This is a book review that I wrote for International Studies Review. I am posting it on my blog with their permission. If you are interested in history, or in transitional justice, you might find this review worthwhile.
War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II. Thomas U. Berger. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012. 259 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-02160-0 hardback; 978-1-107-67495-0 paperback.
This fine volume compares the stances of Germany, Austria, and Japan towards the crimes they committed during World War II and the ways that they did, or did not, compensate for them after 1945. It is based on extensive research in the secondary literature, including literature written in Japanese and German, supplemented by some elite interviews.
Thomas U. Berger decided to write this book because when he gave lectures on German and Japanese antimilitarism he was frequently asked why Germany had acknowledged its WWII sins, but Japan had not. At first, he thought this contrast politically irrelevant, but later he began to understand that historical memories in fact have political resonance. Indeed he argues that in the current era “the past has been politicized as never before” (p. 10).
Berger begins with three hypotheses, which he calls historical determinist, instrumentalist, and culturalist. The historical determinist school assumes that “what really happened” determines acts of penitence by a state. The instrumentalist school assumes that states are penitent only when they have instrumental reasons to be so; depending on their interests they manipulate collective memories to create narratives that are less or more penitent about past actions. The culturalist school assumes that people’s interpretations of historical events are mediated by their culture. Not surprisingly, Berger concludes that none of these hypotheses is an adequate explanation of the various levels of penitence in his three case studies. His own perspective is historical realism, by which he means that collective memories of the past are conditioned by how states shape national narratives. In turn, states are influenced by “practical consideration” of economic gain and national security (p.2).
|Thomas U. Berger|
In all three cases, internal party politics influenced decisions to try to repair or to ignore past depredations. Germany took an aggressive stance of “militant democracy,” banning neo-Nazi parties that Austria permitted, thus creating a political culture in which certain extreme views were not only illegal but also culturally beyond the pale. In Japan, liberals wanted to recognize and atone for past crimes such as medical experimentation and sexual slavery, but nationalists argued that Japan’s militant stance before and during WWII was justified by its struggle against Western colonialism; this debate continued into the 21st century. In both Austria and Japan, veterans and their families constituted important voting blocs that opposed penitential policies. Another domestic factor that influenced Germany’s turn toward a “culture of contrition” (p. 228) was the rise of the student movement in the late 1960s. These students were very critical of their elders’ implications in the Nazi genocides. By contrast, no such movement arose in Austria or Japan.
International factors also influenced penitential stances. After WWII, Germany was faced with the pressing need to integrate as quickly as possible into the Western democratic world and the European Union, not only for reasons of self-respect or economic gain, but also to strengthen itself against the Communist threat to the East. The victorious allies required that Germany adopt a penitential stance before it could be reintegrated into the Western democratic world. Austria, a neutral state, was less concerned by the threat of communism and was not interested in joining the European Union. After the American occupation, Japan was relatively isolated from international pressures until China began to rely on nationalism as a new justification for Communist Party rule, and to tolerate—if not encourage—nationalist memories of Japanese crimes such as the rape of Nanjing.
Happily, Berger disposes rather quickly of the shibboleth that Japan is a “shame” rather than a “guilt” culture, rooted in socially-derived judgments of right and wrong rather than in an inner sense of guilt for taking wrong actions. He shows that many Japanese were both ashamed of their government’s crimes during and immediately after WWII, and felt personally responsible for them. Culture, in Berger’s reading, is not a static set of beliefs or customs, but a malleable and changeable underpinning of social behavior. National narratives influenced both by states and domestic actors such as students and NGOs become part of the cultural underpinning of the society so that, for example, it would be very difficult in Germany today to deny the collective responsibility of the nation for past Nazi crimes. So also, as the elite quarrel over the national narrative penetrates younger and wider sectors of Japanese society, the culture may change to acknowledge both Japanese victimhood at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese responsibility for massive war crimes.
Much of the literature on political apologies discusses whether apologies are effective, but does not discuss the political conditions under which apologies are forthcoming. Yet Berger shows that apologies and reparations are the result of careful consideration of both domestic and international factors. This is also one of the themes of a forthcoming volume by Tom Bentley entitled Empires of Remorse, comparing apologies for colonialism from Britain, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Berger’s book is a must for any scholar interested in general theoretical questions about political apologies, reparations, and other forms of post-conflict justice. It would appeal to scholars in the fields of international relations; transitional justice; and the role of memory and narrative.
The book is also very readable and interesting as a history of post WWII attempts by Germany, Austria, and Japan to repair relations with former victims. In particular, Berger wends his way very clearly between Japanese apologies, quasi-apologies, and counter-apologies. Non-Asia specialists will be grateful for his detailed historical explanations of the debates and disagreements in Japan, such as the two “textbook debates” about how Japanese children should be taught their own history. No one should take for granted that criminal states are likely to repent for their crimes.