II. The Issue

Nearly 200 million people have perished in the wars and conflicts of the 20th Century.  From the Jewish Holocaust, to the Killing Fields of Cambodia and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda, this century has been fraught with war and carnage.  As a result, nations and regions around the world are struggling with the challenge of reconciling the demands of justice and mercy with the legacy of hatred and recrimination generated by past atrocities. 

In some cases, violence is perpetuated as both sides engage in an endless series of actions based on ideology or revenge for past grievances or new provocations.  In other cases, violence is done by an intolerant majority on a defenseless minority, generally for ethnic or religious reasons.  When reconciliation takes hold, either because of mediation or a realignment of forces, a central question which emerges is the issue of justice for past crimes.  How should society treat people who violate all manner of international and moral norms after those societies have developed more democratic regimes, and are giving priority to reconstruction and reconciliation?   What can be done to ensure that these atrocities do not reoccur in the future?

This is a central question not only for specific nations, but for humanity at large, particularly at a time when conflicts are less and less between nations for geo-strategic reasons and more and more within nations for deeply ingrained ethnic and religious reasons.  In an era of globalization, as the lethality of weapons increases, there is no greater challenge than to settle conflicts before they spill over into violent confrontation, destroying communities and their environments.

Reconciliation can take place on two levels:  the external level of politics, treaties and agreements; and the internal level of attitudes, beliefs and opinions.  This proposal is directed at addressing both of these levels; specifically to convene an international gathering to assess the possibilities and limits of forgiveness within the context of great crimes against humanity with a final focus on their future prevention.

The question of forgiveness is the cornerstone of reconciliation and thus cannot be treated lightly or quickly.  It can only be addressed seriously by those who have themselves gone through the fires of destructiveness and who have also grappled seriously with the question of forgiveness for the sake of reconciliation.

One such individual is Simon Wiesenthal.  Mr. Wiesenthal pursued the demand for justice emanating out of the Nazi atrocities of World War II.  At the same time, this Nazi hunter has had the intellectual integrity to grapple with the equally important question of forgiveness.

Like millions of other Jews during World War II, Mr. Wiesenthal was condemned to the Nazi death camps.  One day while at a concentration camp near Mauthausen, Austria, he was taken by a nurse from his duties to a room  in the hospital where a young SS officer lay dying.  The officer had bribed the nurse to find a Jew to whom he could confess his participation in unspeakable atrocities against Jews, gypsies and Slavs.  His request of Mr. Wiesenthal was forgiveness for his deeds.  Wiesenthal remained silent, and the officer died later that day without knowing whether he received the forgiveness he sought.

Several years later, Wiesenthal visited the mother of the SS officer.  She explained that her son had been raised as a good Catholic, and would not have engaged in any of the atrocities of which the SS were accused.  While having the opportunity to tell the truth about the young officer to his mother, Wiesenthal again remained silent, preferring to spare the mother the pain of knowing the truth.

Moved and troubled by these encounters, Simon Wiesenthal wrote this story down, at the end of which he put forward the following question:

    Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?  This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and my mind.  There are those who can appreciate my dilemma, and so endorse my attitude, and there are others who will be ready to condemn me for refusing to ease the last moment of a repentant murderer.

    The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness.  Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.

    You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'What would you have done?'