What does it mean to be sorry?

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The thing about apologies is that they are no guarantee of placation. The degree of closure an apology can bring depends not merely on a few well-chosen words, but also on attendant actions.

Doubts have been raised over the sincerity and apoliticality of the apologies Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has been tendering of late. | PTI

On December 7, 1970, something extraordinary took place in Warsaw, Poland. In a spontaneous gesture in front of the Memorial erected in honour of the Jewish heroes of the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, Chancellor Willy Brandt of the then West Germany knelt down for half a minute, as though asking for forgiveness for what Nazi troops had done to the Warsaw Ghetto. The picture of Brandt kneeling was widely hailed in the international press. All major newspapers in Europe and the United States gave a lot of prominence to this event.


Source: Wikipedia

Famous for the ‘Kniefall von Warschau’ (Warsaw Genuflection), former German Chancellor Willy Brandt got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.

“Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people”

The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was an act of Jewish resistance that took place within the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland during World War II. It was in opposition to the local Nazi administration’s effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to the concentration camp of Treblinka, where a near-certain death awaited the Jews. The uprising began on April 19 when the ghetto refused to surrender to the police commander SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop. Stroop then ordered the burning of the ghetto, block by block, which finally ended on May 16. A total of 13,000 Jews died, about half of whom were burnt alive or suffocated. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.

Historians in later years have concluded that this event changed the way in which Germans attempted to come to terms with their Nazi past. In the twenty-year period following World War II, Germans had perceived themselves as victims of Hitler rather than as victimisers. Reminders that ordinary Germans too were complicit in Nazi actions were often dismissed by many Germans either out of ignorance or resentment. Brandt’s ‘kneefall’ was the first symbolic public admission of German guilt that did not come in for immediate widespread defensive opposition in Germany. On the contrary, this event opened up avenues for enabling collective remembrance and taking collective responsibility for the German past.

In August 1998, one witnessed the spectacle of Bill Clinton apologising for the affair he had with Monica Lewinsky. He said, ‘Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong ... I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.’

About a month later, at a meeting of clergymen, Clinton apologised again to Lewinsky and her family. “To be forgiven, more than sorrow is required, at least two more things,” he said. “First, genuine repentance, a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented.

“Second, what my Bible calls a broken spirit, an understanding that I must have God’s help to be the person that I want to be, a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek, a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.”



In August 2005, about a year after the Congress-led UPA came to power and Manmohan Singh became PM, he apologised for the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, saying he was not standing on any “false prestige”. He described the assassination of Indira Gandhi as a “great national tragedy”, and also said that what had happened subsequently was equally shameful.

“I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.

In this instance, it is debatable how much ice this apology cut with those who had been fighting for justice for the victims of the violence. That Dr. Singh was tendering an apology even as his party was being perceived as continuing to shelter participants in the violence seemed to render the expressed contrition somewhat moot.


There is something to be said for the effective apology. Its impact depends a lot on its historical and current context, as well as the attendant perceptions around the person delivering it. Willy Brandt said nothing. His was a mere gesture, a hugely symbolic one, done seemingly spontaneously. It spoke of repentance and remorse, gracefully done. As apologies go, Brandt’s apology came to be regarded as authentic and sincere. But, it wasn’t an apology for a personal action. On the contrary, Brandt was taking responsibility for what Germany had done as a nation. Brandt himself had played no part in it, preferring exile to staying in Nazi Germany and yet there he was, apologising for the collective actions of the nation.


Dr. Singh though came across as a stand-in for the Gandhi family, undertaking this thankless task and absorbing any backlash that it would attract. It felt like a political gambit that seemed to exploit Dr. Singh’s Sikh identity to ameliorate the distressed community’s sentiments. It was a strange sort of apology. It wasn’t for a personal action. Those who could have been asked with some degree of justification to apologise seemed to be unwilling.

As for Clinton, his apology may well have been little more than a cynical powerplay. He had repeatedly denied having had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the weeks and months before his apology. And there he was now, admitting he had lied all along. What then was one to make of it? It was a personal action that had degraded the office. It was quite literally squeezed out of him on the threat of impeachment. It was by all measures, a desperate gamble to gain some redemption.

Having looked at all kinds of apologies — from the sublime and historic to the crass and crude, what is one to make of Arvind Kejriwal’s apologies? They are in all probability a political move. In the initial analysis, a consensus seemed to be emerging that Kejriwal was tactically retreating, apologising gracefully rather than wounding himself irreparably. But then emerged the reports about AAP office-bearer Ashish Khetan engaging in long parleys with the Akalis to make the apology to Bikram Majithia work. This makes it far worse than what it first appeared to be. It’s clearly not a spontaneous or genuine gesture of contrition. It appears to be a careful attempt to manipulate the public into feeling sympathy for him.


The apologies to Nitin Gadkari and Kapil Sibal too seem to be crafted to further the ‘victim of people in high places’ narrative. By that reckoning, it is not an apology. It is a surrender of sorts, a surrender to a crass and crude politics that Kejriwal was said to loathe and never indulge in. It is a massacre of the hope that many saw in him, a hope of a better politics.

When Kejriwal made the charges, one expected him to see it through to its bitter end. It appeared that the AAP had made the decision to make these allegations in a considered fashion. But, now Kejriwal was apologising personally, but using members of the party to negotiate it. It is something of a ‘sorry, not sorry’ sort of manoeuvre. The apology has come from Kejriwal in a personal capacity after employing party resources to negotiate it. It may be that Kejriwal too will be one of those who will play games with the public.

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