Apologies for the sins of the past have always created controversy. If it is accepted that nations are entitled to glory in the great achievements of their individual members, then it is also appropriate that they regret what other members have done.
The Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has demanded that the Spanish King should apologise for the way the Spanish treated the indigenous peoples of Latin America during the Conquest. The demand has raised indignant hot air from conservative writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian Nobel Prize laureate, who now lives in Spain and who accepted a hereditary title of “Marquis” from the Spanish King. Accepting a hereditary title says everything about the change in Vargas Llosa’s views that have drifted into extreme conservatism from his younger days when he keenly supported Fidel Castro.
Other more moderate writers, such as Colombia’s Héctor Abad Faciolince, have said that while historical memory is important, such an apology would be pointless because the Spanish have always been less inhibited about intermarrying with the indigenous peoples in their colonies than the English. There could be just as many mestizos in Spain itself as in Latin America.
Javier Marías, a notable Spanish writer, has written an opinion column in Spain’s El Pais, decrying this “modern” tendency of apologising for the sins of one’s ancestors:
“‘Spain’, ‘France’, ‘Mexico’ and ‘Russia’ are not immutable abstractions. Neither are ‘the Church’, ‘the Crown’ and ‘the Republic’. What we mean by ‘France’ has a thousand faces: the Sun King and Louis XVI (guillotined), the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon and the Commune, those who collaborated with the Nazis and those who resisted them, Algeria of the past, and the present.
“‘Russia’ was ruled by the Czars for centuries, then by the Bolshevists, by Stalin with his massacres, by the tyrannical Soviet, by Gorbachev and Comrade Putin. Should the latter apologize for the excesses of the Czars? Should Macron apologise for the despotism of the French Kings or for the lunatic beheadings? It is not because they should not, but because they can not.
“To ask for forgiveness in the name of others is a case of closet arrogance, however much we are their ‘heirs’. What someone did, good or bad, only belongs to him. The good of the past is not to be attributed to us, and nor should we have to make amends nor be punished for the bad.
“And those who ask for forgiveness (be it the Church, Germany, France or Spain) demonstrate their own arrogance. As arrogant as if the current Spanish state were credited with the greatness of Cervantes and Velázquez or the Italian that of Leonardo and Dante. Each one does what he does, and no one else must claim for himself merit or demerit, prowess or outrage. They are not ours.”
Marías has a point, but it is simplistic, reflecting Margaret Thatcher’s view that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, and that nations and institutions do not really exist, but only the people who control them. Despite what Marías says about Cervantes, Velázquez, Dante and Leonardo, Spain and Italy do bask in the glory of these geniuses.
In 1991, Pope John Paul II apologised for the burning of Giordano Bruno. He was not accepting personal responsibility for it, nor was he asking for forgiveness from any of Bruno’s descendants or relatives if they still exist. He was recognising that the Church had committed a serious injustice. Likewise, when Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal people on behalf of the Australian nation for the stolen generation, he was not accepting any personal or collective responsibility of those living today, but was recognising that a grave injustice had been done in the past.
If Marías’ view is correct, then the German people should never have tried to make reparation for the Holocaust. Nations do gloat in the glory of their heroes who achieved great things in the past, whether as statesmen, painters, composers, writers or architects. If nations and groups of peoples are allowed to gloat over the glories of their individual members, then it is also appropriate that they should regret what other members have done.
Recently the annual Appin Massacre memorial ceremony took place at the Cataract Dam. A descendant of Captain James Wallace, in charge of Governor Macquarie’s soldiers who carried out the massacre in 1816, attended and laid a wreath. She was not accepting any personal responsibility for what her ancestor had done, but her gesture was warmly welcomed by the local Aboriginal people and everyone else present. She told us privately that most of her family have adopted the “Best We Forget” official attitude to the massacre, starkly represented by the absence of any mention of the Frontier Wars at the national War Memorial in Canberra. It seems that those in charge have adopted the Windshuttle line that Aboriginal attacks on British settlers were like “modern-day junkies raiding service stations for money”. Australia would be a better and more honest place if this woman’s much appreciated gesture were copied in Canberra.
Kieran Tapsell is an author and translator.