The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness was written by Simon Wiesenthal in 1969. In the book, Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, recalls an encounter with a dying Nazi during his imprisonment in the Lemberg concentration camp. In the scene, the Nazi confesses his participation in the systematic murder of Jews during his time in the SS and asks Wiesenthal’s forgiveness for his heinous acts. Wiesenthal listened to his plea and considered it but was not able to bring himself to respond to the Nazi, leaving the hospital without saying a word. The next day, he finds out that the Nazi died.
Though he would go on to become a notorious “Nazi hunter” and acclaimed historian of the Holocaust, the moral dilemma of whether or not he should have forgiven this one dying Nazi stuck with Wiesenthal for the rest of his life. He eventually published The Sunflower and asked over 50 acclaimed contributors to speculate on what they would have done had they been in his position.
The questions Wiesenthal asked, those he asked to contribute, and their responses represent a humility and civility that most of us today will find hard to comprehend, both in our individual as well as our political lives. Our political squabbles in 21st century America are often fought over much less, yet are raised to what we perceive to be much greater heights. Therefore, it is all the more important to heed the lessons of The Sunflower, lest we forgot how to ask the tough questions and hear the difficult answers.
Whom He Asked
In The Sunflower, Wiesenthal asked over 50 respondents: would you forgive the dying Nazi for his crimes against humanity? The diversity of those who replied was remarkable: a range of nationalities (American, Bulgarian, Israeli, South Africa, Bosnian, Chinese, Cambodian); of religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism); and of professions (diplomats, military, professors, historians, journalists). Unsurprisingly, the perspectives of such a diverse set of contributors—with different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and values—varied widely.
Remarkably, Wiesenthal even included a contribution from Albert Speer, a Nazi party member and advisor to Adolf Hitler convicted at the Nuremberg Trials for his role as Germany’s Minister of Armaments and War Production. The power of such an act is palpable—a Holocaust survivor asking a convicted Nazi for his moral judgement—even through the pages of a book and the fogged window of time.
When we think about applying lessons from The Sunflower to American politics today, we should remember Wiesenthal’s wisdom: that we should seek a diverse range of opinions; that we should pay particular attention to those who are different than us, for they can offer us a different perspective; and that no one should be so “out of bounds” that we cannot hear their opinion—not to agree with them nor to accept what they have to say, but to try to comprehend and to understand. This last lesson will probably strike particular discord with the politically active today on both sides of the aisle. This is precisely the power of The Sunflower’s challenge. If Wiesenthal can ask a Nazi about whether he made the right choice, whom can you talk to who might be perceived as “off-limits”? What insights might they be able to provide you that might be different, or even offensive, but that might broaden your perspective and understanding?
What They Said
The diverse respondents in The Sunflower provide a universe of potential responses to Wiesenthal’s unanswerable question on forgiveness. Many of the contributors advocate for forgiveness. Several Christian contributors cite God’s infinite mercy and the virtue of forgiveness in biblical teachings, including Jesus’ forgiveness of those who crucified him in Luke 23:24: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Others cite historical examples. Desmond Tutu discusses Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison during Apartheid and his decision, once free, to invite his white jailer to his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. The Dalai Lama spoke about a Tibetan monk who served eighteen years in a Chinese prison and, when ask about his biggest fear while incarcerated, answered that “what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese.”
Many other authors, however, opposed forgiveness. They argue that one can only forgive transgressions committed against oneself. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comments how, according to Jewish tradition, God can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man. As such, murder is unforgivable, since the victim is not able to offer forgiveness. Others comment about how forgiveness requires more than a verbal confession, but an act of repentance—proof that someone will act differently in the future. They note how forgiveness can condone an act, warning: “Whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent.”
Judge Learned Hand said that, “the mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right.” The Sunflower provides more than enough gnawing and uncertainty. One must sift through the pages and sort through the ambiguity for oneself. The book does not have an agenda, except perhaps to make the reader think. It leaves the reader with all manner of opinions and allows the reader to form his or her own. One gets the sense that even Simon Wiesenthal has not settled on an answer himself. Yet it forces the reader to wonder: If Wiesenthal can consider forgiveness surrounding one of the most inhumane chapters in history, what acts can we consider forgiving?
What We Can Learn
In American politics today, we all need to be a bit more like Simon Wiesenthal. We must ask the tough questions and have the humility to hear the answers. We need to search for diverse perspectives, especially those we disagree with. We need to “accept the truth from whatever source it comes,” as Maimonides said. We must boldly, but also humbly and gently, engage with different opinions.
We should think about what political forgiveness might mean in the modern American context. It might mean pointing the finger less at the other side. It might mean thinking less in terms of “them” versus “us.” It might mean remembering that we are Americans first and Republicans and Democrats second; that we are not Red states and Blue states, but the United States. It might mean assuming the worst about the other a little less and giving them the benefit of the doubt a little more. It might mean recognizing you have been wronged, but that you may have wronged others too.
These are the bold questions that The Sunflower dares us to ask. The challenge remains to you, our dear readers: If Wiesenthal can ask a Nazi for his opinion, who can you ask? If Wiesenthal can consider forgiving a Nazi, who and what might you be able to forgive?
If you enjoyed this article, you can read more op-eds here.