“Should we pardon them?”

That was the question posed by the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch in a 1971 essay of that title about Nazi war crimes.1 Jankélévitch passionately opposed a statute of limitations for these atrocities.2 He argued that crimes against humanity – those committed in Auschwitz, for example – are dehumanizing in the most basic sense: they attack the very essence of what it is to be human. Crimes like these, he wrote, cannot be covered by reconciliation:

It was the very being of humanity, esse, that racial genocide attempted to annihilate in the suffering flesh of these millions of martyrs. ... When an act denies the essence of a human being as a human being, the statutory limitations that urge absolution in the name of morality actually themselves contradict morality.3

Forgiveness, according to Jankélévitch, died in the concentration camps. (His essay had a powerful effect: as a result of it, in France there was no statute of limitations for Nazi collaborators under the Vichy regime.)

Jankélévitch then went on to ask what is required for reconciliation to be possible. Since both victims and perpetrators are dead, to whom could forgiveness be directed? Can the state “forgive”? Doubtless it can do so in the sense of granting a pardon and waiving punishment, but not in the sense of actually erasing guilt. Who then could grant such all-encompassing forgiveness?

Jankélévitch assumes that only a personal forgiveness is possible – a face-to-face forgiveness between torturers and victims, in a private encounter without any third parties. But this requires that the victim is still alive – if not, then the door to forgiveness has slammed shut.

In that case, the torturer’s remorse achieves nothing; it is inadequate and comes too late. Remorse is decoupled from forgiveness; the two are separated by an unbridgeable gap in time.

In Jankélévitch’s view, later generations may not presume to offer forgiveness – something they are not entitled to do in any case, in view of the sheer monstrosity of the guilt. When politics engages in the rituals of official apology, it is overstepping its proper boundaries in pursuit of a strategic benefit: apology becomes a semi-sacred event for the public. The rhetoric bandied over the mass graves is impure, even if it is the victims’ grandchildren who are speaking:

Thanks to indifference, moral amnesia, and general superficiality, pardoning today is a fait accompli. Everything is already long forgiven and forgotten.4

Nevertheless, Jankélévitch argues, the guilt still exists, since the agony of the victims “will remain until the end of days.” No handshakes, no yearning for social harmony on the part of later generations, can salvage what is unforgivable.

Now for a contrasting picture: Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister, born to a Jewish family, were used for medical experiments on humans by the SS doctor Josef Mengele.5 As she remembers it, she was defined by her status as victim. Half a century later, she met with another SS doctor, Hans Münch, who asked her for forgiveness. It was then that she recognized in his appeal a way to leave behind the harm inflicted on her. The “helpless little Mengele guinea pig,” in her words, possessed something she hadn’t been aware of: the power to forgive. By means of this power, which she had not previously suspected and which now overwhelmed her, she freed herself from the shadow of a lifelong status as a victim. She pronounced forgiveness and found freedom – including freedom in the face of accusations that she had betrayed her dead sister. Mozes Kor did not see it that way; for her, forgiveness was a way to honor the dead – perhaps the only appropriate way. It was a way that transcended all the requirements of a just punishment. The logic of retribution paled in light of her experience that forgiveness offers a way of liberation for both perpetrators and victims.


  1. Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, Verzeihung des Unverzeihlichen? Ausflüge in Landschaften der Schuld und der Vergebung (Text & Dialog, 2013).
  2. Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Should We Pardon Them?,” trans. Ann Hobart, Critical Inquiry 22, no. 3 (1996): 552–572.
  3. Ibid., 555–556. (Translation here by Peter Mommsen.)
  4. Ibid., 566.
  5. Eva Mozes Kor, interview with Harald Welzer, Frankfurter Rundschau, June 13, 2003.
  6. Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell et al. (Routledge, 1992), 3–66.
  7. Jacques Derrida, Pardonner: L’impardonnable et l’impréscriptible (Galilée, 2005), 70.
  8. Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” trans. Michael Hughes, in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), 32–36. See also Derrida, “Das Jahrhundert der Vergebung: Verzeihen ohne Macht – unbedingt und jenseits der Souveränität,” interview by Michel Wieviorka, in Lettre international 48 (Spring, 2000): 10–18.
  9. Derrida, Pardonner, 74–75.
  10. Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Schuld und Vergebung,” in Sinn und Form: Beiträge zur Literatur 50, no. 3 (1998): 378.
  11. Aurelius Augustinus, Enarratio in Psalmos, 110 (109), 1.
  12. Søren Kierkegaard, “Love Hides the Multiplicity of Sins,” in Taten der Liebe (1847), GW 19 (1966), 309ff.
  13. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei 4,13, 5,18, in Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, trans. Jasper Hopkins (Arthur J. Banning, 2001), 685–687.
  14. The Roman Missal, Third Edition (ICEL, 2010).
  15. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (Ignatius Press, 1979), 153.