Uniquely Horrible

Michael Howard

  • The Wages of Guilt by Ian Buruma
    Cape, 330 pp, £17.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 224 03138 4

After the First World War Germany was compelled by the victorious Allies to accept full responsibility for the war, and in consequence to pay all the costs. In spite of the work of Fritz Fischer and his associates, few historians would now claim that this was fair. To the German people at the time it seemed outrageous. Their outrage was to be a major element in the revanchism so ably exploited by Hitler in his rise to power, and in the remorse that paralysed so much of British enlightened opinion when it came to dealing with him.

After the Second World War there was less room for doubt. Only a few marginal historians, mainly British and American, put forward a theory of an erzwungene Krieg (a war forced on Germany) to explain Nazi aggression. In Germany itself, A.J.P. Taylor has found few if any disciples. But even if a shadow of doubt hung over the question of Germany’s responsibility for the war, there was none whatever about her conduct of it. Goering and his co-defendants at the Nuremberg Trials made hay of the highly dubious charges cooked up by the Americans of ‘planning aggressive war’, but they could not deny the evidence of what happened at Auschwitz, and neither could the German people. It is that memory, together with that of the innumerable comparable atrocities committed by the German Army and its associates on and behind the Eastern Front, which, like the knowledge of a strain of homicidal mania in an otherwise respectable family, still haunts the Germans themselves.

The Japanese are a different case. They can claim rather more convincingly that their conflict with the United States was an erzwungene Krieg, and that their pre-emptive attack at Pearl Harbor was no more infamous than that on Port Arthur, so universally applauded in Britain and the United States, at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. In any case, the memory of Pearl Harbor has been blotted out for the Japanese, with the connivance of Anglo-American bien-pensants, by that of Hiroshima. There was no equivalent to Auschwitz in the Far East. The atrocities committed by the Japanese in China were quite comparable to those of the Germans on the Eastern Front, but they have never figured as high as they should have done in the moral scale of the victorious Anglo-Saxons. So the Japanese, like the Germans after 1918, have been able to depict themselves as victims of the war rather than aggressors, and to persecute relentlessly any of their fellow-countrymen tactless enough to argue that they were anything else.

Ian Buruma has written a penetrating comparative study of the way in which the Germans and the Japanese have come to terms with the record of their conduct in the Second World War. There are interesting similarities and even more interesting differences. For both, the problem was made easier by the rush in the Fifties towards material prosperity which, as Buruma graphically puts it, ‘covered the past like a blanket of snow, hiding all traces, muffling all sound’. It was also made easier by their conquerors, who after the first vindictive few months found it politically convenient to compromise with the regimes they had destroyed. Denazification came to a halt in West Germany when the Allies discovered that they needed many key figures of the old regime to build up a prosperous, reliable and anti-Communist society, and stopped asking embarrassing questions about their past. In the Soviet zone, notorious Nazis were more summarily dealt with, but a host of minor Beamten switched their loyalty from Brown to Red and continued to fill the same oppressive roles. As for Japan, the American decision to preserve the Imperial superstructure as a façade behind which Japanese society could be reshaped along Western democratic lines meant that any accusations of misbehaviour against Japanese troops, who claimed to have been acting in accordance with the Imperial will, were by implication attacks on the legitimacy and stability of post-war Japanese society, and so attracted savage social, and often legal, retribution. Finally, in both countries the forces of Left and Right – again abetted by bien-pensants in Britain and the United Slates – could join in an unholy alliance cemented by anti-Americanism. Not only was Hiroshima depicted as an atrocity on a par with Auschwitz, but American misdeeds in Vietnam were eagerly seized on to justify a cry of tu quoque.

The attitude of the Japanese to Hiroshima and that of the Germans to Auschwitz, as Buruma shrewdly points out, show further interesting parallels. The Japanese have been as reluctant to ‘historicise’ Hiroshima as have the Germans with Auschwitz: that is, to explain and comprehend the event by setting it in a historical context. In both cases the reason is the same: to explain might be seen to justify, and indeed to pardon. Both events had to be seen as uniquely horrible, intrusions into the historical process from some extraneous world of evil rather than as part of that process and so susceptible of rational explanation. But the motives were very different. For the Germans – or at least for those who took up arms in the great Historikerstreit that still rages over the issue – ‘historicisation’ implied a diminution or elimination of Nazi responsibility for Auschwitz and all that it implied. For the Japanese, on the other hand, to set Hiroshima in the general context of the conduct of the war and enter into a debate about its necessity would be to call in question the guilt of the Americans and their own status as victims; a status that has enabled them, without accepting any responsibility for the war or for the crimes committed in the course of it, to claim unique authority as lovers and preachers of peace.

To explain this difference Ian Buruma cites, with some qualification, Ruth Benedict’s useful distinction between a ‘guilt’ culture and a ‘shame’ culture. In the former, offences against social norms have to be expiated by confession and contrition in order to merit ultimate forgiveness and readmission into the social nexus. Such is the practice in Christian societies, and especially in the Protestant culture which has done so much to mould the German mind. In the latter the penalty for wrong-doing is shame; the shame not only that of the offender but of the entire social group. The reaction is one of embarrassment, silence and concealment, in which everyone takes part. Thus for the Japanese the misbehaviour of their Armed Forces, such as the notorious Nanking massacres, were ‘non-events’. One did not talk about such things; least said, soonest mended.

This is not a reaction peculiar to the Japanese. We have seen a particularly interesting example of it recently nearer home, in the reaction of virtually the entire British legal profession to the revelations of the misdoings of the police and the judiciary in such trials as that of the Guildford Four. These were matters to be dealt with, first by denial, then, when they became undeniable, by silence, and finally by ostracisation of those who continue to talk. The last thing one does under such circumstances is to punish the guilty: to admit that anyone is guilty is to accept that a crime has been committed, and by implication to accept a share of the guilt.

Many Germans – perhaps the majority of the wartime generation – still take that attitude. They prefer ‘not to know’, as they preferred not to know at the time. Outside intellectual circles it remains bad form to talk about such things. Buruma cites a particularly chilling interview with the authorities in the German town of Passau, whose sins of commission and omission had been unearthed by the real-life heroine of the film The Nasty Girl. But the guilt-culture is strong enough to ensure that for thinking Germans the memory of the Holocaust will not go away, but will continue to haunt a society whose intellectuals have always been prone to cultural introspection.

Further – another of Buruma’s many shrewd insights – the Germans, unlike the Japanese, can look back on traditional values of their own by which the misdeeds of the Nazi regime stand condemned, traditions that surfaced in the Resistance. Admittedly, the glorification of the Resistance has led in its turn to a new wave of historical myth-making which has hugely exaggerated its influence, its effectiveness and the mistakes made by the Allies in not giving it greater support; but it has provided a new generation of Germans with heroic role-models whose heroism is in no way diminished – indeed, in some respects enhanced – by their failure.

Unfortunately, one of the less attractive features of the present German government is its attempt to deny the Communists any share of the credit. For the right wing, the Resistance was monopolised by heroic young officers, avatars of the Yorcks, Scharnhorsts and Gneisenaus who roused Prussia to resistance in the Napoleonic era and who they can now join in the nationalist pantheon. This is no worse, admittedly, than the contrary myth propagated in old DDR, that the Resistance consisted purely of the German workers en masse under the leadership of the Party, which enabled the DDR to disclaim responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era. But whether it is the Nationalists or the Socialists who deserve more credit for such resistance to National Socialism as did exist, both agree that it should have been resisted and are explicitly united in the determination that nothing of the kind should ever happen again.

No such condemnation is forthcoming from the Japanese. In the first place, they deny that there was anything to condemn; in the second, the universal values to which the German Resistance appealed are still regarded as suspect and foreign; and in the third, the war itself is still depicted as having been ‘just’. Not only do they see the war fought against the West as one for national independence and the survival of their national culture, but even the war against China is depicted as part of the struggle against Western colonialism or, alternatively, Communism. All this reinforces the Japanese image of themselves as ‘victims’ of the war. On the whole, perhaps, we should be grateful that their reaction was one, not of revanchism, but of high-minded pacifism.

As for the Germans, we must hope that they will emerge from the intellectual paralysis exemplified by the Historikerstreit, which made Auschwitz a ‘no-go area’ for German historians. The ‘correct’ reaction in Germany to the Holocaust, as Buruma explains, is still Betroffenheit, to be overwhelmed, struck dumb, deprived of coherent thought. Any attempt to explain or to ‘historicise’ that ghastly event is still seen as a first step towards condoning or even justifying it. The unfortunate President of the Bundestag, Philipp Jenninger, discovered this when he tried to explain how Germans came to tolerate such things in a public speech so sensible and well-reasoned that it effectively wrecked his political career. The explosive reaction to his words was what might have been expected from a devout Christian congregation a hundred years ago if they had been addressed by Bishop David Jenkins. Under some conditions rationality and common sense are indistinguishable from blasphemy.

This simply will not do. There can be no no-go areas for historians. Our job is not only to tell people what happened, but to try to explain why. Betroffenheit is as much a cop-out for historians dealing with the Holocaust as it was – and is – for historians dealing with the Crucifixion or the Virgin Birth. Awe and scholarship do not mix. In the past German historians have only too often abdicated their independence of mind under social and political pressures, with uniformly disastrous results. Today, only their clear-sighted analysis can finally exorcise the demons of the past.