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A nation must think before it acts.
Apologies are not only the domain of scandal-ridden politicians and CEOs; they have become a staple of international politics. States routinely offer or seek apologies for past atrocities. Many analysts argue that such gestures have powerful political effects. For example, observers point to German atonement after World War II as an important cause of European postwar reconciliation. Many observers argue that Japanese contrition is necessary to achieve similar reconciliation in East Asia. But is this interpretation correct? More broadly, what is the relationship between atonement and international reconciliation? A close examination of the postwar relations of each of Japan and Germany suggests that observers are correct that denying or glorifying past violence inhibits international reconciliation. But it turns out that apologies are a risky tool of peacemaking: they may do more harm than good.
Why might apologies and other such gestures matter in international politics–that is, why are they not merely dismissed as “cheap talk”? Apologies–or more broadly, national remembrance–matter because the ways countries represent their pasts conveys information about foreign policy intentions. As countries remember (through leaders’ statements, education policy, legal trials, commemoration, etc.), they define their heroes and villains, delineate acceptable foreign policy, and send signals about their future behavior.
The Japanese and German cases provide strong support for the view that unapologetic remembrance (denials, glorifications, or justifications of past violence) fuels distrust and elevates fear among former adversaries. In Japan, frequent denials by influential leaders and omissions from Japan’s history textbooks poison the country’s relations with South Korea, China, and Australia. Throughout the postwar era, South Koreans expressed cautious optimism when a Japanese prime minister would apologize. But as Japanese contrition triggered backlash–in which prominent politicians and intellectuals justified or denied Japan’s past atrocities–South Koreans would conclude that Japanese contrition was insincere and that Tokyo continued to harbor hostile intentions. As summed up by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 2001: “How can we make good friends with people who try to forget and ignore the many pains they inflicted on us? How can we deal with them in the future with any degree of trust?”1 Chinese and Australian observers also monitored Japanese remembrance in the postwar years, expressed dismay at Japanese denials, and linked their distrust of Japan to its failure to admit its past atrocities.
In Europe, West German acknowledgment of its wartime aggression and atrocities facilitated reconciliation between West Germany and the Allies. During the occupation, the Allies encouraged German admission of its atrocities (particularly within education policy). This was seen as critical to preventing the return of German hypernationalism and to the creation of a peace-loving West German state. Later, France and Britain continued to monitor West Germany’s remembrance: they praised its willingness to explore its past and expressed anxiety about any perceived signs of revisionism. Both the Japanese and German cases thus suggest that avoidance of denials and glorification of past violence is a key step in international reconciliation.
Although denials and glorifications appear very harmful to international reconciliation, it is clear that many bitter enemies–including Germany and France–have reconciled with very little atonement. Early after the war, Bonn expressed modest contrition. Although it offered a lukewarm apology and paid reparations to Israel, West German commemoration, education, and public discourse ignored the atrocities Germany had committed, instead emphasizing German suffering during and after the war. Nevertheless, during this era of minimal contrition, West Germany and France transformed their relations. By the early 1960s, both French elites and the general public saw the West Germans as their closest friend and security partner. Bonn’s remarkable expressions of atonement–wrenching apologies, candid history textbooks, and memorials to Germany’s victims–had not yet occurred.
Other World War II enemies reconciled with even less remorse for their actions. Both the British and Americans established close and even friendly relations with West Germany without apologizing for firebombing German cities, a campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Japan and the United States built a warm relationship and solid security alliance in spite of the fact that neither government has apologized for its wartime atrocities. Furthermore, the European partners of Italy and Austria ignored the blatant dodging of culpability in these former Axis countries. Although denying or celebrating past atrocities will inhibit the reestablishment of good relations, countries frequently reconcile with little or no contrition.
Although many analysts urge Japan and other countries to adopt the German model of atonement, such recommendations neglect to consider the risks of such policies. As evident in Japan and elsewhere, expressions of contrition often prompt a backlash. Conservatives in particular are likely to offer a competing narrative that celebrates–rather than condemns–the country’s past and justifies or even denies its atrocities. Thus contrition can be counterproductive: foreign observers will be angered and alarmed by what the backlash suggests about the country’s intentions. The great irony is that well-meaning efforts to soothe relations between former enemies can actually inflame them.
Comparison of the Japanese and German cases thus raises a puzzle. Japan’s modest efforts to offer contrition repeatedly triggered sharp outcry among conservatives, who justified and even denied past atrocities. Because of backlash, Japanese contrition ended up alarming Japan’s neighbors. In Germany, by contrast, far more ambitious efforts at contrition did not provoke a similar backlash. Though some West German conservatives preferred to emphasize a more positive national history, they did not deny or glorify Nazi crimes. The French thus viewed West German debates about the past as healthy, cathartic experiences for the country’s democratic development–and as a reassuring signal about its intentions.
Whether or not contrition is likely to heal or hurt thus seems to depend on the occurrence of backlash. Though more research is needed about the conditions under which backlash will occur, there are powerful reasons to believe that contrition is likely to be extremely controversial. First, the absence of backlash in the West German case can be explained by its unusual strategic circumstances after the war. During the Cold War, West German conservatives–those most likely to oppose contrition–had powerful reasons to keep quiet. Their key foreign policy goals–German reunification and protection from the Soviet Union–all required reassuring NATO, which required a clear denunciation of the Nazi past. West Germany thus faced constraints that are unlikely to be so severe elsewhere.
Indeed, evidence from around the world shows that backlash to contrition is a common occurrence. In Austria, Joerg Haider’s vocal criticism of apologies and stalwart defense of the wartime generation resonated with voters, who catapulted him and his party from the fringe into national leadership. In Britain, proposed apologies for British policies in Ireland, and for complicity in the slave trade, both sparked outcry. Conservatives in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Belgium also mobilized against attempts to confront their World War II collaboration. In the United States, a proposed Smithsonian exhibit that discussed the horrors of Hiroshima and questioned the necessity of the bombing triggered immense protest, including statements of justification from Congress, veterans’ groups, and the media.
The frequency of backlash is predictable from the standpoint of domestic politics. Many conservatives oppose contrition as anti-patriotic. Opportunistic politicians will also notice that most of their constituents strenuously object to contrition to foreign victims, because it impugns wartime leaders, veterans, and the war dead. To be sure, the German case shows that backlash to contrition is not inevitable, and scholars should investigate the conditions under which it is more or less likely. However all of these reasons suggest that backlash will be common.
If denying and glorifying the past fuels distrust and fear, yet apologies risk triggering counterproductive backlash, how should peacemakers deal with the legacy of the past? One strategy, used successfully by West Germany and France, is to construct a shared and non-accusatory narrative. Rather than frame the past as one actor’s brutalization of another, leaders can structure commemoration to cast events–as much as possible–as shared catastrophes. Countries can remember past suffering as specific examples of the tragic phenomena that afflict all countries, such as war, militarism, or aggression. For example, rather than lament German brutality, the settings and tone of Franco-German commemoration at Reims cathedral (1962) and Verdun cemetery (1984) highlighted the suffering that militarism and European anarchy had brought to both peoples, thus underscoring the need for European unity.
Another strategy is multilateral. East Asian leaders and activists who want to raise awareness about the World War II “comfort women,” for example, might organize a multinational inquiry about violence against women in wartime: widening the focus beyond Japan’s crimes to consider similar atrocities committed by many countries in many wars. Multilateral textbook commissions–used extensively in Europe and also recently in East Asia–are another promising approach. Because such multilateral settings do not wag a finger at one country in particular, conservatives are less likely to mobilize against them.
To be sure, these approaches have significant drawbacks. If justice is the policy goal, they are the wrong approach. They downplay the heinous acts that occurred and divert attention from the people and governments who committed them. But, John Kenneth Galbraith famously commented, “Politics is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” These strategies are unpalatable in many ways–yet are wise from the standpoint of international reconciliation.