he never even stood trial and became mayor of Westerland on the island of Sylt in Germany and ultimately an esteemed member of the Landtag in Schleswig-Holstein.

SS Captain Karl Streibel, commander of the Trawniki training camp, was responsible for the execution of 6,000 Jews in one day as part of “Aktion Erntefest.” He was acquitted in 1970 in Hamburg.

Kurt Franz –– a legendary sadist and notorious murderer from Treblinka –– killed hundreds of people with his very own hands. While formally “convicted” because many murders were “proven,” he was released soon enough “due to ill health.”

This has always been a characteristic practice of German courts. Where there were active witnesses, where the acquittal was impossible due to incriminating testimonies, and where guilty charges were proven and murders condemned, the courts still managed to release convicts from their sentences under the pretext of illness or old age.

Finally, there’s Wilhelm Koppe. As Himmler’s most trusted man, loyal Nazi genocide perpetrator, and co-founder of the death camp in Chełmno nad Nerem, he oversaw the very location where over 200,000 people were murdered. Despite representing arguably the definition of a genocidal Nazi mass murderer, he was never even brought to trial, and the German authorities knowingly refused to extradite him to Poland.

These details, these stories, and these statements have echoed for decades.

And for these crimes, the German president could’ve sought forgiveness. And not only from Jews, but also Poles. Forgiveness for post-war German negligence, for protecting criminals, for ensuring impunity for mass murderers, for hiding genocides from justice, for ensuring that no “harm” came to them.

For what was “accomplished” intentionally, purposefully, and systemically over the enduring post-war period by the institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The state of which he is the head, the history of which he is now irreparably and irreconcilably responsible.

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