Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Apology in Politics and Political Theory

Course content

In 1958, Hannah Arendt contended that forgiveness should constitute a central aspect of political theory: against the fact that forgiveness “has always been deemed unrealistic and inadmissible in the public realm,” she maintained that forgiveness is an indispensable part of political experience. Yet, despite Arendt’s injunction to take forgiveness “seriously in a strictly secular sense”, scholarly explorations of forgiveness remained few and sporadic throughout the Cold War period. For obvious historical reasons, there was a marked over-representation of Jewish thinkers during these years. By the same token, virtually all these thinkers contemplated the unforgivable – a contemplation that led some of them to a wholesale skepticism regarding forgiveness, as in Vladimir Jankélévitch’s famous claim that forgiveness died in the concentration camps.


But during the 1990s, the scholarly literature on forgiveness began to grow rapidly and became increasingly cross-disciplinary. This sudden development arose out of a number of political events and transformations. Most notably, public forgiveness was invoked in relation to various countries’ transition to democracy, and their attendant efforts to cope with state-sanctioned violations against their own citizens. Examples include the former Eastern-Bloc countries and South Africa, not to mention the mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In many cases, this led to the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions. In relation to these endeavors to “institutionalize” forgiveness and reconciliation, new political and judicial theories have emerged, revolving around the concept of transitional justice. Another noteworthy trend is that of public apologies, or what is referred to as “the politics of apology.” As one commentator notes, “we see not only some individuals but entire communities, professional corporations, church representatives and hierarchs, sovereigns and chiefs of state asking for ‘pardon.’”


In discussing public forgiveness, political theorists usually take as their point of departure an emotion account, according to which forgiveness is to be understood as a change in emotion; preeminently, as the overcoming of resentment. A central issue, then, is whether this emotion account can be extrapolated to larger social and political contexts. This has provoked a good deal of skepticism and critical questions, such as: Can a community display attitudes and emotions, and can it be regarded as a moral agent? To what extent is it meaningful and appropriate to speak about collective senses of guilt and / or responsibility? Who has the standing to forgive and to ask for forgiveness – is representative or vicarious forgiveness and apology possible? In other words, does it make sense to apologize for something that one hasn’t personally committed, or to forgive on behalf of someone else?


In this course, we will inquire into the vexed question of what place, if any, apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation have (or should have) in politics. In doing so, we will consider three cases: PM Mette Frederiksen’s apology last year to the victims of historical abuse in state-run children’s homes; former PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s 2005 apology for the extradition of innocent people to Nazi Germany; the Reconciliation Commission of Greenland (2015-17) and the similar, ongoing state initiatives in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The latter constitutes a novel approach to historical injustices, insofar as theories and practices originally developed in transitional contexts are being applied to stable democracies. More concretely, the Nordic cases concern the assimilation and modernization (or “Westernization”) policy that early welfare states imposed upon indigenous (Sámi and Greenlandic) peoples.


Outline of topics:

Part one: (Brief) historical perspectives:

The Question of German Guilt: Individual guilt, collective responsibility? Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers’ discussion of guilt and responsibility in Germany under the Nazi regime.


“The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Vergangenheitsbewältigung and the recurrence of the question of guilt and German historical experience in the Historikerstreit of the late 1980s.


Early forgiveness theorists (late 1950s and 1960s)

Hannah Arendt’s call for the political relevance of forgiveness.

A case for resentment and the refusal to forgive: Vladimir Jankélévitch and Jean Améry.


Part two: The post-Cold War rise of forgiveness as a theme in political theory


Forgiveness in contemporary political theory:

Emotion accounts:

Analytical political theory: Forgiveness as the overcoming of resentment, and the questions of collective emotions and group identity.

Classical phenomenology and phenomenological sociology as a resource for understanding group-identity and emotional sharing.

Alternative views: “Relational”, “dismissive”, and “performative” accounts, (i.e., accounts attending to the actions of the victims rather than their emotional states, and to the social and linguistic aspects of forgiveness).

Transformative justice, and truth and reconciliation commissions

The politics of apology


The disputed relation between forgiveness and reconciliation

Case studies:

Employing transitional theories and practices in non-transitional contexts? Reconciliation in Denmark, Greenland, and the Nordic countries.

State apologies: Mette Frederiksen’s apology to the victims of historical abuse in state-run children’s homes; Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s apology for the extradition of innocent people to Nazi Germany.


!!This course will be held with all students attenting on campus!!


Bachelor student (2017 programme curriculum): 7.5 ECTS

Master student: 7.5 ECTS

Learning outcome


Focusing mainly on forgiveness in contemporary political theory, we set out to achieve an overview of the major positions and contentious issues in this debate, not least those pertaining to emotional sharing, community, and group identity. Also, at a more introductory level, we will consider the development of forgiveness in the recent history of political thought; the politics of apology; and the emergence of reconciliation commissions and transitional justice theories. In doing so, we will deal both with conciliatory acts as political practices and with theories about these practices.



Upon completion of this course, the participants will be prepared to

  • analyze and assess theories about public forgiveness, reconciliation, and apology
  • analyze and discuss examples of forgiveness, reconciliation, and apology as public and political practices
  • engage in the scholarly discussion regarding what place, if any, these themes have (or should have) in politics
  • provide a broad historical outline of the development of the public and academic interest in these themes



The participants will develop their abilities to analyze and assess complex theories – arguments as well as their applicability – and to engage in scholarly debate. This learning outcome is reflected in the type of assessment: a free writing assignment. By the same token, writing a free assignment provides a good training in the general academic competences needed for the dissertation: consisting of the same generic elements (such as identifying a gap in the literature and formulating a research question), the free assignment has the same structure as a dissertation.


The reading will consist of (exreacts from) the following books and articles:

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1958] 1999.

———. “German Guilt.” Jewish Frontier 12, no. 1 (1945): 19–23

Arendt, Hannah, and Karl Jaspers. Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926-1969. Edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.

Brudholm, Thomas. Resentment’s Virtue: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

Blustein, Jeffrey M. Forgiveness and Remembrance: Remembering Wrongdoing in Personal and Public Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Calcagno, Antonio. “Can a Community Forgive? Edith Stein on the Lived Experience of Communal Forgiveness.” In Phenomenology and Forgiveness, edited by Marguerite La Caze, 117–30. London & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Christensen, Julia, and Jens Heinrich. “In Conversation: Shifting Narratives of Colonialism through Reconciliation in Greenland and Canada.” Kult. Postkolonial Temaserie 2016, no. 14 (2016).

Digeser, Peter E. Political Forgiveness. Ithaca (N.Y.); London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Doorn, N., B. van Stokkom, and P. Van Tongeren. “Public Forgiveness: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives.” In Public Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Contexts, edited by N. Doorn, P. van Tongeren, and B. van Stokkom, 1–21. Cambridge: Intersentia, 2012.

Eisikovits, N. “Forget Forgiveness: On the Benefits of Sympathy for Political Reconciliation”, Theoria, 52, no. 1(2004): 31–63.

Govier, Trudy, and Wilhelm Verwoerd. “Trust and the Problem of National Reconciliation,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32, no 2 (2002): 178–205.

Krog, Antjie. “‘This Thing Called Reconciliation’, Forgiveness As Part of an Inter-connectedness-Towards-Wholeness,” South African Journal of Philosophy, 27 no. 4 (2008): 353–366.

Jankélévitch, Vladimir. “Should We Pardon Them?” Translated by Ann Hobart. Critical Inquiry 22, no. 3 ([1965] 1996): 552–72.

Jaspers, Karl. The Question of German Guilt [Die Schuldfrage: zur politischen Haftung Deutschlands]. Translated by E. B Ashton. New York: Fordham University Press, [1946] 2001.

Nussbaum, Martha. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Schaap, Andrew. Political Reconciliation. London: Routledge, 2005.

Szanto, Thomas and Jan Slaby. “Political Emotions.” In The Routledge Handbook of Phenomenology of Emotions., edited by H. Landweer and T. Szanto. London, New York: Routledge, 2020 (forthcoming).

Villadsen, L.S. & J. Edwards. Official Apologies as Political Events: Looking Backward to Move Forward. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020 (forthcoming).

Villadsen, L. S. "'A ‘stain on the […] otherwise good reputation of Denmark': Rhetorical Agency and Rhetorical Citizenship in Fogh Rasmussen’s 2005 official apology." Abstract from Rhetoric, between the Theory and Practice of Politics, Braga, Portugal, 2013.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, 2013, “Is It Possible and Sometimes Desirable for States to Forgive?” Journal of Religious Ethics, 41(3): 417–434.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)

At the beginning of the course, we can discuss what kind of feedback that is most useful for you.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Free assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • English
  • 28