Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law Stanford University

Japanese wartime era postcard depicting the seizure of Rehe in northern China in late 1937.
Photo credit: Courtesy Daniel C. Sneider.

August 22, 2011 - Shorenstein APARC News

Conference compares wartime experiences in Asia and Europe

World War Two, the most violent period in the modern history of Europe and Asia (1937–1945), left deep scars still evident on both continents. Numerous and often conflicting narratives exist about the wartime era, ranging from personal memoirs to official accounts of wartime actions. Many issues, from collaboration to responsibility for war crimes, remain unresolved. In Europe some issues that have been buried for decades, such as the record of collaboration with Nazi occupiers, are now resurfacing. In Northeast Asia, World War Two’s complex, painful legacy continues to impact popular culture, education, diplomacy, and even economic relations.

While differences exist in the wartime circumstances and reconciliation processes of Europe and Asia, many valuable lessons can be gained through a study of the experiences on both continents. The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) facilitated a comparative dialogue on World War Two, bringing together 15 noted experts for the Colonialism, Collaboration, and Criminality conference, held June 16 to 17 at Stanford. Each of the event’s five panels paired an Asia and a Europe scholar addressing a common theme.

The debate over remembrance of World War Two

Asia’s relative lack of progress in achieving reconciliation of the painful legacies of the war in Asia and the Pacific continues to bedevil current relations in the region. This is a consequence of the way the Cold War interrupted the resolution of wartime issues and blocked dialogue over the past, particularly between Japan, China, and South Korea, suggested Daniel Sneider, associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC. The widely held image of an unrepentant Japan ignores the fierce debate within Japan over wartime memory, often obscured by the prominence of rightwing nationalist views. Meanwhile, within China and Korea, wartime memory is also increasingly contested ground, from the issue of collaboration to the emergence of a more nationalist narrative in China, further complicating relations among those Asian neighbors.

Daniel Chirot, a professor of international studies at the University of Washington, emphasized that immediate postwar economic and security needs, including the growth of Communism, accelerated West Germany’s willingness to reconcile with its Western neighbors. He concurred with Sneider, saying that no such imperative existed in Northeast Asia until the need for economic cooperation three decades after the war. He suggested that the growth of regional integration might, as in Europe, drive Northeast Asia toward greater reconciliation.

Divided memories

Justice for sensitive historical human rights issues, such as World War Two atrocities, bears increasing importance in today’s ever-globalized economic and political climate, stated Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Berger noted the challenge that Japan’s factional politics poses to a revision of the country’s official wartime narrative, and suggested that a strong regional structure, such as the European Union, could effectively facilitate reconciliation in Northeast Asia.

Frances Gouda, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, examined the use of Anne Frank and former Indonesian president Sukarno as “icons of memory” in Dutch interpretations of World War Two. She asserted that Frank’s victimization allows people to come to terms with Nazi war crimes, but that Sukarno’s vilification as a Japanese collaborator oversimplifies history and allows the Netherlands to avoid confronting its own colonial past.

Collaboration and resistance

France’s Vichy regime, responsible both for collaborating with the Nazis and acting independently to persecute Jewish citizens, remains a painful and unresolved subject in the country’s contemporary quest for national identity, said Julian Jackson, a professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. He pointed to French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s act of making a national martyr out of Guy Môquet, a young communist who died resisting the German Occupation, as a key example of the complexities involved in trying to come to terms with France’s past.

Ongoing territorial disputes over islands located between Japan and its neighbors in China and Korea are a product of the unresolved legacy of the wartime era in Asia. Sovereignty over those islands was left deliberately unresolved by the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty which formally ended the war, suggested Alexis Dudden, a professor of history from the University of Connecticut. As a result, the territorial disputes have become a battleground on which larger questions of historical memory about the war are contested, not only by Japanese conservatives but also by Koreans and Chinese, she said.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru’s press statement at the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

(U.S. National Archives)

Paths to reconciliation

Gi-Wook Shin, director of Shorenstein APARC and a professor of sociology, suggested that while Europe’s experience with war and reconciliation offers lessons for Asia, significant differences exist between the wartime and post-war situations of the two continents, and that reconciliation in Asia requires time. Increased economic interaction between the countries in Northeast Asia serves less to foster reconciliation, he said, than to spur competition for regional dominance. Shin emphasized that the United States, which has greatly impacted the region’s post-war history, can play a critical role as a facilitator in establishing lasting regional accord.

The Nazi regime’s systematic attempt to completely wipe out all traces of Jewish history and culture in Europe, even as closely bound as it was with Germany’s own traditions, is a unique case, stated Fania Oz-Salzberger, a professor of history at Haifa and Monash Universities. She explored universal elements in the German-Jewish reconciliation experience, noting, like Shin and Chirot, the important element of time that is needed to reflect upon painful events of the past. Oz-Salzberger especially spoke of the healing that takes place at the level of society and culture, sometimes even before governments are ready to reconcile with one another.

Continuing political impacts

Gilbert Rozman, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, suggested that Northeast Asia’s wartime history debates will continue to complicate regional relations unless China, Japan, and Korea reach a point of mutual reconciliation. He noted the role that Japan’s government, in the 1980s during its financial heyday, and more recently, China’s leaders during a similarly strong economic era, have played in prolonging the debate. 

Memories of war are transmitted across the years through a complex process involving multiple actors and they can later influence political behavior, explained MIT political science professor Roger Petersen. He described the process within the context of the Lithuania’s successful declaration of independence from the former Soviet Union in January 1991. Petersen stated that Lithuanian émigrés, in part, helped keep the narrative of Soviet aggression and Lithuanian martyrdom alive until the conditions were right for action many decades later.

The Colonialism, Collaboration, and Criminality conference grew out of Shorenstein APARC’s Divided Memories and Reconciliation project, which for the past three years has examined the legacy of war-era memories in Northeast Asia and the United States and explored possible means of reconciliation. Shorenstein APARC has already published the first in a series of four books based on the project, and an edited volume of papers from the June 2011 conference is forthcoming next year.

Topics: Diplomacy | History | Human Rights | Identity | International Relations | China | France | Germany | Japan | Lithuania | Netherlands | Russia | South Korea | United States | Western Europe