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From Hirohito to Heimat

Take, for example, Sabine Reichel, born in Hamburg in 1946, now living in New York. She describes in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? how badly she missed the lack of discussion about the Nazi period, at school and at home, and how regrettably little she knew about Jews, and how she finally got her father to talk about his past, on an island in Spain, and how she also got to meet Jews, in Brooklyn. The real subject of her book is of course identity, how to be a postwar German.

Reichel seems a decent, though at times rather histrionic, woman who loathes her country’s Nazi past. And yet even she cannot avoid bringing up some of the usual palliatives for the national blush of shame. She concludes that all war is bad: “The war is the prison, and the greatest illusion is a victorious war. Wars are always lost…. War wounds everybody.” This, one feels like saying, is too easily said: not every war is the same, and some get wounded worse than others. Marguerite Duras, whom Reichel quotes with great approval, was being trite when she said that we must give a collective and not a German interpretation to the Nazi horror, and that “the only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by everyone.” Everyone? Even the people who survived the death camps?

To share it,” Duras went on, “just like the idea of equality and fraternity.” This is the kind of sentimental nonsense that appeals to an antipolitical Green of the Woodstock generation, not to mention the peace groups that gather each year at Hiroshima to commemorate Japan’s unique suffering, or even the likes of Murakami Hyoe, who glibly wrote that World War II was “a global catastrophe for all civilizations, for which Britain, the US and other Western Allies must share the blame with Japan.” But there is something more disturbing about Reichel’s Bob Dylanish politics, so steeped in distrust for what she calls the “so-called democracy” of the Federal Republic. In 1968, it seems, she really let it rip, for she discovered

rebellion and a taste for anarchy—and I loved it…. Feeling mentally disconnected from my uninspiring environment—which had been built and controlled by Nazi burghers—made it impossible for me to desire anything less than a “New Order.” I was swept away by lofty ideas…. I approached the whole thing instinctively and with a zeal for action itself that sometimes transcended the content.

The instinctive zeal for action. Mishima Yukio talked about that a lot, too. And how well young fascists in the 1930s would have understood it. I think Professor Geyl, the Dutch historian, was on to something when he remarked (in a tribute to Isaiah Berlin) that he felt “inclined to bracket with the desire for relief from responsibility the desire for action unimpeded by doubts of success or by moral scruples.”

Reichel’s taste for anarchy is shared by some of the German artists she admires as representing a better, more inspiring Germany, or should I say “Germany.” Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for example, is quoted by Anton Kaes, in From Hitler to Heimat, as calling himself “a romantic anarchist.” Fassbinder himself described “the concrete utopia” in his head as “a nation without hierarchies, without anxieties, without aggressions.” The Federal Republic, in Fassbinder’s view, represented “a concrete social situation in which utopian ideas are repressed.” Like Reichel, he detested the boring environment of a postwar Germany built and controlled by Nazi burghers.

But nobody, not even Fassbinder, has expressed such disgust as the filmmaker Hans Jürgen Syberberg, a Prussian like Hillgruber, and just as nostalgic for the former glory of his native heath. “Our downfall lies in democracy,” he told a reporter of Die Zeit. “The evil of today is not building concentration camps, but the worship of consumerism.” The problem for Syberberg is not that Germans don’t know how to mourn, as the Mitscherlichs thought, but that they can no longer suffer. Hitler could, albeit secretly:

A man who understands Wagner, must know what suffering means…. At least Hitler and his people wanted something. Nowadays I see so many people who want nothing any more and are unable to suffer.9

Syberberg’s project is to rediscover the German soul, or as Anton Kaes puts it, the unchanging mythic structures that underpin the German identity. Syberberg, writes Kaes,

wants to use film to find a way back to the spiritual home of the Germans, which he believes has been lost to materialism and rationalism. His project is paradoxical: irrationalism, which the Hitler movement had appropriated and exploited, is to be wrested away from its National Socialistic associations by means of a film that celebrates irrationalism as the essence of German identity.

Can this really be done? It is often said that the German 1968 generation (of which Syberberg is more an elder brother than a member, having been born in 1935) was driven into its romantic extremism because of the legacy of the war, the silence of the former Nazi burghers, the spiritual emptiness of the German Economic Miracle—just as Mishima Yukio was supposed to have been driven to his bizarre acts by the soullessness of postwar Japan. Syberberg wants to rescue the German soul from its despoliation by the Nazis. But was it really just a matter of despoliation or distortion? Is it not truer to say that this kind of romanticism, this antipolitical worship of the irrational, indulged in by Syberberg and other romantics helped to create Nazism in the first place? It is not a romanticism unique to Germany or Japan, for, as Finkielkraut points out, it exists everywhere, but the two former Axis powers have been especially fertile breeding grounds. So perhaps Hillgruber was right, albeit for the wrong reasons: to understand what went wrong in the Thirties, we must return to the nineteenth century.


When nineteenth-century Japanese compared the Meiji Emperor to his counterparts abroad, he was thought to be superior in virtue and taste to Napoleon and Alexander the Great, neither of whom shared Meiji’s poetic sensibility. The only foreign monarch comparable in any way was Wilhelm I, though he lacked Meiji’s progressive thrust.

But of course the Japanese emperor, restored to glory in 1868, was much more than a monarch, a mere strong man with a lofty title and impressive bloodlines; he was the direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, which lent a divine status not just to the imperial line, but also to the emperor’s subjects, the Japanese race. This in itself was not a new idea. The brilliance of the Meiji oligarchs was in the way they poured old wine into new bottles: the modern, progressive, divine emperor, who handed down the first Japanese constitution, was made into a symbol of a bogus cultural continuity, an unchanging mythology, of the Japanese identity. The imperial will, the symbol of national harmony, was enforced as a substitute for politics. This was later justified by such eminent philosophers as Nishida Kitaro, who applied quasi-Hegelian ideas—unity of subject and ruler, and so on—to the Japanese polity. The American chaplain at Sugamo Prison, where the Japanese were held during the Tokyo trials, observed that “they had a belief that any enemy of the emperor could not be right, so the more brutally they treated their prisoners, the more loyal to the emperor they were being.”

The Showa Emperor, or Hirohito, Meiji’s grandson, was not personally comparable to Hitler. But his psychological role was remarkably similar. The Mitscherlichs describe Hitler as

an object on which Germany depended, to which they transferred responsibility, and he was thus an internal object. As such, he represented and revived the ideas of omnipotence that we all cherish about ourselves from infancy.

The same was true of the Japanese imperial institution, no matter who sat on the throne, a ruthless war criminal or a gentle marine biologist.

It was precisely this symbol that General MacArthur, after finding yet another vessel for the old wine, chose to preserve in 1945. He behaved like a traditional Japanese strong man (and was admired for doing so by many Japanese), using the imperial symbol to enhance his own power. As a result, he hurt the chances of establishing a working Japanese democracy, and seriously distorted history. For to keep the emperor in place, Hirohito’s past had to be freed of any blemish; the symbol had to be, so to speak, cleansed from what had been done in its name. As a result, the Japanese never really mastered their past. After all, the emperor had been formally responsible for everything, and by now holding him responsible for nothing, everybody was absolved, except, of course, for a number of military and civilian scapegoats who fell “victim to victor’s justice.”

Hirohito not only escaped prosecution at the Tokyo trials, he could not even be called as a witness. This had not been the intention of some of America’s allies, as Arnold C. Brackman, who was there as a young news reporter, tells us in his breezy but disappointing book The Other Nuremberg: The Untold Stories of the Tokyo War Crime Trials. MacArthur was the shogun and his will prevailed, but not because, as Brackman has it, Washington had tied MacArthur’s hands, for surely it was the reverse: MacArthur convinced Washington that without the emperor Japan would fall apart. So it was that, among others, Aristides George Lazarus, the defense counsel of one of the Japanese generals, was asked to arrange

that the military defendants, and their witnesses, would go out of their way during their testimony to include the fact that Hirohito was only a benign presence when military actions or programs were discussed at meetings that, by protocol, he had to attend.10

Brackman, a wholehearted supporter of the Tokyo trials, admits that the problem of “whether Hirohito was puppet or puppeteer” was never solved. The great merit of the trial, in his eyes, was its function as a history lesson “which encouraged soul-searching among many people.” But what kind of history lesson was it, when men were hanged for carrying out the formal will of a monarch who had to be beyond reproach? And what did this travesty of justice do to strengthen Japanese trust in the rule of law, the sine qua non of democracy?

Edward Behr has tried to break the myth of Hirohito the Innocent, and one must give him three cheers for effort. One gets the feeling, though, that he started off thinking Hirohito was like Hitler, then changed his mind, but for the sake of his book, still tried to make the best of a poor case. In an earlier book, entitled The Last Emperor to match Bertolucci’s picture, Behr characterizes Hirohito as a leader who, “behind the smokescreen of Japan’s politicomilitary establishment…both called the shots and ruthlessly disposed of those Japanese generals and officials who opposed his policies.”11 In the biography at hand, he rarely gets beyond insinuations that the emperor “knew,” “must have known,” “could not but have known” about atrocities and war plans, and that as a character he was weak, vacillating, and insensitive to the lives of ordinary men.

Well, no doubt he did, and no doubt he was. The question is, what did he do about it? Not very much, according to Behr, who makes heavy weather of the fact that once, in 1936, Hirohito did make full use of his formal powers to put down an armed rebellion by revolutionary Young Turks. So, Behr asks, if he liked peace so much, why didn’t Hirohito stop the war? But putting down a rebellion is not quite the same thing as going against the advice of the nation’s most senior military leaders. To stand up to powerful members of the military and bureaucratic establishment would have taken a stronger man than Hirohito, who never stood up to anything much, except perhaps to his daughter-in-law, Michiko, when she was found out reading Bible stories in the imperial palace.

By manipulating the imperial institution and the Tokyo trials, MacArthur in effect laid the groundwork for the kind of nationalist revisionism that is dominating some intellectual journals in Japan today. He made things worse by handing down a constitution, written mostly by Americans, which included the famous Article Nine, in which Japan renounces war. The prime minister in 1946, Shidehara Kijuro, protested to MacArthur that it was all very well saying that Japan should assume moral leadership in renouncing war, but that in the real world no country would follow this example. MacArthur replied: “Even if no country follows you, Japan will lose nothing. It is those who do not support this who are in the wrong.”

Thus several myths were born. Japan had become the unique moral nation of peace, betrayed by the very victors who had sat in judgment in Tokyo; betrayed in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Nicaragua; betrayed by the arms race, betrayed by the cold war; indeed, Japan was not only victimized by the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by all subsequent belligerent actions taken by the superpowers. This myth is held usually by men and women of the left, who cling to Article Nine as a priest to his book of prayers.

Revisionists on the right, including members of the Japanese government, see the entire constitution, and particularly Article Nine, as a foreign attempt to emasculate Japan and rob the nation of its identity. Hand in hand with this view goes the attempt to revive much of the prewar mythology—the emperor as the patriarch of the family state, etc.—to reestablish the cultural and political continuity broken by the Americans with their ill-considered trials and their Occupation propaganda. Like Syberberg, Japanese romantics wish to rescue the unchanging myths and symbols from their fascist past. But just as some of these myths and symbols were the bastard children of Hegel, Herder, Heidegger, and Fichte, many of the postwar theories bear a German stamp. The idea, for example, offered by the writer and specialist in German literature, Takeyama Michio, that Japan’s military adventures were the result of too much democracy, which had robbed the nation of its “national core,” smacks of German conservative theorizing on the weaknesses of the Weimar regime.

So in Japan we find on one side a dwindling and demoralized left, hanging on to Marxist dogma and peace symbols, and, on the other, rightist nostalgia for a pure Japanese spirit. This would not be so bad if there were a Japanese Habermas, a liberal voice for constitutionalism and rational politics. To be sure, there are such people, but they have been consistently shouted down, as in the sad case of the distinguished scholar, Maruyama Masao, attacked first by his Marxist students in the 1960s, and now by the right. And indeed in Finkielkraut’s terms, right and left are not so far apart. Both sides yearn for wholeness, unity, utopia But, unlike in Germany, polemos is ailing in Japan; the most hopeful thing about the Historikerstreit is, after all, that it is a Streit. In Japan there is a lot of shouting to the converted, but very little debate. And only very faint echoes are heard beyond Japanese shores.

Despite Patocka,” wrote Finkielkraut, “Kundera, Hannah Arendt, or Thomas Mann, the lesson of the century has not been learned: we continue to keep alive the idea that unity is the apotheosis of being.” This applies to Japan more than to Germany, certainly more than to France. But there is some hope. After the emperor Hirohito finally died, a few voices, hesitant, often buried in the letter columns of major papers, began to raise serious questions about the emperor’s role, his responsibility in Japan’s war, the accountability of Japanese military and political leaders, and the basis of Japan’s democracy itself. And this year television documentaries finally gave some attention to Japanese war crimes. Even Japan’s long slumbering opposition is showing signs of life. Which is why one wishes Doi Takako and her socialists well in their challenge to the Liberal Democrats, who, as has been pointed out often, are neither liberals nor, on the whole, democrats. For there is nothing like a gust of politics to blow away the mists of national soul from impenetrable forests and lonely mountain tops.


War Crimes December 21, 1989

War Crimes December 21, 1989

War Crimes December 21, 1989

  1. 9

    Die Zeit, September 1988.

  2. 10

    Letter from Lazarus to the Far Eastern Economic Review (July 6, 1989).

  3. 11

    The Last Emperor (Bantam, 1987), p. 139.

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