The sight of Rabbi Avraham Weiss from New York screaming at Polish nuns who turned an old warehouse outside the main Auschwitz camp into a Carmelite convent would have made my upper-middle-class Jewish grandparents wince: the kind of man who gives Jews a bad name, they would have said. And I am afraid they might have been right. The fanatical demeanor of the rabbi and his six fellow Americans was not made more edifying by the even worse spectacle of Polish workers spraying the protesters with cold water and tearing off their skull caps.

Rabbi Weiss sees the Carmelites as intruders in a place that has a unique significance as a symbol of Jewish suffering. The Christian cross is regarded as an affront to the memory of the Holocaust. European Jewish leaders and four cardinals took a less strident view when they signed an agreement in 1987 to build a new ecumenical center farther away from the camp. The center, though delayed, is now likely to be built, but in the meantime Weiss and some highly insensitive Polish prelates turned the affair into an unseemly battle over the symbols of martyrdom, degrading the memory of all those who died at Auschwitz, whether Jewish or gentile.

I thought of Rabbi Weiss when I read what Edgar Reitz, the German director of the haunting but questionable film Heimat, said some time ago about the TV serial Holocaust: “The Americans have stolen our history through Holocaust,” because films in the style of Holocaust prevent Germans from “taking narrative possession of our past, from breaking free from the world of judgments.”

This, in turn, reminded me of some revisionist ideas about the war, eagerly discussed these days in serious Japanese journals. The target of Japanese revisionism is what is called “the Tokyo trials view of history,” by which is meant a biased view, implanted in Japanese minds by foreign (American) propaganda, designed to justify “victor’s justice” and American domination over Japanese affairs.

I do not mean to imply political or moral parity between Weiss, Reitz, and Japanese revisionists. Weiss claims to speak for the victims of a terrible crime, for which there can be no excuse, whereas Reitz and the Japanese, while not necessarily excusing these crimes, want foreigners to keep their grubby judgmental hands off the history of their own people, the very people, that is, who committed or countenanced most of the crimes. What the rabbi, the German artist, and the Japanese revisionists have in common is certainly not politics: Reitz sees the world through a leftist, or at least Green-tinted, viewfinder, while many Japanese revisionists tend to look at things from the right. The rabbi has said he is a supporter of Gush Emunim in Israel. What all of the above have in common, however, is an exclusive idea of history, often symbolic, mythical, and seen as an indispensable compass for the continuing search for identity—racial, cultural, religious, or national, whatever the case may be.

That this struggling over symbols is going on now is easy to explain: gradually but steadily memory turns into history, and, perhaps inevitably, history often turns into myth. Revisionism becomes respectable as historical taboos break down and time dissolves feelings of guilt and shame. To feel German or Japanese without guilt is the professed goal of an increasing number of vociferous politicians and writers. This often means reviving cultural symbols that have been tainted by the past. One can argue that it is a good thing that historical questions long deemed too painful to discuss are getting a proper airing. And permanent guilt is not a healthy state for anyone to be in, but this should never mean that past evils be, as the Japanese say, washed away with water.

Historians, wrote the famous Dutch scholar Pieter Geyl, are the guardians of mankind’s collective memory, but—and here comes the rub—

It must be admitted that they often use (or abuse) their guardianship to help in creating the legends which substitute themselves for the reality, and many are the great writers of history whose immediate influence on their contemporaries and on the world’s affairs has been due, more than to anything else, to the legendary or mythical features in the presentation of their subjects.1

If this is true of historians, then what about that far more potent memory bank of our times: the movies, TV dramas, even novels? How do we make sure that the transition from memory to history takes place reasonably, wisely, and with the minimum of distortion, so that Primo Levi’s nightmare at Auschwitz, of “speaking and not being listened to, of finding liberty and remaining alone,” does not come true? Is it still possible to protect the past from becoming simply another soap opera, trivial, trite, and in the end, forgotten?


Alain Finkielkraut, as befits a French intellectual who became disillusioned with the dream of 1968 (“L’imagination au pouvoir,” and all that), is pessimistic. In his fascinating essay on the trial of Klaus Barbie, the former Gestapo chief in Lyons, he meditates on the value of war crimes trials, on the political lessons we have learned or, more often in his view, not learned from the past, and on the nature of modern history: how our image-hungry age turns the past into a fairy tale. Memory, as the title of his book suggests, is vain; Levi’s nightmare, in Finkielkraut’s view, is coming true.

Memory, or rather the suppression and distortion of memory, is one of the main themes of Marcel Ophuls’s recent rich and deeply disturbing documentary about Klaus Barbie, Hotel Terminus. It was all so long ago, say many of his German witnesses, why can’t we let bygones be bygones? A common way to deal with an uneasy conscience is to say that only Jews refuse to forget the past, because they are vengeful or, as a French journalist interviewed by Ophuls said about the Klarsfelds, the French couple who tracked Barbie down, they are paid good money by the Israeli secret service. “There is a segment of the Jews,” a Croatian who had been involved in letting Nazis escape to South America, told Ophuls, “who will never stop…using their considerable riches…to fabricate crimes.” Help offered by Catholic priests to Nazi fugitives, said this same man, was perfectly natural in the struggle against communism: “No questions asked.” But perhaps the most chilling statement in the entire film comes from Barbie himself, made in Spanish, after his arrest: “I have forgotten everything. If they haven’t, that’s their problem.” Primo Levi’s problem, in other words.

About the legitimacy and importance of the Barbie trial itself, Finkielkraut has no doubts. He argues that precisely because Barbie was only a relatively minor functionary in the Nazi service public criminel, the trial was a valuable demonstration of how every man, no matter how faceless of insignificant, must be held responsible for following criminal orders. That Barbie could be tried only in France, by an exclusively French court, for crimes committed against humanity, Finkielkraut holds to be a catastrophe. For this shows how hopelessly ineffective the legacy of the Nuremberg trials has been. Even though there is general agreement, ratified by the United Nations, that crimes against humanity—persecution of people purely on the grounds of race or religion—are against international law, there is no international tribunal to hold those who have committed such crimes accountable for them. The Nuremberg trials have remained unique.

The reason for this is a dilemma the Nuremberg trials themselves never resolved: how to reconcile universal laws with the concept of sovereignty. Can the leaders of a nation be prosecuted for acts that according to their own laws are perfectly legal? The Nuremberg judges thought not, and so the Nazi leaders were tried only for crimes against humanity committed during World War II, and not before. The Kristallnacht, for example, was not within the court’s jurisdiction. Nor, obviously, was the murder of millions of kulaks in the country from which the Soviet judges came. And if the Nazis could not be prosecuted for what happened in Germany before the war, what then can be done about the atrocities in Cambodia, or Iraq, or wherever else man devours man because he is the Other?

Realpolitik, as recent statements by Henry Kissinger on China have again made clear, rules the relationship between sovereign nations, not universal laws of man. This is true of domestic politics as well, for as Argentinians, Uruguayans, Spaniards, and, indeed, Germans found out, you cannot prosecute every butcher of the ancien régime without destroying the social cohesion necessary for building a more democratic society. But largely ignoring the crimes of the butchers for the sake of national unity, as De Gaulle and Adenauer did, is no solution either, for they will come back to haunt future generations like malevolent ghosts.

Finkielkraut’s bête noire is not so much the Butcher of Lyons himself as his lawyer, the half-Vietnamese Jacques Vergès. Maître Vergès, a beautifully spoken man with a taste for fine Havanas, might strike some people as reasonable: his basic line is that Frenchmen have no right to judge Barbie for doing exactly what French policemen did in Algeria, indeed what white imperialists did or do everywhere in the third world, including Americans in Vietnam and Jews in Israel: torturing and terrorizing the brown and yellow masses into submission.

Vergès is a man of the extreme left, a former member of the Communist party, whose clients included members of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the FLN. Yet precisely the same arguments are used today by right-wing Japanese revisionists to justify Japan’s war in Asia. It was a war of liberation, they say, following wartime propaganda, liberation of the Asian peoples from the Western colonial yoke. And however regrettable some Japanese excesses may have been, they were no worse than what Western imperialists did in their conquest of Asia.


Finkielkraut demonstrates, I think convincingly, that Vergès’s strategy of turning the trial of a German Nazi into an indictment of Western imperialism and Zionism leads to the very kind of mythical distortion that justifies further atrocities, if not committed by Vergès himself, then at any rate by some of the people whose causes he helps to promote. Their views can be gleaned from such publications as Algerie Actualité, which refers to the prosecution of Barbie as

a move by the Zionists, doubtless a conspiracy of the protocol of the Elders of Zion…. The holocaust is the flame of the Jewish Olympus kept alight through the media by a financial superpower.

Vergès’s rhetoric at the Lyons trial was a distortion of history. For French policemen in Algeria or Israeli soldiers on the West Bank or GIs in Vietnam, no matter how cruel or misguided, were not guilty of the same crime as the Nazis. There was and is no question of a Final Solution in Algeria, Israel, or Vietnam. To equate the systematic liquidation of all European Jews with Western (including Israeli) brutality against the people of the third world is not just to twist history. Worse than that, it turns all those who are deemed to stand in the way of progress, justice (not law), and peace in the third world into crypto-Nazis. Botha, Begin, Lyndon B. Johnson, all have had the inevitable swastika daubed on their images. The next step is to excuse the most horrible violence committed in the name of progress, justice, and peace—eggs must be broken for omelets, terror for the sake of liberation is not really terror at all, and so on, until we arrive at our promised millennium, where history’s destiny has taken its course and man lives in eternal harmony.

The millennium is promised in many shapes and sizes, by no means all of a Marxist-Leninist cut. One of the largest individual donors to the United Nations is a Japanese fixer called Sasakawa Ryoichi. His bust adorns the UN headquarters in New York. His motto, flashed on Japanese TV screens in personal ads, is “All Men Are Brothers.” Sasakawa is said to covet the Nobel Peace prize. Still known as a right-wing extremist, he was a promoter during the war of Japanese fascism, whose professed aim was to unite the world in harmony under one (Japanese) roof.

Finkielkraut’s most important point—and he is not the first to make it—is that the Progressive view of history leaves no room for a legitimate conflict of interests. One of the legacies of our bloody past is a kind of misguided utopianism that regards all forms of conflict as wicked obstacles on the way to universal harmony. It is no longer enough to contain violent excess and absolute power by legal and institutional means, but in the name of peace all sources of conflict must be eradicated. In such a view, frequently held by perfectly decent idealists, diverse individual or collective interests easily appear as mere selfishness, often discredited in the debased terminology that is another legacy of the Nazi past: enemies of progress are “fascists,” critics of non-Western political utopias are “racists.” Carried to its logical extreme—an extreme which has already occurred more than once, and been defended by more celebrated figures than Maître Vergès—the Progressive view may see debate with such selfish forces as a waste of time: they must be removed from the face of this earth.

But ideology is not the only enemy of reason identified by Finkielkraut. The other is what he calls “mediatization”; the world awash with television which sucks in every human event and spits it out as entertainment. As he puts it in the inimitable style of the post-1968 philosophe:

It is no longer a matter of Don Quixote, in all of us, having to keep Sancho Panza quiet, for Sancho Panza has the world to himself now and savors his absolute power.

Here Finkielkraut may be indulging a little in snobbery. He is of course right to point out the dangers of false sentiment for example in the way Barbie’s prosecutors stressed the innocence of the children of Izieu, who were deported on Barbie’s orders to Auschwitz—as though adults sent to be slaughtered, simply because they were Jews, were in any way less innocent. It is also true that the mass media tend to introduce false sentiment into virtually everything we see, read, or hear. But even Sancho Panza can have a graver purpose. The American TV drama Holocaust might be a case in point. American critics and intellectuals, including Elie Wiesel, condemned it as tasteless and trivial. One saw what they meant. I watched it in Tokyo at the time and the gravity of the show was not enhanced by constant interruptions for bouncy commercials, some, I recall, for Tokyo Gas.

But the series electrified West Germany. It was watched by more than 20 million Germans. The television station received more than 30,000 telephone calls. People who had forgotten or never knew about Auschwitz, Babi Yar, the Nuremberg Laws, or the Kristallnacht, were confronted with history in their own living rooms. Anton Kaes, in his excellent book From Hitler to Heimat, describes the debate that followed, with viewers calling the TV station after each episode to discuss their experiences. He quotes Heinz Höhne’s article in the liberal weekly Der Spiegel:

An American television series, made in a trivial style, produced more for commercial than for moral reasons, more for entertainment than for enlightenment, accomplished what hundreds of books, plays, films, and television programs, thousands of documents, and all the concentration camp trials have failed to do in the more than three decades since the end of the war: to inform Germans about crimes against Jews committed in their name so that millions were emotionally touched and moved.


Japan never had its Holocaust, I cannot think of even one Japanese film that deals mainly with the suffering of Japan’s victims during the 1930s and 1940s, nothing about the brutality of Japanese soldiers in Nanjing, the Japanese POW camps, the rape of Manila, or anything else that might cause discomfort to Japanese audiences. When Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor came to Japan, a short news clip of Chinese being shot in Nanjing was deleted by the Japanese distributors, afraid that “it might be controversial.” (It was later reinstated when Bertolucci’s producer made a fuss, and there was, so far as I know, no controversy.)

Japanese feature films about the war, of which there are quite a few, are all about Japanese suffering. The same is not true of written history, There are many Japanese books—often, but not always by Marxist writers—about Japanese atrocities in Asia. Such works have been effectively purged from Japanese schools by the highly conservative education ministry. And none of this has penetrated popular entertainment; the Japanese Sancho Panza is concerned only with his own woes.

Movies about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two supreme symbols of Japanese suffering, began to be made in the 1950s, as soon as the Americans lifted their heels. The kind of revanchism then in the air can be seen in such films as Hiroshima, made by Sekigawa Hideo in 1953, sponsored by the leftist Japan Teachers Union, which declared that the movie “genuinely helped to fight to preserve peace.” The film suggests that America dropped the bomb as a racist experiment, and to dramatize this message American tourists are shown at the end buying souvenir bones of Japanese victims.2 This kind of mythology was inspired by the left. Rightist mythmakers still kept their heads down in those early days, but would later come back with a vengeance.

It should be no surprise, then, that a suggestion made some years ago by the mayor of Hiroshima to build an Auschwitz monument in his city, thereby linking symbolically the Japanese and the Jews as the two people who suffered most from war crimes, met with little or no opposition in Japan, even on the grounds of taste. One popular writer, Uno Masami, linked Hiroshima and Auschwitz as the “peg” for his theory that the Jews are conspiring to take over the world. The Jews, so Uno’s thesis went, were clever not to let anybody change Auschwitz, so the monument to Jewish suffering could boost their “racial renaissance.” The misguided Japanese, however, on orders from General Mac-Arthur, rebuilt Hiroshima. If only they had left Hiroshima in ruins, as a permanent appeal to the world, the Japanese would have regained their proper identity. But as things have turned out, the Jews now rule the world and the Japanese have lost their “racial confidence.” Uno, it must be admitted, is not regarded as a serious thinker in Japan, but his books do sell a great many copies.3

Why is it that popular Japanese mythology has so effectively managed to present the past as though Japan had been the victim and not the aggressor? Why is it that glimpses of an aggressive Japanese past must still be excised from a foreign film, such as Bertolucci’s, while Germans are transfixed by Holocaust? Why are serious Japanese magazines now indulging in a wave of often xenophobic revisionism, while German journals, like Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, still expose an endless number of closeted skeletons to the light?

It is often suggested that the reason is cultural, and Ruth Benedict’s famous distinction between “guilt cultures” and “shame cultures” is trotted out to do its hoary duty: Germans, having internalized their guilt by dint of their membership in the guilt-ridden Judeo-Christian tradition, feel the need to confess, adnauseam, to relieve themselves of their heavy burden. The Japanese, on the other hand, only feel shame, that is to say, they only feel guilty when their crime is found out, resulting in loss of face, and so, being a polite people, they prefer to spare one another the shame of exposing their dirty laundry to the public gaze.

This crude distinction between guilt and shame might seem plausible, but it breaks down in reality, for most older Germans are still as eager to keep quiet about past sins as the Japanese. German schoolteachers, just like their Japanese counterparts, often find other things to do when it comes to discussing the history of the 1930s and 1940s. And, though to nowhere near the same extent as Hiroshima in Japan, Dresden has become a German alibi for wounds inflicted on others, In their justly celebrated study of the postwar German psyche, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich described their countrymen thus:

Germans vacillate all too often between provincialism and dreams of imperial grandeur, between arrogance and self-abasement. But their self-abasement bears the marks not so much of humility, as of melancholia, and is expressed by secretly blaming others for their own humiliation, for their various defeats, for things having gone so badly with them, and, consequently, for their being so misunderstood. 4

Exactly the same, word for word, could be said about the Japanese. So the difference—which is there, all right, between the Japanese and the German ways of mastering the past, or Vergangenheitsbe-wältigung (I don’t think there is a Japanese word for this)—cannot be ascribed simply to different cultural or religious traditions. A more significant distinction, I think, is the Holocaust itself.

For if the Japanese have had no Holocaust, then neither did they have a Holocaust. What about the Nanjing massacre, you might say, what about the millions of Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian dead? What about the medical experiments in Manchuria? And the Korean labor gangs worked to death in Japanese mines? Wasn’t Nanjing the Japanese Auschwitz? Weren’t the Japanese crimes just as cruel as the Nazi Holocaust?

Just as cruel, maybe, but not exactly the same. Comparing the statistics of mass murder was condemned by Christopher Isherwood as “engaging in real estate.” We can, nonetheless, follow Hannah Arendt’s example in comparing crimes, not to make them seem relative but to examine their uniqueness. The difference between Japan’s conquistadorial war in Asia and the Nazi Holocaust is that, no matter how brutal they might have been, the Japanese had no program to exterminate an entire people. Japanese atrocities, carried out not by special Einsatzgruppen but by regular military men, were exercises in terror to subjugate populations, not to eradicate them. Even those who condemn these acts, as most Japanese, so far as they are aware of them, do, can still argue that they were the inevitable result of warfare.5 And war produces extreme circumstances in which all men, Americans, Chinese, and, yes, even Japanese, sometimes behave like savages, ergo, we are all responsible, and let us pray for peace.

The Holocaust cannot possibly be cast in this light. The war against the Jews, unlike the Japanese campaigns in Asia, was conducted independently of the war. What prevents most German revisionists from completely condemning the Nuremberg trials in the way Japanese condemn the Tokyo trials is the one thing the Nuremberg judges felt most awkward about: the crimes against humanity. For, unlike the other charges—conspiracy to wage aggressive war and conventional war crimes—the Holocaust was something none of the victorious nations that sat in judgment could be accused of. Not even Stalin’s Soviet Union?

Not according to Raymond Aron, quoted by Professor Charles Maier in his superb book about the German Historikerstreit.6 Aron did not

ignore the fact that Stalin probably massacred more people as enemies of the revolution than Hitler did in the name of the purity of race…. But if we wish to “save the concepts” there is a difference between a philosophy whose logic is monstrous and one which can be given a monstrous interpretation.

To which Maier adds: “It is indeed crucial to ‘save the concepts’…. Much of the Historikerstreit is precisely a contest over moral distinctions, which, if clouded, license barbarism. But if we insist on distinctions, it cannot be to rehabilitate Stalinism.”

Or, of course, Nazism. And that is how the Historikerstreit began in the first place. In 1985 Ernst Nolte wrote an explosive essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled “The Past that Will Not Pass Away” (compare that to Finkielkraut’s La Mémoire vaine). His point was that Hitler’s war could be seen as a preemptive strike against a Communist enemy that seemed ready to destroy European civilization with “Asiatic” barbarism: “Wasn’t the ‘Gulag Archipelago’ more original than Auschwitz?” If one adds to this idea Nolte’s equally controversial contention that Hitler might have legitimately regarded the Jews as enemies, because Chaim Weizmann declared in 1939 that Jews throughout the world would fight on the side of England, it is easy to see what Nolte is up to: he is restoring Nazi terror, including the Holocaust, to the realm of conventional war. And so Nolte can conclude that almost every major nation with claims to power has had “its own Hitler era, with its monstrosities and sacrifices.”

This explicit ducking of national responsibility is dubious enough, but the implicit nature of Nolte’s apologia is worse. The historian Hans Mommsen observed that by equating anti-Semitism with anti-Communism, Nolte leaves the impression that Hitler’s war was a good cause that somehow went horribly wrong;7 and, indeed, that the Russians and the Jews were partly responsible for their terrible fate. The Eastern variation of this argument, often heard in Japan, is that China had to be saved by Japan from chaos and Communism, which threatened the whole of East Asia.

In his attack on Nolte, the liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas linked him with less objectionable neoconservative historians, such as Andreas Hillgruber and Michael Stürmer. Springing to their defense in Commentary magazine (May, 1989) Jerry Z. Muller accused Habermas of being unfair, since neither Hillgruber nor Stürmer share Nolte’s extreme ideas. This is true, but, as Richard Evans’s trenchant critique of the German neoconservatives, In Hitler’s Shadow, makes clear, they come to remarkably similar conclusions. And their motives are plainly stated: Stürmer is worried about the lack of a meaningful German national identity, because of the Germans’ “obsession with their guilt.” (Compare this to attacks from Japanese conservatives like Murakami Hyoe against those who “flaunt at every opportunity the defects inherent in our simple and brittle national character.”)

Hillgruber’s idea of a healthy German identity is one that combines respect for the armed forces and the revival of a strong, unified “land of the middle,” lodged safely and soundly between the Soviet Union and the West. Hence his admiration for Bismarck; hence his most contentious theory that the ordinary German soldier fighting on in the East, while millions were being gassed, was justified in thinking that he was defending the German people from being torn apart by the Soviets. The ordinary German soldier, in other words, was quite normal, quite respectable, and quite innocent of what was going on a few miles up the road, in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Seeing him from this point of view, which is what Hillgruber tries to do, we can identify with him, even feel proud to share the same tradition.

Hillgruber nowhere defends Hitler. On the contrary, he holds Hitler personally responsible for all the excesses of the Reich; it was the Austrian-born Hitler, not the German people, who was largely to blame for Auschwitz. And Auschwitz must be placed in its historical setting: it was but one example of many brutal attempts in modern times to resettle vast numbers of people. Did Germans not suffer almost as badly when they were hounded out of their homes in 1945? (Or, as Japanese revisionists point out over and over again, didn’t Japanese POWs suffer horribly in Siberian camps?)

Evans is surely right to argue that Hillgruber effectively minimizes the uniqueness of the war against the Jews, thereby contriving at last to lance the boil of Auschwitz, which had disfigured the healthy German identity. The politics of the neoconservative identity are summed up by Evans:

If the relativization of Auschwitz succeeds, an important obstacle to a resurgence of German nationalism and to the campaign for German reunification is thereby removed.

One has to agree with this conclusion, even if one does not share Evans’s desire for the Soviet empire in central Europe to stay forever frozen, lest ethnic and nationalist tension break out all over again. Surely the Poles, the Czechs, and the Hungarians, not to mention the people of the Baltic states, deserve better than that.

One can sympathize with Hillgruber’s attempt to identify with a pre-Nazi German past, if not with his neo-Prussian historicism. For identity means historical continuity, and that is a problem when continuity has been marked by catastrophe: how to find one’s way back? Clearly the idea of Stunde Null, of German history beginning all over again in 1945, can no longer be taken seriously. So Hillgruber looks to the nineteenth century.

Where does Habermas, who is no less interested in identity, look? He appears to be confused on this issue. On the one hand, he believes that

the only patriotism that does not alienate us from the West is a patriotism of commitment to constitutionalism. Unfortunately, a loyalty to universalist principles of constitutionalism, one anchored in conviction, could be inculcated in the cultured German nation only after—and by virtue of—Auschwitz.

And so, Habermas concludes, any attempt to “suppress the blush of shame” is a blow against this universalist, constitutionalist, West German identity. So far so good. But Habermas also argues for a more romantic identity:

Every identity which provides the basis for belonging to a collective [group] and which underlies the many situations in which the members can emphatically say “we” must appear to remain as something unquestioned and beyond [critical] reflection.

Even Maier, who is highly sympathetic to Habermas’s views, cannot go along with this contradiction betweeen enlightened rationalism and uncritical emotionalism. It is, of course, an old contradiction, never resolved by German thinkers: Germany as a legal and political entity, a Rechtstaat, and “Germany” as a romantic ideal, a Heimat, devoid of politics, a land of pine forests, lonely mountain tops, and dreamy Wandervogel anxiously searching for identity.

“Identity may in fact be a spurious goal for the historian,” Maier wisely concludes. He might have been more emphatic: it is a positively dangerous goal to pursue, not only for historians, but also for politicians, because it leads to a very German (and Japanese) problem: the search for identity politicizes activities—religion, scholarship, philosophy—which should not be subject to political aims, and it depoliticizes the very spheres of public life that should be: party politics, international relations, and so on. In the romantic quest for wholeness there can be no room for institutionalized differences.

Pluralism, of course, implies different identities. If history “from the point of view of the ordinary soldier” serves Hillgruber’s conservative identity, what kind of identity emerges from Edgar Reitz’s movie Heimat?8 Reitz presents a history from the point of view of decent rural folk in the imaginary utopian village of Schabbach. The Nazi catastrophe is not ignored, but it is heard offstage, like the rumblings of distant thunder, for which the decent folk of Schabbach cannot be held responsible. More revealing than that, however, is the depiction of postwar Germany. Here we see a more hellish vision of Schabbach than when Hitler ruled: a vision of disappearing values, of traditional architecture and crafts demolished by ruthless property developers, of Americans ruling the world with their crass materialism, a vision in short, of shattered dreams. Reitz is the first to admit the Schabbach never really existed, that Heimat was always a distant dream, a dream of “Germany,” but he leaves us in no doubt who the main enemy is of this “Germany”: American materialism, capitalist greed, soulless modern urban life. Watching Heimat one wonders who is more reactionary, the neoconservatives dreaming of Bismarck and Wilhelminian grandeur or the soulful cinéaste dreaming of his home in the forest?

How blurred the distinctions get between left and right in this apolitical or, more precisely, antipolitical world of Heimat-seeking can be seen in the Japanese counterpart of Heimat, a television series called Oshin, produced by NHK, the conservative national broadcasting company. It was a favorite of former prime minister Nakasone, who praised it for extolling traditional Japanese virtues—so no leftish or even Greenish sentiments there, but Nakasone was as keen as Hillgruber, Nolte, or Reitz to restore national identity.

Oshin is the name of the main character, a simple country girl in the 1930s, who grows up to be a successful capitalist in our own greedy, soulless, materialistic times. Her most virtuous years are the 1930s and 1940s, when, as the wartime slogan had it, “one heart beat in one hundred million people.” These were years of joy and hardship, bravely shared by other simple, decent folk, who did their duty, as soldiers abroad, or as mothers and wives keeping the home fires burning. (Of military atrocities there is of course no mention.) It was the Americans—grinning black GIs in the case of Heimat; gum-chewing GIs, soiling clean tatami floors with their muddy boots, in Oshin—who heralded a new era of vulgar prosperity, in which the national heart no longer beat as one, in which there was no more national heart left to beat.

Disillusion with the postwar order has, at least until recently, led leftist romantics farther astray than their right-wing counterparts. It was the German generation of 1968 that insisted on seeing a continuity from Nazi Germany to the greedy, soulless, capitalist Federal Republic. It was they who sometimes justified the grotesque violence of the Red Army Faction by claiming the right to resist, to make up for the supine acquiescence of their parents thirty-odd years before.

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.

This Issue

October 26, 1989