Remembering War Crimes in Germany and Japan – Two Different Approaches

The question of how Japan has dealt and is dealing with her past of militarism, colonialism and war crimes is one of the thorniest issues in East Asian and international affairs. The alleged denial of war atrocities by Japan poisons her relations to two of her most important neighbours: China and South Korea. 

Many people emphasize Japan’s shortcomings in handling her past by comparing her with another country that has a similar history: Germany. Over and over again, Chinese and Koreans draw on this comparison. For example, in January 2014, the Chinese ambassador to Germany Shi Mingde urged Japan “to learn from Germany on attitude toward its wartime history in order to win trust of other countries” (note).

In many respects, Germany has done a much better job than Japan. However, in my next two posts I would like to show that things are not that simple. I will argue that Germany’s war apologies have been very much overstated, and that the perception of the past both in Germany and in Japan is still deeply divisive and complex. I will also try to show that one reason why Germany and Japan dealt with their past in very different ways is the geopolitical situation in which they found themselves after WWII and the system of alliances to which they belonged. 

On 7 March, 2014, German President Joachim Gauck, on an official visit in Greece, went together with his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias to the town of Lyngiadis, where German troops killed more than 80 people in 1943. Gauck laid a wreath at a memorial site. “With shame and grief,” he declared, “I apologise on behalf of Germany to the families of the people who were killed. I bow to the victims of the terrible crimes.” (note)

From an official point of view, this is an admirable act. However, the reaction of many Germans proves to be less committed to the recognition of German collective guilt. The comments left by readers on the Facebook page of the German magazine Spiegel Online, which reported on the story, were in their majority negative. Let me share with you some of them:

User Leon Zu Wittelsbach wrote: I’ve started to get sick of Germany kneeling down everywhere. When will Germany finally learn to stand up again? (this comment received more than 140 likes)

User Tobias Mldr wrote: Isn’t it a little too early for an apology? I mean, it’s been just 70 years. The memory’s still too fresh and people need to recover from the shock first. What a cabaret Republic. 

User Felix Brandenburg wrote: And everyday is groundhog day! When will this guilt cult be finally over? 

User Dä Nüss wrote: Haaaahahaha… they [the Greeks] don’t want an apology, they want to see CASH [an insult follows].

User Timo Schöb wrote: Why should the President of the Federal Republic [of Germany] apologise? It’s the year 2014. 

User Andreas Daisser wrote: Today barely anyone from that generation is alive – it’s been 70 years, whoever wore a uniform back then is now 90 years old … I wonder when guilt expires. I’m waiting for suggestions. Otherwise the US will have to start apologising to the native Americans, England to almost every state, France too was busy with colonies for a while, Portugal and Spain also have a genocide on their record, not to mention the Vatican … 

User Ja NaDa wrote: I apologise for nothing. For nothing whatsoever! No stalinist, no Mussolini, no Reagan, no Obama has ever apologised. Only because our forefathers made a mess we have to apologise over and over again. No, I refuse to do that! What happened is bad but my children have no responsibility. I’ve had enough of it.

The list of similar comments goes on and on. Of course, one may argue that these statements are not representative, and that the internet is always full of extreme opinions. I am not saying that the majority of Germans agree with this kind of judgment. Still, when I lived in Germany I noticed a widespread desire among many people to move on and to get rid of the burden of their country’s past. I also noticed that many people argue that German war crimes are not entirely different from other crimes committed by other nations, such as Britain and the US (the extermination of the native Americans, the Boer War and colonialism being the most cited examples).

Few Germans I’ve met were willing to talk about WWII and the Holocaust. If one tries to address this topic, the reaction usually ranges from uncomfortable embarrassment to icy silence. Most people emphasize that they have nothing to do with those crimes, that they are tired of being reminded of their alleged collective guilt. They stress the fact that Germany is a peaceful, democratic country, and that Nazi-Germany belongs to a past that has been successfully overcome in the post-war era. 

Second, I have observed a distinct separation between the official government-led German policy of apology and full commitment to recognising the past on the one hand, and the widespread indifference and avoidance of a large part of the population on the other. 

In many respects, German and Japanese attitudes towards the past are quite different on the political level, but they have many similarities on the level of the broad masses of the population. In fact, it is important to note that the debate about the past has been very controversial in both countries, and that there are groups within them who have opposing views, as I will try to show later.

For the time being, I will just list off a few differences that explain why Japan and Germany dealt with their past in different ways:

  • After WWII Japan was politically and geographically isolated from most of her neighbours. Japan is an island, she was richer than her neighbouring countries, and some of them, like the PRC and North Korea, were ‘communist enemies’. 
  • After WWII, Germany needed to find a new place inside the European family. Germany was a divided nation, the communist threat was inside her own territory. Germany is in the middle of Europe, and her neighbours were extremely anti-German after the war. Moreover, Britain and France were industrial powerhouses which were bigger than West Germany in terms of population and size. It was therefore necessary for West Germany to find a quick and satisfactory settlement with other nations for the sake of her own survival within the framework of an anti-communist Western alliances.


  • Japan pursued a “face-saving” strategy of minimising as much as possible the trauma of defeat. This had both political and cultural reasons (East Asian concern with ‘face’ played a paramount role). It is worth noting that the same concern with ‘face’ makes it difficult for several Asian countries (including China) to deal with their own past.
  • Germany pursued a policy of reintegration into the Western community of states and of more or less free debate on the issue of German responsibility during the Nazi period. This created a deep break with the past, but it also created a counter-reaction, a sense of nostalgia for the compromised national pride, and a desire for ‘normalisation’.     

In the following post, I will briefly examine the post-war debate in Japan and the issue of the apologies for the war crimes.  


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5 replies »

  1. Thanks for this post. As a German, I do not necessarily share your views on the country's general opinion though. The comments under Spiegel Online or similar posts do not represent the full reality: If so, Germany (as many other countries) would be full of minority-hating, climate-change denying people. Here, you have a constant right-wing percentage of 20-25 percent, according to different studies over the years. Many of the opinions expressed by those people are not represented by any political party receiving more than 3 percent of the votes. They like to gather online, however, and spam forums and websites.

    That people refuse to talk about the Holocaust and World War II (maybe at a party or at lunch) does not necessarily mean that they refuse the president apologizing for massacres committed by the Nazis. Just because something goes on your nerves does not imply that you totally oppose it.

    Creat an anti-mainand post in a social network in Taiwan or Hong Kong and you will get the impression that both are full haters who think that all mainlanders want their worst and sh*t in the streets.


  2. Dear Aris Teon,
    thank you for your blog – I am not used to leave comments, but I read it every week with great interest. I am an immigrant who has been living in Germany since many years, so I know what you are talking about. The mere facts you mention may be correct, but I do not agree totally with your interpretation. I mean, I understand the people don't feel like to talk about such issues at a party or at lunch, as the previous poster noticed. Image you are at a party, a few people are friends of yours, some others are acquaintances, but the biggest part of the present people consists of persons you have never seen before. One of them introduces himself, he recognises your Italian accent and starts talking about mafia. How do you feel? You know the feelings, you wrote already about it, if I remember correctly. How do you react? You don't feel like to talk about it, you say, you have nothing to do with it, you think, your interlocutor is burdened by prejudices. But I'm sure he thinks you are someone, who can't manage uncomfortable questions.
    I don't claim that I know what is right and what is false, I mean, you may be not considering some perspectives. Anyway, you should also explain, why the comments from “des Spiegel” are not correct. The posters are maybe too vehement, but I don't see anything extreme neither fascist in their arguments. I tend to think that talking so often about such issues of the past is a strategy in order to hide problems of today. I don't dare to say it too loud because I know it is not politically correct and there would be a lot of people who are ready to swear at me as a nazi, which I am not.
    Thank you for your attention (and sorry for my poor English!)


  3. Thanks a lot for your comment : ) I agree with you, the opinions expressed on forums or comment sections of media outlets online are not representative, and indeed it's true that when you engage in debates online you may get the impression that a country is full of haters and extremists.

    However, the point of my post was to show that 'there are Germans' (whether it's 5%, 10%, 20% or more, I don't know, but I know I've met many of them) who are tired of war apologies, who think they have nothing to do with Nazi Germany, and who think that the issue of 'overcoming the past' has created among Germans a masochistic tendency of self-humiliation and a political correctness that makes the free expression of personal opinions difficult. From this point of view, I see some similarities between popular sentiment in Germany and Japan.


  4. Hello and thanks for commenting : ) Please feel free to express your views and give me your feedback whenever you want.

    Your example is really interesting, because it often happens to me that people mention the mafia in front of me. For example, a few weeks ago a Taiwanese friend of mine called me on my Facebook Wall her “mafia friend”, haha. A few years ago I was in a German school, and the teacher asked me about the mafia, so I had to explain to the whole class if the mafia existed, what they do etc.

    Well, the point is that I don't get angry. I don't feel embarrassed, or uncomfortable. That the mafia exists is a fact. But since I am not a supporter of the mafia, since I believe in democracy and the rule of law, I have enough distance to be able to make fun of it and talk about it without feeling that my self-esteem is compromised.

    But just imagine what would happen if someone wrote on the FB wall of a German: “Hey, you old Nazi”. The German would probably get furious. Personally, I think that a lot of Germans are not easy-going when it comes to topics like Nazism, race, nationalism, etc.

    The reason why I criticise the comments on “Spiegel Online” is that they show that a lot of Germans are similar to their Japanese counterparts; on the one hand, most people will agree that their countries' wars of aggression were wrong; on the other hand, they have extremely contradictory feelings about the past, and they feel 'personally' humiliated and hurt when the subject of the past comes up. Maybe I should explain in one of my posts why I think that individuals who have nothing to do with those crimes feel personally disturbed by the collective memory of war atrocities.

    I see nothing wrong about Gauck's apology. To draw a comparison: this year Ma Yingjiu apologised for the 228 massacre perpetrated by the Guomindang regime, although Ma himself was born 3 years after the incident. What would you think if the Guomindang said: “Well, that's a long time ago, our generation had nothing to do with it”? Wouldn't that be an attitude that belittles the past? I think apologies are a way to sympathise with the victims and their descendants, they have nothing to do with self-deprecation. This is my opinion.


  5. Thanks. I get your point. I just wanted to avoid the impression of a general discontent with the president's actions based on single opinions prominent at event or on the internet. Looking forward to your Japan post.


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