In the 11th grade I was given an assignment to take a side on the open end to “The Sunflower: on the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” .
A Mile In His Shoes
In the years preceding and the years of World War II, the Nazi regime and their allies executed the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people and any others perceived as enemies of the party. With a death count upwards of 6 million in Jews alone, this event, now referred to as the Jewish Holocaust, is one of the most horrific tragedies in human history. In the midst of this Holocaust, Jewish Simon Wiesenthal is asked by a dying Nazi Soldier, Karl, to be forgiven for his actions. Simon himself walks out of the room, neither accepting nor denying his apology. After telling us his story, Simon encourages us to take a position on what he should have done. Although it is all too easy to look back at the events of the Jewish Holocaust and say he should not have forgiven him, he nevertheless should have, as is made clear when we consider the negative effect Simon’s decision had on himself, Karl’s state of mind, and the effort Karl must have put forward to ask for forgiveness.
The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet states that he personally would have forgiven the Nazi soldier and argues that one should always show compassion for those who have done wrong against them (129-130). Accordingly, Primo Levi points out that not forgiving Karl held the negative result of doubt (191). Following this concept of forgiveness and compassion, it’s important to note Albert Speer’s comment that Simon displayed compassion by withholding Karl’s actions from his mother (245-246). Throughout the story it is clear that Simon is full of remorse (64). Simon himself admits that it is not inconceivable to forgive Karl, yet he doesn’t, and the only reason he could have would be bitterness (47). However, as Primo Levi states, when one punishes another for an offense, it only causes a new offense toward the punished (191). This plays completely against Simon’s compassion, and is the source of his moral conflict.
Not only should Simon have forgiven Karl to avoid his own suffering, but also because Karl deserved to be forgiven. To make such a large claim, we have to consider the situation Karl would have found himself in. World War I ended with Germany’s shift in government. The Kaiser post had been replaced with the Weimar Republic that the people would not trust. Adding to this distrust was an overwhelming depression that, while hardly the fault of the republic, surely did not work in favor of their public opinion. In reality, Germany’s depression came losing the war, being the lead spender, having most of their working men die, and the international hatred that followed prevent any trade. Just to top it off, many Germans believed the new republic had surrendered too quickly. With such a drastic depression comes a food shortage, and if we consider the bloody mess that was the French Revolution, where another starving public placed the blame on their untrusted government, we can begin to understand these snowball effects of mob mentalities that spontaneously combust when a radical acts as a catalyst. Such a radical arrives when Hitler declares himself Fuhrer in 1933. Following this is Hitler’s decision to rebuild the military in 1935, his annexation of Austria in 1938, his annexations of Czeckoslovakia and Memelland in 1939, and his invasion of Poland that same year. This is a drastic shift from the Germany of the 20s, where people would literally starve to death as the super-inflation would make a money value in the morning almost worthless by that evening. While it is all too easy to retrospectively view this shift as the beginning of pure evil as Americans in 2011, just as it would be easy for us to observe the dreadful time the German’s suffered through and preach moral integrity, it wouldn’t be correct to do so. Karl is 21 in 1943, meaning he did grow up in the crippling 20s depression. He would still be just a child when Hitler assumes power, and, although he volunteers, would have likely been required to join Hitler Youth around the time he chose to. Karl’s dedication to his country and fuhrer are strong, and this can be noted by his volunteering for the military at the beginning of the war, despite his own father’s socialist democrat beliefs (31-32). It can also be noted by his writing of letters to his beloved mother that inspired her enough to read them to her neighbors (34). From all of this it is safe to assume that Karl was an average German child who, through completely normal means, grew a strong sense of national pride and wished to fight for his country, whom he felt had been betrayed, had suffered, and was now getting it’s well-deserved success. All in all, Karl was an average soldier, and while there were some commendable soldiers who fought against the Nazi regime for their terrible actions, we should not condemn the typical soldier fighting under the belief of serving a greater good.
However, was Karl a typical Nazi soldier? While he never led a rebellion or attempted to assistance Hitler, could be be considered commendable? Could he at least be considered redeemable? The fact of the matter is that he very well could. While we know that it must have been awkward for Karl to ask Simon for forgiveness, as he was a Nazi, and Simon was a Jew, it is important to make it a point of pointing out how awkward it really was. While many blamed the new republic for Germany’s, interpreted as early, surrender, there were alternative conspiracy theories involving Jews and Communist. The concept of Jews and Communist was suggested by many, not just Nazis, but it was propagated in Germany where Hitler spoke against both parties. With Hitler’s rise to power it was inevitable that both would become targets of character assassinations, as Hitler had spent much of his last battlefield experience in World War I convincing himself that they were the true enemies of Germany. With his rise to power came radical teachings in schools all over Germany, even more so for those involved in Hitler Youth. Karl would have found himself surrounded with Jewish hatred. If we consider how much he would be exposed to as a teenager, and we compare this to how much his mother would have been exposed to as an adult living with a socialist democrat, we should expect Karl to have extreme feelings when even she feels embarrassed around Jews (92). The fact that Karl made an arrangement to have a secret meeting with a Jew, tell that Jew his life, tell him events for which he felt guilty, and ask for forgiveness should be considered commendable.
Some will argue that Karl asked the wrong person for forgiveness, and even claim that he could ask for forgiveness from those that he killed. However, the simple reality of the situation is that he had no other option, and he quite literally did what he had to do. Another claim is that he should have followed his Catholic procedure to ask for forgiveness. However, the Catholic church has a history of offering blanket pardons to terrible events, such as Pope Urban II with the crusades, Pope Innocent IV with the inquisition, Pope Sixtus IV actually blessed the Spanish Inquisition, Pope Innocent VIII did similar, and Pope Sixtus V blessed the Spanish Armada when they went to invade Britain. If Karl had any awareness of these he may have valued them lower than forgiveness from a Jew who suffered at the hands of his comrades. Some say he waited too long to apologize, but if we consider that he was literally going against everything he had learned his entire life, the time for his guilt to soak in is understandable. Lastly, people will argue that he only did it because of his impending death. However, it is clear in the story that he felt guilt long before and was spending this time letting the truth of the reality settle in, as mentioned in the previous point.
The claims that Karl picked the wrong person to ask, should of followed religious procedure, he waited too long, or only asked because of his nearing death hold no power when we consider that Karl had no other option, may not have valued Catholic forgiveness, had a lot to take in, and made his decision based on the direness of the situation, respectively. Add to that the emotional distress Simon felt as a result of his decision, the logic in Karl’s life that affected his actions, and the effort put forth by Karl to get forgiveness, and it becomes clear that Simon should have forgiven Karl.
“”The Final Solution” – Nazi Policy Towards Jews.” March of the Titans. Web. 17 Feb. 2011. <http://www.white-history.com/hwr64iv.htm>.
“The Impact of the First World War on Germany.” Schoolshistory.org.uk. Schools History. Web. <http://www.schoolshistory.org.uk/ASLevel_History/week3_impactofwar.htm>.
“Propaganda & Children during the Hitler Years.” Holocaust Educational Resource. Web. 17 Feb. 2011. <http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/m/mills-mary/mills-00.html>.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: on the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken , 1998., 1998. Print.