We recently had the pleasure of hosting a family of Japanese friends on our balcony. Along with the view, extending 35 miles to the lights of Amman, in contrast with their Tokyo view to the nearby apartment house, we talked at length, as we have done in the past, about Israel, Japan, and history.
This time we also touched on Germany, with Varda's roots close to the surface.
Historical facts are blurred by imperfect records. Estimates range above tens of millions of deaths due to each of Germany's and Japan's use of military power against civilians in Europe and Asia. Japan did nothing like the industrialized rounding up and killing of Jews. Despite its alliance with Germany, we've heard personal stories of Jews who found themselves in areas taken over by the Japanese, and survived the war without horror stories. Nonetheless, the wide scale bombing of cities across China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and the killing of prisoners of war put Japan on the same side of humanity as the Nazis and their collaborators.
What distinguishes the two countries is what has come after the war. Germany early on instituted programs of education that admitted the crimes of the 1930s and 1940s. It has also been the one country among all those who joined in the Nazi effort to pay substantial compensations to individuals, families, and to the State of Israel in the name of those individuals whose families could not be located. It has also been forthcoming in providing citizenship (and with it the passport that allows convenient travel and work opportunities throughout Europe) to descendants of German Jews as well as Jews from the former Soviet Union without any German connection.
The German government established Commissions to screen applicants among formerly German Jews for their eligibility and entitlements under various categories, such as loss of home, career, and the death of family members. Individuals received substantial initial payments and lifetime pensions.
A relative who lost his career as a young attorney appealed the initial decision of the Commission. He claimed that his academic credentials would have qualified him for an appointment as a judge, and a German court decided that he would have a judge's pension.
In later years, under pressure from Jewish organizations and Israeli officials, the Germans extended programs to individuals who suffered from the Nazis outside of Germany. Additional decisions have continued, as Germany has conceded previously unacknowledged needs that derive from the actions of the Nazis.
Germany has provided political support to Israel in international forums, and participates in the finance of military equipment acquired from German firms.
Japan, in contrast, has avoided anything like German admission of guilt through the education provided to young people. According to our friends, the war plays a small role in Japan's sense of its history. In the Japanese view, we were told, the war began on August 6, 1945, with the atomic attack on Hiroshima, and ended on August 9th, with the attack on Nagasaki.
There is no simple accounting of the payments made by Germany and Japan to individuals and countries. From what is available, however, it seems that German reparations to individuals and Israel due to the Holocaust have been substantially higher than what Japanese have paid, after long delays, to surviving Korean "comfort woman" and other victims.
Why the differences?
That reduces to the question why Germany stands out as so different, compared to Japan and other countries (including the US), stingy and delayed in compensating individuals harmed by their actions during the war?
Part of the answer may begin with another question that remains without a convincing answer. How to explain the Holocaust, given Germans' long regard as among the most enlightened of people, prominent in literature, philosophy, industry, and science, and the roles that German Jews had played in the country's pre-Nazi culture, economy, and politics?
Perhaps that question about the Holocaust helps to explain Germany's admission of guilt and its efforts to pay its way back into a leadership position among the world's most advanced countries.
We know that there were "good Germans" during the 1930s and 1940s. Something like 2,500 Jews managed to live one way or another in Berlin throughout the war. There were also good Dutch, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Poles, Czechs, Muslim Albanians and others. Yad Vashem has a database of stories about individuals honored as "Righteous Gentiles," who risked their lives to provide refuge or to otherwise help Jews in danger of being killed. But it's only the government of Germany that has earned the label of "generous" with respect to those its predecessor harmed.
Jews are left with the pain of the Holocaust, and with the inability to explain it or the benefits received as a result.
We can't go much farther than to cite Germans' previous history of leadership in virtually all that is considered high civilization, skipping over how that same people could have been responsible for one of history's greatest crimes.
That the principal targets of the Holocaust were the Jews may have something to do with Germany's post war record. Jews are among the most literate of people, and have a long history of organizing for the sake of their community. Jews are also obsessed with their history. It's an essential part of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews' religious calendar. Religious Jews fasted for a day last week to commemorate the suffering of Jews from Babylon 2,600 years ago.
The Germans who found themselves with responsibility at the end of the war, were closer to the idealized, historical Germans whose record befuddles those wanting to explain the Holocaust. And of all the people who had fallen victims to their predecessors, the post-war Germans may have recognized their cultural affinity with Jews, and sought to soften an endless future of Jews' commemoration of German evil.
Jewish roles in the United States and other western countries may have added to the political pressure on Germany to make good on its obligations as a price of re-entry into the cluster of respectable countries. The were also early signs of Israel's capacity as a government by the mid-1950s when compensation became a serious topic.
Why not Japan?
Japan's economy was no less well equipped to make amends than Germany's. There were apologies and payments, perhaps pressured by its aspirations for international respectability but nothing comparable or as early to what came from Germany.
Apparently something is missing from Japan's culture. Or perhaps from the populations that suffered.
The principal people occupied by the Japanese, i.e., Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, Vietnamese, and other Asians were--well into the 1960s or beyond--immersed in a chaos of continued conflicts and governmental instability.
But no more chaotic than Jews after the Holocaust, the War of Independence, and the migration from Arab lands?
Perhaps less well equipped than Jews to mobilize their intellectual capacity to demand justice for their communities.
Lots of "perhaps," and historical puzzles that remain undone.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem