China’s official visit to Germany brings two world’s together but is a powder-keg of old wounds and a trunk-load of misunderstandings
Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Germany for 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 wasn’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 behavior. 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.
The Japanese inhabit the islands of Japan and also the permanent state of denial. The Chinese should just stop the saber-rattling, forget about Japan’s WWII atrocities, and move into the 21st century. One would hope the Boys in Beijing and Tokyo are bright enough to realize the incalculable costs and unpredictable consequences of yet another military conflict. One would hope.
Let’s be very clear about the differences between Merkel and Abe. Merkel visited the site for VICTIMS of Nazi war criminals, NOT a site for the latter, whereas Abe visited a site for the PERPETRATORS of Japan’s war crimes. Also, to say that only 14 of the Imperial Japanese soldiers honored at the Yasukuni Shrine are war criminals is like saying that only few of the Nazi soldiers can be considered as war criminals, also, while the remaining soldiers were just heroes defending Germany. That is an utter nonsense! As soldiers who carried out the aggressions and atrocities against their neighboring countries on behalf of their aggressor countries, all Nazi and Imperial Japanese soldiers are technically war criminals. Imagine the outrage and uproar by their European neighbors, as well as most Germans themselves, if Germany had a memorial or a shrine dedicated to its Nazi soldiers similar to the Yasukuni Shrine. Of course, that is why Germany has no such site dedicated to, much less honoring, the Nazi soldiers, except for their individual private cemeteries by their families. Really, can the West or the whole world, for that matter, imagine Angela Merkel paying an annual tribute to the dead Nazi soldiers? If she did, Germany, too, would find itself be shunned and detested by its neighbors, as Japan is now.
Let’s also be clear that the”West” isn’t papering over the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s. They are a matter of public record everywhere. The German “crimes against humanity” of the mid-20th Century were a bigger issue than those of the Soviets and Japanese solely because they were the ones who started the Second World War and because they were always a bigger threat to world peace and civilization. And, of course, because Germany committed most of its atrocities in the “West”, where people took them a lot more personally.
The Putin government in Russia is now back in the business of papering over Soviet atrocities, but that is going to be another story.