Ian Buruma: Wages of Guilt

Since moving to Japan, I got more and more interested in history, especially the recent history of the 20th century. The book I just finished, Ian Buruma (Wiki, home page) Wages of Guilt – Memories of War in Germany and Japan (Independent, NYRB), has been a revelation for me. As an Austrian living in Japan, I am experiencing the discrepancy between these two countries with respect to their treatment of war legacy practically daily, and many of my blog entries revolve around the topic of Japanese non-reconciliation.

Willy Brandt went down on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto, after a functioning democracy had been established in the Federal Republic of Germany, not before. But Japan, shielded from the evil world, has grown into an Oskar Matzerath: opportunistic, stunted, and haunted by demons, which it tries to ignore by burying them in the sand, like Oskar’s drum.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Clearing Up the Ruins

Buruma-Wages_of_Guilt

The comparison of Germany and Japan with respect to their recent history as laid out in Buruma’s book throws a spotlight on various aspects of the psychology of German and Japanese population, while at the same time not falling into the easy trap of explaining everything with difference in the guilt culture. A book of great depth and broad insights everyone having even the slightest interest in these topics should read.

This difference between (West) German and Japanese textbooks is not just a matter of detail; it shows a gap in perception.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Romance of the Ruins

Only thinking about giving a halfway full account of this book is something impossible for me. The sheer amount of information, both on the German and Japanese side, is impressive. His incredible background (studies of Chinese literature and Japanese movie!) and long years as journalist, editor, etc, enriches the book with facets normally not available: In particular his knowledge of both the German and Japanese movie history, and the reflection of history in movies, were complete new aspects for me (see my recent post (in Japanese)).

The book is comprised of four parts: The first with the chapters War Against the West and Romance of the Ruins; the second with the chapters Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Nanking; the third with History on Trial, Textbook Resistance, and Memorials, Museums, and Monuments; and the last part with A Normal Country, Two Normal Towns, and Clearing Up the Ruins. Let us look at the chapters in turn:

  • War Against the West
    This chapter sets the stage in two parts, Bonn and Tokyo, by comparing the reaction in these countries to the Iraq war. The German “Betroffenheit” (To be betroffen implies a sense of guilt, a sense of shame, or even embarrassment.) as the core of German post-war politics, literature, and media is introduced. On the Japanese side the difficult and diverse situation and attitudes towards the Iraq (and other) wars, as well as the necessary bits of post-war history and development of the Japanese constitution.

    What is so convenient in the cases of Germany and Japan is that pacifism happens to be a high-minded way to dull the pain of historical guilt. Or, conversely, if one wallows in it, pacifism turns national guilt into a virtue, almost a mark of superiority, when compared to the complacency of other nations.

  • Romance of the Ruins
    This chapter focuses on the war and immediate post-war period with references to the specific literature and movies emerging out of the circumstances of destroyed countries who have lost the war.

    Hitler’s doom and the emperor’s speech, the end of one symbol and the odd continuity of another. Whatever their symbolic differences, both would be associated forever with ruins—ruined cities, ruined people, ruined ideals.

  • Auschwitz
    The psychological construction of war memorials in both Germanies, which focuses on the religious aspects, is discussed, followed by an excursion through post-war German literature and the long-term ignorance of anything related to the Holocaust.

    Here the past had fossilized into something monumental or, as Adorno would have put it, museal.

  • Hiroshima

    Paralleling the previous chapter, Hiroshima introduces the simplistic and reduced focus of the Hiroshima memorials, mostly ignoring the foreign victims, many of them being Koreans forced to work in Japan, and concentrating on the Japanese martyrdom. Focusing on the atomic bomb event everything else is removed from the field of view.

    The problem with this quasi-religious view of history is that it makes it hard to discuss past events in anything but nonsecular terms. Visions of absolute evil are unique, and they are beyond human explanation or even comprehension. To explain is hubristic and amoral. If this is true of Auschwitz, it is even more true of Hiroshima. The irony is that while there can be no justification for Auschwitz unless one believes in Hitler’s murderous ideology, the case for Hiroshima is at least open to debate. The A-bomb might have saved lives; it might have shortened the war. But such arguments are incompatible with the Hiroshima spirit.

  • Nanking
    The history and aftermath, as well as the attempts of rejection and refutation of the Nanking massacre are described. The Tokyo Trials and their critique by governmental scholars are touched, as well as bit of fresh air blowing through the Japanese society after the death of Hirohito, which lead to the publication of the records of Nanking by Azuma Shiro 東 史郎.

    Yet the question remains whether the raping and killing of thousands of women, and the massacre of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of other unarmed people, in the course of six weeks, can still be called extreme conduct in the heat of battle. The question is pertinent, particularly when such extreme violence is justified by an ideology which teaches the aggressors that killing an inferior race is in accordance with the will of their divine emperor.

  • History on Trial
    One of the central chapters in my opinion. It discusses and compares the two post-war trials: The Nurnberg trials in Germany and the Tokyo trials in Japan. In both cases the juridical value is questioned, focusing on the winner-looser situation of post-war times.

    The Nuremberg trials were to be a history lesson, then, as well as a symbolic punishment of the German people—a moral history lesson cloaked in all the ceremonial trappings of due legal process. They were the closest that man, or at least the men belonging to the victorious powers, could come to dispensing divine justice.

    Also, the differences in war trials in East and West Germany is compared. The East Germany Waldheimer trials, as well as the thorough purge of Nazis from East German jurisdiction and politics, which was in stark contrast to both West German’s very restricted trials, as well as Japan’s absolute non-purge of criminals.

    As long as the emperor lived, Japanese would have trouble being honest about the past. For he had been formally responsible for everything, and by holding him responsible for nothing, everybody was absolved, except, of course, for a number of military and civilian scapegoats, Officers and Outlaws, who fell “victim to victors’ justice.

  • Textbook Resistance

    This chapter compares the representation of war and post-war times in the textbooks in West and East Germany and Japan. The interesting case of Ienaga Saburo 家永 三郎 and the year-long trials (1965-1993) around his history textbook are recounted. The ministry of education had forced a redaction of his history textbook to conform with the revisionist view onto history, deleting most passages that are critical of the Japanese position during the first half of the 20th century. This was one of the very few cases in Japanese post-war history where someone stood up against this revisionist view.

    The judges and some of the counsel for the ministry sat back with their eyes closed, in deep concentration, or fast asleep. Perhaps they were bored, because they had heard it all before. Perhaps they thought it was a pointless exercise, since they knew already how the case would end. But it was not a pointless exercise. For Ienaga Saburo had kept alive a vital debate for twenty-seven years. One cussed schoolteacher and several hundred supporters at the courthouse might not seem much, but it was enough to show that, this time, someone was fighting back.

  • Memorials, Museums, and Monuments
    This chapter returns to war memorials: The change of meaning from post WW-1, which were memorials, to post WW-2 ones which became warning monuments, indicating the shift of attention and evaluation of war history in Germany. In contrast to this, Japan’s quasi non-existence of war museums till the late 90ies, as well as the existence of the Yasukuni shrine honoring and celebrating besides other several A-class war criminals as deities.

    The tragedy is not just that the suicide pilots died young. Soldiers (and civilians) do that in wars everywhere. What is so awful about the memory of their deaths is the cloying sentimentality that was meant to justify their self-immolation. There is no reason to suppose they didn’t believe in the patriotic gush about cherry blossoms and sacrifice, no matter how conventional it was at the time. Which was exactly the point: they were made to rejoice in their own death. It was the exploitation of their youthful idealism that made it such a wicked enterprise. And this point is still completely missed at the Peace Museum today.

  • A Normal Country

    This chapter discusses the slow normalization of post-war situation after the 90ies, and all the hurdles that needed to be overcome: In the case of Germany the speech of Philipp Jenninger, then president of the Bundestag, is recounted. 50 years after the Kristallnacht he tried to give a speech of “historicization”, only to be find himself shunned and expelled due to the lack of Betroffenheit.

    It was not an ignoble enterprise, but he should have recognized that Historisierung, even forty-three years after the war, was still a highly risky business. For a “normal” society, a society not haunted by ghosts, cannot be achieved by “normalizing” history, or by waving cross and garlic. More the other way around: when society has become sufficiently open and free to look back, from the point of view neither of the victim nor of the criminal, but of the critic, only then will the ghosts be laid to rest.

    On the Japanese side the case of Motoshima Hitoshi 本島 等, who dared to question Hirohito:

    Forty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and I think we have had enough chance to reflect on the nature of that war. From reading various accounts from abroad and having been a soldier myself, involved in military education, I do believe that the emperor bore responsibility for the war.

    which led to hitherto unseen of demonstration of extreme-right-wing groups issuing death treats that lead to a failed assassination of Motoshima, all under the completely complacent Japanese police and politics letting the right-wingers play their game.

    By breaking a Japanese taboo, Motoshima struck a blow for a more open, more normal political society, and very nearly lost his life. Jenninger, I like to think, wanted to strike a blow for the same, but failed, and lost his job. Perhaps he wasn’t up to the task. Or perhaps even West Germany was not yet normal enough to hear his message.

  • Two Normal Towns

    This chapter focuses on two rare cases of civil courage and political commitment: Anja Rosmus, who stepped forth as school child to rewrite the history of Passau. She unveiled the truth about deep involvement into the NS crimes of many inhabitants of Passau, a fact that was up to then covered up and purged from knowledge. She, too, received many death threads, including nailing a killed cat onto her door. The response of the head of the tourist office in Passau, Gottfried Dominik, speaks about the very peculiar attitude:

    I asked him again about the local camp and the small hidden memorial. Dominik showed signs of distress. “It was difficult,” he admitted, “very difficult. I know what you mean. But let me give you my personal opinion. When you have a crippled arm, you don’t really want to show it around. It was a low point in our history, back then. But it was only twelve years in thousands of years of history. And so people tend to hide it, just as a person with a crippled arm is not likely to wear a short-sleeved shirt.”

    A similar incident is recounted on the Japanese side, the Hanaoka incident (detailed article) and its unveiling by Nozoe Kenji, where 800 Chinese slave workers, after escaping from a forced-work camp for the Kajima Corporation, where rabbit-hunted down and slaughtered. He, too, got death threats, and was virtually expelled from his home area because he dared to publish his findings.

    I think it is this basic distrust, this refusal to be told what to think by authorities, this cussed insistence on asking questions, on hearing the truth, that binds together Nozoe, Rosmus, and others like them. There are not many such people in Japan, or anywhere else for that matter. And I suspect they are not much liked wherever they live.

  • Clearing Up the Ruins

    The last chapter tries to round up all the previous chapters, and look into the most recent history and near future. While not completely pessimistic with respect to Japan, the final chapter leaves clear statements on the current state of Japanese society and politics:

    The state was run by virtually the same bureaucracy that ran the Japanese empire, and the electoral system was rigged to help the same corrupt conservative party to stay in power for almost forty years. This arrangement suited the United States, as well as Japanese bureaucrats, LDP politicians, and the large industrial combines, for it ensured that Japan remained a rich and stable ally against Communism. But it also helped to stifle public debate and stopped the Japanese from growing up politically.

    His description of current Japanese society, written in 1995, is still hauntingly true in 2016:

    There is something intensely irritating about the infantilism of postwar Japanese culture: the ubiquitous chirping voices of women pretending to be girls; the Disneylandish architecture of Japanese main streets, where everything is reduced to a sugary cuteness; the screeching “television talents” rolling about and carrying on like kindergarten clowns; the armies of blue-suited salarymen straphanging on the subway trains, reading boys’ comics, the maudlin love for old school songs and cuddly mama-sans.

The boook somehow left me with a bleak impression of Japanese post-war times as well as Japanese future. Having read other books about the political ignorance in Japan (Norma Field’s In the realm of a dying emperor, or the Chibana history), Buruma’s characterization of Japanese politics is striking. He couldn’t foresee the recent changes in legislation pushed through by the Abe government actually breaking the constitution, or the rewriting of history currently going on with respect to comfort women and Nanking. But reading his statement about Article Nine of the constitution and looking at the changes in political attitude, I am scared about where Japan is heading to:

The Nanking Massacre, for leftists and many liberals too, is the main symbol of Japanese militarism, supported by the imperial (and imperialist) cult. Which is why it is a keystone of postwar pacifism. Article Nine of the constitution is necessary to avoid another Nanking Massacre. The nationalist right takes the opposite view. To restore the true identity of Japan, the emperor must be reinstated as a religious head of state, and Article Nine must be revised to make Japan a legitimate military power again. For this reason, the Nanking Massacre, or any other example of extreme Japanese aggression, has to be ignored, softened, or denied.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Nanking

While there are signs of resistance in the streets of Japan (Okinawa and the Hanako bay, the demonstrations against secrecy law and reversion of the constitution), we are still to see a change influenced by the people in a country ruled and distributed by oligarchs. I don’t think there will be another Nanking Massacre in the near future, but Buruma’s books shows that we are heading back to a nationalistic regime similar to pre-war times, just covered with a democratic veil to distract critics.


I close with several other quotes from the book that caught my attention:

In the preface and introduction:

[…] mainstream conservatives made a deliberate attempt to distract people’s attention from war and politics by concentrating on economic growth.

The curious thing was that much of what attracted Japanese to Germany before the war—Prussian authoritarianism, romantic nationalism, pseudo-scientific racialism—had lingered in Japan while becoming distinctly unfashionable in Germany.

In Romance of the Ruins:

The point of all this is that Ikeda’s promise of riches was the final stage of what came to be known as the “reverse course,” the turn away from a leftist, pacifist, neutral Japan—a Japan that would never again be involved in any wars, that would resist any form of imperialism, that had, in short, turned its back for good on its bloody past. The Double Your Incomes policy was a deliberate ploy to draw public attention away from constitutional issues.

In Hiroshima:

The citizens of Hiroshima were indeed victims, primarily of their own military rulers. But when a local group of peace activists petitioned the city of Hiroshima in 1987 to incorporate the history of Japanese aggression into the Peace Memorial Museum, the request was turned down. The petition for an “Aggressors’ Corner” was prompted by junior high school students from Osaka, who had embarrassed Peace Museum officials by asking for an explanation about Japanese responsibility for the war.

The history of the war, or indeed any history, is indeed not what the Hiroshima spirit is about. This is why Auschwitz is the only comparison that is officially condoned. Anything else is too controversial, too much part of the “flow of history”.

In Nanking, by the governmental pseudo-historian Tanaka:

“Unlike in Europe or China,” writes Tanaka, “you won’t find one instance of planned, systematic murder in the entire history of Japan.” This is because the Japanese have “a different sense of values” from the Chinese or the Westerners.”

In History on Trial:

In 1950, Becker wrote that “few things have done more to hinder true historical self-knowledge in Germany than the war crimes trials.” He stuck to this belief. Becker must be taken seriously, for he is not a right-wing apologist for the Nazi past, but an eminent liberal.

There never were any Japanese war crimes trials, nor is there a Japanese Ludwigsburg. This is partly because there was no exact equivalent of the Holocaust. Even though the behavior of Japanese troops was often barbarous, and the psychological consequences of State Shinto and emperor worship were frequently as hysterical as Nazism, Japanese atrocities were part of a military campaign, not a planned genocide of a people that included the country’s own citizens. And besides, those aspects of the war that were most revolting and furthest removed from actual combat, such as the medical experiments on human guinea pigs (known as “logs”) carried out by Unit 731 in Manchuria, were passed over during the Tokyo trial. The knowledge compiled by the doctors of Unit 731—of freezing experiments, injection of deadly diseases, vivisections, among other things—was considered so valuable by the Americans in 1945 that the doctors responsible were allowed to go free in exchange for their data.

Some Japanese have suggested that they should have conducted their own war crimes trials. The historian Hata Ikuhiko thought the Japanese leaders should have been tried according to existing Japanese laws, either in military or in civil courts. The Japanese judges, he believed, might well have been more severe than the Allied tribunal in Tokyo. And the consequences would have been healthier. If found guilty, the spirits of the defendants would not have ended up being enshrined at Yasukuni. The Tokyo trial, he said, “purified the ‘crimes’ of the accused and turned them into martyrs. If they had been tried in domestic courts, there is a good chance the real criminals would have been flushed out.”

After it was over, the Nippon Times pointed out the flaws of the trial, but added that “the Japanese people must ponder over why it is that there has been such a discrepancy between what they thought and what the rest of the world accepted almost as common knowledge. This is at the root of the tragedy which Japan brought upon herself.

Emperor Hirohito was not Hitler; Hitler was no mere Shrine. But the lethal consequences of the emperor-worshipping system of irresponsibilities did emerge during the Tokyo trial. The savagery of Japanese troops was legitimized, if not driven, by an ideology that did not include a Final Solution but was as racialist as Hider’s National Socialism. The Japanese were the Asian Herrenvolk, descended from the gods.

Emperor Hirohito, the shadowy figure who changed after the war from navy uniforms to gray suits, was not personally comparable to Hitler, but his psychological role was remarkably similar.

In fact, MacArthur behaved like a traditional Japanese strongman (and was admired for doing so by many Japanese), using the imperial symbol to enhance his own power. As a result, he hurt the chances of a working Japanese democracy and seriously distorted history. For to keep the emperor in place (he could at least have been made to resign), Hirohito’s past had to be freed from any blemish; the symbol had to be, so to speak, cleansed from what had been done in its name.

In Memorials, Museums, and Monuments:

If one disregards, for a moment, the differences in style between Shinto and Christianity, the Yasukuni Shrine, with its “relics,” its “sacred ground,” its bronze paeans to noble sacrifice, is not so very different from many European memorials after World War I. By and large, World War II memorials in Europe and the United States (though not the Soviet Union) no longer glorify the sacrifice of the fallen soldier. The sacrificial cult and the romantic elevation of war to a higher spiritual plane no longer seemed appropriate after Auschwitz. The Christian knight, bearing the cross of king and country, was not resurrected. But in Japan, where the war was still truly a war (not a Holocaust), and the symbolism still redolent of religious exultation, such shrines as Yasukuni still carry the torch of nineteenth-century nationalism. Hence the image of the nation owing its restoration to the sacrifice of fallen soldiers.

In A Normal Country:

The mayor received a letter from a Shinto priest in which the priest pointed out that it was “un-Japanese” to demand any more moral responsibility from the emperor than he had already taken. Had the emperor not demonstrated his deep sorrow every year, on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender? Besides, he wrote, it was wrong to have spoken about the emperor in such a manner, even as the entire nation was deeply worried about his health. Then he came to the main point: “It is a common error among Christians and people with Western inclinations, including so-called intellectuals, to fail to grasp that Western societies and Japanese society are based on fundamentally different religious concepts . . . Forgetting this premise, they attempt to place a Western structure on a Japanese foundation. I think this kind of mistake explains the demand for the emperor to bear full responsibility.”

In Two Normal Towns:

The bust of the man caught my attention, but not because it was in any way unusual; such busts of prominent local figures can be seen everywhere in Japan. This one, however, was particularly grandiose. Smiling across the yard, with a look of deep satisfaction over his many achievements, was Hatazawa Kyoichi. His various functions and titles were inscribed below his bust. He had been an important provincial bureaucrat, a pillar of the sumo wrestling establishment, a member of various Olympic committees, and the recipient of some of the highest honors in Japan. The song engraved on the smooth stone was composed in praise of his rich life. There was just one small gap in Hatazawa’s life story as related on his monument: the years from 1941 to 1945 were missing. Yet he had not been idle then, for he was the man in charge of labor at the Hanaoka mines.

In Clearing Up the Ruins:

But the question in American minds was understandable: could one trust a nation whose official spokesmen still refused to admit that their country had been responsible for starting a war? In these Japanese evasions there was something of the petulant child, stamping its foot, shouting that it had done nothing wrong, because everybody did it.

Japan seems at times not so much a nation of twelve-year-olds, to repeat General MacArthur’s phrase, as a nation of people longing to be twelve-year-olds, or even younger, to be at that golden age when everything was secure and responsibility and conformity were not yet required.

For General MacArthur was right: in 1945, the Japanese people were political children. Until then, they had been forced into a position of complete submission to a state run by authoritarian bureaucrats and military men, and to a religious cult whose high priest was also formally chief of the armed forces and supreme monarch of the empire.

I saw Jew Süss that same year, at a screening for students of the film academy in Berlin. This showing, too, was followed by a discussion. The students, mostly from western Germany, but some from the east, were in their early twenties. They were dressed in the international uniform of jeans, anoraks, and work shirts. The professor was a man in his forties, a ’68er named Karsten Witte. He began the discussion by saying that he wanted the students to concentrate on the aesthetics of the film more than the story. To describe the propaganda, he said, would simply be banal: “We all know the ‘what,’ so let’s talk about the ‘how.’” I thought of my fellow students at the film school in Tokyo more than fifteen years before. How many of them knew the “what” of the Japanese war in Asia.

3 Responses

  1. Tadeusz says:

    Hi Norbert,

    first, you seem to be getting some spammers in the comment section above.

    Second, I didn’t read Buruma’s book, so everything I am going to say must be treated with more than a grain of salt. Judging from your review, it does seem to contain some interesting information. But I think that your perspective may be somewhat biased too, and I am not sure if I would fully share your enthusiasm.

    I am writing this as a Polish person, who has lived for years both in Germany and in Japan. Yes, I do find, e.g., the very fact that war criminals are buried in Yasukuni shrine disgraceful, to say the least. Incidentally, as you probably know (and I guess Buruma’s book contains information on this too), these graves were moved there during a wave of historical revisionism in 1970’s by one of most lunatic Japanese prime ministers. Yes, I fully agree, e.g., that the case for nuking Hiroshima can be argued much better than it is commonly acknowledged in public discourse (although I think that choosing Nagasaki of all possible targets was one of most surreal shots in the foot for the West to make). I am flabbergasted by the fact that the Japanese are unaware of their own share of responsibility not only for the crimes of WII, but also of the post-war consequences of this, like elevating Mao to power in China. And so on.

    But I have more serious issues with German national memory and games the Germans are playing with history. And in several very important aspects, I think the situation is actually worse than in Japan. I think Germans have an almost uncanny ability to learn all the wrong lessons from the worst things they did to the world.

    To begin with, I fail to be moved by the scale of supposed German sense of post-war guilt. This country happily remains one of the worlds’ largest exporters of arms. This alone should make their protestations of moral re-birth rather preposterous.

    Neither did responsibility for two world wars make them reflect much on geopolitical consequences of their actions. It is commonly known in Europe that Germany was the leading force behind the break-up of Yugoslavia, for example. With all the horrors that followed. In more recent years, they did even more than Americans to stir up some of neo-nazi ghosts in Ukraine. These forces have been allied with Germany for more than century, incidentally.

    And the record of German left is no better than that of German right. During the years of communist military junta in Poland, chancellor Schmidt openly ridiculed Solidarity. And so did the free German press. More recently, the great red Nazi, Vladimir Putin, has been the object of much love from both German left and right. Chancellor Schröder attended birthday parties of this repulsive man, bringing with him a full Cossack choir. And became a lobbyist for Gazprom as soon as he left the office. This is in perfect continuity with the sprit of Rapallo and Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty.

    There is virtually zero discussion in this country of continuity between the foreign policy goals of the Weimar republic and those of late days of Hitler, for example. Stresemann, the coauthor of Rapallo, the architect of customs war with Poland, the man who nearly obsessively hated my country, whose main goal was eradication of Poland from the map with Moscow’s collaboration (something ultimately achieved by Hitler) is idolized and lionized here. Especially by SPD, actually. There are prizes which carry his name, for heavens sake. Each day on my way to work I’m passing by Stresemannplatz.

    But this pales compared to the name of the street by which my campus is located. You know what it is? Erwin-Rommel-straße. Yes, that Erwin Rommel. The Desert Fox. A poster boy—the poster boy—for Nazi propaganda all the way until 1944. Funnily enough, most streets adjacent to it are named after cities Germany lost for Poland after 1945. And students, all the progressive students on the campus, are totally enjoying throwing a summer party called “Rommelfest” each year.

    Rommel of course is a hero because he ultimately got impatient with Hitler. In 1944. When Final Solution was done. Not on any moral reasons etc., simply because he decided that Führer is bungling too much militarily. You know, it didn’t take a genius to realize this much at that stage. And the same applies to von Stauffenberg, another of these “heroes”. An enthusiastic participant of the conquest of Poland, who sent disgusted letters home about all the Jews and Mischlinge one sees in this backward country. This is the guy celebrated as a paradigm example of German’s resistance to Hitler.

    Apart, of course, from communists. Supporters of Stalin. The guy who had even more blood on his hands than Hitler himself, if you can believe this.

    Apart from genocide on Jews, how many Germans you think are most remotely aware of all the crimes committed in Poland? Willy Brandt knelt for the heroes of Warsaw ghetto, kudos to him for that. The fate of Jews was by far most tragic, no dispute here. But you know, Germans murdered as many Polish citizens of non-Jewish origin. They deliberately bombed hospitals with Red Cross sign, exactly as the Japanese did. They murdered handicapped and sisters of mercy. They engaged into full-scale ethnic cleansing. I have yet to meet a single German (including educated and “progressive” ones) who is even aware of the fate of Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. Sixty-three days. Ended with a total, deliberate destruction of the capital. Quarter by quarter. Street by street. Not a single European capital suffered a fate remotely comparable to this.

    Just during the first four days of that two-month horror, the Germans killed between 40 and 50 thousands civilians in just one district of the city. The genocide was so total that there were hardly any witnesses left. Google for “Wola massacre” or “Wola slaughter”, or, in my own language, “rzeź Woli”. You know what happened to the perpetrators of this monstrosity? The SS-Obergruppenführer in charge got a governmental pension until he died in 1979. As even the English wikipedia will tell you, he “enjoyed a successful post-war career as a lawyer, becoming the mayor of Westerland, and a member of the Landtag parliament of Schleswig-Holstein”. Not a single perpetrator was persecuted. Not. A. Single. One.

    You’re telling me that the Japanese do not carry their share of guilt for WWII? Fair enough. But, you know, since 1970’s they apologized no less than fourteen times on international stage for what they did to the Chinese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese. You can question how sincere these apologies were, of course, and how this deep this really went. Especially in the light of the issues like their problems with acknowledging the fate of “comfort women”. But they also contributed materially to quite a few developments, sometimes quite large (like the expansion of Beijing subway). I don’t blame the Chinese for not commemorating this. But trust me, you don’t quite imagine the scale of brutal self-interest with which German companies and German successive governments are acting in Poland these days. Without a single German chancellor ever apologizing for the scale of crimes committed by Germans on Polish population, apart from the Holocaust of course. My own grandmother was doing forced labour in Nazi Germany. You think she ever got a penny for this?

    The political immaturity of post-war Japanese? For heavens’ sake, Germany once again is governed by the “great coalition” SPD-CDU. There is nothing I find so repulsive in Western politics. Can you imagine the US being governed by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans? The UK being governed by a coalition of Labour and Conservatives? Just a few weeks ago, I read in the mainstream German press that the biggest problem for the governing mafia on the local level is that these two parties have become virtually indistinguishable. And the voters cannot give a damn for this farce anymore. Whatever you say about the smoke-and-mirror nature of Japanese politics, LDP and DPJ remain very distinct entities.

    But I’m really struggling hard to convince myself that Germany belongs politically in the West at all. This country gave the world theoretical and practical underpinnings for all of the totalitarian insanity of the XXth century. On both sides of the aisle. And until today, when you talk to Germans, you often have the impression that they really cannot imagine any other political path than being (crypto-)red or (crypto-)brown. Which, in the end, is not that different at all. It is no coincidence that the German communists went en masse on the side of Hitler during the first year of his reign.

    I’m not saying all this because I dislike Germans personally. Quite to the contrary. On personal level, they can be great people and very reliable friends. And there are many likeable and admirable things about Germany I omitted from this deliberately bleak picture. But this applies no less to the Japanese, as I hope you’d agree.

    If you choose to get worked up about immaturity of Japanese compared to the supposed maturity of Germans, your call. But you can hardly imagine how preposterous this seems to me. I know what the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese must think about their role in WWII and I fully respect this (although, especially in the Chinese case, it is impossible for me to respect their present hysterical nationalism: if any country in the world today reminds me of Germany in 1930’s, it is China). But from the Polish perspective, the Japanese in that war were the Japanese consulates which issued visas to Polish Jews and the Polish underground. The Japanese government refusing to accept Polish declaration of war even when the British pressed the Polish government in exile to issue such a declaration. And Japan opening its gates to Poles escaping Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1940. I understand their role must look very different from East Asian perspective. But if I were to criticize their history mercilessly, what would I have to say about the Germans?

    History’s a bitch, Norbert.

    And so is politics.

    • Hi Tadeusz,

      indeed, you touch a critical point – the history of German-Polish relation. And I fully agree with what you said concerning the non-existing reaction from German side wrt the war crimes committed in Poland. It was not my intention to describe Germany as a holy nation that has overcome all its problems, and also Buruma’s book isn’t doing that, on the contrary.

      There are two levels where we can look at comparisons: politically/governmentally and population: Concerning the later I see a big difference between the German and Japanese population. Most Germans are well aware of what has happened in WW2, and their (as country, parent generation) role. In Japan this is not the case. History stops long before WW2, and restarts only around the 70ies. People – often even well educated ones around me – are not aware of their own history. Of course my impression of Japanese might be wrong – but simply looking at ways how a Japanese could learn about the historical perspective reveals a certain discrepancy: history school books that are redacted and do not contain any information (the Tokyo court is mentioned in current history school book in one *line* without explanation), media that focus on old history or stupid talk shows. I can’t imagine seeing a documentary on Japanese involvement in WW2 here, while this is quite common in Germany.

      On the political side, I have to say that, while German politics and economics is, well, particular as you described, or one could say reckless up to brutally ignorant, the recent political change of climate in Japan (secrecy law, overturn of constitution, governmental decrees to circumvent parliament, political intervention to rewrite history even abroad, …) cannot be compared with German politics. You mentioned weapon exports – the day after the constitution was overhauled by Abe a contract on weapon export was signed here. Companies abuse their power, everywhere. And while Japanese have officially excused themselves, the word “reparation” and “restitution” is non-existing here. Compare that to what Germany (and to much lower degree Austria) has done.

      Yes, Germany has its bad sides, too (whom to you tell, I am Austrian!) and especially with respect to Poland there are still many open wounds, I agree. Nothing in this world is all black or white. But I see Japan fading into black.

      All that said, I have to quote you On personal level, they can be great people and very reliable friends. The same is very much valid here in Japan. And while I often draw a bleak picture, I still enjoy and love living here (besides the work-racism against foreigners). But that is the reason I criticize the things I don’t like.

      We really should discuss all this over a good beer at some time in Germany or Japan!

  1. 2016/01/15

    […] Ian Buruma: Wages of Guilt […]

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