The German President’s Stunning Act of Repentance

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September 8, 2022

4 min read

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In Munich. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke as if he had studied Maimonides’ five steps of teshuvah.

In the Jewish calendar, tis the season to do teshuvah — to repent for past wrongdoings. Rabbis and spiritual mentors are discoursing on the steps of teshuvah outlined by Maimonides, the great 12th century expositor of the concept. But, ironically, it is the President of Germany who this week gave the world a stunning example of repentance.

The weeks leading up to the 50th anniversary of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics were fraught with dissension. The families of the victims announced that they would boycott the commemorative ceremony because the German government had for 50 years lied to them, refused to share the archive of thousands of files and hundreds of forensic pictures that revealed what had happened to their loved ones, and offered a pittance of a financial compensation.

Although it was Arab terrorists who had murdered the athletes, the families of the victims rightly accused the Germans of failure to protect the athletes (even refusing Israeli security offers), the botched rescue operation, and the cold, mendacious way the German government handled the affair afterwards.

Finally, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered to fly to Israel to work out an agreement, and the families agreed to attend the ceremony.

In Munich, amidst the dark grief of commemorating the tragedy, a beacon of light shone forth from an unlikely source. President Steinmeier spoke as if he had studied Maimonides’ five steps of teshuvah.

1. The first step of teshuvah is admitting one’s failure, without rationalizations or excuses.

Here’s how President Steinmeier began his address:

Today’s act of remembrance can only be sincere if we are prepared to recognize painful facts – if we acknowledge that the story of the Olympic attack is also a story of misjudgments and of dreadful, fatal mistakes: of, in fact, failure. We are talking about a great tragedy and a triple failure.

The first failure regards the preparations for the games and the security strategy; the second comprises the events of Sept. 5 and 6, 1972; and the third failure begins the day after the attack: the silence, the denial, the forgetting.”

2. The second step is to regret one’s wrong action.

President Steinmeier acknowledged that it was Germany’s responsibility as the host of the games to protect all the athletes, especially those from Israel. In a poignant admission, tinged with remorse, he confessed:

There were survivors of the Shoah among the athletes and their coaches. Their safety had been entrusted to us. What a great vote of confidence it was to take part, after the crimes against humanity of the Shoah, in Olympic Games hosted by the country of the perpetrators. … We were not prepared for an attack of this kind, and yet we ought to have been; that, too, is part of the bitter truth…. Honored family members, I cannot fathom what suffering, what pain you’ve been through, how can life go on. For five decades, that gnawing pain has been with you.

3. The third step is undertaking to act differently in the future.

After five decades of Germany denying the existence of the archives and evading their obligation to the victims’ families, President Steinmeier announced that the German government would establish an Israeli-German commission of historians to “shed light onto that dark chapter.”

Directly addressing the families, he declared: “You have a right to finally know the truth, to finally receive answers to the questions that have tormented you for decades. And they include the question of why you were left alone with your suffering, your pain, for so long.”

4. The fourth step (if another person has been hurt) is to ask forgiveness.

President Steinmeier did exactly that, declaring: “As the head of state of this country and in the name of the Federal Republic of Germany, I ask your forgiveness for the woefully inadequate protection afforded to the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich and for the woefully inadequate investigation afterwards.”

5. The fifth step (if property is involved) is to make restitution.

The German government, after its long refusal to do so, offered the victims’ families a compensation package of 28 million dollars.

Teshuvah, our sages assert, actually changes the past. The damage remains, but the person who has done genuine teshuvah is no longer the same agent of wrongdoing. By transforming oneself, through admitting, regretting, resolving to act differently in the future, apologizing, and making restitution, the progenitor of the evil has become an agent of light.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier deserves credit for showing us all how to do it.

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