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A Belated Coming to Terms

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Germany and Japan have served six decades on global probation. It is time for their neighbors, their citizens and the international community to acknowledge the thorough transformation of the former Axis powers into fully democratic and morally responsible nations.

Comes now Guenter Grass, Germany's most accomplished novelist, to remind us of this need, albeit inadvertently. As does Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, much more deliberately. They have touched off controversies that bring into focus questions of war guilt, selective historical amnesia and, for Grass, the role of the artist in consumer-dominated societies.

Grass is simultaneously a Nobel laureate in literature, a deeply flawed political thinker and a willing human lightning rod for national angst. He has based his career on castigating Germans -- more specifically, West Germans during the Cold War -- for refusing to face up to the broad support they gave Hitler's crimes. So jaws dropped last week when Grass, now 78, disclosed his secret past as a 17-year-old Nazi assault trooper at the end of World War II.

Cynics in Germany noted that the revelation came at a strategic marketing moment for Grass's new memoir, which was promptly rushed into stores. The author himself suggested another motivation in a revealing interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: At his age, there is no hiding place left in the soul.

Grass's complexity as a literary and historical figure makes this much more than a personal tale of an intellectual preaching one thing while doing another. Had he disclosed it, his conscription into the Waffen SS could have made his testimony about the evil of the Nazi era even more compelling. His transformation was a story worth telling long before now.

In any event, what he has written and said about that era over the past half-century stands on its own -- as do the restitution and reconciliation efforts of successive German governments over the same period. People -- and nations -- can, and do, change as a result of their experiences. They must be judged on the entirety of the record, with particular weight being given to the consistency of their behavior in the more recent past.

That is a right that Grass was unwilling to grant to his fellow citizens in West Germany, which he saw as a "petty bourgeois" political entity so corrupt and stained by the past that he opposed German reunification at the end of the Cold War. Having naively excused or whitewashed the shortcomings of the communist system in East Germany for so long, he could not bear to see it disappear.

But the lasting artistry of "The Tin Drum" and other Grass novels towers over such misguided, unsustainable political judgments. Calls for the Nobel Prize awarded to Grass in 1999 to be rescinded because of his Waffen SS role -- and I suspect because of his contemporary political views -- are misplaced. His works and the recognition they have received are in fact important indicators of Germany's having come to terms with the past more successfully than have other world powers, particularly Russia and China.

Koizumi gave China an opening to rake up Japan's militaristic past last week by visiting the Yasukuni war shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 persons convicted as Class A war criminals by a 1948 tribunal. But China and other Asian nations are engaged in the pursuit of tactical advantage, not historical truth, in pretending they possess moral superiority over an unreconstructed Japan.

It is the unfinished transformation of China, not of Japan, that is the urgent moral and political question today in Asia. It is China's military buildup -- not Japan's increased willingness to take on the burdens of global security -- that is the destabilizing force in Asia. Americans and Europeans should not be taken in by Beijing's flimflammery on the Yasukuni visit.

Such protests and the discrimination against Germany and Japan written into the United Nations Charter are now obsolete. Japanese membership on the Security Council is a necessary first step toward serious reform of the world body. Tokyo should help clear the way for that step by removing the inscriptions that honor war criminals at Yasukuni.

Germany's case for Security Council membership is complicated by the fact that Europe already has seats held by France and Britain. Chancellor Angela Merkel has prudently deferred the once-insistent push by Germany for its own seat. But Germany and Japan both deserve to be heard and treated as the responsible international partners they have become across six decades.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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