apology (n): a written or spoken expression of one's regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.When someone says "I am sorry that you were offended" what is he really saying? Is he saying that his words should not have been taken in a bad way, but that you unfortunately did? Is he really defending his actions as morally right? In some cases, this is how an apology is offered between individuals, not sincere or contrite. It might have to do with another older meaning of the word. An apology in classical terms comes from the word apologia. (Gk: an apology, as in defense or justification of a belief, idea, etc.). It is a speech in defense of an idea or action, as was the case in such famous apologetics as Plato's Apology of Socrates and Milton's Areopagitica.
Today, however, apology has a more emotional, if you may, visceral meaning and is closest to the dictionary denotation cited above, an expression of regret, remorse or sorrow for an action that wronged someone or a group of persons, a people, a nation, a race. Such is particularly the case when we come to define national apologies. So, what is the reason that apologies are given? Essentially, it's a form of communication, whether to skillfully defend an action or idea, or to express regret.
Apologies at the highest level can also offer therapeutic value to the nation or group that offers the apology and heal its internal wounds. Some consider such gestures symbolic and hollow, even meaningless. Others as a sign of weakness. Such are the words of cynics and skeptics. I disagree and believe that apologies form a foundational way for nations to amend for wrongs committed. They make things better, similar to how relations between individuals can become better by one making a simple apology to another.
Remember that apologies have been part of diplomatic strategies and rhetoric among nations and are as ancient as they are human. They are also desired, even demanded on the international stage. When for example, one nation deems another nation's action wrong, it requests (or demands) a formal apology accompanied by some form of financial restitution (or redress), the amount dependent on the severity of the loss—similar to a civil lawsuit but with greater political implications.
Of course, placing a value on a human life might seem callous to some, but there is no other remedy under international law and precedent deems this as the best remedy to settle disputes. A recent incident is the diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey over the Mavi Marmara incident (see here and here.)
The Silent Apology: During a state visit to Poland on December 7, 1970, coinciding with a commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, joined in and spontaneously dropped to his knees before the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Source: Rare Historical Photos
We'll return to that case shortly, but first it's important to review some notable national apologies of some consequence and historical significance:
1. Germany—The Shoah ("Holocaust"): During a state visit to Poland in December 1970, coinciding with a commemoration to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto, Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, joined in and spontaneously dropped to his knees. Brandt was silent, and later said in his autobiography, that upon "carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them." Germany has since paid out billions to Israel and to Jewish survivors.
2. United States— American Slavery and Jim Crow laws: After U.S. President Barack Obama was in office for six months, the American Congress issued a federal apology on July 29, 2009. In the legal document, it said the resolution could not be used as a legal basis for reparations. It said: "Nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."
3. South Africa—Apartheid: F.W. de Klerk, the last South African leader of the apartheid era, appeared before the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission on August 21, 1996, to apologize for 46 years of oppression, saying the racist policy was "deeply mistaken." The government paid out US$74 million—$300 million less than the sum recommended by the commission—to more than 19,000 victims. That is less than $4,000 per victim.
4. United States—Internment of Japanese-Americans. During the Second World War, between 1942 and 1945, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps. More than forty years later, President Ronald Reagan signed the official Civil Liberties Act of 1988 on August 10, 1988, which included a $1.25-billion education fund. Two years later, on October 9, 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration started paying out $20,000 to each of the surviving internment victims. (Here is an example of a presidential letter of apology that accompanied the cheques.)
Canadian Apology: Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine (right, wearing headdress) watches as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologizes, on June 11, 2008, for more than a century of abuse and cultural loss involving Indian residential schools.
Photo Credit: Canadian Press/Tom Hanson
In Canada, my country of birth and residency, the federal government has offered apologies and compensation to: