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 world with the sharp contrast between post World War II Japan and Germany in facing their parallel burdens of history." One source told 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's challenging 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.