Written by Patrick Flamm.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Tokyo in March this year, the revival of the old comparison between the alleged model student of historical apologies, Germany, and the unrepentant East Asian counterpart, Japan was on full display in the Western media. In addition to recognizing the various Japanese official apologies for war and colonialism and the widespread pacifism among ordinary Japanese, one also has to keep in mind several important aspects about Germany’s own “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” in order not to instrumentalize history unfairly and incorrectly. This can be illustrated by a closer look at two much touted symbolic icons of German contrition.

The first iconic event in the narrative of an exemplary post-war Germany is Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Kniefall” at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970. It is important to recognise that Brandt did not issue a detailed apology in spoken words but made a powerful but wordless Christian gesture. As he later explained, he just “did what people do when words fail them”. Brandt himself, then a social democratic activist, actually fled Germany shortly after the Nazis took power in 1933, only returning to his country of birth in 1946 as a Norwegian citizen and soldier. What is often overlooked, however, is that in the days after the event, the weekly magazine Der Spiegel found that 48 percent of West Germans found Brandt’s action inappropriate. This political divide mirrored the different attitudes towards his general policy of engagement with the communist East, famously dubbed “Ostpolitik”. The East German state media and the ruling communist party didn’t address the events at all.

Later, in May 1985 during the Bitburg cemetery controversy, one could witness members of the ruling conservative party CDU helping to popularize a discourse about German soldiers being victims of Nazism and major figures of the same party still refusing to recognize the Oder-Neisse-line as border to Poland, which Chancellor Brandt had officially recognized in Warsaw in 1970. It was against this backdrop that President Richard von Weizäcker delivered his now iconic speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII (full text here), famously calling the end of the war a day of liberation from Nazi tyranny while setting the stage for a remembrance based German national identity.

As Kuni Miyake, political advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, rightly observes (in an otherwise quite selective reading), von Weizäcker actually did not directly apologize and he objected to the idea of collective guilt of the German nation regarding World War II and the Holocaust. But he listed German wrongdoings comprehensively and acknowledged German responsibility for them, despite opposition from fellow conservatives, while not leaving German suffering unmentioned. The President further made clear that his people must find “their own standards” and first and foremost “look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion.” He encouraged younger Germans in particular to squarely face the past, as they “are not responsible for what happened over forty years ago. But they are responsible for the historical consequences.” What is interesting about von Weizäcker’s biography is that he served as an officer in World War II and was the son of one of the top diplomats of the Third Reich. He even defended his father during the Wilhelmstrasse Trial in Nuremberg after 1947.

So what should we make of all of this?

While Brandt’s gesture is often heralded as a symbol of true reconciliation and reflection that Japan should follow, it is important to note that as an anti-Nazi activist in exile, Brandt carried the least personal guilt. Von Weizäcker’s speech had quite a different impact because of his family history and party membership. But both took responsibility as representatives of the successor state to the Third Reich, despite diverging positions from within their own parties, the general public or even East Germany. This shows not only the relevance of political leadership, but also the crucial importance of public institutions and top representatives as loci and agents for historical remembrance. According to von Weizäcker’s line, only through explicit and ongoing remembering in public events, monuments and officials’ actions, one can later hope for a successful reconciliation. Thus, he was very conscious of acknowledging “the great effort required on the part of our former enemies to set out on the road of reconciliation with us.”

Further, von Weizäcker’s approach is not all that different from what Jennifer Lind called the more moderate “Adenauer way for Japan” (after the first West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer): “acknowledge […] past violence while focusing on the future.” This national remembrance based model became the basis for a more confident German collective identity today that even takes some pride in the way the country dealt with its past. Accordingly, it came as no big surprise when Angela Merkel said in Tokyo:

Coming to terms with our own past was thus an essential factor in making reconciliation possible. Of course reconciliation always needs two sides. In our case, France, for instance, was willing to extend a hand of friendship to Germany after the Second World War.

Her statement is clearly rooted in von Weizäcker’s “model”: It is first and foremost a country’s own task to reflect comprehensively on its past, and only then and with the help of supportive neighbours and former victims, reconciliation is possible.

If Shinzo Abe, the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, is looking for ideas for a speech that does not dwell on guilt and apologies but takes a more “forward looking” perspective for the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII later this year, he should maybe not listen to Miyake, but read von Weizäcker’s speech himself.

Patrick Flamm  is a Doctoral Candidate in Asian Studies at University of Auckland. Image Credit: CC by Moyan Brenn/flickr.