A year ago President Clinton told US troops in Bosnia that history could be our ally rather than our enemy. Looking back over 1998, there are, amid continuing crises, occasional glimpses that this admirable sentiment is more than just aspiration.
His own attempts at apology for slavery when he visited Africa may not have been well received at home and certainly critical columnists had a field day. The Japanese failure to apologize for the "rape of Nanking" irritated Chinese leaders. The killings in Omagh in Northern Ireland underlined the fragility of paper agreements and how much events decades and even centuries ago can still hold us hostage. But 1998 did see significant progress in healing history, sometimes at the grass roots and sometimes at the level of relations between nations.
Here's a small example from Bosnia itself. Last month members of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim communities in the town of Banja Luka, came together for the first interreligious meeting since the war began. Father Andrija, from the Cursillo movement, one of the hosts, told them that reconciliation might take time but with forgiveness one did not have to wait. "Forgiveness gives me the freedom to love now," he said.
Some Jews may have felt that the pope's apology for failures by his church to confront Nazism in World War II was insufficient. Just as some native Americans were dissatisfied with the United Church of Canada's apology to thousands from their communities who were physically and sexually abused at church-operated schools. And Australians were divided by the unwillingness of their prime minister to give a government (as distinct from an individual apology) to their country's Aboriginal people for the same sort of abuse. There might be disputes whether saying sorry was an apology, as in Argentine President Carlos Menem's reconciling approach to Britain. But the fact is that as we approach a new millennium, sincere attempts are being made to clean the slates.
In October, Ecuador and Peru ended Latin America's longest territorial dispute, one that sparked three wars and caused hundreds of deaths. Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad declared, "After so many decades during which both sides tried to win the war, today our two countries will together win the peace." Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said similarly, "Both countries are winners because both have achieved peace."
The same month saw the start of a new partnership between Japan and South Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, referring to his country's 35-year colonial rule, said, "This joint declaration will be a new start. I feel acute remorse and offer an apology from my heart." South Korean Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung said, "We must settle the accounts of the 20th century as we enter the 21st century."
The bold attempt to settle the accounts in Northern Ireland earned a Catholic, John Hume, and a Protestant, David Trimble, the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. They are the symbol of many who played a part - from the women who kept the peace process alive, to the Irish and British governments' commitment to a solution, to the active involvement of Mr. Clinton and the US.
Mr. Hume thanked the European Parliament for the inspiration given him in his work by the example of reconciliation between France and Germany, whose wars had cost millions of lives.
"What we all have to learn," he said, "is what the peoples of Europe have learned and we are learning in Northern Ireland: Difference - whether it is race, religion, or nationality - is an accident of birth and is not something we should be engaged in conflict about; it is something we should respect."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had earlier in the year apologized for the British role in the Irish famine 150 years ago, spoke to the Irish Parliament of "so much shared history, so much shared pain."
Yet Ireland and Britain did not need to continue as prisoners of history: "As two modern countries we can try to put our histories behind us, try to forgive and forget those age-old enmities." Like other reconciling leaders, Mr. Blair said, "I am not asking anyone to surrender. I am asking everyone to declare the victory of peace."
A good message at this season, and a welcome antidote to historic preoccupations closer to home.
* Michael Henderson is an Oregon-based British journalist and broadcaster. He is the author of 'The Forgiveness Factor - Stories of Hope in a World of Conflict' (Grosvenor Books UK/USA, 1996).