Reconciliation or Resentment?

May 1, 2009

On May 1, 2009, AGI held a workshop on “Reconciliation or Resentment? Honoring the Past or Minimizing It in the Foreign Policies of Germany and Japan,” which was undertaken with the generous support of the Harry & Helen Gray Culture and Politics Program and the AGI Society, Culture, & Politics Program.

Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars and experts from Germany, the United States, and Japan, this workshop launched a new project at AGI looking at reconciliation policies in the foreign relations of Germany and Japan in the sixty-four years since the end of World War II. The workshop analyzed the reconciliation policies of both countries, the reasons and circumstances behind their different approaches, and involved a comparison between the German and Japanese paths.

The first panel focused on Japan and the role reconciliation played in its foreign policy. The debate about Japanese reconciliation policy is characterized by cycles alternating between silence and contentious arguments. Currently, the Japanese leadership is silent on the issue of reconciliation. Some analysts have argued that this silence is caused by the Japanese government deciding not to raise issues of the past and to develop pragmatic relationships with its neighbors. However, others have pointed to a sentiment in Japan that China and Korea have finally recognized that the Japanese position is right. Yet, Korea and China interpret the silence as Japanese acknowledgement of their grievances. Tendencies in Japan to consider only domestic victims as victims of the war prevent complete reconciliation. True reconciliation can be accomplished only if war is seen as producing many victims on many fronts, as a tragedy that crosses all borders, in which everyone became a victim.

Some speakers differentiated reconciliation as thick versus thin reconciliation. Thin reconciliation is defined as state-to-state reconciliation; thick reconciliation also involves societal actors and addresses issues of historical understanding. Japan engaged in thin reconciliation between World War Two and the 1970s through diplomatic relations with the states that were its victims. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty is viewed by many in Japan as a treaty of reconciliation. While the victims of Japanese aggression in World War Two made it clear that the atrocities were not forgotten, geopolitical circumstances allowed Japan to engage only in thin reconciliation. As Taiwan and China rivaled to be recognized as legitimate heirs to the Republic of China, both downplayed the need for true reconciliation with Japan in exchange for its recognition. For both, the opportunity of present friendship was more important than the troubled past. While negotiations between Japan and South Korea broke down due to South Korea’s insistence that the past be addressed, eventually South Korea’s need for Japanese help in its economic reconstruction and U.S. pressure on its two anti-Communist allies in the region both improved state-to-state relations. Yet, the 1980s saw an increase in tensions, which included controversies about Japanese textbooks and visits of Japanese officials to the Yasukuni shrine commemorating Japanese soldiers, including those who had participated in Japanese war crimes. The Japanese government attempted to address some of these grievances; still, reconciliation attempts by Japan have remained thin. Apologies by the Japanese government and the Japanese Emperor have been made on a number of occasions, but have entailed a formulaic character without enforcement of consistent messages in Japanese society. Even those apologies caused a domestic backlash in Japan, indicating the domestic problems reconciliation faces in Japan. Right-wing groups are against all kind of apologies, whereas liberals tend to focus on domestic victims of the war. The Japanese business community has kept a very low profile in the reconciliation debate. Companies have denied that they ever used forced labor and have taken virtually no steps toward reconciliation. The courts in Japan have called for a non-judicial resolution, and there is limited settlement of these issues.

Additional complicating factors in the Japanese case were the undemocratic nature of the two primarily victimized states: Korea and China. This did not allow the victims to freely express themselves and to engage with Japan on a non-governmental level. Furthermore, as most victims were women, only the more recent women’s movements made it acceptable to speak about rape and other atrocities committed. Different countries will also require a different form of reconciliation. Korea was colonized by Japan, which attempted to obliterate Korean national identity by prohibiting Korean language and culture. The expropriation of cultural and financial wealth has not been reversed; many cultural treasures can still be found in museums in Tokyo rather than Seoul. The colonization raises a different set of issues and questions than the Japanese invasion of China, which produced different atrocities. Japan wrestles with its past also because it understands the colonization of Korea and the war against China as part of its attempt to join the rank of great powers, giving Japan the opportunity to label any calls for apologies as a Western attempt to harm its reputation. Japanese consider their war against China and Korea as legitimate wars of expansion, especially in light of similar Western wars. Yet, the question remains why the Japanese war and colonization attempts gave way to such brutal atrocities. A systemic and cross-border approach is needed to solve these complex issues. Additionally, all layers of society have to be involved in reconciliation for it to become viable.

The second panel focused on Germany’s experiences with reconciliation. One definition of reconciliation considers it a process intended to build long-term peace between states – on both governmental and societal levels through the development of bilateral institutions. Peace is not to be confused with harmony, but rather as a framework to deal with differences, including issues connected to the past. Reconciliation cannot be one-sided; interestingly, frequently it is the victim that initiates reconciliation. The motives of reconciliation are usually moral in nature, such as the recognition of the weight of history, as well as pragmatic reasons, for example the calculation of clear political, economic, and/or security benefits. Treaties and statements can be signs of reconciliation, but cannot be the end goal. Rather than striving for an apology, reconciliation should include the acknowledgement of grievances because it addresses exactly what happened and includes realistic and doable goals.

The societal level is also of great importance. In Germany organizations such as the Action Reconciliation (Aktion Sühnezeichen), bi-lateral textbook commissions (with France, Israel, and others), the German Historical Institutes, and joint historian commissions have been so successful in building networks that they are considered models to other regions (e.g., the Balkans). These and other non-governmental actors fulfill four roles: They serve as catalysts for reconciliation (these are often religious or former victims’ groups); they serve as conduits if the government is unable to undertake certain efforts (i.e., the German political foundations); they complement the government’s actions by carrying out cultural, economic, and political functions in conjunction with the government; and they can compete with the government (for example over historical issues). The societal interactions are especially important to solidify the state’s relationship in times of crisis. Germany has confronted historical issues in all its relations, yet the relations and the role of history are necessarily different. With Israel, history has suffused the relationship. In the relationship with France, history is an important, but not an all-encompassing aspect. In the Polish-German and Czech-German relationships, one could speak of a return of history, which has recently played a role in controversies about property restitution and the expulsion of Germans in the wake of World War Two. While history presents certain knots, a truly reconciled relationship is characterized by its ability to withstand such challenges without being unraveled. In the highest form reconciliation between governments allows two states to address third issues, includes the desire to learn from another, and encompasses a great level of trust between the states. The larger international environment – U.S., Russia, EU – can affect the nature of reconciliation, as can the political leadership in the countries involved.

When looking at remembrance and memory, one has to differentiate between the individual, collective, and cultural dimensions. Collective memory is always political as it is always contested. Four different approaches influence reconciliation: First, law and justice; second, the purge of the perpetrators; third, taking symbolic actions; and fourth, the opening of files and documents. In the German case, however, the Allies had partially undertaken the purging although Nazis regained several high level positions in West Germany. The Courts became involved much later; and files were generally kept closed.

The time between 1949 and 1959 was marked by the politics of arranging with the past: Distancing the state from the past, while integrating the perpetrators. The late 1950s until unification then saw a change. Germany undertook the policy of Aufarbeitung der Vergangeheit, which meant not just an arrangement with the past but rather actively addressing it. After 1989, questions of Germans as both victims and perpetrators have surfaced. German foreign policy has been successful in coming to terms with the past, but limitations have to be made. It has been a success for a variety of reasons: First, Germany accepted its role as the legal successor to the Deutsche Reich (in contrast to the GDR). Second, the political leadership provided compensation to Israel. Third, Germany displayed a leadership role in its relations with France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia. In this Germany’s motives were indeed moral and pragmatic, but one cannot separate them, as they are part of one motivating force. However, reconciliation as part of Germany’s foreign policy has been less successful. Germany profited from the favorable international circumstances. Its relationship with Israel was not completely smooth: the Hallstein Doctrine and economic relations with the Arab world complicated matters. Issues of the past, such as compensation for forced laborers, were also sometimes dealt with in a legalistic and hard-nosed matter.

The overall success, however, can be attributed to German society’s willingness to acknowledge its past, which translated into a success in the foreign policy arena. Germany was able to generate trust, a factor in international relations that has been under-researched. Trust is comparable to power and influence, but also has the capacity to heal. German identity today is the product of its policies of remembrance. The Germany of the future will also be the product of its past and it will incorporate new tendencies: One can expect a shift to collective memory, as individual memories of World War Two disappear. Politics of remembrance are also becoming more ambivalent, the slogan “never again” has morphed from pertaining to German participation in wars to Germany’s responsibility to prevent genocides (i.e., in the Balkans). Additionally, a Europeanization of memory has taken place as the Holocaust is now part of the founding myth of the European Union. Coming to terms with the past is thus an ever-changing, never-ending, and holistic process, which includes foreign and domestic policies.

Looking at the Franco-German relations as an example of reconciliation, international circumstances are also important. After World War Two, France did not need to demand a concession of defeat from Germany. Additionally, the common threat of the Soviet Union and the historic opportunity to establish a unified Europe created an ideal environment for reconciliation between Germany and France, which turned from thin to thick over the years. The basis of the relationship was one of asymmetry that would not be based on reciprocity. Several reasons account for the asymmetry: One, nationalism was not welcomed in Germany after World War Two; France, however, wanted to prove its national greatness. Second, France was interested in having European leadership to contrast the U.S. Germany was a safe choice, as it was not aspiring to independent leadership. In addition to the asymmetric relationship enabling reconciliation, the personal relationship between Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer also played a significant role. The relationship between Germany and France has blossomed despite thorny issues such as the relationship to the United States. However, after the German unification the relationship has changed as there is no longer an asymmetry between the states. It will thus be interesting to see how this relationship will develop, especially in light of new generations.

Another example of German reconciliation policies is German-Polish relations. Eight characteristics are important regarding the role of reconciliation: First, the bilateral relationship has been inserted into multilateral relations (i.e., the European Union). This has initially led to a stabilization of the relationship as common interests such as Poland’s membership in the EU emerged, yet after the achievement of common goals this multilateral component has also caused problems. Second, NGOs have played a positive as well as negative role, as they sometimes can become spoilers of the relationship. Third, the Polish-German relationship is also one of asymmetry. Fourth, domestic policy plays an important role, which is also effected by, fifth, personal and generational changes, especially now. Sixth, a competition of victims can complicate the relationship; Poland has sometimes seen the past as a bargaining chip against Germany. Seventh, symbols of reconciliation are important – especially for the public perception – but should not be without substance. And eighth, the Europeanization of memory has to include the eastern European countries and cannot remain based on the myth of Franco-German relations. It will be a big challenge for the EU to enlarge also its historic memories.

The third panel compared the German and Japanese reconciliation in foreign policy. Although both are in general terms comparable, differences do of course exist. The cultural background is very different, yet ideas of culture as something static and non-porous are also not viable. If only cultural reasons are behind the differences, then people would be prisoners of their cultural circumstances and unable to change. Nationalism played a different role in Europe and in Asia: While nationalism is connected to aggressive acts against other states, it is seen as a positive catalyst against colonization in Asia. So why have “sorry states” developed in the first place? In history, the idea of remorse and reconciliation were not known. Only the diffusion of the notion of human rights in the twentieth century brought with it the ideas of reconciliation. The notion that all people, including victims of aggression and war, have rights was codified into international law after 1945. The idea of victims’ rights included the desire for healing as well as the idea to stigmatize past aggressions to avoid future transgressions.

Reconciliation is impossible without four basic requirements: First, leadership is needed. Leadership can facilitate reconciliation, yet it can also be an obstacle if personal sentiments prevent state-to-state reconciliation. Second, reciprocity will enable leaders to undertake the initiative – politicians are driven by success and will not undertake policies they think will not be fruitful. Third, reconciliation cannot be implemented from the top-down or the bottom-up, but rather by a concerted effort of both government and civic society. Fourth, reconciliation takes time and will fail if quick, easy successes are expected.

The role of the Emperor is one of the most striking differences in comparing reconciliation policies of Japan and Germany. Additionally, the most fundamental difference between Germany and Japan is the feeling in Germany that 1945 was a moral catastrophe; this feeling does not exist in the same way in Japan. While the feeling of a catastrophe was also felt in Japan it was of very different nature: For the first time Japanese civilians were affected and it was the first time that Japan lost a war. Furthermore, the international arena Germany and Japan are part of is vastly different. Europe has developed an intricate web of interdependence; this is only being developed in Asia. Research into the role of the U.S. would also yield a different approach by the allies to the defeated powers. Other speakers pointed to the lack of the civil society in Japan as another important difference, while others argued that Japanese civil society is stronger than it is given credit for. It is also important to understand who the victims are, as it influences reconciliation as well.

While one can explore the differences and the reconciliation policies of both countries, it is sometimes hard to differentiate causes and consequences. Additionally, are societies that engage history more successful than the ones that do not? Research suggests that they are, yet more evidence and research is needed. The case of Asia demonstrates it is important to address the past – without reconciliation, notions of Realpolitik such as regional cooperation are impossible and every small challenge in bilateral and multilateral relationships has the potential to turn into a larger issue and ultimately conflict. Dealing with one’s past is not only important in foreign policy, it is also important for the domestic situation. The current stalemate of Japanese policy is one symptom of this. Future research is needed on the processes of interaction between government and non-government actors (not just in terms of history), the relationship between victims and perpetrators and interdependence issues between them, the politics of remembrance, and the quality of moral impulses and the national identify of states that have successfully reflected on the past.