Reconcilable Resentments? Jean Amery’s Critique of Forgiveness in the Aftermath of Atrocity
What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be so easily accepted. I rebel: against my past, against history, and against a present that places the incomprehensible in the cold storage of history and thus falsifies it in a revolting way. Nothing has healed, and what perhaps was already on the point of healing in 1964 is bursting open again as an infected wound. Emotions? For all I care, yes. Where is it decreed that enlightenment must be free of emotion? To me the opposite seems to be true. (Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits)
Taking up Jean Améry’s tormented defense of his right to resent Germany 20 years after his release from Auschwitz, this chapter examines the value of resentment in the aftermath of atrocity. As the epigraph suggests, Améry understands reactive emotions as part of the reconciliation process. My work focuses on a question that has been central to reconciliation efforts since the 1960s: how can the resentments so prevalent in testimonies of survivors contribute to state-authorized reconciliation in a way that is both empowering and politically productive for the survivors? How, in other words, might transitional justice square the reality of resentment with the ideal of reconciliation?
Well-documented criminal trials and reconciliation commissions have produced extensive testimony describing extraordinary crimes against human flourishing. The magnitude of the crimes has provoked growing suspicion that the overarching goal of reconciliation via forgiveness remains at odds with survivors who are not yet ready to move on. My work suggests that with its sights set on reconciliation, transitional justice risks marginalizing the testimonies driven by resentment. Against the tendency to view resentment as an angry fixation on private feelings linked to the past or an excessively hard-hearted refusal to forgive, I argue that resentment can be source of empowerment for survivors only when it is acknowledged and respected by the survivor’s community. The upshot of my work is that respect for persons in the aftermath of atrocity need not demand anything like interpersonal forgiveness from survivors.
To this end, I turn to Jean Améry—a self-described “surviving Resistance fighter, Jew, victim of persecution by a universally hated regime”—and his book of essays that recounts the intellectual’s experience of camp life (1980: 64).1 Améry’s work—which had until recently remained largely unknown to the Anglo-American world—has been revisited through a recent resurgence in discussions of his work and the value of forgiveness and resentment more generally within the context of reconciliation commissions.2 Améry famously defended his resentments during a period of state-sanctioned reconciliation as a “principled revolt” against mandated forgiveness and the social complacency which it seems to bring (1980, xi and 72). In his essay “Resentments,” Améry argues that a moral community, with its sights on forgiveness, remains unperceptive to the inherent vulnerability of the human condition (70, 71).
The political conflict between collective progress and survivors’ struggle with the past is at the heart of Améry’s work. This conflict suggests that the central struggle faced by victims of massive moral injury is between their particular needs for recognition and a societal desire for reconciliation.3 For Améry, the more others forgive, the more he resents. His resentment reacts to a politically sanctioned program of forgiveness guided by commonality.4 Political reconciliation premised on the willingness of survivors to forgive places undo pressure on victims of violence to overcome, repress, or otherwise deny affects that are necessarily part of the recovery process.5 Framed within the conflict between victims unready to forgive, and a society too willing to forget, Améry’s essay offers one of the most compelling and vehement defenses of the right to resent against the political privileging of forgiveness (Améry 1980: 64). The political pressure to forgive itself is immoral for Améry (Améry 1980: 72).
Améry’s Critique of Forgiveness
Améry’s essay is a testimony to the immense sense of betrayal and loneliness survivors experience as a result of political communities rapidly shifting from autocratic rule to democratic governance. During this swift transformation into democracy, many unspeakable wrongs were left unpunished. Within the reconciliatory climate, “Germans,” Hannah Arendt explained, “for such a long time refused to prosecute even the murderers among themselves” (2003: 56). By the late 1950s, Améry had become a minority with his unrelenting resentment against Germany. He held the entire country responsible for Hitler’s 12-year rule (Améry 1980: 67). Developed over time, his resentment resisted forgiving and interrupted forgetting in order to remember moral harm.
Améry’s self-proclaimed “retrospective grudge” and “retroactive rancor” expresses what he calls his moral status as a victim (Améry 1980 63, 81). He preserves this grudge as a testament to the ongoing reality of his victimization, not at the hands of the Gestapo, but presently at the will of a society prepared to reconcile on his behalf. He expresses his resentment in spite of a world “now gushing over reconciliation … and converted to tolerance” (Améry 1980: 67):
Whoever submerges his individuality in society and is able to comprehend himself only as a function of the social, that is, the insensitive and indifferent person, really does forgive. He calmly allows what happened to him to remain what it was. As the popular saying goes, he lets time heal his wounds. His time-sense is not dis-ordered, that is to say, it has not moved out of the biological and social sphere into the moral sphere. (Améry 1980: 71)
Améry seeks to redeem his suffering by looking to the past. But the imagery in Améry’s writing calls to mind Nietzsche’s character of ressentiment who tears open his wound to keep it from healing.6 Améry defines resentment as his “personal protection against the anti-moral natural process of healing that time brings about” (Améry 1980: 77). But what are we to make of the righteous character of resentment? How might it be distinguished from the spirit of revenge? On the one hand, Améry’s resentment seems totally justified given the harm he suffered at the hands of his torturers, and the fact that Germans refused to prosecute known torturers and murderers.7 On the other hand, however, Améry’s resentments demand the impossible: they make what he calls “the genuinely humane and absurd demand that time be turned back” (Améry 1980: 77).8 If we listen carefully to Améry’s definition of resentment, we find that it serves a moral function. In a culture too ready to move on and rebuild, Améry’s resentments linger and press for collective memory.
Margdalena Zolkos describes Améry as being deeply troubled by the “time-engineering” of reconciliation (2007: 29). The pressure to forgive is compelled by an illegitimate privileging of a time-sense that understands psychological and moral healing as analogous to the healing of physical wounds. Early in the essay, Améry admits that his resentment is both unnatural and logically inconsistent, and lists a number of problems that recall Arendt’s concern regarding vengeance in the Human Condition (1958: 236–43). Améry says, “Absurdly, [resentment] demands that the irreversible be turned around, that the event be undone. Resentment blocks the exit to the genuine human condition, the future” (Améry 1980: 68). But Améry’s understanding of what is natural and unnatural is counterintuitive and deserves a closer look. Améry believes that the sense of time that governs the Christian concept of forgiving is analogous to the physiological process of “wound-healing” (Améry 1980: 72). Améry’s resentment is therefore a moral injunction against positivist/reductionist tendency to consider moral healing a matter of healing physical wounds. Aleida Assmann observes that for Améry:
The political rehabilitation of Germany is accompanied by a new sense of time. This sense of time, which Améry calls “natural,” “biological” or “social” time, is oriented towards forgetting. It is the time in which life goes on, wounds are healed and grass eventually covers everything. This shape of time enforces the law of life, not of truth. Its opposite is “moral” time … where there can be no forgiving and forgetting, but only a remorseless return to the crimes and the wish for their public acknowledgement. (2003: 125)
Améry’s moral time remembers and returns to the past as a way to integrate the past while calling into question the social pressure placed on survivors to forgive. When Améry says he wishes to “reverse the irreversible,” he is expressing a wish and a worry: the past must be integrated, and yet this goal is made impossible according to the progressive time-sense of reconciliatory politics.9 Negative affects such as resentment, in other words, do not “fit” within the progressive and normalizing period of reconciliatory politics and transitional justice.10
Although forgiveness was celebrated in the 1980s and 1990s as the cardinal virtue of truth and reconciliation commissions (see Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, for instance), philosophers and legal theorists committed to agonistic pluralism have recently embraced backward-looking emotions as central to meaningful testimony and narration.
Améry explicitly dismisses politics as a hegemonic realm from within which his resentment became coded as objectively intelligible (Améry 1980: 63–4). Despite the oppositional character of Améry’s resentment, one political theorist has suggested that Améry’s defense can be useful even towards reconciliatory goals. Thomas Brudholm situates his interpretation of the political value of Améry’s resentment within the greater context of transitional justice, which he defines as “the kind of justice or, more broadly speaking, the range of societal responses that can be found in phases of political transition from violence and instability to democracy, the rule of law, and reconciliation” (2008: 185n2). In the very definition of transitional justice we find the antagonistic relationship between undemocratic violence and democratic reconciliation. Transitional justice literature exemplifies a widespread privileging of this purported political dichotomy. Brudholm’s work attempts to validate resentment despite its long-standing political opposition to forgiveness.
Brudholm says, “Political leaders, commissioners, and presidents of criminal tribunals often talk of the goal of ‘closure’: the shutting of the door on the past in order to move into a more ‘glorious’ future.” The policies that accompany or reflect reconciliatory politics are therefore directed by particular goals while avoiding what Brudholm calls “emotional remainders.” The entire scholarly field of transitional justice and its conceptual ideals of reconciliation, forgiveness and conflict resolution, Brudholm argues, “is guided by the possibility of restoration of trust and hope in the wake of mass atrocity” (2008: 7). In response to the boosterism of forgiveness within transitional justice literature, Brudholm’s work aims to reorient our thinking towards the negative emotional remainders of mass conflict, particularly resentment. His work, to put it differently, tries to square resentment with reconciliation, and he turns to Améry as a case in point. Brudholm ultimately argues that neglecting the moral significance of survivors’ negative affects post-atrocity is unfair and deeply offensive (2008: 4).
Accordingly, Brudholm is critical of those who assume in advance the priority and virtue of forgiveness.11