On April 13, 1919, a large group of Indians protesting against British colonial rule gathered in Amritsar, the Sikh holy town in northern India. They were furious at the arrest of two of their leaders, and for 24 hours the city had been shaken by riots. At 5p.m., General Reginald Dyer marched into the square with 140 troops, most of them Gurkhas. All the exits were blocked. The troops were then ordered to open fire on the peaceful crowd. They went on shooting for about 10 minutes until all their ammunition ran out. Official estimates put the casualties at 379 killed and 1,200 injured. Indians believe the figure was far higher.
The British government was appalled. An inquiry was held, and Dyer was sacked. Winston Churchill, then Secretary of War, expressed his anger at Dyer's actions and said British rule in India had never been based on physical force alone. But Dyer was not punished. Thousands of British people, in India and in Britain, supported his action. The incident caused fury and revulsion among almost all Indians, and gave a massive boost to the struggle for independence. There was never any apology from Britain.
The Amritsar Massacre, as it has become known, has long been an emotional issue between Britain and India, and has overshadowed all subsequent British visits. When the Queen paid a state visit in 1997, she went to the city, laid a wreath in the garden of remembrance, removed her shoes and bowed her head for 30 seconds. But she did not say sorry. David Cameron has just returned from his second visit to India where he had hoped to bolster British trade and ties with Britain's former colony. He too went to Amritsar, laid a wreath and described the massacre as a "deeply shameful event in British history". Writing in the memorial book of condolence, he added: "We must never forget what happened here." But he did not offer a formal apology, despite the clear wishes of his hosts. Should he have done?
Apologising for past events in history has become an explosive issue around the world. Should statesmen take personal responsibility for events that happened long before they were born? What difference does an apology make? Why do nations that feel wronged insist so strongly that their wounded pride will never be soothed until they hear the word "sorry"?
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No country has apologised with such heartfelt intensity for its past history as Germany. From Chancellor Willy Brand's famous and spontaneous kneeling in contrition at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto to the speeches of Germany chancellors and Presidents on wartime anniversaries, Germany's leaders have again and again apologised for what Germans did in the Second World War. But the country is alone among the Axis combatants. Italy has never fully acknowledged or apologised for its role as Hitler's ally. Since 1945, Austria has barely mentioned its commission of war crimes. And Japan has famously struggled to formulate various expressions of remorse for its wartime aggression that stop short of a full apology. Japanese spokesmen even suggested recently that the Emperor once used the word "sorry", only to be rebuked by Japanese language specialists who insisted that the word used could not be properly translated as "sorry".
Partly, this refusal to apologise is based on national pride. There is still a strong lobby in Japan that denies that Japanese soldiers committed any war crimes in China, that do not regret Japan's attacks on other Asian nations and insist that the issue of war guilt was settled long ago when Japan offered compensation at the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty.
Partly also the refusal to utter the word sorry, especially to the Korean women enslaved as military prostitutes, is based on fears of lawsuits. Turkey has had to deal with a powerful Armenian lobby that is still pressing Ankara to admit that the killing of thousands of Armenians during the First World War was genocide. The more vehemently Turkey refuses, the more others take up the Armenian cause: the French parliament and the US Congress have both angered Turkey at their recognition of "genocide". The real issue today is the fear in Turkey and in Japan that a formal apology would open the floodgates to compensation claims by the victims or their descendants.
Paradoxically, however, more and more politicians are now issuing apologies over events for which they had no responsibility at all. Tony Blair apologised to the Irish people for Britain's failure to do more to relieve the starvation during the Irish Potato Famine in 1845; in 2006 he also apologised for Britain's role in the slave trade. In 2009 the US Senate passed a resolution formally apologising for slavery. But closer to today's affairs, Obama himself was sharply attacked last year by his presidential rival for what Mitt Romney called Obama's "apology" during a Middle East tour of US actions and policies in the region.
Years of awkward diplomatic manoeuvrings usually precede an apology for a nation's actions. Eastern Europe has seen plenty of examples. One of the most sensitive and bitterly contested events was the Soviet massacre of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. For 50 years after that, Soviet leaders blamed Nazi Germany for the massacre and denied that Stalin had ordered the killings. This was a huge factor in the long-standing Polish hostility to Moscow after the Second World War. It was not until 1990 that Gorbachev admitted his country's guilt and handed over archive documents to the Poles. But Moscow has still never apologised for Stalin's other crimes – and its refusal to apologise for the terrible starvation in Ukraine in the 1930s is a key factor still complicating relations between Russia and Ukraine.
Apologies, however, have often become the key factor in attempts to improve bad relations. But their significance is downgraded if the apology looks trivial, insincere or suggests political expediency. No one now expects a modern state to apologise for actions taken by rulers and armies centuries ago. Does Britain need to apologies for every atrocity – repression or military action – during the colonial period in India, Africa or the Middle East? What about the many battles fought between European countries – are they now all to be re-examined to see which side was "guilty" and should apologise? While it makes sense for politicians to apologise for their own mistakes, it is surely pointless for them to say sorry for the mistakes of others.
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A confusion has arisen, however, between voicing an apology and admitting a wrong. Officials at the United Nations today freely admit that the UN was wrong not to authorise military action to protect the Muslims in the "safe haven" of Srebrenica, who were then massacred by Serb forces. But an apology to today's Bosnian Muslims by the current UN Secretary-General would not make them feel safer or diminish their anguish. The French state eventually freed Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military official accused of spying for Germany, stripped him of his rank and imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guiana in 1895. He was eventually freed, pardoned and reinstated in the French Army. But the state never apologised for his unjust conviction – and it was left to newspapers and prominent intellectuals to apologise for the climate of anti-Semitism that had led to his conviction.
Is it now harder for states to apologise than in the past? The pressure of events, the demand for "instant" news coverage and the tightening of legal liability laws mean that politicians are under ever greater pressure to say "sorry" but are in ever greater legal and financial danger if they do so. Maybe in future they will only apologise for events so distant in the past that no one can still remember what the original offence was.