Offering Apologies for History

Washington Times 3.21.00
Balint Vazsonyi

Apologies are definitely in. Pope John Paul II joined the budding trend with his historic apology for the history of the Roman Catholic Church. If we are not careful, floodgates will open before we know it.

The sight of a highly respected pope, visibly approaching the end of his earthly existence, humbling himself and the great institution he represents, cannot fail to move. But in this age of symbols and gestures, in this age where, increasingly, reason is taking a back seat, we had better be careful. Emotional outbursts already govern where once the law and common sense ruled.

Who could have predicted a Hungarian complaining about emotional outbursts? But times change. One major reason for my deep-seated admiration of the English-speaking peoples was their ability to live with their history. While Continentals constantly re-evaluated and revised theirs, having to rename streets and buildings, arrange belated and apologetic burials, and explaining to children why it is now the other way around, the British were able to accommodate centuries upon centuries of internal strife, beheadings and restorations forming a continuous chain simply called "history."

In America, the liveliest debate used to be about calling the Civil War a "War between the States."

All that is changing, and not for the better. Instead of Europeans learning the infinitely preferable way of the English-speaking world, we are adopting the invariably disastrous political routines of the Continent.

The first national apology for past deeds came from Germany - well, West Germany, or as it was then called, the Federal Republic of Germany. It was entirely appropriate as it was offered to victims of Adolf Hitler's "Final solution" or their immediate offsprings. The act of a supposedly civilized country collecting and carting off in cattle cars a certain specific kind of human being for the purpose of extermination stand along - no because of its bestiality, but because the intellect that had given us Martin Luther, Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Zeiss, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann was applied to the task.

Another appropriate apology might have come from Russia in 1991, but did not - just as Russia kept the Eastern part of Germany, under Russian occupation, from any participation in the goodwill effort of the Western part.

But, lest the reader might detect a favorable view of apologies, I must emphasize once again that these are very specific cases in which both the protractors of horror-deeds and their victims were with us.

On the other hand, for people who had not done any wrong to apologize to other people to whom no wrong had been done, the proposition is one only imaginable in the World of Affirmative Action. It is unlikely that Africans will be asked to apologize to other Africans for selling their ancestors into slavery, or for wiping out entire tribes. It is unlikely American Indians will be asked to apologize for the people they killed, scalped, mutilated. It is unlikely Egypt will be asked to apologize for keeping the tribes of Israel in bondage.

No - apologies are demanded, and will be offered if we don't come to our senses, buy those societies that have cared to record their history, tried their best to learn from their history, and have scaled mountains to make amends to those they now believe to have wronged in the past.

In other words, apologies are demanded, and will be offered if we don't come to our senses, by societies that engage in continuous self-examination, to those whose exclusive focus is the criticism of others.

History is a chain of events. History is a chronicle of acts by humans. History is written not by the victors, as Karl Marx and his disciples would have us believe, but by those who have an interest to capture the past. Among these, the histories written in English before the 19650s have been noted for their honest effort to portray the past with the least bias possible.

The proposition that those of us living today would have done differently and better, had we lived in the past, is sheer nonsense. It is thus sheer nonsense that apologies perpetuate. And, of course, they establish additional grounds for people to lay claim to the purse of others. In other words, apologies are simply a new phase in the entitlement game.

Beyond that, the idea we would have acted differently is not only preposterous, but exceedingly presumptuous. When we apologize for our own deeds, we judge ourselves. Has anyone been authorized to judge those long dead, on behalf of a nation?

Here is my challenge: Let us engage in a national - international? - competition to write the history of the last 1,000 (2,000? 3,000" 4,000, 5,000?) years as it should have happened. The only requirement is to arrive at the year 2000,showing a logical sequence and producing a better world than we have today.

If someone can actually do that, it will be my pleasure, my honor, my privilege to apologize.