War and Misremembrance

Europe has gotten over World War II. How come China and Japan cannot?


On Sept. 3, the world saw a powerful display of might in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, as the People’s Republic of China commemorated the 70th anniversary of the allied victory over Japan and the end of World War II with a massive military parade. Beijing had invited heads of state from around the world, but the highest-profile foreign leaders in attendance were Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Park Geun-hye of South Korea. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the parade in commemoration of China’s struggle against Japan — only to receive a rebuke from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who refused to attend. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom sent high-level representatives.

The American and British absence is notable: Both countries were wartime allies of China. They seemed to fear that attending the ceremony would imply not just memory of a shared wartime experience, but endorsement of China’s current rapid military growth and its recent territorial ambitions. Major European leaders, including French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, did not attend — seemingly for similar reasons. Yet China’s wartime experience deserves recognition: Its contribution to the defeat of Japan, in the form of resistance by both its Nationalist and Communist parties, was substantial.

Why are China’s actions during World War II — the holding down of over half a million Japanese troops on the mainland, at the cost of 14 million dead and nearly 100 million refugees — underappreciated in the West?

First, the continued acrimony in Asia over territorial and maritime disputes means that many major powers are afraid to praise China’s past, for fear that Beijing may use their words to serve its current geopolitical aims. And secondly, China loses credibility for its habit of shaping or ignoring its history to suit its own political purposes — especially highly partial accounts of the two great disasters of the Mao Zedong era: the 1958-1961 Great Leap Forward, a political campaign which caused a famine that killed at least 20 million people, and the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which destroyed much of China’s heritage, education system, and economy.

But the third, and most important, reason is that the history shaping Asia today has operated in a very different way from that in Europe. After World War II, Europe’s elites worked together to write a shared history of the war. Most importantly, the key belligerents — Britain, France, and Germany — developed, under American sponsorship, a broadly equivalent postwar history of fascism faced and overcome. There is no doubt in any Western capital that the Nazi regime was a moral and political disaster that must never be allowed to rise again.

But with no shared consensus between China and Japan to match that of the Europeans, it became impossible to write a common history of the war in northeast Asia. China was isolated from most of the major players in the region until the 1970s. The history of China’s wartime experience was lost in the black hole created by that isolation, with separate narratives emerging in both countries. As a consequence, even in 2015, the former enemies continue to draw on clashing interpretations of their World War II experience. Both are problematic.

Japan’s far-right revisionist view is better-known: It argues that Japan has little to apologize for with regard to its wartime conduct and that the country’s invasion of Asia was actually a war of liberation of Asian peoples from Western imperialism. While Abe recently offered a detailed apology for Japan’s war crimes, he has also hinted at his tolerance of revisionist views downplaying Japan’s occupation of much of Asia. China’s revisionist take on World War II is newer, dating back only to the mid-1980s: the promotion of China as a country that played a highly significant international role in the ultimate defeat of the Japanese empire in 1945 and which now deserves to reap the benefits of its sacrifices.

The Japanese revisionist view is almost entirely domestically directed and vigorously opposed by liberal elements within Japan. There is no significant external constituency supporting the idea that Japan’s pre-1945 aggression in Asia should be positively reassessed as a war of anti-imperialist liberation.

The Chinese case is more complex. There is a significant Chinese domestic audience for the idea that China should be given more credit for its contribution to the defeat of Japan in 1945 and that the country’s wartime sacrifice should help bolster contemporary ideas of Chinese identity. But also — unlike the domestic-focused Japanese discourse — China’s rediscovery of its wartime history is intended to stress that the country was part of what it calls the “world anti-fascist war” and thereby should be linked to the war in Europe.

However, it shares a problematic element with the Japanese discourse: It is based on political rather than historical assumptions. In other words, it stresses those elements of the wartime experience that boost present-day Chinese geopolitical claims at the expense of more ambiguous elements, such as the way that some Chinese leaders, for example senior Nationalist politician Wang Jingwei, collaborated extensively with the Japanese occupiers. And it stresses the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party in the war of resistance against Japan — obscuring the reality that the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was the primary decision-maker during the conflict.

Unlike Asia, Europe has moved past the war. Despite occasional overheated and inappropriate comparisons in Athens of Angela Merkel to the Nazis, World War II does not provide significant metaphors or analogies for Europe’s future. In Asia, in contrast, World War II is unfinished business. And that means that the World War II-era Chinese — including the Nationalists and the millions of politically unaffiliated people, as well as the Communists — do not get the recognition that they deserve for their sacrifices.

Photo credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

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