German lessons for an Asia riven by history

During a trip to Tokyo, German leader Angela Merkel assisted Japan, China, and South Korea with insights on how postwar Germany and the rest of Europe reconciled. Will they listen?

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk about the European Union flag at the start of their talks in Tokyo March 9.

When a German leader travels to Japan these days, it renews interest among many Asian nations in building the kind of regional political union that Germany and the rest of Europe achieved after World War II. Yet with its many rivalries and long memories of the past, Asia remains far from a peaceful union.

During her trip to Tokyo this week, Chancellor Angela Merkel did offer lessons from Germany on the “work” of reconciliation that led to the European Union. Her advice comes as Japan and Germany prepare for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and as tensions over territory in Asia contribute to a buildup of national militaries. Her comments seemed particularly directed at Japan, China, and South Korea, whom she encouraged “to work together to overcome the burden of history.”

The big lesson she offered is one of German appreciation for the “generous gestures” of reconciliation by former adversaries such as Britain and the United States after 1945. Perhaps the greatest acts of forgiveness came from France, which has allowed the two neighbors to remain close.

“We Germans will never forget that after all the suffering that was brought by our country over Europe and the world, the hand of reconciliation was there for us,” she told a Tokyo audience.

Germany’s decades-long gratitude has played forward into today as witnessed in its leadership during the eurocrisis and in countering Russian aggression against Ukraine. Japan also seeks a similar role on the world stage. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to use the 70th anniversary to assert a stronger presence for Japan in international affairs as well as reiterate official apologies made by his predecessors for Japan’s wartime past – although the exact wording of Mr. Abe’s coming speech remains unknown.

Another lesson offered by Merkel was the “readiness in Germany to face our history openly and squarely.” She cites a few essential steps:

First, the Allied Powers insisted on Germany coming to grips with the Nazi atrocities.

Second, a speech in 1985 by then-President Richard von Weizsäcker called on German adults who lived during the Third Reich to look into their conscience about what they knew, what they ignored, or why they remained silent, especially as Jewish neighbors were taken away. The speech, a call for individual moral cleansing, still resonates with Germans today.

Third, Merkel suggested the process of dealing with war memories “must come out of society,” implying that imposed contrition is no contrition at all. By “summing” up the past, such as the “sin” of the Holocaust, the German people were able to set the prerequisite for reconciliation with their neighbors, she said.

Fourth, she cited Mr. von Weizsäcker’s advice to Germans to see the end of the war as a “liberation,” or a freedom for themselves as well as Germany’s victims from the horrors inflicted by a Nazi regime.

Not all of these lessons apply to Japan or its neighbors. The war and postwar conditions were different in many respects. And for domestic political reasons, China and South Korea find it convenient to demand Japan do more to confront its war atrocities or be more sincere in its official remorse. As Wendy Sherman, American undersecretary of State for political affairs, said recently, “[I]t’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.”

Asia certainly has made strides in creating regional bodies over the past quarter century, mainly focused on economic interests. Yet debates over history remain – not only involving Japan but also within countries, such as mass deaths in China under Mao Zedong. (China still jails those who write the “wrong” history.)

Much of Merkel’s advice relies on what she calls a “spirit of reconciliation.” For many in Asia, that spirit may not begin at the top. Rather, with occasional reminders like the visit of a German leader, the people can start it.

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