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 statement 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’ transitions 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, these transitions 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 issue 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 2019 apology 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 peoples.

The course will also include supervision on assignment writing.


Full-degree students enrolled at the Department of Political Science, UCPH

MSc in Political Science

MSc in Social Science

MSc in Security Risk Management

Ba in politcal science


Full-degree students enrolled at the Faculty of Social Science, UCPH 

Master programme in Global Development

MSc in Social Data Science


Learning outcome



Focusing mainly on forgiveness in contemporary political theory, we will achieve an overview of the major positions and contentious issues in this debate, not least those pertaining to emotional sharing, community, and group identity. Moreover, 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.




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 rough 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.

I usually begin with a brief (20-30 minutes) lecture, followed by conversation and active student participation. In addition, there will be ongoing discussions of assignment writing and a writing workshop.

Amstutz, Mark R. The Healing of Nations: The Promise and Limits of Political Forgiveness. Oxford & New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Andersen, Astrid Nonbo. “The Greenland Reconciliation Commission: Moving Away from a Legal Framework.” The Yearbook of Polar Law Online 11, no. 1 (April 3, 2020): 214–44.

Arendt, Hannah. Responsibility and Judgment. Edited by Kohn Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 2003.

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

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

Brudholm, Thomas. “Revisiting Resentments: Jean Améry and the Dark Side of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” Journal of Human Rights 5, no. 1 (2006): 7–26.

Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.

Dolan, Emma. Gender and Political Apology: When the Patriarchal State Says “Sorry.” New York: Routledge, 2021.

Doorn, Neelke, Bas van Stokkom, and Paul Van Tongeren, eds. Public Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Contexts. Cambridge: Intersentia, 2012.

Griswold, Charles. Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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

MacLachlan, Alice. “Practicing Imperfect Forgiveness.” In Feminist Ethics and Social and Political Philosophy: Theorizing the Non-Ideal, edited by Lisa Tessman, 185–204. Dordrecht: Springer, 2009.

Radzik, Linda, and Colleen Murphy. “Reconciliation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2019. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2019.

Schaap, Andrew. “Guilty Subjects and Political Responsibility: Arendt, Jaspers and the Resonance of the ‘German Question’ in Politics of Reconciliation.” Political Studies 49, no. 4 (2001): 749–66.

Teitel, Ruti G. “Transitional Justice Genealogy.” Harvard Human Rights Journal 16 (2003): 69–94.

Villadsen Lisa S and Edwards Jason A, eds. The Rhetoric of Official Apologies: Critical Essays. Lanham: Lexinton Books, 2021.

Walker, Margaret Urban. “The Lure of Political Forgiveness.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 87, no. 4 (2020): 1059–77.

Wigura, Karolina. “Declarations of Forgiveness and Remorse in European Politics.” The European Legacy 22, no. 1 (2017): 16–30.

Feedback by final exam (In addition to the grade)

Individual supervision on the free assignments and feedback on the submissions.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Type of assessment details
Written free assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Free written assignment

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assessment

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


Course number
7,5 ECTS
Programme level
Full Degree Master

1 semester


Department of Political Science, Study Council
Contracting department
  • Department of Political Science
  • Department of Anthropology
  • Social Data Science
Contracting faculty
  • Faculty of Social Sciences
Course Coordinator
  • Thomas Østergaard Wittendorff   (2-82854e7774813c79833c7279)
Saved on the 16-11-2023

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