Apologies come in all shapes and sizes, but never before has there been an era of such public contrition as that for the mistakes and atrocities of the 20th century.
Pope John Paul II took the lead yesterday in a very emotional ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel, saying that the Roman Catholic church "is deeply saddened by the hatred and displays of anti-Semitism directed against [Jews] by Christians at any time and in any place."
Though not specifically addressing his church's silence during World War II while Nazi Germany exterminated 6 million Jews - an apology many Jews were hoping to hear - the pontiff said that the memory of the Holocaust "lives on, and burns itself onto our souls."
But the pope's Holy Land remorse - which came just days after he made a sweeping millennial appeal for forgiveness of 2,000 years of church sins - is just the latest in a surge of official apologies that have been bubbling to the surface from the White House to Iran, from Bosnia to Vietnam, and from Rwanda to Japan.
"I call it a mea culpa trend," says Judith Baumel, a historian at Israel's Bar Ilan University who specializes in collective memory. "If you haven't apologized, you just aren't on the map. You've got to apologize to get on with your life."
Public confessions of wrongdoing have been rare in history: the words "I'm sorry" were never directed at the victims or the vanquished from Homer's time to Napoleon's. The ancient Greeks thought that apologies stained a warrior's honor. National pride has been an obstacle, too.
But while the pope has called for a "purification of memory" inside the church, a host of modern examples affirm how a humanitarian impulse - even a new sense of public morality - is rising from the ashes of the past violent century. Though often used as a political tool, official acts of contrition also can carry a promise of learning lessons, recognizing that historical grievances must be addressed so forgiveness and reconciliation can occur.
"There is a growing sense in Western countries to look at the past with a view to avoiding the same mistakes in the future," says Yehuda Bauer, the head of the Holocaust research institute at Yad Vashem.
Pope's connections with Jews
The pope's speech at the memorial carries particular meaning because he grew up in wartime Poland, Mr. Bauer adds. "The man was witness to the destruction of the Jews.... He was the goalie on a soccer team made up almost entirely of Jews."
The pope has declared before that the Holocaust was an "indelible stain" on the 20th century. But the fact that his statements delivered in Israel - which the Vatican only recognized in 1993 - says much about how remorse is often intertwined with modern politics. And in some cases, it can be a function of those politics.
So the list of apologies in recent years is long and varied. In the US, President Clinton set the precedent by issuing reluctant, piecemeal apologies for the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to his impeachment.
Such displays might closely fit America's confessional, talk-show culture. But they've become a useful tool for reconciling longstanding foreign-policy disputes, too.
*US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright two weeks ago essentially apologized to Iran for American misbehavior during the past 50 years (story, this page).
*Mr. Clinton, Dr. Albright, and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan have all made trips to Rwanda, to apologize for failing to staunch the 1994 genocide there that left 800,000 dead.
*The Swiss government in 1995 formally apologized to world Jewry for its wartime role as the "bank" for the Nazi regime, and for a 1938 accord with Germany that made it easier for Swiss officials to deny Jews a haven in that "neutral" nation.
*Mr. Annan apologized in Bosnia last October for the opportunities to "achieve peace and justice that were missed." He singled out the massacre of 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica by Serbs, saying that tragedy "will haunt our history forever."
*Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid in a New Year message made "apologies for the breaches of human rights" in provinces where a separatist revolts have killed hundreds.
*Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defense in the 1960s, in a 1995 memoir apologized for his role in prosecuting the Vietnam War, which is commonly believed to have destroyed 2 to 3 million lives - more than 58,000 of them American - and is seen as one of America's greatest foreign-policy mistakes.
But not all apologies are created equal, and political considerations can take the shine off otherwise honorable acts of self-confession.
"If we are talking about an apology for something that happened in the past and has no repercussions in the future, that's one thing," says Bar Ilan's Ms. Baumel. "But if it's an on-going state of being, like Jewish-Christian relations, that's different. Rwanda was terrible, but it's over. Here, we are talking about the future."
Beginning of apology trend
The recent trend may have begun in August 1995, when Japan marked the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII by apologizing for the "tremendous damage and suffering" inflicted by Japanese during the war.
In the interest of reconciling differences, South Korea has largely accepted the apology. But China, which was most effected by Japan's bloody march through Asia, keeps demanding more from Japan, for domestic reasons, - more contrite words, and more fiscal compensation for the Nanking massacre that left 300,000 Chinese civilians dead and other atrocities.
"It takes both sides to have a successful apology, because it must be accepted, and politics has a lot to do with that," says Charles Morrison, an Asia expert who heads the East-West Center in Honolulu.
"There is some genuine desire in Japan to get it over with and start something new," Morrison adds. But, "it's a political tool countries have used against Japan."
Still, Japan's muddled case highlights a trend that has taken root beyond Asia.
"There is a changing norm in international relations, a norm of humanitarian intervention that is spreading out into the world from the West and Europe," Morrison says, explaining the US and UN apologies to Rwanda.
Do apologies work?
But how useful have those apologies been, and how free from politics? The cry "never again" was born out of the Holocaust, alongside the 1948 Genocide convention that requires all nations to act to prevent such crime.
But instead of action during the three-month 1994 genocide in Rwanda - where the killing was more speedy even than in Nazi death camps - both the US and the UN for two months refused to officially use the word "genocide."
Pope John Paul, in fact, was one of the first to use the word in reference to Rwanda, just weeks after the killing began.
And yesterday, standing in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, next to the flame of eternal light, which the he had stoked, the pope implored: "We wish to remember [the Holocaust] for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society