10 Public Apologies by World Famous Leaders That Will Surprise You

From the horrors of the World Wars, to religious and racial prosecution, leaders have often made public apologies to make amends for the irreparable past.

Jun 28, 2021By Lesley Simeon, MA International Studies w/ Journalism
public apologies by famous Leaders mandella galileo srebrenica


Apologies go a long way. By acknowledging the wrong, you give validity to an individual’s pain or an entire population’s tragedy. On the global stage, heads of state and religious institutions like the Catholic Church have often made public apologies. Sometimes, it seemed like giving in to an ever-increasing global debate urging for an acknowledgment of the past, and sometimes it seemed like a spur-of-the-moment gesture. Here’s a selection of ten public apologies that give a sense of how poignant and necessary public apologies can be.


10. Public Apology from German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw

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Willy Brandt taking to his knees at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, 1970, via Willy Brandt Stiftung


A little more than 75 years and the horrors of the Second World War seem incessant in memory. Naturally then, back in 1970 with just 25 years gone by, distrust might’ve been all the more vehement and the tragedies, all the more repulsive. The severity of unresolved post-conflict fissures didn’t help the fact that the German Chancellor of the day Willy Brandt was scheduled to visit the Polish capital of Warsaw to sign the Treaty of Warsaw in order to formally recognize the border between Poland and East Germany.


Not that Brandt carried the guilt or the need to make amends for any of what Nazi Germany did during the War. Many barbaric actions taken by the Nazis took place in Poland. Until 2018, the Poles criminalized any action that sought to assign the role of co-conspirators during the Nazi occupation of Poland.


But as a staunch opponent of the Nazis, the gravity of the post-war situation probably didn’t escape Brandt. Walking up to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, a funeral wreath, adorned with white carnations and a ribbon in colors of the German flag was placed there. Brandt, in his formal attire, but an expression that seems to give away more than just diplomatic resolve, adjusted the ribbon on the wreath, took a moment to himself, and promptly got on both his knees. The space around him was filled with exciting shutters, silent gasps, and stunned onlookers. The Kniefall von Warschau proved significant beyond Warsaw and beyond inter-state diplomacy. This gesture probably helped his achievements as West Germany’s Chancellor which led him to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.


9. French Railway Company’s Public Apology for Nazi-era Deportations

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Death Gate at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, via Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau

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While Brandt’s gesture did seem monumental, other similar apologies were extended by the French SNCF (French National Railway Company). Back in 2010, the company apologized for its role in deportations of nearly 76,000 Jews during World War 2. Similarly, in 2016, a 94-year old Reinhold Hanning, who served as a guard at the Auschwitz death camp from 1942 to 1944, expressed remorse and guilt for his inaction, in spite of knowing that “people were shot, gassed and burned.”


8. Belgium publicly apologizes for colonial-era horrors in Africa 

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King Leopold II statue defaced by graffiti, 2020, via Fondation Carmignac


In April of 2019, Belgium apologized for kidnapping children from African colonies. The Prime Minister of the European country acknowledged the country’s colonial past. In the past, Belgium colonized Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. During this time, children who were born in these countries were forcibly taken to Belgium. Around 20,000 kids were kidnapped and then fostered by religious Catholic orders. Not only did many of them live without the Belgian citizenship, but most of them were also unable to trace their biological mothers and had no access to their birth records.


The apology had come close on the heels of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. This urged the Belgian government to apologize for the horrors of Belgium’s erstwhile colonial rule over its colonies. The Belgian Catholic Church also publicly apologized for its role in the scandal in 2017.


7. Catholic Church apologizes to the Jewish Community

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The Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-christian religions Nostra Aetate proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 1965, via the Vatican website


Speaking of the Catholic Church, an interesting document came from the office of the Vatican. The document is called Nostra Aetate (or Declaration on the Relation of the Church With Non-Christian Religions) and the following lines made it significant :


“What happened in His (Christ’s) passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures”


This statement came against the backdrop of a centuries-long held belief that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. Back in 1965, around 20 years after the horrors of World War II happened, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) and his role as the leader of a neutral Vatican were repeatedly questioned. Did he ever do enough for the Jewish people and was a public condemnation of the genocide sufficient?


6. Canada’s Public Apology to Indigenous Inuit People 

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Four boys (Baffinland Inuit), c. 1950, via National Museum of the American Indian, Washington


History shows that the ingenious populations of the world were often unfairly and brutally treated. For example, the culturally similar indigenous ‘Inuit’ people inhabit the Arctic regions of Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. The majority of this population is spread across the Inuit homeland, Inuit Nunangat, that takes up almost 35 percent of Canada’s land and 50 percent of its coastline.


While the population has achieved a decent amount of formal community representation nowadays, their past isn’t without its problems. Back in 1953 and 1955, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police relocated close to 92 Inuit people from Inukjuak and Mittimatalik to the High Arctic Islands. While the population was promised better living conditions, the Inuits faced the opposite. The relocation is considered a dark chapter in Canadian history.


One of the reported atrocities committed by the Government of Canada against the Inuit population was the killing of their sled dogs. This was done in order to restrict all kinds of movement of the forcefully relocated population. In August 2019, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations of the Canadian cabinet extended a public apology – not just for the particular forceful resettlement episode, but also for the killing of the sled dogs.


5. Mandela Acknowledges Instances of Torture in African National Congress prisons

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Portrait of Nelson Mandela by Paul Davis, 1990, via National Portrait Gallery, Washington


The African National Congress has a legacy that’s fraught with problematic things. Back in 1992, the former President of the ANC Nelson Mandela released a report that sought to acknowledge a dark aspect of the political party’s history. Particularly its military wing – Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). The report cited details of torture and inhumane prison conditions in the ANC prison camp at Quatro, Angola, during the 1980s.


People were tortured by slamming their heads against trees, they were denied adequate food and water for long periods, and they were made to crawl through colonies of biting red ants after being lathered in pork grease. These horrible acts were in fact committed by the ANC against black prisoners. Most of them were reportedly thought to have been the informers of the white-minority government, against whom the ANC had waged a 30-year-old guerilla war. Mandela had, while accepting complete responsibility on ANC’s behalf for not adequately monitoring and eradicating such abuses, kept up with the high moral standard set by their liberation struggle. He tried to place the excesses in the context of the time they had occurred. While the ANC back then had praised this self-critical report, it placed a cloud of doubt over the party’s past and future as well.


4. Serbia Announces a Donation Towards Economic Development in Srebrenica

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A woman prays during the mass funeral in Srebrenica, via Balkan Insight


After World War 2, the Balkan states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia were forged into a unified entity: Yugoslavia. The communist country was held together by the hand of its leader, Josip Broz Tito. However, some ethnic and religious differences never really settled down. Cracks began showing with the collapse of communism, the death of Tito, and the emergence of a nationalist leader called Slobodan Milosevic.


The unresolved separatist tendencies, coupled with extremist tendencies of the leaders, led to a full-blown War – the Bosnian war, between the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. The entire War was marked by ethnic cleansing. On July 11, 1995, Serbian forces took complete control over the city of Srebrenica. The fact that the UN had placed a peacekeeping force of Dutch soldiers, declaring the city as a safe place was of no help. This represents a black mark in the history of peacekeeping operations. After entering the city, the Serbian forces reportedly took the women away in buses, before killing the men.


Other survivor accounts of the ghastly event note that women and girls were raped. Bosnian Muslims were made to dig up their own graves before being shot to death. While the War came to an end at the end of 1995, the Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic made a public apology “for the crimes committed by any individual in the name of our state and our people” in 2013. Later in 2015, the Serbian Prime Minister announced a donation of $5.4 million towards economic development in Srebrenica. July last year marked 25 years since the gory Srebrenica genocide.


3. Governor of Missouri Apologizes for Acts of Persecution Against Mormons

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Portrait of Joseph Smith by an unknown artist, via churchofjesuschrist.org


Years ago American religious leader Joseph Smith founded Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint Movement, triggered by what he claimed to be an intervention by an angel. Little did he know followers of his movement would be subject to harassment. After a clash between the Mormons and the Missouri State Militia during the 1838 Mormon War, the then Governor of Missouri issued an executive order declaring the Mormons enemies. The order reportedly resulted in harassment, expulsion, rape, and other atrocities. Years later, in 1976, the Governor of Missouri offered an apology for the act. In 2004, the Illinois House passed a resolution asking for forgiveness from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The resolution was later changed to only express regret and not seek forgiveness.


2. Florence City Council Apologizes for Exterminating Dante 

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Dante holding the Divine Comedy by Domenico di Michelino, 1465, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, via Web Gallery of Art


Dante and Galileo are two amongst many thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and artists whose ideas and discoveries were declared blasphemous and outright unacceptable. It is a known fact that Dante didn’t have the best opinion of Italian cities and their rulers. His Divine Comedy was everything but meek and subtle in its commentary on political and religious affairs.


Perhaps it was Dante’s outspoken spirit that got him into trouble. His enviable rise to power was followed by a rise in the number of his enemies. These enemies eventually charged Dante with political corruption. Dante was banned from entering his birth town of Florence. Centuries after Dante fled Florence in 1302, the city’s officials expressed regret in 2008. In 2016, the hometown of the magistrate who signed the order that sentenced the Italian poet to be burned at stake publicly apologized too.


1. Pope John Paul II Accepts Galileo Was Right 

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Galileo before the Holy Office by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 1847, via University of Melbourne 


As for Galileo, his ideas seemed problematic to the Catholic Church. He should’ve learnt better from what his predecessors, like Copernicus, had to face because of their discoveries. One must note that Pope Urban was also under tremendous pressure to give befitting answers to political undercurrents of the times. The Council of Trent was concluded just before Galileo’s birth but the Papal authority that it sought to reaffirm was a process that lasted much longer. The Thirty Years War had entered a critical phase right around the Galileo trial in 1632. There was a need for Pope Urban to tend to conservative voices and prove that he perhaps wasn’t all that radical.


Within this context, Galileo’s affirmation and publications supporting the notion that the Earth in fact wasn’t at the center of the Universe, was against what the Bible might suggest. His opinions were also not in tune with Aristotelianism, which influenced the theology of the time.


The Inquisition, therefore, not only restricted Galileo from publishing his works that may support ideas blasphemous to the Church, but also had him imprisoned. The order was later changed to house arrest. In 1992, 359 years after the infamous Inquisition that made Galileo take back his views, Pope John Paul II declared that Galileo wasn’t wrong.


Humankind and Public Apologies 

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I’m Sorry by Roy Lichtenstein, 1965, via The Broad, Los Angeles


The world today bears witness to numerous attempts to right historical wrongs. One of the ways to do that is by getting the perpetrators, literal or symbolic, to acknowledge the past. Some have borne results as we can see, while some voices are yet to find the reassuring ground. Nonetheless, in the face of emerging challenges for humankind, no resolution for conflicts that are raging for generations begins without facing the beasts. A public apology seems like a good start towards a better future.

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By Lesley SimeonMA International Studies w/ JournalismLesley is a Bangalore-based contributing writer, with an MA in International Studies and an undergraduate degree in Journalism. He holds firm interests in world history, culture, politics, global conflict and human rights, film and theatre, and aspires to pursue a career in conflict-zone correspondence. When not writing feature pieces, he unwinds by cooking or baking, and writing poetry.