Book Review

By Hofmann, Michael | The Independent (London, England), July 1, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Book Review


Hofmann, Michael, The Independent (London, England)


THE WAGES of sin are guilt - but the wages of guilt? Well, in the case of the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, prime movers and principal villains of the Second World War, they would seem to be economic success (balance of payments surplus, high living standards), persistently low international status (circumscribed foreign policy and defence capability), and a sharp division of opinion internally between the Germans and Japanese who want to go on feeling bad and those who think it's high time all that was forgotten.

Holding a German passport myself, I side passionately - maybe too passionately - with the former group: I don't think it's possible for Germans (to speak only for my own lot) to feel badly enough. The political pygmy/economic giant urge, the queals of "wir sind wieder wer" (we're people to be reckoned with again) have always seemed repugnant.

Ian Buruma would have me believe otherwise. An Anglo-Dutch writer brought up in Holland, he was "educated from the point of view of the victim". Probably he is bored by professions of culpability from otherwise resoundingly successful countries. There is a "false guilt" that is more like "false pride" in "an almost tribal capacity for sublime music and unspeakable crimes", as he puts it. As a savvy political analyst and author of impressive pieces on the Far East and much else, he may be too sophisticated to believe in the possibility of political stasis - the harmless neutrality and medieval contrition that so appeals to younger Germans on the left. No, everything flows. He deprecates the idea of Germans and Japanese as inherently "dangerous peoples" and - in what seems a late-19th-century fixit way - suggests it is largely a question of making appropriate constitutional arrangements. Jpan, held back by MacArthur's strings, largely hasn't (the LDP, the Emperor cult); Germany, swaddled in the sticky embraces of Nato and the EC, on the whole has. I'm not sure.

The subject of attitudes to the war in the two countries is huge, intricate and impalpable. What do you look at, what do you measure and who do you talk to? Politics, of course, is part of it, but so are psychology, religion and art. A 10-page index is testimony to Buruma's assiduous legwork and library sleuthing, but the impalpability remains. He adopts a sort of twinkle-toed approach, cutting from political interview to film to history to monument to linguistic analysis in successive paragraphs.

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