Would you forgive a Nazi mass murderer?

Would you forgive a Nazi mass murderer?

It is difficult to state clearly the New Testament’s view of forgiveness.  New Testament views would be more like it.  Nevertheless, the central claim seems to be that forgiveness should be offered as many times as it is needed.  In Matthew (18:21-22), Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him, suggesting the answer might be seven.  Jesus replies “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Or seventy times seven in some versions).  Seven represents the number of completeness and perfection in the Bible, and the point of course is that for forgiveness to be perfect, it must be impossibly generous.  Jesus expresses much the same point in Mark (11:25) when he states that when people pray, they must forgive anyone anything and everything, so that “your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.” 

The Sunflower, or would you forgive a Nazi mass murderer

Little in Christ’s teachings suggests that I am required to forgive someone for an act against a third party.  Yet, this issue comes up often in discussions of forgiveness.  It is the main issue that seems to divide Christians and Jews in their responses to The Sunflower, a story told by Simon Wiesenthal. 

The gist of the story is straightforward.  A young Nazi is dying in a hospital located near a concentration camp where Wiesenthal is imprisoned.  While being marched past the hospital in a work detail, a nurse selects Wiesenthal from the group of inmates and takes him to the room of the dying Nazi, who wants “a Jew” to hear his confession and grant him forgiveness.  Evidently brought up in a good Catholic home, the young Nazi had willingly committed terrible atrocities against innocent Jewish civilians, burning many to death.  Will Wiesenthal grant him forgiveness before he dies?

Wiesenthal silently leaves the dying man’s bedside, and the book turns on the question of whether he should have forgiven the Nazi, who seems genuinely repentant.  Wiesenthal’s bunkmates rightly point out that he was in no position to forgive, primarily because he was selected simply because he was “a Jew,” and not because he was personally a victim of this particular Nazi’s crimes.  Furthermore, a man under a death sentence is not free to forgive.  The remainder of the book is taken up by the answers of dozens of famous theologians, teachers, philosophers, and writers to the question of “What would I have done?” had I been in Wiesenthal’s place. 

It is widely held that whether to forgive the dying Nazi is divided down the middle between Christians and Jews, with few exceptions.  Solomon Schimmel (2002, 8) puts it this way.

Most of the Jews felt that only the victim of a crime has the right cannot speak for your victims and that in the absence of repentance as defined in Jewish tradition, which includes remorse, confession, apology, and reparation, there is no obligation to forgive.  Most of the Christians felt that a third party could forgive a sinner, especially if he has confessed and expressed remorse for his deeds, even if he hasn’t made reparation or apologized to his victim, and that Christian love mandates forgiveness by a victim, even where the perpetrator hasn’t repented.

Although it is difficult to generalize, it is safe to say that for most Jews, Wiesenthal was under an obligation not to forgive.

This is hardly the case for many Christians.  In his response, the priest and former president of Notre Dame, Theodore Hesburgh, says “if asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive.” (p 164)  Jones (p 288) writes about The Sunflower, suggesting this response to the Nazi, assuming that he was as truly repentant as he appears to be.         

I cannot speak for your victims.  However, I am called on to speak to you as a  child of God, and as such I am empowered as a disciple of Jesus Christ to     pronounce forgiveness in God’s name . . . . In the name of God I embrace you and tell you “Your sins are forgiven . . . . May the peace of Christ be with you  forevermore.”

This is not an easy issue for Christians.  In John 20:23, Jesus clearly gives to his disciples the power to forgive sins, and many Christians, such as Jones, believe this power extends to all believers.  Catholics would confine this power to the priesthood, recognizing with Jones that no human forgives in his own name, but only in the name of God, who remains the final judge. 

Certainly, I am in no position to pronounce on this issue, and yet something about the forgiveness offered here is deeply troubling.  If Jesus Christ was hesitant, as evidently he was, to grant forgiveness in his own name, but only in the name of the father, then who are we to forgive in the name of the father?*  One does not have to be a student of theology to recommend that Christians hesitate before offering forgiveness, particularly to those whose crimes are odious, as well as to those whom we do not know well, and so are unable to form a judicious judgment about whether they are truly repentant. 

Jews have a great idea

The steps of forgiveness, outlined below, are loosely based on teshuvah, as they are laid out by Maimonides’s Laws of Forgiveness, or Hilkhot Teshuvah.  The term teshuvah means return: to God, Torah (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament), and the good.  It is similar in meaning to metanoia in the New Testament, which refers to the changed state of mind brought about by repentance.  (Mark 1:15).  I chose the Hilkhot Teshuvah primarily because Jewish teachings approach forgiveness as a relationship between human beings, rather than focusing on forgiveness as a relationship between humans and God.  Jewish teachings are also more specific about the obligation to forgive if the proper steps are taken.

The steps of forgiveness according to my loose, contemporary interpretation of Maimonides:

  • The offender acknowledges his or her offense in such a way as to demonstrate an understanding of why the offense was so hurtful.
  • The offender expresses remorse and regret to the victim, as well as those close to the victim.  Expressions of remorse and regret to the victim’s family are especially important when the victim is no longer in a position to acknowledge remorse (for example, when the victim is dead, whether or not he or she has been killed by the offender).
  • Making compensation when possible and relevant.  The compensation must be directed to the victim and victim’s family.  Compensation to substitutes, such as acts of contrition aimed as the poor and destitute, are appropriate, but only if the victim and his or her family agree with the substitute, or if the victim and family are unavailable or unreceptive.  
  • Living differently in the future, demonstrating that one is a changed person.  A drunk driver who killed someone might give up drinking and join Alcoholics Anonymous, for example.  For some interpreters of the Hebrew Bible, this is the step that validates all the others.  Sometimes this is referred to as teshuvah gemurah, or complete repentance.  Repentance is complete when opportunities to reoffend present themselves, and the offender refrains from doing so.

Forgiveness is a demanding human relationship.   Forgiveness may be given freely, but that does not mean that it need not be earned.  Though the point often seems lost in today’s popular psychology of forgiveness, it is worth remembering that forgiveness requires someone to ask for forgiveness, and someone else to grant it.  Forgiveness requires someone who will act the part of the penitent, and a victim who is willing to offer forgiveness if certain conditions are met.  Each depends on the other.  Without someone to ask forgiveness, it is hard to see what sense it makes to grant it. 

What forgiveness is not

Popular psychology, which spills over into popular theology, argues for forgiveness along the following lines.  “Forgive, so that you will not carry this terrible burden of hate with you but can finally feel free.”  It’s an awful answer from any perspective, forgiveness turned into a strategy of psychological self-help.  I don’t believe it is necessary to remove God from forgiveness, but the Jewish perspective has the great advantage of not being easily transformed into “cheap grace.”  Or cheap forgiveness. 


* It is sometimes difficult to tell in whose name Jesus is acting, as he frequently speaks in the present passive, as in “your sins have been forgiven,” without specifying by whom.  See Mark 2:5,9.  Bash (pp 90-91) argues that Jesus in not claiming divine status as the one who forgives, but that can’t be right.  Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins on earth at least three times (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24).  But in either case we are not talking about human forgiveness. 


Anthony Bash, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics.  Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Gregory L. Jones, Embodying ForgivenessEerdmans, 1995.

Moses Maimonides, The Book of Knowledge: From the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. http://www.torahlab.org/download1983/rambam_sourcesheet.pdf [original 12th century CE]

Solomon Schimmel, Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness.  Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.  Schocken Books, 1997.

2 thoughts on “Would you forgive a Nazi mass murderer?”

  1. I’ve read this more than once.For a Catholic forgiveness is given by a priest provided we repent.I don’t understand how a soldier in that setting would imagine a Jew could forgive him [And how far were they from the battlefield]
    I read it again because there was a Service on the radio recently
    and they read a story exactly like this from a book written by a Jewish
    woman.The only difference was he had been a guard at a Death Camp
    where she was an inmate.He did not recognise her but she did him
    He asked for forgiveness etc.She stretched out her hand to his &
    claimed a wonderful happiness ran through her
    I wonder how many versions there are
    In this case she did know him.But I think it must be fiction.
    “Aren’t I wonderful.I forgave a Nazi”
    So I turned off the radio and the beautiful music as it felt like
    I think forgiveness must either come from the victim or God
    And as you say there are conditions like trying to make amends or
    restore the damage done
    It is unfair to expect a child or adult [ ptsexually] abused to forgive the person who did it unless they are sure he won’t do it to others.
    I don’t know how much we can do by willpower
    If I were in that position I’d need help to deal with my feelings
    To repeat, how can a prisoner forgive man who has harmed some other person or people, not her?
    Do we have the ability to do it
    Surely the dying man should be asking God for forgiveness
    I can understand the need to confess,even to ask for a prayer.But not
    to ask for forgiveness.Maybe to express a wish for it… but in any case
    it seems unsuitable or plain ridiculous.

    1. I checked this and in the book the woman was from a Christian family who were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for having helped Jews to escape or to hide.
      Then later this man approached after a Church Service.He wasn’t dying like the one in your account… so it’s not clear why he asked her rather than a priest as he was a Christian too
      At that time there were no women ministers or priests.

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