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Contemplating Forgiveness of the Unforgivable

30/01/2015 17:36 GMT | Updated 01/04/2015 10:59 BST

Forgiveness is a complex term. To respond to harm with kindness must be one of the most difficult of human endeavours, and one which I believe relies upon a sustained belief in a shared humanity.

70 years ago the meaning of forgiveness changed. The liberation of Auschwitz on 27th January 1945 forced the world to confront the scale and horror of the crimes that the Nazi regime had inflicted upon the Jews of Europe, and Hitler's other 'undesirable' groups. Despite a period of silence in the years that followed, on that day Auschwitz became a known reality to the modern world, and the suffering of man and the possibilities of man-made evil took on new meaning; consequently, so did the way we are able to respond to it.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, most known for her observations of the Eichmann Trial, was one of the first to publicly contemplate forgiveness for the Holocaust, just over a decade after the liberation of the camps. At this time, she viewed the Holocaust as radical evil and deemed it unforgivable. Yet, she also emphasised the necessity of forgiveness for new generations to go on untainted by such a past.

Not much has changed since Arendt's first contemplations. Forgiveness of the Holocaust then, as it is now, is an ill-fated yet somewhat desirable task.

Considering forgiveness for the Holocaust may be thought of as a little crass. To say that it flies in the face of remembrance and belittles the suffering of the victims is a common argument. We fear the appeal of ignorance and in some way desire the bliss of forgetting what atrocities we are each as humans capable of. There is so much that we still need to learn from it, and finally it seems that we have started to realise this. Hence, to remove the undercurrent of pain that appears to motivate our drive to create a better, fairer and more peaceful society is a frightening thought. The Holocaust must stay forever present so that we can hold it up as a devastating example of what can happen when humanity becomes its most inhumane.

Forgiveness cannot be compared to forgetting. Unlike forgetting, forgiveness is a notion that puts emphasis upon a positive future rather than the dismissal of a negative past. It is possible to forgive and still remember. However, with an inherently personal nature and described by some as a secret experience, forgiveness is fully owned and authorised by its actor and only its actor. It is not transferable and cannot be authorised by a third party.

So, it is not a question of whether we can forgive a seemingly unforgivable atrocity; we, as the third party to events, cannot. Yet, the increased interest that forgiveness has been given over the preceding decades, as the post-witness era draws closer, is a telling sign that by exploring forgiveness there may be much to learn.

When we talk about the Holocaust today weight is put upon the responsibility of the generations who came after. In most cases that means you and me. We have been passed the baton and will soon take sole responsibility for preserving and nurturing the memory of witnesses. Of course, we will do this to remember, but we will also do this so that our children can go on learning, so that ethnic segregation and racial hatred is forever challenged.

As long as we do this, as long as we remember, the systematic extermination of more than 6 million people by state powers is something that we will never truly recover from. Nor should we want to.

Considering forgiveness draws into focus the basic underlying commonality which we all share, that which Arendt and others have described as 'the human condition'. New generations cannot forgive the Holocaust but the magical and yet fully real act of forgiveness can teach us a lot about how we can move forwards in remembrance, sorrow and hope for the future.