When Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, addressed the Bundestag on September 27, 1951, he changed the way in which nations are expected to treat victims of human rights atrocities. His proposal for "moral and material amends" to the Jews who survived Nazi persecution meant, for the first time, that perpetrators must acknowledge responsibility to their victims.
Fifty-five years ago, Adenauer acknowledged that "unspeakable crimes were perpetrated in the name of the German people, which impose upon them the obligation to make moral and material amends." Those amends were to the State of Israel and, more important, to individuals who had been persecuted because of race, religion or ideology.
THAT SPEECH - on the eve of Rosh Hashana - led to negotiations that culminated in the 1952 Luxembourg Agreements. These were unprecedented in international relations. Under the pact, West Germany agreed to pay some DM 3 billion to Israel and to enact legislation to provide compensation to Nazi victims. These were not reparations from the vanquished nation to the victorious Allied governments, but payments to a nation that had not existed when the atrocities occurred and compensation directly to victims.
These individual payments, which amounted to more than DM 100 billion by century's end, were not humanitarian gestures, but the self-imposed legal obligation of the West German government and the legal right of scores of thousands of survivors.
THE IDEA did not originate with Adenauer. Jewish organizations in Palestine and the West began formulating the basis for claims against Germany during World War II. The US Military Government in 1949 approved a general claims law, covering the four German states in the postwar American Occupation Zone, for indemnities for Nazi victims.
But Adenauer's speech marked the first time a sovereign nation had acknowledged an obligation to individual victims.
His proposal had its detractors. There were many who believed that compensation was "blood money," that no amount would be sufficient to heal the wounds, and that it allowed perpetrators to cleanse their guilt with a check.
Others, however, insisted that "material amends" were the means by which perpetrators acknowledge responsibility for injustice and the obligation to help their victims recover from what Adenauer called "immeasurable suffering."
WHAT WAS unprecedented in 1951 is no longer exceptional, nor is it confined to Germany.
The US in 1988 agreed to make payments to 60,000 Japanese-Americans who, because of their race, were interned or relocated in the US during World War II. This was both payment and apology.
"No payment can make up for those lost years. So what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor," president Ronald Reagan said when he signed the legislation. "For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."
Some nations still ignore or reject commitments to redress persecution and oppression. Japan, for instance, has yet to address the claims of Korean "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
WHETHER victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses agree on the appropriate means to confront the past varies according to historical circumstances, political conditions and pragmatism.
Adenauer's speech had moral overtones but was tempered by pragmatic considerations. He linked compensation to Nazi victims to West Germany's finances: "â€¦the limits must be considered which are set to the German ability to pay by the bitter necessity of having to provide for the countless war victims and to care for [German] refugees and exiles."
Nonetheless, he established a principle with an enduring legacy. It can be seen in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which calls for the court to establish principles for the compensation, restitution and rehabilitation of victims.
Human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities remain a tragic fact of the modern world and the horrific fate of millions of people. Adenauer's speech provides a powerful model by which nations can rehabilitate both themselves and their victims.
The writer is author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference.