Claude Lansmann's film Shoah, which described the holocaust in the words of its perpetrators, as well as its survivors, taught one unforgettable lesson: how weak is the power of conscience in human faces. The camera closed in again and again for the narrative close-ups, and again and again the  pictures told their story independent of the words. The survivors of the camps were for the most part, furtive, marked: guilty. By contrast, their persecutors were solid men, with cheeks and brows as smooth as cold pork fat. Those who had suffered seemed to feel they owed the world an apology for surviving; but the butchers, the men who stoked the ovens or read by the light of lampshades made with human skin, had an unshakeable self-confidence. No doubt they concealed their pasts when these were unfashionable; quite probably you would have found no more fervent anti-nazis in 1946. But you could not imagine those men uttering any apology which meant more than "I am really sincerely sorry that we lost and I regret from the bottom of my heart that I was caught."

But there is another form of apology a sincere gesture made from a position of power. Such actions are extremely rare, but they haunt all the various discussions this year about who should or should not apologise for what.

Mike Tyson's expression of insincere regret to absolutely everyone in the universe is only the most recent demonstration that 1997 is clearly going to be the year of the apology. After the second world war, the rule was clear: only the losers had to apologise, but they had to apologise for everything. Now, however, there seems to be no government safe from the demand. This year alone, the Czech government has apologised to Germany for throwing out the Sudeten Germans after WW2; the German government has once more apologised to the Czechs for invading them in 1938. The American government has apologised to blacks who were used in medical experiments. Tony Blair has almost apologised for the potato famine. The ecumenical body Churches Together in England has apologised for slavery, racism, the Crusades, Catholics burning Protestants, Protestants disembowelling Catholics, and most of the rest of life's rich tapestry. Only the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has bucked this trend: he refused demands to apologise for the removal from their families of up to 100,000 Aboriginal children this century, who were sent to missions, foster homes, or used as slave labour. To apologise, he explains, would open the government up to claims for compensations, and then where would it be?

"Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control." he said. This sounds perfectly reasonable, until you reverse the image. Does he get up at ANZAC day and claim that Australians of the present generation should not claim credit for the bravery and self-sacrifice of their ancestors, over which they also had no control? Of course he does not. We all know that there is an organic connection between our forbears' virtues and our own. It is only their vices which they mysteriously fail to transmit.

This suggests a principle for dealing with the question of how far back an apology should travel, for there are quite clearly crimes of our ancestors for which we are not responsible and for which it would be pointless to apologise in any sense. Two examples from the remote fastnesses of North Essex illustrate this. In the museum in Saffron Walden are preserved a couple of inches of chamois-leather coloured human skin, which were removed from a Viking and nailed to the church door as a message to other raiders. I do not feel any urge to apologise to the Danes at the language school up the road from this. I don't even want them to apologise for King Canute. But none of the parties involved feel they are descended in any important sense from the warriors a thousand years ago: in fact we all probably descend from both sides and have inherited expertise in war crimes on both sides of the family.

There is another war memorial in the town: this time to the American airman based in these parts who died bombing Germany in the second world war. We are meant to be inspired by their bravery, and in some sense to have inherited it; and I like to believe that we may have done. But by the same token we are implicated in their killing of civilians, women and children. If we are to raise statues to the men of Bomber Command, perhaps we should also apologise to their innocent victims.

It is not just time which can make apologies ludicrous. There is no point in apologising if you have no power. The thing about liberal guilt is that the liberals who feel it are hardly ever guilty of anything worse than sanctimoniousness. There is a certain sort of Christian who is constantly proposing to apologise for everything that has happened since St Paul had a ship wrecked under him, to the great distress of his fellow-passengers. But as a general rule, Christians don't count when they apologise because they have no power. The Vatican, which does have power, has elevated infallibility to a principle, and when it does express regret, as it has done to the Jews for the history of anti-Semitism, it has done so on behalf of all Christians everywhere.

Mind you, Christians ought to have some rights over the apology, because they seem to have invented it. At least they seem to have invented the sort of apology which is more than a straight tribute from the weaker to the stronger. The first public apologies seem to have been  performed by penitent Christians in North Africa in the second century. As well as the confession of sins, this involved prolonged prayer, fasting, and almsgiving until the bishop decided you had suffered enough. After that you were readmitted to the congregation, on condition of life-long celibacy. Christians soon started postponing any apology for their sins until their deathbeds, when life-long celibacy did not seem such a deprivation; and the church had to invent gentler forms of penance.

You can see the seed of the modern kind of apology in the middle ages, when kings found themselves having to do penance for such bursts of exuberance as having Archbishops murdered. Standing in the snow for three days, barefoot, while the Pope decided whether to see you, or shuffling round a stony cloister till your knees bled were acknowledgements of both weakness and wrongdoing. No king would do such things unless he felt he had no alternative. But a king who did them was admitting that he had sinned as well as that the Church had for the moment the upper hand.  

The nearest modern equivalent to that sort of penance is the "I'm sorry the newspapers caught me" most recently displayed by Princess Diana after she took her sons to the cinema to watch (illegally) a film glorifying the exploits of the IRA which has devoted so much time and effort to trying to murder her in-laws. But such gloriously hypocritical displays can only be made to excuse individual wrong-doing. Whole nations cannot apologise on those terms. Perhaps Mr Blair feels that the real tragedy of the potato famine was that the Irish keep going on about it. but he could not frame his apology in those terms. In fact, he used the third version of an apology: an expression of regret without an acknowledgement of responsibility. He was very sorry the potato famine happened. This is not really a controversial position. Even at the time, few Englishmen rejoiced in the famine. They just believed, mistakenly, that they could do as little about it as Blair can now.

The real interest of Blair's apology for the potato famine is the Unionist reaction: that once the British or Protestant side starts to apologise for the death of Catholics, it is difficult to draw the line. Why not apologise for Cromwell? Or Henry II, who first sent knights into the Pale? Worse yet, the regret over the potato famine seems to suggest that the Government might apologise for Bloody Sunday, when 13 rioters were shot in Londonderry in 1972. Such a gesture would be upsetting precisely because no one would believe it was a sincere apology from a position of strength. It would be taken as insincere, and revealing a position of weakness. You cannot expect the IRA to recognise sincerity in anyone else's apology when they themselves have produced the most transparently unregretful expressions of regret in history. Hatred and anger turn out to be nearly as hard to decommission as guns and just as easy to store until they are needed again. It may be impossible to bring a war to an end without realising that both sides have much to apologise for, but acting on that realisation is impossible while the war persists. It's a logjam.

Nowhere is the logjam worse than in the USA, where  there are serious demands for an apology for slavery. What makes this particularly difficult is that the USA is such a Christian country, where the tradition of public repentance is well-established; and the civil rights movement grew out of the church. So there are a lot of potential recipients of the apology who feel it could be a moment of grace. Here, for example, is Donna Britt, writing in the Washington Post. "An apology is less a choice than a decision. Deciding to apologise -- even for something as monumental and as devoid of living perpetrators as slavery -- can be powerful, even miraculous. Like true forgiveness, a heartfelt apology transcends politics and practicality. It is spiritual."

But where some see an occasion of grace, others see an occasion of money; for if an apology comes, can reparations be far behind? Ten years ago, a black politician proposed a commission of reparation for slavery an institution that ended 143 years ago which would decide what was owed the blacks for the crimes committed against their ancestors, and passed on down. It is difficult to imagine anything that would do more to perpetuate the fears and hatreds that an apology can sometimes blow away. But if it's to do that, we have to be very clear that the only apologies worth having are those freely given.

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