Would you Forgive a Nazi?: Reflections on The Sunflower

In The Sunflower (New York: Schocken, 1997), Simon Wiesenthal recounts how a dying SS soldier once asked him—a concentration camp prisoner—for forgiveness for his crimes, which included the murder of three Jews by his own hand and participation in a unit action that murdered at least one hundred and fifty. Wiesenthal left in silence, but was haunted afterward by uncertainty about whether that was the right thing to do. Wiesenthal’s narrative closes by asking the reader to mentally change places with him and ask, “What would I have done?” The book then collects the responses to that question by a number of thinkers and religious personages—fifty three of them, in the latest edition.

Here are my thoughts.

As some of the commenters seem to be aware, there are at least two ways one can interpret Wiesenthal’s question. One way is to take it literally, as asking readers to reflect on their own psychology and speculate about what they think they actually would have done. To this, most of the commenters rightly respond that few people who have not actually been in such an extreme situation really can have much insight into what they would have ended up doing. I am sure I don’t know myself nearly well enough to make any solid predictions about what I would do—I can imagine myself doing anything from consoling the soldier to throttling him.

The other way to interpret the question is as a roundabout, but not unusual, way of asking what one ideally ought to do in such a situation. This is where we get a wide range of answers from the commentators. My own answer has a few layers.

I am one of those people who considers third-party forgiveness a conceptual impossibility. What I mean by this is that if you harm someone, it is not possible for anyone other than that person to forgive you for that harm—and this applies as much to gods as to men. To be sure, your action may cause collateral harm to third parties, and they can forgive you for that, but they cannot forgive you for harms not done to them. Note that this doesn’t mean that forgiveness is impossible for a murderer; as far as I am concerned, if it is the case that a person you have harmed would have forgiven you upon the fulfillment of certain conditions, then if you fulfill those conditions you are forgiven, whether the person is there to go through the motions or not. Even in such a case, though, forgiveness would not come from a third party. So, in the Sunflower scenario, forgiveness for the soldier could come only from the people whom the soldier murdered. The closest thing anyone else might try to offer the soldier is consolation.

Ought one, then, ideally console the soldier?

I have to preface my answer by pointing out that I am a moral nihilist. By this, I mean that I believe that all statements to the effect that regardless of one’s goals or desires one ought or ought not do x are, if taken literally, false. So, in the most literal sense, there is no matter of fact about whether or not one ought to console the soldier. Moral nihilism, of course, does not entail that one views all actions with equanimity—whether one believes in moral facts or not, one cannot help but to have values that are rooted in deep psychological facts about oneself over which one typically has little to no control. Moral nihilists can speak about these values and behaviors consonant with them, and for the sake of convenience will normally adopt the same moral language as everyone else in order to do so. It is with this is in mind—this non-literal understanding of moral language—that I return to the question.

The soldier has unjustly inflicted suffering and death upon others. He appears to feel some remorse over it, but as some of the commentators note, his remorse has limits. The fact that he seems to believe that he has suffered comparably to what he has done indicates to me that he does not really take seriously the magnitude of what he did. My view is that if he did take it seriously, then he would be grateful to suffer, since he would recognize it as appropriate for someone who has done what he has. He could perhaps take some small measure of consolation in having become the kind of person who realized this, but he could not justly think that it would make him worthy of forgiveness by his victims or of sympathy from anyone else. From my armchair, I would hope that, had I been in Wiesenthal’s situation, I might have tried to help the soldier to understand this, in part because full acknowledgement of and remorse for one’s wrongdoing is one of the elements of justice, and in part because those who make such acknowledgement and feel such remorse are better people than they otherwise would be. Beyond that, I would hope—again, from my armchair—that I would offer him no consolation whatsoever.