Reconciliation Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

And other lessons Germany can teach Japan, China, and South Korea.


In late March, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Germany. While trade and investment were the main discussion topics, the remarkably coincidental visits of the two Asian powers are suggestive. In addition to new economic agreements, Germany may be offering something of even greater value to China and to South Korea: reconciliation with Japan.

Germany could help China and South Korea settle their decades-long disputes with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and over the Takeshima/Dokdo Islands in the East Sea, respectively, as well as other festering tensions over history and memory. The idea, bold as it may sound, arguably originated with China and South Korea, not Germany. Over the last month, Beijing has become outspoken about Germany’s successful confrontation of its horrific role in World War II and the Holocaust, highlighting Japan’s perceived inaction. China’s ambassador in Berlin has compared Germany favorably to Japan, and Beijing reportedly asked Germany to emphasize its handling of the Holocaust during Xi’s visit. Park did not discuss the Holocaust directly, but nevertheless argued — before and during her visit — that Japan could learn from Germany how to confront its history.

Germany prudently resisted Xi’s and Park’s overtures, preserving the country’s role as a model for post-war reconciliation free of entanglements. Yet there is reason to think Germany may be receptive to serving as a mediator. It comes at a time when top German officials are calling for more engagement with East Asia. And Germany understands better than any other country how to confront complicated historical issues with neighbors and former foes. Germany could convene officials from Japan, China, and South Korea — which dispute not only sovereignty over rocks and islets, but more so Japan’s conduct during World War II — in a neutral location, perhaps in low-key Bonn, where Germany initiated and developed its foreign policy of reconciliation more than 60 years ago.

There are several lessons that Germany could convey. The first is that reconciliation need not conform to the East Asian ideal. There is a tendency in East Asia to see reconciliation as perfect peace and harmony — and therefore unattainable — but Germany’s was long, messy, and has not yet ended. Germany has shown a continuous, unyielding commitment to the survival, security, and prosperity of the Jewish state, for example. Nonetheless, since Germany first extended reparations to Israel more than 60 years ago, the two nations have had their share of disagreements and uncertainties, particularly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Germany’s relations with the Arab world, and policy toward Iran.

Second, Germany’s reconciliation path shows that resolving territorial disputes need not be a threshold issue to cooling conflict. Before tensions flared in 2010, the Senkaku/Diaoyu question had sat on the shelf for several decades. It could be resolved now, or simply shelved again. The dispute over Takeshima/Dokdo has been recurrent, but a creative solution would be possible. In October 1956, Germany and France settled their dispute over the Saar, the territory of which had switched back and forth between Germany and France, through a referendum in which Saarlanders voted to join Germany. But Germany did not legally recognize Poland’s western border until Germany reunified in 1990. And Germany and the Czech Republic still agree to disagree on when the 1938 Munich Agreement, through which Germany annexed the Sudetenland, became invalid — the day the agreement was signed or the day Adolph Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. This has legal implications for the Sudeten Germans’s citizenship and their ability to file claims for property confiscated by Czechoslovakia after World War II. Despite these disagreements, Germany enjoys deep political and societal partnerships with both Poland and the Czech Republic, which readily accept Germany as the effective leader of Europe. Reconciliation can thus resolve territorial disputes, but they are more easily resolved in broader processes that address historical and emotional issues. Territorial tiffs do not have to prevent more general reconciliation.

Third, Germany could provide key guidance on compensation. Japan insists the issue of war reparations was settled by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations with South Korea and the 1972 Joint Communique with China — and by subsequent economic assistance — so it has rejected compensation claims from individual Korean and Chinese victims. Seoul and Beijing have highlighted the plight of "comfort women" — sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army — and forced laborers, who have received either inadequate or no recompense.

The German example demonstrates that both sides can address compensation long after the underlying crimes are committed, and without legal complications preventing resolution. Germany’s understanding that compensation is a core element of reconciliation began with its Reparations Agreement with Israel in 1952, continued with domestic compensation and restitution laws for German citizens and former citizens, then extended to other agreements with Western European countries before German unification, and the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries thereafter. As late as 2000, Germany joined with private companies to compensate forced and slave laborers from World War II, mindful that their numbers were rapidly dwindling. Through it all, when domestic law or international agreements left some victims uncompensated, Germany established special funds and arrangements to rectify the exclusions.

Then there are the apologies. Japan’s record is spotty: The 1993 Kono Statement on "comfort women," the 1995 Murayama Statement on Japan’s need to learn from history, and the 2005 statement from then-Prime Minister Joichiri Koizumi on Japan’s colonial rule and aggression are a good start. But they stand as islands in a sea of denial, not as markers in a consistent effort to face the past. None was followed by robust, concrete action. And later actions have undercut those statements, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s April 2013 parsing of whether the term "aggression" should be used to describe Japan’s wartime behavior and his December 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where among millions of Japanese war dead, 14 convicted war criminals lie enshrined. Some Japanese right-wing politicians have called for Tokyo to revise or rescind the Kono and Murayama apologies. The Abe administration is reviewing the content of the statements, but with angry responses from China and South Korea and other international objections, Abe has resisted domestic pressure to change or dispense with them, at least for now.

Here again, Germany’s success can be instructive. As early as September 1951, Germany acknowledged the crimes it had committed during World War II and recognized the suffering of its victims, beginning a process of repeated acknowledgement. Acceptance of the past was not always characterized by formal apologies sanctioned by cabinets or parliaments in advance. Instead, there were often statements of regret, either by individual leaders or in treaties and agreements, from German statesman Willy Brandt’s 1970 kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial to the 1997 German-Czech Declaration.

The aggrieved party has usually responded with magnanimity and not forgiveness, often because there was a coordinated bilateral process of statement and calculated reply. For example, then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shared a September 1951 statement offering negotiations on compensation to Jews and Israel with Jewish leaders before he delivered it. All the parties could learn from the consistency and breadth of Germany’s acknowledgement of its past. Comfort women and their supporters, whose concerns are high on Park’s agenda, have demanded formal, official apologies. Acceptance of something more targeted, coming from someone who does not necessarily speak for all of Japan, might at least start a healthy process.

None of this will be easy. Although widely lauded now, Germany’s reconciliation was almost always unpopular, both in Germany and in partner countries. Reconciliation requires visionary leaders in public and private spheres — such as Adenauer, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, German President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Czech President Václav Havel — willing to answer opponents and public opinion courageously and directly. Governments alone cannot produce reconciliation, but they can be instrumental in encouraging and channeling private energies, and responsive to initiatives from civil society that often occupies a moral space so necessary for cooperation after conflict.

It would be simplistic to assume that East Asia does not have or could not produce such leaders; they emerged when needed not only in Germany, but also in its former foes. Chinese, South Korean, and even Japanese practitioners and civil society actors have engaged with Germany to learn about the payment of compensation to victims and the work of bilateral textbook commissions, among other sensitive subjects. And both former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Park have referred explicitly to Franco-German relations as a model for what might be possible in East Asia. Sometimes, acute need forces visionary leaders committed to the future to emerge. In East Asia, that time is now.

<p> Lily Gardner Feldman directs the Society, Culture and Politics Program at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Germany's Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity. </p>