Earlier today, I stumbled upon a curious article in the Washington Post titled “This is why Germany doesn’t want China anywhere near Berlin’s holocaust memorial”. According to the article, President Xi was (in short) barred from visiting German’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin because Germany was worried about embarrassing Japan.
Here is a copy of the article in full:
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Germany for the next two days, meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel and other German officials. It’s the third leg of Xi’s European Union trip, and an important one – as Deutsche Welle notes, Germany is China’s most important trade partner in Europe.
There is, however, once place that Xi isn’t wanted during his time in Germany: Berlin’s famous Holocaust memorial. Der Spiegel reported this month that German authorities had refused a request from Xi’s entourage for an official visit to the site. While the Chinese president may visit the site on his own, it will not be a part of the official itinerary and Merkel will not accompany him.
Visits to the Holocaust memorial, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas), are a key part of a trip to Berlin for many visitors. Why wouldn’t Xi be granted an official visit?
The reason has little to do with the Holocaust itself. Instead, according to Der Spiegel, German officials fear that they would get involved in China’s spat with Japan. China has frequently tried to contrast Japan’s handling of its World War II legacy with Germany’s. An op-ed in Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily expanded upon this theory today, arguing that the “government of China has been trying to impress the wofrld with the sharp contrast between post World War II Japan and Germany in facing their parallel burdens of history.” One sourcetold the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun that Germany did not want a “third country” to use the monument for “diplomatic purposes.”
Japan’s attitude to World War II has long been a controversial issue for China: Whereas Merkel might visit Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, Japanese leaders have been visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for years. Yasukuni is dedicated to Japan’s war dead but includes 14 war criminals and is seen by critics as a monument to Japan’s imperial excesses.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine in December despite protests from both China and South Korea. In China, anger over the visits to the shrine even led to a restaurant owner briefly becoming an online celebrity after putting a sign reading “Yasukuni Shrine” above his establishment’s toilets. Other issues, such as Abe’schallenging of Japan’s wartime use of Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian sex slaves, have also played into the perception of Japan as a wartime aggressor that refuses to apologize.
Japan and China’s lack of reconciliation after World War II has long been a problem, but in recent years its become a major bone of contention due to their territorial dispute over a small group of islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China. The uninhabited islands are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, and have been at the center of a number of tense military moments recently. Both Xi and Abe have taken a hard line on the issue, and there are serious concerns that it could devolve into war.
Of course, Xi’s visit to Germany, and his proposed visit to the Holocaust memorial, come at a time when much of the world’s focus is on territorial disputes and geographical gray areas. Abe recently compared Russia’s annexation of Crimea with China’s intentions for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, drawing an angry rebuke from China.
Germany doesn’t want to get involved in this, which seems quite sensible. History can be benign in one situation yet explosive in another.
In today’s post-WWII world, if there has been one truism in the world, it is that Nazi Germany is evil. At the heart of that evilness is the murdering of the Jews in WWII. The evilness is not just about a number – say 6 million, the number of Jews estimated to have died, killed. It is the way they were killed: mercilessly, brutally, without humanity, in vain, en mass. If there is anything good to come out of WWII, it is the realization that such things are evil and that memory of that event must be preserved to ensure that such evil never ever happens again.
The identity of today’s Germany derives from the rebirth from that pure evil. They almost take pride in paying respect to that episode for it is through that they can retake the mantle of humanity – as a great nation. The ritual also allows Germans to believe that they too were victims of the pure evil forced upon them.
This is the foundation of post-WWII’s political compass. The characterization of the war between good and evil – represented by Nazi Germany – is consistently woven into the national myths of all the powerful nations: U.S., U.K., France, Russia, , … and of course, Germany itself.
It is in this context that I find it so surprising that Germany would bar – or at least would not welcome – President Xi to the memorial. All this for the political expedience of protecting Japan?
To me, this is as low (provocative) a gesture as what U.K. pulled a few months ago when at the same time Cameron was making a high profile visit to Beijing to repair Sino-U.K. relations sullied by Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, to begin a presumptive new chapter of mutual understanding and respect, British Royal Navy’s Chief of Staff – Admiral George Zambellas – met with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to support Japan in its diplomatic attack on China’s Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
Germany – like the U.K. – has decided to shake China’s hand with one hand, slap China with the other.
But for Germany’s sake, by politicizing the memorial, Germany has also cheapened its past for its current political expedience. In fretting that China might take advantage of Germany’s history for China’s own political gain, Germany decided to throw the baby out with the bathtub and sell out its history instead. Germany could have welcomed Xi to the memorial, and through diplomatic understanding, ask Xi not to make too much of a provocation toward Japan. It could have preserved the principles upon which post WWII Germany is built while still avoiding a diplomatic trap.
The Washington post article cited above concluded by putting forth a comparison between the Holocaust memorial and the Yasukuni Shrine. What a ridiculous thing it is to elevate Yasukuni Shrine to be like the Holocaust Memorial? I suppose both are “revered” in each respective nation, but the reason they are revered are vastly different! (Recently, Black Phoenix did this interesting this post on how in Japan, revering Japanese national history and myths, however twisted and however distasteful, is now officially held out as Japanese’ right to “religious freedom”).
The Holocaust memorial is a memorial dedicated to atrocities committed against humanity carried out in the name of the German nation. It is a memorial dedicated to atoning for Germany’s sins. The Yasukuni Shrine is devoted to Japanese military heroes – harboring class A war criminals to boot. It is a memorial devoted to praising the Greatness that is Japan – screw humanity and everyone else who oppose the dictum that Japan is GREAT!
I actually would be ok with Japanese leaders visiting the Yasukuni shrine provided they do visit it as their Holocaust memorial. Rededicate the shrine to all those who were slaughtered in the Nanking Massacre – and also all the millions of people who were needlessly killed and who were forced to suffer unspeakable agony in Japan’s war of aggression throughout Asia in WWII. Such a Yasukuni Shrine can surely also memorialize Japanese War heroes, but not, of course, all Japanese military figures of WWII (think: would Germany allow a few Nazis – even if they were not class A war criminals – to be commemorated alongside the Jews in its Holocaust memorial?). Fair or not… Japan must accept that it was on the wrong side of history as far as WWII is concerned….
All this brought to me a final sobering realization. The fact that Germany is “afraid” of Yasukuni speaks volumes about where the world is about “Universal Values.” When we as a world cannot recognize Holocausts besides the Nazi Holocaust, is the lesson we are told we learned from WWII a lesson at all?
We are told to keep the memory of the Holocaust so we can prevent future Holocausts. But what a farce that is when we can only recognize only one Holocaust? What an insult it is to the victims of the Holocaust when the Nation that promises “never again” refuses to see – or is unable to recognize – any other Holocausts besides the officially sanctioned one?
And if we cannot recognize something as basic as a Holocaust, what force, if any, is there to all post-WWII talks about Universal Values – Values that humanity supposedly learned from the experiences of WWII? When we talk about Universal Values, are we really talking about “Universal Values” or merely preaching politically expedient myths?