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“It’s worse not to apologise”

Maxim: There’s no point in countries apologising for things that happened decades ago

Last week the Dutch government apologised to Selma Wijnberg, the only Dutch survivor of the Nazi extermination camp Sobibor. After her marriage to a Polish Jew, the Dutch ‘aliens police’ no longer considered her Dutch, and she and her husband were threatened with deportation to Poland. She accepted the apology, but also said it came too late. Does an apology years after the event still have any value? Or is there no point to it?

“It’s important to realise that the government is taking responsibility for its negligence in the past”, says ethicist Laurens Landeweerd. “Some might say that these apologies are too late, but in my opinion it’s worse not to do it. Moreover, Mrs Wijnberg represents lots of people, especially the Jews who returned from the concentration camps, who were treated badly. The Dutch were rebuilding the country and refused to look back at all the horror.”

Landeweerd gives an example of ‘government apologies’ in his own field of research: eugenetics. “In the 1920s the state of Virginia sterilised 600,000 people, mostly mentally retarded people, alcoholics and criminals. The state had never considered offering an apology until a 75-year-old man demanded it in 2000. Virginia responded with a kind of formal regret, like: the state doesn’t approve of the fact that these practices occurred. It led to a lot of protest and, eventually, the government of Virginia had to give its apologies.”

Roberta Haar, assistant professor at the University College, disagrees with the maxim. “Of course it would be better if countries apologised right away, but people have problems recognising their own faults. When they don’t apologise they don’t acknowledge the things they have done. So I feel it’s always good when countries apologise, even if it’s decades later. It’s emotionally important to people. Take for example the Polish president, who died in a plane crash last week. He was on his way to Russia because the Russian government had finally recognised the killing of 20,000 Polish officers by Stalin. Obviously, that meant a lot to the Poles.” 


Cleo Freriks, Maurice Timmermans



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