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Bernhard Grom SJ {*}

Even Political Reconciliation?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 10/2010, P. 649 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


When in autumn 2009 Prime Minister of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck (SPD) justified his coalition with the Left Party with the reason that two decades after overcoming the East German dictatorship the "overdue process of reconciliation" had at last to be taken seriously, he met with manifold contradiction. The Federal Commissioner for Stasi documents, Marianne Birthler e.g. replied to him that in Brandenburg the debate about the GDR past has systematically been avoided, that the left-wing party's participation in the government was due to political calculations, and that reconciliation was something personal and "no political category".

But in the past four decades reconciliation has become a central concept not only of political rhetoric but also of serious peace efforts. After all, since the year 1971 more than 40 commissions were formed throughout the world, which were targeted on fact-finding (truth), on punishment, and increasingly on reconciliation and therefore became known as "truth and reconciliation commissions". Is reconciliation / appeasement, i.e. the restoration of a social relationships destroyed by injustice and enmity, perhaps beyond the private sector also a social and political goal - for countries such as Germany and Poland as well as domestically? And those who limit it to personal relationships, do they possibly want to articulate an uneasiness about an almost unattainable ideal? An ideal to which people abusively refer, if former rulers want to go on untroubledly, as e.g. after the fall of the GDR, the apartheid, or Pinochet's rule?

The experience with attempts in transitional societies to come to terms with injustice and guilt of a dictatorship, as e.g. the well-documented work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after 1995, teaches that reconciliation is admittedly subject to demanding conditions; it can nevertheless be the ideal and ultimate goal of an ethical-legal, psychological and political reconstruction that is not only directed at punishment but also at cure. The path leads from truth to justice, and from there possibly to reconciliation.

Truth: Ascertaining the true facts and publicizing the injustices committed, be it structural discrimination or individual blackmailing, intimidation, torture and spying, form the necessary foundation for a new climate, where the lies and concealment of repression are overcome and truthfulness and transparency are made the standard.



It should ensure that attention and sympathy is given to the victims' fates, express the new society's intention to respect human rights, and create a common view of history, which makes the national unity possible and prevents the glorification of dictatorship. That is why we are still far from a reconciliation, when many leftists do not see the GDR as an "illegitimate state" [Unrechtsstaat] and only about ten percent of the population in Brandenburg are interested in coming to terms with the GDR past. It is therefore all the more important that since 1998 the "National Foundation for the Study of the SED dictatorship" actively opposes oblivion by its archive material, its publications and by its support of victims' associations, and that it avoids a one-sided fixation on the perpetrators.

Justice is required by coming to terms with the past, because the violation of rights must not continue, the perpetrators must not occupy positions from which the victims were once barred, and the trust in justice must be restored. This is something different, and more constructive than mere retaliation or even revenge. Justice can give back self-respect and social recognition to a convicted person that accepts with the penalty also the new legal system. It can rehabilitate him. Prosecution was and is of course only partially possible, redress (with pensions for victims of torture and the like) as well.

In South Africa, amnesty was offered to all who admitted to having done politically motivated violations of law - even if they did not repent. This too easily granted "amnesty for truth" has hurt many victims who faced their torturers and murderers who had confessed but remained unrepentant. In Germany there was punishment - but mild. Of the 1426 people who had been charged with perversion of justice and fatal shots at the Wall, penalties were imposed on 753 - but all (except 46) on probation. Not a few things elude the prosecution. Spies and mere supporters for instance were not brought to justice, but only socially ostracized. Can they after 20 years be regarded as cleansed from the "stigma of betrayal"? To this end they had at first to confess, to apologize, and ask the victims for forgiveness, so that you can really believe in a genuine change of heart. Some had the greatness for doing it.

Reconciliation: If it shall be more than coming to an accommodation with others, on the part of the perpetrators precisely this insight into the personal responsibility and the asking for forgiveness is needed. For nobody can "pardon" himself - from the victims, however, it requires the willingness to forgive. Reconciliation goes beyond a mere justice-oriented ethics. It was not the ideal of the Enlightenment or of communism. Some political scientists call it an "ethical vision", and inquire also about spiritual sources. Those who believe that God wants to enable us to reconciliation and demands it before we offer our gift at the altar (Mt 5:23) should also more easily think that they and others are capable of that vision and noblesse, and not give up if the peace work does only seldom achieve this noble goal with individuals and representatives of perpetrator collectives.


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