The Reader XIV II - Wages Of Guilt

Wages Of Guilt

Memories Of War In Germany And Japan

By Ian Buruma
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 330 pages, $32.95
Reviewed by Michael Boxall

Is a people collectively responsible for the actions of its leaders? To the Allied victors fifty years ago, the answer was clearly yes. The Axis powers started a war which killed 45 million people, 25 million of whom were civilians. They acted with unprecedented cruelty---made all the more inhuman in Germany's case by the efficiency with which it was inflicted. Having proved themselves untrustworthy, the Germans and the Japanese should look long and hard at what they had done, the Allies insisted, and never be allowed to forget.

Time and changing circumstances have softened this flinty prescription, at least in the eyes of those for whom it was written. Dutch-born Ian Buruma has already written about some of Japan's idiosyncrasies in Behind the Mask ("On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters, and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes"). In The Wages of Guilt he asks a double question: how do Germany and Japan now perceive the war? Buruma has no doubt that many Germans have reflected earnestly and at great length. "One sometimes got the impression, especially in Berlin, that German memory was like a massive tongue seeking out, over and over again, a sore tooth," he writes. The past is still present, albeit sometimes inappropriately dressed. Auschwitz and other camps might have become "museums, shrines, and tourist spots, all in one" but at least they have not been wiped from the landscape.

For the generation that came of age in the 1960s, the lesson of Naziism was clear. Absolute pacifism was the only possible response. All war is wrong; ergo, anything that helps the makers of war must be wrong too . . . Subsequent events, however, have eroded that certainty. Pacifism has been undermined by pragmatism. For one thing, what should be done about Saddam Hussein? If Saddam was another Hitler, was it not incumbent upon Germany to help get rid of him? The dilemma became excruciating when it was learned that Iraqi Scud missiles pointing at Israel carried poison gas supplied by German companies.

Unification has also hindered attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past. The East German authorities kept Buchenwald and other camps in operation until 1950, using them to detain political enemies---including Social Democrats. In Communist eyes, "World War II had been a class war, waged by Fascists and plutocrats against the People. Jews, like Gypsies, were not essentially different from the other victims of fascism." Right wing revisionists now point to this belief as support for the relativist argument that 1933 to 1945 was not a unique time of evil incarnate; it was just a particularly bad patch. And what is twelve years when looked at in the context of centuries?

While anguished Germans tied themselves in knots, the Japanese took a simpler position. It is seen most clearly in Hiroshima, which provides the perfect backdrop. Look at the unspeakable suffering of war, Hiroshima says. Listen to us. Learn from us, for we have suffered more than anybody.

For most of The Wages of Guilt Buruma looks at messy, tangled arguments with dispassionate lucidity. But even he is sometimes seized with the anger Westerners often feel when confronted with another woman or wide-eyed schoolchild in the Peace Park or on the street or at the railway station, asking them to Remember Hiroshima.

What infuriates them is the selectivity of the Japanese memory. Since 1945, defence of the country has been in the hands of the United States, which wanted an economically strong Japan as a bulwark against communism. Remembering the war doesn't mean remembering the butchery at Nanking or Manila or Singapore, or the vivisection of prisoners or the poison gas factories; it means remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This has not endeared Japan to its former enemies.

At the same time, a second school of thought has gradually emerged: that World War II was in fact "a holy war to liberate the world from communism." As men now in their fifties, the last generation to grow up with wartime propaganda, reach top positions in commerce and the bureaucracy, revisionism is coming into the open, its appearance hastened by the end of the Cold War and the rise of China.

With the Soviet threat gone, the United States' stake in defending Japan is much smaller. Eventually, it will have to look after itself. (Just after The Wages of Guilt came off the press, the North Korean nuclear crisis erupted---harbinger of new dangers. As the country pursues a seat on the United Nations Security Council, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan, though not inevitable, is no longer inconceivable.) In January, the London Sunday Times reported that Japan might already have an atomic weapon which only needed enriched plutonium for completion. In April, Japan's first fast-breeder reactor (which produces plutonium, though not of weapons grade purity) went on stream. Japan is already helping the former Soviet Union dispose of its surplus nuclear warheads.

This is a long way from the fervent contrition prescribed by the Allies in 1945, and The Wages of Guilt breaks new ground in showing how such a reversal could come about. At bottom, MacArthur's enforced pacifism left Japan "opportunistic, stunted, and haunted by demons," and chronically debilitated by its habitual shirking of responsiblity. This makes the country much more vulnerable to pressure from those who want to back up Japan's flourishing economic imperialism with some military muscle.

Buruma takes hope from the fall last year of the spectacularly corrupt Liberal Democratic Party government, which was replaced by a coalition. One of the first acts of the first non-LDP prime minister in thirty-nine years was to declare publicly that Japan had indeed waged "an aggressive war and a wrong war." By showing why such an admission took half a century, the writer has again shed light on areas that many Japanese would rather have remained in darkness. Probing, informed, and carefully considered, The Wages of Guilt is indispensable reading for all students of end of-the-century geopolitics.

Michael Boxall recently moved back to Vancouver from Tokyo, where he edited a monthly magazine about Japan.

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