The question weighing down the conscience of the book I recently finished reading goes as follows: “You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks you for forgiveness. What would you do?” This is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, a narrative prelude to the posing of this question to numerous respondents. First published in 1969 (1976 in America) and then republished in 1998 with additional voices, it’s oddly fated timing to have read it in this America of my life. Many of those voices say it’s too easy, if not purely meaningless, to try to embody an experience so far removed from my comparatively peaceful lives. Rather, one must look to principles. In The Sunflower these principals are, more often than not, derived from principles of faith. Whether it should be as predominantly Judaeo-Christian as it is is best left to the landscape of the 1990’s for now. What’s striking is, looking back, Simon’s paradox of doubt. He is a man who remains unsure whether he should have forgiven the repenting Nazi – a man on his deathbed, a man who asked for any Jew to confess to, who said the Jews he killed were guilty but not as guilty as he himself was. Yet Albert Speer, the Nazi architect famous for his repudiation of Nazism before the Nuremburg noose, has a response in The Sunflower. If Wiesenthal did not believe in repentance and the possibilities of forgiveness, why would Speer have appeared at all?
Which invites the question of principals. From what principals did Wiesenthal draw on to forgive the Nazi architect? In his response to the question Speer write that Wiesenthal visited him, Wiesenthal wrote in Speer’s copy of The Sunflower that “I did not repress that ruthless time, but had recognized it responsibly in its true dimensions.” This is tacit forgiveness. And how odd to see it given to a man not only closest to Hitler, but one whose memoiristic denials of knowledge about the Holocaust have been challenged thoroughly. Compare this to the likely middle class Nazi Karl who actively pursued forgiveness even at the end. This is not to humanize either – they are, after all, Nazis. Yet hindsight is a miracle: it reveals hidden truth. What does our hindsight grant us here? It hints at the possible need for absolutism in the face of the monstrous. It is a raptor tearing a sleeping dove off the gates of Dachau – perhaps one of the concentration camp archways that Speer designed.
If Karl had lived…so the counterfactual would go. The few who bring it up in the Sunflower wave it away as irrelevant. For he did not live. In flat truth this is true, yet nothing is more relevant. If Karl had lived and continued on as a Nazi truly or falsely consciousness of the horror of his actions, assuming he lived to see Nuremburg, assuming he pled the infamous Defense, teared up at videos of the concentration camps just as Speer had, claimed no knowledge. The only difference immediate to me is the physical act of murder. Karl purposefully killed the innocent. Speer was an architect. But, on closer look, this distinction is insipid and class-based. Because the superior can avoid committing the crime he is forgiven; Karl, as unforgiveable his deeds may be, is simply the hands of a malevolent head. It is the same logic – though obviously less severe a crime – that plagued Wells Fargo when it was discovered there officers were making fake accounts because of downward pressure. Wiesenthal decided to forgive one Nazi, as many of the primarily Christian respondents would have another, because the living Nazi had conscience and reasonable doubt. At Nuremburg, did we lop off hands or lop off heads?
I make no claim about the necessity of forgiveness or not. It would be like trying to earnestly answer Thomas Nagel’s essay “What’s It Like To Be A Bat?” It seems to misunderstand the material underpinnings of consciousness and misses the point of the philosophical exercise besides. If I had to offer something more tangible, however, I’d point to those very material underpinnings. I suggested that hindsight hints at the need for absolutism in the face of the monstrous. I didn’t say this was not forgiveness. Many of the original responses were absolutist against forgiveness. Forgiveness can only be given against those who were offended against, and they are dead. This reasoning is valid and beautifully demonstrated in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s parable response, abbreviated below:
Parable of the Rabbi of Brisk
A famous and revered rabbi sits quietly in a train compartment to Brisk with several traveling salesman. The card playing salesman become so frustrated by his refusal to join their card game that one of the men throw him out of the compartment. On arrival in Brisk the rabbi is revealed to the offender to be the famous rabbi of Brisk. He asks for forgiveness from the rabbi. He is denied. The salesman goes to the Rabbi’s house and asks for forgiveness again, offering money for charity. The rabbi responds sharply and firmly, no. Flustered, he tells people in the synagogue of his anxiety. In their surprise at his hardness, they recruit the rabbi’s eldest son to ask the rabbi why he has no forgiveness for the salesman. Eventually, as the conversation between the rabbi and his son comes to the salesman, the rabbi responds: “I cannot forgive him. He did not know who I was. He offended a common man. Let the salesman go to him and ask for forgiveness.”
What strikes me is the nature of hindsight in this parable and the ability of an individual to transform before our very eyes. Only in hindsight does the salesman recognize he committed a wrong and pursue forgiveness; the rabbi transforms first from a stranger to the rabbi, and then from a hardhearted rabbi to honorable rabbi. From the perspective of response to The Sunflower’s question this is taken for granted and its absolutism is sincere and reasonable. It hides a grain in our context.
Speer transforms from Nazi architect to “miracle man” to, ultimately, human. The Nazis took power when Speer was in his late 20s, and lived until 1981. He lived to change despite being among Nazi leadership. How sincere and how honest is questionable. Karl transforms from Christian child to Hitler Youth to repentant corpse. Nazism was more than half his life – his consciousness was not developed during the Weimar Germany of Speer, was not fully developed at all. We cannot know how sincere and how honest his change was though. I’m inclined to believe, to lean towards forgiveness moreso, for the latter than the former. Yet, Wiesenthal asks his question with regards to him. With him I’ve come to conclude that if we offer amnesty to Speer we must offer amnesty to both, and if we offer amnesty to Karl we can offer refuse it to Speer.
Should we forgive them? I don’t know. Like any revelation, hindsight does not answer questions. What it does suggest is that man is as fallible, as fluid, as time itself. Perhaps the salesman becomes a devoted Jew and gives up his violence. Perhaps he grows old denouncing his old life and old companions. Perhaps his ignorance is a gateway to his repentance, and through his repentance he can earn forgiveness; perhaps he stumbles, near-blind in old age, into the rabbi of Brisk and ask forgiveness for his violence. And is forgiven. Or perhaps he simply dies young, a pitiable example of a moral puzzles, revealing nothing to himself or to us except how both raptors and doves are indistinguishable from great distances.