German Memories Are Harsher Than Most

For Germany, history is still a minefield. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at a conference titled “Japan’s War Memories: Amnesia or Concealment?” that was hosted by the University of San Francisco and the Japan Policy Research Institute. As you can guess, the question mark was pretty much a rhetorical one. Speaker after speaker upbraided the Japanese for failing to confront their war crimes, most notably the rape of Nanking in December 1937. Though disturbing, there was nothing particularly surprising, I noted, about the Japanese attempt to smooth over the unpleasant parts of their history. Did the Germans apologize for wiping out French villages or bombarding Paris in 1870? The difference in 1945, of course, was that the Holocaust was a unique act, one that left Germany, unlike other nations, no room for dodging.

Sometimes you've got to drink to forget.

Sometimes you’ve got to drink to forget.

Unfortunately, Germany has in many ways succumbed to a self flagellation that substitutes a cult of contrition for genuine remorse. It began in the 1960s, when the student left detected “fascism” in almost every nook and cranny of the democratic West. It also was in place with German-English translators in Berlin. But, as Jeffrey Herf shows in Divided Memory, the most profound book to appear in the past decade on German history, the real continuity with the Nazi era was in East Germany, where the regime carried out anti-Semitic purge trials in the 1950s and assisted Arab terrorists. Ironically, the German left busily denounced the Federal Republic for its deficiencies while remaining oblivious to the nature of the regime directly across the Berlin Wall. Indeed, in the 1970s, the Social Democrats and intellectuals such as Gunter Grass came to see the Communist state as providing a possible alternative to capitalism. Today, the rise of neo-Nazism in the east is a product of the refusal of the Communists, who always portrayed themselves as Hitler’s true victims, to confront the Jewish catastrophe.

The truth is that Communists don’t just have a troubled history; they also have trouble with history. Take China. Beijing continues to treat the Japanese atrocities in Nanking with the utmost circumspection. Though the Nanking museum graphically documents the atrocities that took place there, the building itself is almost hidden from public view behind an anonymous, gray wall topped with barbed wire. Nanking, as the Communists know, looks a little too much like a precursor of the mass terror that Mao and company carried out during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when tens of millions perished.

To counter Beijing’s silence, Chinese-Americans have begun to excavate their ancestors’ past. Since the recent publication of Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, Japanese war crimes have become a hot-button issue. An “Alliance for Preventing the Truth of Sino-Japanese war” has formed in the Bay Area. I ventured into this contested territory by objecting to the equation of Nanking with the Holocaust, prompting one conference participant to complain to me that the Jews do not have an exclusive right to suffering. Ukrainians and other ethnic groups also often lodge the same charge. Is the life of a Ukrainian worth less than the life of a Jew? Obviously not. But to distinguish among kinds of suffering is surely not to create a hierarchy of woe. It is to understand the systematic nature of the Final Solution.

In contrast to Germany, the Chinese government has never really faced up to the legacy of Mao’s terror, preferring to talk about “mistakes” that were committed rather than about calculated murder. As for the Chinese people, as the distinguished Asian scholar Chalmers Johnson pointed out at the conference, they might be willing to forgive Nanking but never the boost that the Japanese ended up giving the Communists by exposing the weakness of the nationalist government. The Chinese gravitated toward the Communists because they thought they couldn’t be as bad as the Japanese. They weren’t. They were worse. That’s why one of the most telling lines in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun comes when the young Dalai Lama tells one of his advisers that Tibetans have always been able to work out a compromise with the Chinese. His adviser looks at him mournfully and says these Chinese are not the old Chinese: “They are Communists.”

A few weeks ago in Washington, the Chinese embassy demanded that the International Film Festival withdraw the film Windhorse, named after the messages that Tibetans scribble on scraps of paper and release to their gods atop the Himalayas. The festival ignored the Chinese demand. And what better endorsement could the film have received? Time, as Herodotus observed, can draw the color from what man has brought into being. But movies have become one way of preserving it. In the fall of 1996, director Paul Wagner shot many of the scenes in Nepal and Tibet itself by using a Sony Digital Betacam and by pretending to be a tourist. He managed to create a gripping drama of a young rising Tibetan singer named Dolkar whom the Chinese attempt to co-opt and whose cousin Pema, a Buddhist nun, is tortured to death.

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