“Comfort women,” the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, and the Yasukuni shrine are the Achilles’ heel of South Korean-Japanese relations. Recurring for decades, the clashes over history issues this year have taken a serious turn. Despite the ever-flourishing trade relations and socio-cultural interaction, the acrimonious mood between two state leaders seemed to drag the whole region into the so-called “New Cold War” era. Whether their actions and words resulted from political demagogy for their own ambition or a rational calculation for national interest, South Korean president Myung-bak Lee and Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda chose a course that deviates far from reconciliation. South Korean media coverage repeatedly cites the German chancellor Willy Brandt’s “heroic” apologetic gesture in the 1970s and accuses Japan of not having done the same thing. During his official visit to Norway in September 2012, Lee made a speech at the University of Oslo entitled “Korean route and its new horizon,” emphasizing the only way for Asia to reconcile is to follow the European way: true self-reflection and apology. Was Brandt an exceptional man? If he had been the prime minister of Japan, would history have taken a different path?
Is Brandt So Special?
Brandt certainly had a personal quality that made him unique. There are some national leaders, like Nicolas Sarkozy, who argue that religious ideas do not belong in foreign relations. During his official visit to Algeria in 2007, Sarkozy stated that there is no need to apologize for colonial misdeeds: “I’m for a recognition of the facts but not for repentance, which is a religious notion that has no place in relations between states.” He even said that it is absurd to apologize for something in which the current generation was not involved. There are also those like Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, or Willy Brandt, who shared a strong willingness to connect political actions with moral value. De Gasperi, Italian prime minister from 1945 to 1953, wrote in his book Discorsi Politici that to be Christian in politics implies a profound sense of duty for fraternity and morality. He confessed as well that keeping the same faith inside and outside the Parliament is a constant struggle of his life. Whether it came from his religious faith or personality, Brandt had a visionary leadership based on morality that lasts over generations: “Willy Brandt’s gesture of reconciliation across the borders of old enemies will be interpreted in the spirit it was made. [...] He will live on in our history as the great Peace and Reconciliation Chancellor of Germany.”
But this was not all. One of the main reasons his own conviction could lead to a stabilized reconciliatory policy was that there was a consistent national plan that went beyond his personal strategy. Around him, there were many intellectuals and political elites including Egon Bahr, who provided ideas and thoughts to shape a long-term foreign policy such as Ostpolitik. This teamwork transcending any particular political affiliation allowed Germany to develop a coherent national guideline for reconciliation, which is not the case between South Korea and Japan. Having become a democratic country only recently, South Korea still suffers from a severe factionalism while Japan, with its one leading party system, has no room to embrace diverse voices in the Parliament. These fragile domestic political structures thus create additional obstacles to building up a long-term policy, which would not easily get reversed with a new administration.
Not from the Aggressor, but from the Victim Country…
Another element the South Korean press has overlooked regarding Germany’s success of reconciliation is the contribution Polish and German non-state actors had incessantly made to pave the way for societal reconciliation even before the active engagement of state leadership. Brandt himself gave credits to religious actors for their work toward Polish-German reconciliation: “Exchanges between the Churches and their members preceded any dialogue between politicians.” It is of particular importance that the reconciliatory initiative came first not from the aggressor, but from the victim country. Poland’s geopolitical position, sandwiched between two regional powers, drew the nation into the tragic destiny of a weak nation. Russia and Germany (and Prussia) invaded, repressed, and partitioned the Poles over centuries to “extinguish Poland’s national identity.” And yet, it was the Polish Catholic bishops that first appealed to the Germans in 1965 with the message “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” This is a historic action if we think of the generational hatred deeply anchored in the Polish mindset in the 1950s and 1960s. The Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 served as a locus where Polish and German Catholic bishops could develop their relations and exchange ideas at a time when the official interstate channel was still frozen. The immediate reaction from the German counterpart was lukewarm, but the Bensberger memorandum later in 1968 filled the lack of enthusiasm. Coupled with the 1965 Protestant memorandum, both initiatives demonstrated well to what extent a transnational network with a shared Christian spirit could have an impact upon political change of reconciliation. Some actors were severely accused of being a national traitor and even threatened to death. However, they were convinced that the only way to stabilize a peaceful relationship between Poland and Germany was through reconciliation. Thanks to their close link with the media circle, both memoranda had a strong public resonance, positive and negative, which not only allowed civil society to openly discuss their shared past in public sphere, but also affected the state leadership in the 1970s. Without media, which serves as a channel to connect political elites and the public, it would have been impossible to create a locus where both West German and Polish could work together and transform the public perception. The trio concerto among religious actors, media professionals, and political elites paved the way for the peaceful relationship that Poland and Germany enjoy today.
- Harry & Helen Gray Culture & Politics Program