Information und Analyse

I’m so sorry

Information and Analysis, 23 May 2016

by Alex Flor

Does a Head of State need to apologize?

Willy Brandt

Willy Brandt

Foto: Bundesarchiv

In 1970 Willy Brandt fell on his knees in front of a monument in memory of the victims in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. As the Chancellor of Germany he claimed responsibility for mass killings in the name of Germany, performed by a former regime. Willy Brandt has never been part of that NAZI regime, instead he found himself as a victim at that time having to hide somewhere in a neighbor country under a false identity.

The photograph showing him kneeling down in Warsaw became part of history. At the climax of Cold War between East and West it was an important sign of reconciliation. Maybe no other laureate of the Nobel Peace Price deserved that award more than him.

If senior journalist Goenawan Mohamad, asks »why today’s Head of State, Joko Widodo, who was only five years old then should ask for forgiveness for anti-communist massacres all over Indonesia, he’s certainly on the wrong path.

Why did Willy Brandt ask for forgiveness? He wasn’t only five years old when a German regime perpetrated political opponents and put them to concentration camps, when it killed about six Million Jewish people, and when it raised a world war that cost another 50 Million lives or so. Willy Brandt was an adult at that time – and he was forced into exile.

Nevertheless, after he became Chancellor, his role has changed. Now, he had to act as a national leader just like any head of state elsewhere. He kneeled down in Warsaw to ask forgiveness for what Germany had done to the Polish Jews, to Poland, and many other states and peoples more. He asked forgiveness in the name of Germany, although himself being a victim of the German NAZI regime!

Certainly President Jokowi is not responsible for what happened in 1965. Even more then, I ask myself, what’s the problem if he would acknowledge the state’s guilt? Why not follow into Willy Brandt’s footsteps?

Did Germany become »blind and toothless« (buta dan ompong) as Goenawan Mohamad suggests by acknowledging that severe crimes against humanity happened in and by this country? Despite some harsh criticism – and even sanctions – on Israel’s politics towards the Palestinians, the Federal Republic of Germany is still very much aware of its special responsibility towards the Jewish victims and the state of Israel that happened to be founded as a result of their persecution in the whole of Europe under German occupation in the 1940′s. Up ’til today Germany pays a huge amount of money as recompensation to former victims as well as to Jewish institutions in Israel and elsewhere.

Goenawan Mohamad questions the responsibility of today’s state leaders for those who ruled in [1965 and] 1966, when the massacres in Indonesia took place. Simply answered: there is none!

It’s very much recommended to read some publications by Pipit Kartawidjaja about the difference between »state« and »government« or to study Ariel Heryanto’s statement at the recent symposium on the ’65 issue in Jakarta.

As a state leader someone bears responsibility for almost everything that has been done in the name of that state – not by the government. The Herero people in Namibia rightly ask for German recompensation for the atrocities that happened about 100 years ago. Today’s Turkey is very much allergic to any accusation of having committed a genocide against Armenian people at the same time. Although none of the alleged perpetrators are still alive, these are still sensitive issues.

Why is that? Maybe because some countries are hesitant to take responsibility on heavy financial burdens for recompensation. But more often it seems to be a strange kind of nationalism: since even after several regime changes some countries won’t admit, that the former regime did totally wrong. If the Osman Empire is guilty about committing a genocide against the Armenians, why should any living Turkish individual feel offended? Why did the Turkish in 1923 replace the former system by a republic, if there’s no difference between both of them?

If someone argues that today’s Indonesia and it’s representatives may not be made responsible for anything that happened 50 years ago, does it mean that the Dutch are no wrong? Hundreds of years of colonialism belong to the past, no reason to complain any longer? Few people would agree with that.

Much too late and maybe insufficiently Dutch courts acknowledged several human rights violations in Indonesia, and they paid some recompensation to victims or their offspring. I don’t think that this is enough. I’m even being puzzled by the question if this kind of help won’t raise even new conflicts inside local societies (who is a legitimate victim?). But at least it’s a heavily symbolic signal by the Dutch. After all they acknowledge some of their guilt. And once again: almost none of the perpetrators during the colonial regime are still alive!

Once again back to Germany: right now a former prison guard is on trial for assisting the murder of at least 170.000 people at the Auschwitz concentration camp from 1943 to 1944. The defendant is 94 years old, and sitting in a wheel chair. Nobody expects nor wishes to see him in jail. Survivors of about the same age gave detailed witness on some unimaginable cruelties experienced in Auschwitz. Some days ago the defendant said »sorry«. He’s ashamed of having been a member of that huge killing machine. Certainly it was a remarkable step to publicly admit his guilt. But some victims were not yet satisfied: they wanted him to speak out in detail, as they themselves did before in front of the court. They are not asking for reparations, or long terms in jail. They just want to hear the whole truth. Out of his very mouth! Just saying »sorry« was not enough to them.

Why is it so hard for Indonesia to just say »sorry« and admit severe crimes done in the name of the state by a former regime? Is it because of an unhealthy nationalist stance like »right or wrong is my country«? Is it because many representatives of Suharto’s New Order regime are still in leading positions? Or is it because an acknowledgment of guilt without conditions (maaf tanpa syarat) is unthinkable in a material society like today’s Indonesia? For sure some people will demand reparations, if the head of state officially says sorry. And many others will not. Most important for both groups are truth and justice.

In a following step let the courts decide on the legitimacy of individual demands for reparations, if there exists something similar to an independent judiciary in Indonesia.

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