An Inability to Mourn

The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan

by Ian Buruma
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,, 330 pp., $25.00

In one of his panegyrics to the joys of the chase, R.S. Surtees calls hunting “war without its guilt.” This is a striking and evocative phrase, reminding us that since ancient times guilt has been the burden of the warrior, the wages of his hubris, of his daring to substitute his own ambition for the will of the gods, of his seeking to change history. It is for this reason that warring tribes and nations have tried to propitiate the deities at the outset of their campaigns, to win them over with pleas and promises and cajolery; and this is also why their scholars and clerics have labored to devise definitions of just wars that will serve to legitimize their particular enterprises and exculpate them as they embark upon them.

It is a sign of their desire to avoid responsibility and the necessity of atonement that at the end of the wars the victors usually take the position that exclusive guilt for the horrors of the conflict should properly be imputed to their former foes and visit upon them punishments and disabilities-burning their long ships and destroying their weapons, as the Spartans and Thebans did to the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War and as the Romans did to the Carthaginians after the end of the Second Punic War (in the latter case demanding even the death of their war elephants), and, in more modern times, pulling down their systems of fortification, placing limitations upon their armed forces, depriving them of territory and exacting monetary reparations, and trying their leaders as war criminals.

The defeated have reacted to such measures in different ways at different times. After the Franco-Prussian War, the French paid off the reparations required of them so quickly that they caused serious disruption of the German economy, while their stubborn refusal to accept the loss of Alsace and Lorraine was a complicating factor in German diplomacy for more than forty years. To the war guilt clause and the reparations requirements of the Versailles Treaty, the Germans responded with outrage and defiance, and eventually with secret rearmament, submission to a dictator, and a war of revenge. In contrast, the defeated powers of 1945 have answered the imputation of guilt in surprising but contradictory ways, the Japanese largely with indifference, the Germans (at least in the western part of the country) with a strong disposition to accept responsibility for the crimes committed during the war, and, in certain circles of younger Germans, a tendency to insist upon it.

Illustrations of how this has affected the political style of the two countries are not hard to come by. In December 1970, when Willy Brandt was in Warsaw for negotiations for the new treaty between Poland and the Federal Republic, he visited the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto and fell to his knees before it. He wrote later,

This gesture…was not “planned,” …Oppressed by the memories of Germany’s recent history, I simply did what people…

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