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 do when words fail them.1

Ian Buruma comments in The Wages of Guilt that one cannot imagine a Japanese statesman making a similar gesture. Indeed, in December 1991, when the mayor of Honolulu asked President Bush to invite Japanese officials to the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Pearl Harbor only if they apologized for the war, the Japanese government refused, a deputy cabinet secretary declaring that “the entire world is responsible for the war” and that consequently the United States should apologize too.

It would be difficult to find anyone better suited than Ian Buruma to reflect upon the question of why these national attitudes should be so different. A native of Holland who now lives in England, he is thoroughly familiar with the politics and culture of both Japan and Germany, has traveled widely in both countries, and speaks their languages fluently. The theme of his new book has long preoccupied him. Even when he was a boy in post-war Holland, reading piles of books about Dutch Maquis and silk-scarfed RAF pilots outwitting the evil Nazis, his thoughts often strayed, he tells us, from the heroes to the villains, and he found himself wondering what they thought about it all. Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, when he spent much time in and around Japan, he was curious to learn how the Japanese remembered the war, and was intrigued to discover, among other paradoxes, that despite the popularity of the film The Bridge over the River Kwai in Japan, it appeared to have had no effect whatsoever in arousing any Japanese interest in their brutal treatment of prisoners of war, which was, indeed, like most other aspects of the war, hardly mentioned. In contrast, the Germans, as he discovered when he began to travel extensively in Germany for the first time in 1989, were as avid in their interest in the war as they were critical of Germany’s role in it.


The German war was not only remembered on television, on the radio, in community halls, schools, and museums; it was actively worked on, labored, rehearsed. One sometimes got the impression, especially in Berlin, that German memory was like a massive tongue, seeking out, over and over, a sore tooth.

This was enough to encourage Buruma to begin talking, during his travels in the two countries, with officials and ordinary citizens about the war, to visit museums and shrines, to study the work of scholars and artists and educators, always seeking an answer to the question of why the gulf between Japanese and German views of the war existed and whether it was in origin cultural or political or lay in the war itself. His book grew out of these ruminations.

He is inclined to believe that part of the explanation may lie in Ruth Benedict’s famous cultural model of guilt versus shame. “The Germans, riddled with guilt, feel the need to confess their sins, to unburden their guilt and be forgiven,” doubtless in some part as a result of their Christian heritage. The Japanese, on the other hand, “wish to remain silent and, above all, wish others to remain silent too, for the point is not guilt in the eyes of God, but public shame, embarrassment, ‘face.”‘

Buruma supplies two cases that seem to justify this explanation: the disastrous speech of Philipp Jenninger, the president of the West German Bundestag, on the fiftieth anniversary of Reichskrystallnacht in November 1988; and the public statement of the mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Itoshi, in December of the same year, who said that he believed that the emperor bore responsibility for the war. In the former case, Jenninger sought to re-create the atmosphere of 1938 and describe the popular mood, including the widespread gratitude felt for Adolf Hitler’s domestic successes and the ambivalent feelings about Jews. The speech was meant as a history lesson about complicity in evil and its results, and it was illustrated by detailed and painful descriptions of horrors. But the clumsiness of Jenninger’s presentation led a large part of his audience to mistake his purpose and indeed to believe that he shared attitudes and sentiments that he meant only to describe; there was a general feeling that his speech was inappropriate to the occasion; and the reaction was so universally critical that Jenninger felt compelled to give up his post.2

Motoshima’s remarks were made in response to a question asked by a Communist deputy in the Nagasaki city council at a time when it was widely known that the emperor was dying, and the public response to what he said was even more devastating than in the Germancase. The mayor was attacked by right-wing and patriotic societies, expelled from his political party, and, on the day after the emperor’s death, shot and nearly killed by a nationalist fanatic.

Common to the two cases was the tendency of the speakers to violate the cultural rules of their societies. So far as their audiences were concerned, Buruma writes, “Jenninger had not confessed enough, and Motoshima had talked too much. This was the nature of their different forms of tactlessness,” compounded in the case of Motoshima by the fact that he was a Christian and could thus be accused of not behaving as a Japanese.

Striking as these cases are, one suspects that the distinction between guilt and shame has limited usefulness in explaining the differences between the two societies. The fact that, even before the attempt on his life, 13,684 signatures were collected supporting Motoshima would seem to indicate that there are more than a few Japanese who are not ashamed when unpleasant truths are revealed about their leaders. And certainly not all Germans are eager to have the sins of the past revealed. When the schoolgirl Anja Rosmus of Passau, doing research in local history for an essay contest, began to dig up and publish facts about the degree to which Passau’s leading citizens had colluded with the Nazis before 1945, her teachers sought to persuade her to drop the subject. When she refused, libraries and archives were closed to her, she became the subject of threats and abuse, people beat on her doors and rattled her windows at night, her cat was killed, and a suit for defamation was brought against her.

It would appear also that the way in which the two peoples remember the war is as important as their cultural biases. For the Japanese, the dominant memory is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In the place where the bomb fell there is today a Peace Park, which, Buruma says, is a “veritable Lourdes of shrines, monuments, stones, bells, fountains, and temples, commemorating the dead and offering prayers for peace.” To visit it is an uncomfortable experience for Americans, for they are constantly being asked by groups of schoolchildren what they think of peace, as if this is something they ought to ponder deeply, in view of the crime their country committed in this place. This mecca, to which millions of people make a pilgrimage every year, has become the symbol of Japanese victimization, and as such has tended to eradicate memory of the events that preceded the bombing. Attempts to recall these events have been stoutly resisted by local authorities, as happened when in 1987 some left-wing organizations submitted a petition asking that the history of Japanese aggression be made part of the Peace Memorial Museum.


The sacralizing of Hiroshima naturally prevents any attempt to give an objective account of the war preceding the bombing. Buruma tells us that in 1992, during a United Nations conference on disarmament in Hiroshima, a Harvard professor argued that the dropping of the bomb had shortened the war and thus saved a million Japanese lives; he went on to say that millions more were living because the horror of what had happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki had helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons ever since. The Japanese were outraged, and a leading newspaper expressed its disgust and warned that the United States would experience much opposition from non-nuclear countries unless it “disentangled itself from this kind of view.”

While the fixation on what was done to them at Hiroshima enables many Japanese to ignore-much less feel guilty about-such events as the Nanking Massacre of 1937, German memory of the war has come to center increasingly upon what they did to others, which is symbolized by Auschwitz. This was not always so. During the first years after the war the Germans, with very few exceptions, were too traumatized to think of anything but themselves, and when the rigors of life under occupation gave way to the giddy expansion of the Wirtschaftswunder their amnesia was not sensibly diminished. It was this that prompted Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich to write their famous book of the 1960s, The Inability to Mourn, with its criticism of the moral anesthesia that afflicted Germans who seemed bent on forgetting their past. The same cool indifference to the past also inspired the famous scene in Gunter Grass’s 1962 novel The Tin Drum in which nightclub guests pay high prices for the privilege of cutting onions into smaller and smaller pieces until the juice releases their inhibitions and enables them to weep.

All of this changed dramatically when the first postwar generation became of voting age, began to ask questions about what had happened during the Hitlerzeit and the war, and be-came curious about the long neglected question of the Holocaust. Two events, in Buruma’s view, were crucial in bringing the crimes committed against the Jews home in a way that touched and moved the German public. The first was the American TV series Holocaust-not a documentary film but a soap opera with fictional characters-that was watched in Germany by 20 million people when it was first shown in January 1979, and elicited an enormous amount of discussion, not least of all in the schools.

Perhaps even more effective in turning the Holocaust from an abstraction to a reality were the trials of officers and guards of Auschwitz in 1964 and of similar officials of Majdanek between 1975 and 1981 for crimes against humanity. The earlier trial of the major war criminals at Nuremberg, with its elaborate investigations of crimes against peace, had said relatively little about the Jews and was long forgotten. What was shocking and horrifying in the Auschwitz and Majdanek trials was the revelation of the war behind the war, the story of how the Nazi state sought to extirpate an entire people, a case of mass murder and inhumanity on an unprecedented scale. The effect upon the public consciousness was devastating and has not diminished. Buruma writes:

As the military campaigns, the crimes against peace, recede into history, the Final Solution continues to haunt the present more than ever. Whether you are a conservative who wants Germany to be a “normal” nation or a liberal/leftist engaging in the “labor of mourning,” the key event of World War II is Auschwitz, not the Blitzkrieg, not Dresden, not even the war on the eastern front. This was the one history lesson…that stuck.

It was, of course, a painful lesson, one that some Germans still try to reject (like the woman Buruma saw in a tourist group in Auschwitz, flinching away from the photographed horrors and saying to her Polish guide, “You must understand, we knew nothing about this!”). For the more reflective Germans, the knowledge that Auschwitz is now and forever as much a part of German history as Goethe’s poetry is a hard burden to bear. It seems possible that many fewer Germans would find it tolerable if a sense of personal responsibility-responsibility to form one’s own political opinions and make choices-had not been one of the by-products of Western Germany’s remarkable progress toward democracy during the forty years that followed Hitler’s defeat.

This was not true of East Germany, whose Communist leaders cheerfully taught their subjects that all war crimes were products of capitalism and that the DDR bore no responsibility for them. Buruma describes a conversation with two East German schoolteachers, who told him that they had not discussed the TV serial Holocaust in their classes because that would have been tantamount to a confession that they had watched West German television, which was a crime, although one committed by most East Germans. One of the teachers then added that, in any case,

the Jewish problem did not exist for our children. Now we have to teach them about it, but they don’t even understand what made the Jews special, or why Hitler wanted to exterminate them. You see, over here we are not very knowledgeable about the Bible, neither the Old nor the New Testament.

Here, with all of its exaggerations and illogicalities, is the kind of abnegation of responsibility that is characteristic of a dictatorial and a completely static political system. The same sort of reaction, and for the same sort of reason, is to be found in Japan. The kind of political progress that transformed Western Germany after 1945 was impossible in Japan because of the nature of the peace settlement imposed upon the country after its capitulation. General Douglas MacArthur is reported to have believed that the Japanese were a people longing again to have the sense of security and the lack of responsibility characteristic of twelve-year-olds, and he went far to make that wish come true. He deprived them of real sovereignty, particularly in military matters, encouraged them to become rich, and allowed the state to be run by the same kind of bureaucrats who ran the empire and by a corrupt conservative party that seemed destined to remain in power forever. The cultural and political results of this arrangement were horrendous. Buruma writes:

There is something intensely irritating about the infantilism of postwar Japanese culture: the ubiquitous chirping voices of women pretending to be girls; the Disneylandish architecture of Japanese main streets, where everything is reduced to a sugary cuteness; the screeching “television talents” rolling about and carrying on like kindergarten clowns; the armies of blue-suited salarymen straphanging on the subway trains, reading boys’ comics, the maudlin love for old school songs and cuddly mama-sans…. There they sit, the Japanese, in their pachinko halls, in long straight rows, oblivious to both past and present, watching the cascade of little silver balls while listening to the din of the Battleship March beating away in the background.

This is a culture that tends to promote conformity and prevent the Japanese from growing up politically. In consequence, the long record of the war has been conveniently forgotten when it has not been sentimentalized (as in the kitschy Peace Museum for Kamikaze pilots in southern Kyushu, with its “ghastly oil painting, three meters by four, of a dead pilot being lifted to heaven from his burning plane by six white-robed angels”), or justified uncritically (as it is in the museum of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo).

Even so, Buruma sees a few hopeful signs of change. He points out that in 1993 a new coalition of conservatives, socialists, and Buddhists broke the forty-eight-year monopoly of power by the Liberal Democratic Party and took over the government. The new prime minister, Hosokawa Morihiro, began his term by announcing publicly that Japan’s actions in the 1930s and 1940s amounted to “an aggressive war and a wrong war.” This, Buruma writes, “was only a beginning, but the signs were good.” Unfortunately, Hosokawa was not long in office, being forced to retire amid accusations of financial impropriety; and not all of the ministers in the governments that followed shared his view of the past. On May 5, 1994, The New York Times reported that Nagano Shigeto, a former army chief of staff who had been appointed justice minister of the newly formed government of Hata Tsutomu, had criticized former prime minister Hosokawa’s claim that Japan had fought an aggressive war in Asia, declaring that in reality Japan had been liberating Asian countries from Western colonial powers. He also said that the massacre of many thousands of Chinese at Nanking in 1937, widely regarded as Japan’s most infamous wartime atrocity, was “a fabrication.” Nagano immediately lost his government post, but his remarks suggest how deep the resistance to accepting guilt still runs in the country.

In Germany as in Japan, Buruma feels, the time may come when it will be possible to reflect upon the Second World War without guilt. This will almost certainly be more difficult than he seems to think, not only because the violent xenophobia of young neo-Nazi thugs-“violent children dressed up in their grandparents’ clothes” in Buruma’s phrase-has awakened a lot of unpleasant memories, both at home and abroad, but because in certain quarters willingness to accept responsibility for the past has hardened into a dogmatic pacifism. During the Gulf War, when the possibility of German participation in the Western military expedition was discussed, the atmosphere in some German cities became almost hysterical, with placards denouncing George Bush as a war criminal and declaring that blood should not be spent for oil. (The calmly reasoned tone of Marion Dönhoff’s arguments against the war in Die Zeit was hardly matched elsewhere.) For the foreign policy of the new united Germany, this highly agitated reaction was not a promising beginning, and it was made worse by the Socialist leader Oscar Lafontaine’s remark that to ask Germany to participate in the Gulf campaign would be like offering brandied chocolates to a reformed alcoholic. Many Germans agreed. Guilt transformed into self-distrust was not the least of the factors that prevented the German government from acting together with other nations in the Gulf.3

Although the Japanese are less given than the Germans to colorful rhetoric and violent reactions, there are doubtless many of them whose fears of another war resemble those expressed by Germans during the Gulf crisis. In a world in which many Europeans and Americans fear the potential economic and military power of Japan and Germany, many Germans and Japanese have the same concerns. Despite their differences, Buruma is inclined to believe that “if the two peoples still have anything in common after the war, it is a residual distrust of themselves.” It is a distrust that seems likely to persist, even if it is less and less openly expressed.

This Issue

July 14, 1994