Seventy years of selective postwar history
In her movingly beautiful novel dealing with Japan from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, The Gods ofHeavenly Punishment, author Jennifer Cody Epstein describes how people tended to divide life between “before” and “after” the war. When I was living in Japan in the 1950s, I remember the coinage and frequent usage of the term “apure” – which was derived from the French term après guerre and was meant to convey the mood of the “new” Japan after 1945.
But in his outstanding book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma, writing on both the Atlantic and the PacificWars, demonstrated how things were not that simple.
As he shows, the closure of Auschwitz did not immediately result in the end of anti-Semitism in Germany or elsewhere in Europe.
Year Zero also covers in gruesome detail the atrocities committed by the Japanese in China – the mass rapes, the activities atUnit 731, in the then JapaneseoccupiedNortheast China, where vivisection was carried out on prisoners of war as part of biological and chemical warfare experiments.
There have been waves of water under the bridge in the past 70 years, though they have flowed quite differently in Europe and East Asia.
June 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of theNormandyD-Day landings. It was an emotional occasion, in which not only the heads of state and government of the allied nations, but also AngelaMerkel of Germany participated. Similarly, veterans from both sides attended and embraced.
The 70th anniversary of the surrender of Germany and the end of the war in Europe onMay 8 this year will no doubt reflect a similar spirit of reconciliation.
That history has been openly and collectively addressed for decades. When I was a doctoral student in the 1960s at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, there were British, French and German researchers and scholars working together.
Dinner table discussion frequently turned to “what had happened”. There is a basic consensus in Europe about the history ofWorldWar II and especially about the atrocities – the holocaust – committed by Germany. Erstwhile enemies are at peace, not because they have forgotten the past, but because they remember it.
The situation in the Pacific is different and alarming. Historical amnesia is never a good thing. In the famous words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The rejection of history is, quite understandably, especially associated with Japan. There is a combination of denial and willful ignorance. Ask a German about Auschwitz and he or she will almost certainly know. Ask a Japanese aboutUnit 731 ( Nana-san-ichi Butai in Japanese) and he or she will almost certainly not know.
Japan invaded every East Asian country except Thailand in the course of the PacificWar, although today many Japanese arriving in, say, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar or Indonesia, hear about it – if they do at all – for the first time.
With regard to PacificWar amnesia and distortions, however, the Japanese are not alone. RanaMitter made a great contribution to historiography when he wrote China’sWar with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, which deals in detail not only with China’s war against Japan, but its overall contribution toWorldWar II generally.
Again, ask the reasonably educated man or woman in the street anywhere, which were the allied powers duringWorldWar II and she or he will probably respond: Russia, Britain and theUnited States. The enemies were, of course, Germany, Italy and Japan.
No mention of China? Among the many facts that come out ofMitter’s book is the war the Chinese waged against Japan— the huge number of lives it sacrificed— permitted theUnited States to concentrate on winning the war in Europe before moving to end the war in the Pacific.
This is rarely acknowledged. China has been to a considerable extent air-brushed out of the history books. The reason, of course, is that the Chinese turned communist shortly after the war ended – hence they became the United States’ enemy.
This coming August will mark a series of key PacificWar anniversaries: the 70th anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, of course, the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender.
Cody’s novel includes scenes before and during the war, in theUnited States, Japan andNortheast China, and events such as the 1942 Doolittle air-raids.
However, the highlight and most dramatic chapter describes in amazingly terrifying detail the American bombardment of Tokyo onMarch 9 and 10, 1945 that reduced the city to rubble and cost an estimated 100,000 lives, one of the worst atrocities ofWorldWar II. The number of people killed in Dresden was less than 20,000.
Ask a reasonably educated American at a university and he is more than likely not to have the foggiest idea what his country did to Tokyo inMarch 1945— and probably does not care. His Japanese counterpartmay know, though he will stay stoically silent and endure.
Tokyo’s more assertive foreign policy and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalism notwithstanding, Japan will not want to risk alienating theUnited States, is not the time, its ally, and potential savior, against a rising Chinese behemoth.
TheUnited States has been completely complicit in the historiographical distortions of the PacificWar. Before and after cannot easily be separated, nor can past and future.
The present historical perceptions— or perhaps more accurately— misperceptions of the past conflicts in the Pacific do not augur well for the future. The author is an emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Globalist