Ongoing efforts by China and other countries to shame Japan into historic atonement will never lead to peaceful relations
Diplomats are paid to dream up clever ways of promoting their country’s interests. But occasionally, diplomatic ingenuity can go too far, as a team of Chinese diplomats tasked with planning President Xi Jinping’s forthcoming visit to Germany recently discovered.
Beijing offered to set aside a big chunk of President Xi’s visit to commemorative events praising the way Germany dealt with its historic responsibility for World War II. Chinese officials assumed that this would please their German hosts, for the manner by which Germany routinely expresses remorse for the murderous deeds of its past is rightly and universally admired.
Yet to Beijing’s surprise, the Germans flatly turned down most of these proposals, realising that China’s real aim was not to engage in a search for historic truths but, rather, to make negative comparisons between the German model of contrition and the alleged absence of historic remorse in Japan.
This obscure diplomatic tussle, conducted away from the media’s gaze, will soon be forgotten. But the episode should serve as a warning to Chinese officials that their frequent efforts to corner Japan because of the country’s lack of historic atonement are sometimes misguided.
Those who think that Germany could ever be the ideal place to criticise other countries for failing to live up to their historic responsibility are guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the German experience.
The German experience
Germans see their atonement not as a national, but as a deeply personal one: The TV dramas which attract the biggest audiences in the country are those which show how ordinary, humane and otherwise law-abiding Germans during the 1940s either turned a blind eye to the mass murders committed in their midst or even took part in them.
German politicians continue to use every opportunity to apologise to other nations for what their country did. But the most powerful German apology ever issued to the world was accomplished without actually saying a single word: It came in 1970, when then German Chancellor Willi Brandt fell to his knees before a memorial commemorating the hundreds of thousands of people butchered by the Nazis in Warsaw, the Polish capital.
The act, now remembered as the “Warsaw Genuflection”, could have easily been dismissed as just cheap propaganda, a meaningless photo opportunity. But millions of Europeans were moved to tears by the gesture, precisely because they instinctively understood that it was the product of Germany’s internal moral cleansing.
Because they view their experience as unique and because they engage in acts of historic atonement not to please outsiders but to deal with their own personal sense of guilt, the Germans have never regarded their model as exportable. Therefore, the suggestion that Germany should now teach Japan a lesson in historic contrition is seen as both irrelevant and tasteless, akin to asking someone who has succeeded in coming to terms with his own emotional and psychological traumas to go out and preach to other people who may be afflicted.
The sooner China and other Asian countries stop browbeating Japan with the German model, the better everyone would be: The German example remains theoretically relevant, but is of no practical application to Japan and its neighbours.
Still, there are other aspects of Germany’s historic atonement which are worth copying if a historic reconciliation between Japan and past victims is ever to become a reality. The first is the principle that achieving such a historic “closure” requires a concentration on the key bones of historic contention, rather than on every little dispute from a controversial past.
In the case of Europe, Germany’s neighbours gave up any demands for reparations at the end of World War II; money was paid to individual victims, but not states.
Nobody told the new German government how to behave. And, although some European governments gulped, nobody complained when the Germans kept the same tune for their national anthem as during Hitler’s days, and reinstated more or less the same historic insignia for the German military, complete with midnight torchlight ceremonies which many of Germany’s neighbours used to regard as sinister.
Every single one of these episodes could have resulted in a European outcry similar to that over Japan’s Yasukuni shrine but they did not, because European governments understood that the Germans needed to concentrate on dealing with only the biggest and most evocative of their past crimes – the Holocaust.
In the case of Japan, however, almost every single historic dispute is now put forward as equal in importance, requiring an urgent response from Tokyo. The Japanese are expected, among others, to offer apologies for the occupation of Korea and contrition for the invasion of China.
They are also asked to atone for the Nanjing Massacre and accept the tally of the victims butchered there, as well as address the question of Korea’s so-called comfort women, compensation for forced labourers, a variety of territorial disputes plus issues such as the question of names given to seas around Japan. Even a politically brave and well-meaning future Japanese prime minister would not know where to begin if he wanted to deal with this tangled web of historic demands.
Every nation has a role
Another lesson from Germany worth remembering is that reconciliation works best when it engages everyone. Although Nazi Germany conceived and unleashed the Holocaust, many European governments now admit that, through omission or commission, they also bear some responsibility for mass murder. Historians in France and Britain are also debating whether the indiscriminate carpet-bombing of German cities during the war was a crime which requires a profound apology.
All of this has allowed Germany to cope with its horrible past in an easier manner: The burden placed by the heavy hand of history was at least partially shared with its neighbours.
And the same could happen with Japan as well. If the Chinese government was prepared to address the painful history of the millions of Chinese who perished in political purges and famines over the past six decades, as well as of the hundreds of thousands who may have died unnecessarily during World War II due to poor and politically divided Chinese military leadership, Beijing would have a far more powerful case against Japan.
The same applies to South Korea: If President Park Geun-hye was prepared to show even a fraction of the zeal she puts into demanding apologies from Tokyo towards an examination of how many people died during her father’s iron rule, her stance on Japan would be even more compelling. The message from Europe is that it’s possible to shame nations into coming to terms with their past. And the best way of doing so is by example: Those with a clean conscience have every right to demand nothing less from others.
But the most important lesson from the experience of Germany’s example is that, in return for contrition, Germany was offered security, prosperity and full membership in the European community of nations. Germany now leads Europe in every respect and, although many of its neighbours are not particularly fond of this outcome, they accept that it is the result of German hard work and success, rather than some malevolent plot to take over the continent. The reconciliation is therefore complete.
But what is Japan being offered now in return for its atonement? If a Japanese prime minister were to set fire to the Yasukuni shrine, go to Nanjing to fall on his knees in contrition for the crimes perpetrated against China and then fly to Seoul to embrace the few Korean wartime sex slaves still alive, would this be the end of the story? Would Japan become a friend of South Korea and China? Would the territorial disputes be over? The answers are far too obvious to need spelling out. Historic truths cannot be traded, but they are easier to face if politicians see an advantage. Yet in the case of Japan, no such compensations are in the offing.
None of these considerations absolves Japan of its historic responsibilities. But they should serve as a reminder that, just as in the case of Germany, atonement is an exercise best performed in a group, by people and nations which truly share a commitment to exorcise their troubled past in search of a better future.
Sadly, that’s not the case in today’s Asia.