Could you forgive a Nazi? On (the limits of) forgiveness . . .

This Fall I am teaching a course on the Holocaust and the Christian faith. One of the books my students will be reading is famed Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s provocative book The Sunflower. In it, Wiesenthal recounts a day during his internment when he was summoned from work duty by a nurse and brought to the bedside of a young SS soldier who had been badly wounded and was near death. This soldier went on to share his story with Wiesenthal–a Jew–crescendoing to his telling Wiesenthal about a situation in which the SS soldier had participated in the brutal burning and shooting of a building full of Jewish men, women, and children. And for this, the dying Nazi asks Wiesenthal’s forgiveness, so that he may die with a clean conscience. Wiesenthal never once says a word to the man, though he does reluctantly hold his hand for part of the story. Upon the SS soldier’s reques for forgiveness, Wiesenthal again says nothing, gets up, and leaves the room. By the next morning the soldier had died.

Wiesenthal seems to have replayed this question in his head over and over. Did he act rightly in saying nothing, in essentially refusing to grant the dying SS man’s request for forgiveness? And so, most poignantly, he turns the question over to us . . .

Placed in Wiesenthal’s situation, what would you do?

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11 thoughts on “Could you forgive a Nazi? On (the limits of) forgiveness . . .

    • John Anderson says:

      Yes Mike, she did. But allow me to press back. Does that make her better than Wiesenthal? And if so, why? On what grounds? Interestingly, Wiesenthal notes that among the many who have responded to his question, the majority of Christians favor offering forgiveness; the majority of Jews do not. What does this say?

      Wiesenthal’s question raises a host of attendant issues:
      -can one forgive for a crime not committed against them?
      -can and individual forgive on behalf of an entire community?
      -can one grant forgiveness for the dead, who are unable to grant it themselves?
      -does the dying Nazi express true repentance, or is he only acting in this way because he is near death?
      -can one truly answer honestly at a distance of 60 years from the Holocaust? and can one who did not experience the incommunicable horror of that event empathize enough to answer honestly and accurately?

      While the example of ten Boom shows that one certainly CAN (i.e., one is able to) forgive, the larger question Wiesenthal is asking of us is perhaps better phrased as COULD or SHOULD you forgive in this circumstance. It is similar to asking what you would genuinely do in ten Boom’s situation, for example (or that of many others): if a Jew came to your door seeking asylum, would you hide them? And if the Nazis came to the door asking if you had Jews hidden anywhere, would you lie?

      After several others weigh in I will offer my own sense of an answer.

  1. Michael Peterson says:

    Forgiveness was not Mr. Wiesenthal’s to give. The evil was not perpetrated against him. Those poor folks are not available to provide forgiveness.

    Now, one might argue that Wiesenthal was deeply distressed over the murder of innocent men, women, and children. But, the Nazi didn’t ask for forgiveness for ruining Wiesenthal’s day. He asked for forgiveness for murder — a sin that only God can forgive.

    A more interesting question, in my view, is whether we should ask God to forgive the Nazi. Personally, I pray that this man of evil be given an eternal life of inconsolable grief punctuated with unimaginable pain.

    Blessings,

    Michael

    • Michael Peterson says:

      I forgot to mention, I am Christian and it bugs me no end that Christians just do not get what forgiveness, atonement, and redemption are all about.

      I also would like to extend the idea (as I expressed above) that murder is a sin that only God can forgive. A more biblical response would reflect God’s view of murder expressed in Genesis 9:6 — Man is required to punish murder. One might reasonably infer from this command that murderers who are not punished will not have atoned and, therefore, will not be forgiven and redeemed.

      Blessings,

      Michael

  2. Mike Aubrey says:

    No it doesn’t make her better than Wiesenthal.

    But just as importantly, many of Wiesenthal’s questions aren’t relevant to Corrie’s situation.

    -can one forgive for a crime not committed against them?

    This is irrelevant because the crime *was* committed against Corrie. She lost just as much of her family as many Jewish Holocaust survivors: all of it.

    -can and individual forgive on behalf of an entire community?

    I don’t know. Can the forgiveness toward one function as forgiveness toward an entire community?

    -can one grant forgiveness for the dead, who are unable to grant it themselves?

    That’s an impossible question–which is probably the point of it.

    -does the dying Nazi express true repentance, or is he only acting in this way because he is near death?

    The German who Corrie forgave was in perfect health and walked directly up to here and ask for her personal forgiveness and had been precisely one of the guards who abused and beat her and her sister in Ravensbrook.

    -can one truly answer honestly at a distance of 60 years from the Holocaust? and can one who did not experience the incommunicable horror of that event empathize enough to answer honestly and accurately?

    Corrie forgave the Ravensbrook guard within a decade of leaving the camp. She also did experience the horror of the event enough that she could answer each of these questions honestly and accurately.

    I, on the other hand, cannot. All I know is what Corrie wrote in her books.

  3. John Anderson says:

    @Michael: You raise a lot of the same issues that many in the book raise (in ‘The Sunflower,’ after Wiesenthal has told his story, are about 50 short essays from various people, from Heschel to the Dalai Lama, answering the question for themselves).

    @Mike: I am aware of Corrie’s story, and I did not mean to imply that SHE herself could not answer those additional questions in any honest way. She obviously has answered Wiesenthal’s question in one way. But the question he is asking, and I am extending to readers, is what would YOU do. That, after the Holocaust–a seismic event that has shown the capacity in everyone for unspeakable evil and brutality–is the most important question to ask oneself.

    • Mike Aubrey says:

      @John: As I said, already. I doubt that I could answer such questions so distantly removed from an event. I would *hope* that I could forgive, but to know that I would is beyond my ability.

  4. John Scott Bougher says:

    Hannah Arendt thought and wrote on the subject in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The concept she presented for our consideration is Radical Evil, for which I think she thought no forgiveness was possible.

    I tend to ignore the Old Testiment and tend to favor the New Testament when I am
    struggle with the challenge of forgiveness. However, I am neither Christian nor Jew.

    I do not know why, but since my early days in school I have been unable to set aside the fact that the deathcamps still existed seven years before my birth. That horror always has influenced my thinking on many matters much more than the horror of nuclear holocaust. Sometimes I think the reason may be that I liken nuclear holocaust to the act of pushing buttons rather than looking into the faces of other humans.

  5. Mary says:

    He does NOT deserve forgiveness, and I dont think that G-d will forgive him either for such a horrendous crime. May all of the spilt blood of the innocent be avenged on the enemies of mankind!

  6. Reece says:

    how can you ask forgiveness
    if the people you ask for forgiveness for were murderer by you and other members of the Nazi party . If you want forgiveness you half to go to the people
    that you want forgiveness form and ask them.

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