The wages of guilt: memories of war in Germany & Japan

Ian Buruma. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux 1994

By John Marshall (reviewer) | 1995-05-01 12:00:00

Germany and Japan were somewhat reluctant allies in World War II. Both suffered crushing defeat and occupation by the victors. Both were responsible for wartime atrocities against civilian populations as well as military opponents. Both have experienced war crimes trials, democratic political reforms, and national humiliation. And 50 years after, both are still dealing with the overriding problem of guilt: coming to terms with it, assuming responsibility for it, and undertaking necessary changes in political life, education, the legal system, and the constitutional framework within which citizens operate.

This complex process is enabled and mediated by the memories (accurate or otherwise) which people hold of the war and their own, their family's or community's participation in it. Memories are colored by many psychological and sociological factors, including present-day politics. Yet in their very heterogeneity and inconsistency they can provide clues and significant patterns to an understanding of the continuing working out of guilt, both personal and collective.

To find such patterns is the objective of this admirable book. Ian Buruma, a travel writer, novelist, and essayist, undertook extended (and repeated) visits to Germany and Japan, where he talked with politicians, retired soldiers, military officials, bureaucrats, academics, students, and people in the street. He visited monuments, museums, and memorial sites, and analyzed the work of journalists, artists, and historians. Buruma is particularly good at revealing and interpreting the various factions which continue to dispute "what really happened" and try to impose their own "official" versions of events.

Not surprisingly, Buruma finds that despite obvious parallels, the process differs substantially between the two countries. At the risk of oversimplifying, he finds for example that the Germans are consumed with guilt for the whole Nazi death-camp regime, with Auschwitz as the ever-potent, ever-present symbol. The complex cluster of memories around Auschwitz determines much of the ongoing debate in Germany, left, right, and centre. In Japan, by contrast, the debate lacks a clear focus; there is still great reluctance (and not only on the political right) to see Japan as the aggressor in the war and to regard wartime atrocities as anything other than "normal" war-time behavior. This of course inhibits any real acknowledgment of "guilt." At the same time, the ever-potent, ever-present symbol is that of Hiroshima, but this is an ambivalent one. On one hand, it represents the horror of total war, which everyone agrees must never happen again. On the other hand, it presents an opportunity to political apologists (left and right) to seize on the image of the Japanese as victims rather than aggressors.

The book is, however, much more than these central themes I have tried to elucidate. On several issues it provides information which may be a corrective to our own knowledge of history. In my case, for example, the details of the horrific Nanking Massacre of 1937, in which up to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered by the Japanese invaders; of the fact that in East Germany the Nazi death camps were never actually dismantled, thus serving as part of the ideological campaign to minimize Nazi atrocities as not German but capitalist crimes. Only with reunification did German Democratic Republic citizens begin to learn the full story, but of course their ideological blinkers not only prevented their acknowledgment of a shared guilt, but added significantly to the difficulties of adjustment within the new Germany, for Westerners and Easterners alike.

There are fascinating explanations of cultural specifics such as the emperor worship of the Japanese, which served to excuse much behavior as only what was expected or required, and to shift responsibility to higher-ups in the system, thus obviating personal guilt. This also ties in with the high--virtually religious--emphasis on the ultimate virtue of self-sacrifice, most notably with the kamikaze pilots in the war, but also present as "honorable suicides" even today.

All in all, a portrait emerges of two peoples very dissimilar in culture and history, trying despite fearful obstacles to learn the truth of their own history, to understand and accept their own guilt, to exorcise their own devils, and to begin to build a more truly democratic society. Buruma lets us see flickers of light at the end of the tunnel, the emergence of hope.

Reviewed by John Marshall, a retired professor of library science.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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