Simon Wiesenthal was an orphan whose ancestors were tortured and murdered by Nazi troops as well as ordinary German civilians during the Holocaust. He was a survivor of the Holocaust who found himself in a quandary after a dying Nazi soldier, Karl Siedl, confessed on his deathbed and asked for forgiveness from a Jew. The latter had been engaged in mass Jewish killings and described one incident in which Nazi troops, including himself, herded approximately 300 Jews into a building and set it on fire. Karl assisted his colleagues in shooting Jews who tried to flee by leaping off the house. He specifies a couple and a child who jumped in an attempt to survive, and Karl shot at them leading to their demise. Karl recalls that he was not comfortable with the inhumane action of shooting at injured Jews, but he argues that they would probably die from the injuries they had already incurred from the fire, and that shooting at them would save them from their suffering; his colleagues would also be disappointed with his rejection to kill the Jews. Karl admits being haunted by the images of the desperate Jews who were silently begging them not to gun them. Wiesenthal leaves the room without giving Karl any response. He later on shares his experience with fellow prisoners and poses the question, “What would I have done?” (Wiesenthal 98). This paper uses Wiesenthal’s dilemma to analyze various aspects of forgiveness using commentators’ responses; Wiesenthal was quite right refusing to pardon Karl.
According to Hughes, forgiveness purposes to amend ruined relationships. It enables the perpetrator to relinquish feelings of remorse and the giver to let go any grudges. Mere existence of guilt and Karl’s verbal request for forgiveness from Wiesenthal cannot prove that the former intended to makes things right, since genuine feelings of remorse should be backed with actions supporting the same. Karl might have intended to make things right, however, it was only to clear his conscience since he claims that various atrocities committed against Jews haunted him, regardless of the fact that Karl, the Jew he confessed to, was currently being persecuted by being forced to provide services to his prosecutors amidst inhumane conditions, such as hunger and physical abuse. Karl did not attempt to ameliorate the Jews condition: even after failing to have a clear conscience, he actively participated in torturing them. Take, for instance, his summoning Wiesenthal to his deathbed might have had unpleasant consequences such as punishment or even death for the Jew. Furthermore, Karl had a chance to make things right when he had mixed feelings gunning down the couple and child but he chose to please his colleagues and actively participate in genocide. His timing is also against him since the specified genocide was committed approximately two years ago, he had uncountable times to come clean but he chose to make it his dying wish. It is also difficult to know whether Karl was sincere about his general outlook of the Holocaust since he went against his father’s wishes and volunteered to work for the German government as a Nazi soldier, a job that advocated for shedding of innocent blood due to spreading unnecessary hatred among perpetrators. Wiesenthal’s relationship with Nazi soldiers would remain strained since Karl was not apologizing on behalf of his colleagues. His main aim was to pass away in peace; without seeing haunting images of the Jews he had persecuted.
Harold Kushner, a commentator, argued that forgiveness comes from God. God forgives people through others for He has the power to grant it or to take it back therefore, one cannot be pardoned only upon asking for it. Wiesenthal’s hands are tied here. Even the son of God asked God Himself to forgive the people who denied him and put him to death, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Even the son of God, does not have the power to grant forgiveness. Josek, Wiesenthal’s friend advised the former to stop feeling guilty for denying Karl forgiveness since Wiesenthal was in no position to grant it even on behalf of the persecuted Jews. Should Wiesenthal have pardoned Karl, he would have regretted it for no human has a right to do so but the Almighty. Karl should have sought forgiveness from God and renounce the inhumane part of him which caused unnecessary suffering to fellow humans. Wiesenthal was justified to deny Karl forgiveness.
According to Smail Balic position, Wiesenthal was justified not granting Karl forgiveness since the latter needed forgiveness from the people he persecuted, specifically the couple and child, he shot at. Although Wiesenthal had suffered in the hands of Nazi soldiers, it was not Karl. His pardon would be meaningless since he was only a third party and not the victim of this particular soldier’s misdeeds. He may also have pardoned Karl yet, had the victims survived, they would have denied him forgiveness. There are sins that only God Himself can cleanse a man from, in this case, Karl’s since his immediate victims passed away so God cannot use them to forgive Karl; forgiveness is a miracle and God forgives through people.
Dalai Lama argues that forgiveness can be granted but one need not forget the wrongdoings done against him/her. This counters Hughes’ perspective of forgiveness as a tool that enables people rebuild ruined relationships. Basing on Hughes’ view, forgiveness should enable individuals to move forward. One sign of moving forward is forgetting the wrongs one has done to you. Otherwise, what is the point in claiming to have forgiven the perpetrator? Failure to forget makes people hold onto grudges which may influence their decision such as seeking revenge. This illustrates that one cannot forgive without forgetting, the two go hand in hand (Hughes). Wiesenthal was right to deny Karl forgiveness since the latter would not forget the atrocities committed against Jews, he asks, “Were we truly all made of the same stuff? If so, why were some murderers and others victims?” He wonders why some humans feel superior to others and choose to belittle them and often cause them pain. After attaining his freedom, Wiesenthal could not go back to Poland since his home was no more with most of his relatives dying during the Holocaust, he assisted in hunting down Nazi soldiers and their commanders for justice to prevail. Clearly, Wiesenthal could not forget their persecution; there is no point in forgiving when you cannot forget.
Sven Alkalaj advocated for justice. He argues that forgiveness cannot exist when justice does not prevail. Mass killings of people are against the law and impunity should not be promoted since failure to take legal action against perpetrators of violence may lead to reoccurrences of the same. The purpose of incarceration and other forms of punishment is to enable culprits realize their wrongdoings and reform to reduce the rates of recidivism (MacKenzie 421). People are more willing to forgive when they are certain that, the perpetrators will not infringe on their rights again. In our case, Karl was oblivious to the current conditions of Wiesenthal and the rest of the prisoners, he continued torturing them but still wanted forgiveness. Most of the Nazi soldiers went unpunished even after Karl’s confession until surviving victims attained their freedom and provided vital information leading to perpetrators imprisonment. Although harm had been done, there was an opportunity for change, which gives most victims hope to carry out their daily activities without fear. Wiesenthal, for example, found peace after most perpetrators were put behind bars as a consequence of their inhumane actions. He was determined to move on regardless of his tormenting past.
Forgiveness should be voluntary and sincere. This way one strengthens broken ties, gets rid of feelings of anger and hatred towards the perpetrator and ends up assuming that the wrongdoing never existed. When one does not intend to fulfill the above mentioned aims while forgiving an individual, it is futile since the purposes of forgiveness would not have been fulfilled. Third party forgiveness, such as Wiesenthal’s case, is also untrue since the atrocity was not committed against this specific individual; he/she, therefore, cannot fit in the victim’s shoe. Religiously, third party forgiveness cannot be granted if it is channeled to the wrong person specifically a dormant participant. Lastly, forgiveness is promoted by justice; one is more willing to forgive when the perpetrators are convicted and avoid revenge.
Hughes, Paul “Forgiveness”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May. 2010, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/forgiveness. Accessed 18 May. 2017.
MacKenzie, Doris Layton, and Douglas B. Weiss “Other Countries Have Successfully Reduced Incarceration Rates Without Increasing Crime: We Can Do It!” Victims and Offenders, vol. 4, no. 4, 2009, pp. 420-426.
Wiesenthal, Simon The sunflower: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness. Schocken, 2008.