The consequentialist view of forgiveness which I outlined in the previous post on forgiveness, in which I drew on Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s writings, represents the end of forgiveness as lying outside itself, as a process of personal and social healing which is necessary to turn a harmed individual’s eyes away from the past and train them once again on the future. Norman Tebbit’s remarks about Patrick Magee (quoted at the end of the previous post) point towards problems with what is sometimes called a “therapeutic” definition of forgiveness, problems which have been raised in the context of the South African TRC, in Northern Ireland, and various other places.

Should some acts still be treated as simply unforgiveable, despite the risks which come with refusing to forgive?

Gobodo-Madikizela notes that asking whether there are limits to forgiveness is a question which is unavoidable for people who find themselves living in a society among others who were once their oppressors. She concludes the book by suggesting that there are such limits, but they can only ultimately be drawn around unrepentant perpetrators. A failure to show remorse blocks the route to forgiveness. A potential danger is, then, that a sadistic perpetrator could get satisfaction from the power he or she still possesses to withhold an expression of remorse, one that could potentially help his or her victims overcome their trauma.

However, some have argued that the consequentialist justification of forgiveness, which represents forgiving as a kind of personal and social therapy, is not enough to show us why forgiveness is a truly moral act in certain circumstances. For example, forgiveness requires public recognition, but in the face of mass crimes, some institutional framework is necessary to manage this, as in the TRC. And when such a framework has to be overseen in ways which are responsive to priorities of time and resources, coercion can occur. People can feel forced into forgiving, an experience which can produce new resentments. Further, some, like the apartheid activist Steve Biko’s widow Ntsiki, responded to the TRC process by arguing that reconciliation between the different sectors of a divided society could not be possible without genuine justice. And in circumstances where injustice has arisen from the organised domination, perhaps for generations, of one section of society by another, what justice might mean and how it could be a condition for forgiveness are difficult problems.

Jean Amery
Jean Amery

The writings of Jean Amery (e.g. the essays translated into English as At the Mind’s Limits) present a protest against the kind of interpretation of the moral nature of forgiveness which Gobodo-Madikizela provides, as well as a call for justice of an exacting, perhaps impossible kind. Amery was a German Jew, born Hans Mayer, who changed his surname to a French anagram of his German one after the Second World War, during which he had been interned and tortured in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. In his essay “Resentments” he argues that the urge to forgive and the ways in which society tries to bolster and promote it, can actually be immoral in some circumstances. The acts which were performed upon him and his compatriots were ones which were made possible by a prior act of definition: the classification “Jew” as interpreted under the Nuremburg Laws changed the identities of a whole section of the German population and made them vulnerable to unrestrained violence. They were, as Amery writes elsewhere, transformed into mere “flesh”, rather than human beings.

He describes the tortures that were inflicted upon him as actions which had no moral reality in and of themselves. Torture is only violence, the transmission of physical force. It has no further meaning in and of itself, because the moral significance of the act is a reality only for the victim, who becomes, through violence, less than a person. Further, the act that was visited on one person was part of a series of systematically perpetrated acts performed on thousands of people. As such, one person, Amery argues, has no right to forgive her torturer. This is because anyone who survived the kind of experiences he underwent bears a unique responsibility – the responsibility of witnessing the guilt of a social hierarchy, an inverted “pyramid” of people, who crushed beneath it both him and others who had been labelled as he had been. And so how does one man have the right to forgive crimes committed against a whole people?

In such a context, forgiveness represents, he argues, the logic of a grand social process which threatens to engulf the individual victim, one which he sees as symbolised by the post-war resurgence of a confident, industrialised Germany. The definition of resentment as a traumatic psychological disorder reflects a desire on the part of society to “cure” the injured individual. In a way, the victim is the problem, not the perpetrator. After the event, society thinks only about its “œcontinued existence” (p. 70). The psychologist’s implicit goal is to erase the moral reality of what was done to the victim, by persuading him or her to “look to the future”. Whoever submerges his individuality in society and is able to comprehend himself only as a function of the social, that is, the insensitive and indifferent person, really does forgive. (p. 71)

In this context, he suggests, resentment can become something virtuous. His refusal to forgive the German nation for what was done to those who were labelled “Jews” is, he recognises, absurd, as it represents a desire to turn back the clock. Resentment, he writes,

[n]ails every one of us onto the cross of his ruined past. Absurdly, it demands that the irreversible be turned around, that the event be undone. Resentment blocks the exit to the genuine human dimension, the future. (p. 68)


But at the same time, what cannot be erased by forgiveness is the act of redefinition which the Nazis, through their crimes, intended to turn into a permanent and unerasable feature of the world.

If to myself and the world, including the religious and nationally minded Jews, who do not regard me as one of their own, I say: I am a Jew, then I mean by that those realities and possibilities that are summed up in the Auschwitz number. (p. 94)


But it is precisely this redefinition that society would rather forgive – and forget.

At one point Amery writes that to preserve the moral reality of the crimes of the Nazis, one would have to consider both a personal and a political dimension. He suggests that the Flemish SS camp guard who used to beat him with a shovel handle may have recognised the moral reality of his crime when he was eventually brought before a firing squad. At that point, Amery suggests he could imagine his former tormentor as being no longer an “antiman” who had surrendered himself entirely to the seductions of violence. Brought to account for his crimes in a moment when he, like Amery, was supremely alone before the reality of violence, he may – Amery imagines – have wanted too to turn back time to before the beatings he had administered. Amery imagines him, facing the firing squad, as being transformed once again into a “fellow man”.

But there is still the rest of the inverted pyramid to consider, apart from the individual perpetrator who stands at its apex. A whole society was organised to bring about these crimes. If this was the case, then Am̩ry writes that only a complete repudiation of everything brought about during those years could even come close to erasing the crimes. This might include, for example, refusing to make use of technological advances stemming from Nazi research, barring all those who had held public office during the period from holding office again Рand an uncountable number of other things.

Amery recognises that what he is demanding is, literally, absurd – that it could never be accomplished. But what he demands in the face of the crimes he suffered is not the forms of acknowledgement which we examined earlier. Instead, he demands that it be recognised that the crimes committed by the Nazis are so appalling because of the double-binds in which they trap their victims. For Amery, admitting the possibility of forgiveness risks consigning what was done to the machinery of history, and allowing the injuries he and his fellows suffered to be negated. He thus challenges the consequentialist justification of forgiveness, suggesting that it may actually compound the wrongs done to those who suffer crimes against humanity.

The question that faces us is: is there justice within Amery’s argument? And if so, does it mean that his understanding of forgiveness is utterly irreconcilable with that of Gobodo-Madikizela?

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3 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Forgiveness (2)”

  1. … on the other hand, the sort of forgiveness that Amery wants seems to be emotionally disabled…

    Even so, Amery is right (and I think he is) in saying that the standard sort of forgiveness issued by psychology on behalf of society serves only to stifle the individual cry. We could, by the way, in support of Amery, note a similar problem with counselling. Counselling’s emphasis on “confidentiality” becomes all the more strident when society does not want to hear the complaint.

    Is Amery right to deny a communal forgiveness if it stifles the individual cry? After all, doesn’t his tyranny of the individual look the same as their tyranny of the majority?

    Another problem with Amery’s idea of forgiveness is that it looks mechanical, something soul-less, non-transformative, more about numbers and head-counts, and watchfulness. And Amery’s outcomes for his forgiveness are severed from victimiser remorse. The best transformational prospect for Amery’s victimiser is to be watchful about making mistakes.

    Take the case that one victim forgives and the victimiser has remorse because of it. Both free themselves from their joint relationship and pain (and make no mistake, the frenzy of the victimiser is at one level identical to the anguish of the victim). But Amery seems to deny the possibility of this joint event of remorse and forgiveness because it hasn’t included everyone else who is a victim.

    Amery’s consequence of calling for a head-count seems to subject the existence itself of forgiveness to a head-count. So Amery can have no practical concept of individual forgiveness. And maybe this is why he limits the idea of forgiveness by saying nothing about remorse (in this text at any rate).

    Both Gobodo-Madikizela and Amery struggle with the idea of social vs individual forgiveness. Both seem to think that there is a relationship between the two. And there is no doubt that a communal cry of forgiveness can encourage individual forgiveness – Amery’s complaint is made on behalf of those individuals who can’t or won’t receive a community blessing. But that doesn’t mean that forgiveness is tied to communal head-counts, as he seems to claim. Amery seems to be talking about victims of their own forgiving/unforgiving community rather than victims of Nazism. Neither Amery nor Gobodo-Madikizela ought to talk as though forgiveness per se is somehow, necessarily, established as a societal event. Let them talk about associations between forgiveness and society, rather than interfere with both ideas to make it look as though they related.

  2. Not sure if I quite understand what you’re getting at with some of this, John. But I think the crucial point about Amery’s position is not that it is about the fact of just who has been “canvassed” for their forgiveness, and more about the nature of the crime.

    If a Jew forgives the Nazis for what was done to them, then (for Amery) the wrongness of this forgiveness stems from the fact that the Nuremberg Laws enforced a definition of a whole class of people that made possible their collective transformation into subhumans (and subsequently, in the camps and torture chambers of the Gestapo) into “flesh”. The Holocaust therefore stems from the changes wrought on German society by Nazi ideology. This qualitative shift in what being German and being Jewish in Germany meant is the crime – and nothing will make individual acts of forgiveness after the fact of the Holocaust (no matter how many are counted) commensurate with this irreversible shift.

    So it’s not that Amery has no “practical concept of individual forgivness”, rather that he thinks there have been collective crimes for which forgiveness would be a moral absurdity.

  3. …that a person can’t forgive until his peers do, looks like a description of justice, not forgiveness. If Amery is saying justice first, and forgiveness second, then Amery is decrying individual forgiveness entirely, by launching it as a purely social phenomenon. Maybe that is why he doesn’t (in the above article) address the other aspect of forgiveness which is remorse and release. I read too quickly, but that is how it looks at the moment.

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