Historical narratives and collective memories are frequently cited as requirements or components that help constitute a nation. They help create group solidarity and cohesion by suggesting that memories and history are shared between past, present, and future members of a nation (Calhoun 1993, p.232).
National histories and identities are the product of cultural production (through museums, literature, art, and even historiography) and there are a variety of arguments about the role nationalists play in their creation and propagation. The historian Eric Hobsbawm holds that national cultures have often been synthesized in a top down manner, ‘invented’, in order to promote group loyalty (Hearn 2006, p.70). Benedict Anderson, meanwhile, views culture as vital for helping imagine a community: for example, the chapter ‘Census, Map, Museum’ in the 1991 edition of Imagined Communities highlights the role of museums in colonial-era South East Asia as laying the foundations for practices that give national identities ‘infinite reproducibility’ (1991, p.225).
From the perspective of memory studies, past events are made understandable via their framing in particular representations and images (Irwin-Zarecka 2008, p.4, 54). However, while particular stories and ideas about national histories may be given tangible expression in museums and memorials with great symbolic value, collective memory is rarely a complete picture. It has been claimed that the term ‘collective’ falsely implies consensus about dominant narratives when memory and remembrance, particularly with regards to ‘traumatic’ memories, are in fact highly contested by those outside and within national groupings (Freidman and Kenney 2005).
Silencing and forgetting can be just as politically charged as acts of remembering, the cases below highlighting the variety of ways in which countries have discussed, revised, or downplayed aspects of national history. As noted by Craig Calhoun, even Ernst Renan recognised historical error and deliberate forgetting as ‘crucial’ in forging a national identity (1993, p.225). Indeed, memories of violence and trauma that play into a narrative of national suffering have frequently shaped or been used to justify political acts in the present, particularly when narratives assign particular roles of aggressor and victim (Kosicki and Jasinka-Kania 2007). For instance, Serb nationalist narratives in the run up to the Yugoslav Wars gave a prominent role to the Battle of Kosovo, a justification for particular actions (Gödl 2007).
Nationalism, history, and memory are deeply intertwined, no more so than in memorials and acts of remembering around conflicts that have seen blood spilt in the name of the nation. The three cases below examine a variety of practices with regards to WWII.
- Japan and the Yasukuni Shrine
“Currently, more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine. These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for their nation since 1853 during national crisis such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident and the Greater East Asian War (World War II). These people, regardless of their rank or social standing, are considered to be completely equal and worshipped as venerable divinities of Yasukuni. Japanese people believe that their respect to and awe of the deceased is best expressed by treating the dead in the same manner as they were alive. Hence, at Yasukuni Shrine, rituals to offer meals and to dedicate words of appreciation to the dead are repeated every day.” (Yasukuni Shrine 2008).
Yasukuni Shrine, a source of perennial tension between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, is perhaps among the most well-known war memorial in the world. It was first founded by Emperor Meiji to commemorate anyone who had died in service of the country. In 1978, 14 Japanese Class A war criminals of WWII were enshrined in at Yasukuni in a secret ceremony. Since then, many Japanese Prime Ministers have paid visits to Yasukuni Shrine, frequently leading to international condemnation.
While Japanese government officials explain that visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is due to the respect to the dead, it has also become a focal point for right-wing Japanese nationalists to mobilize around (Blackburn and Lim 1999, pp.323-323). In particular, the promotion of historical narratives that portray Japanese military actions during WWII as being against western colonialism and liberating the rest of Asia is often bound up in discussions of the shrine. The Yushukan Museum that sits close by the Shrine, and recent school textbooks have also been seen as key sites that forward this ‘liberation’ view as part of Japan’s WWII narrative, derided by some visitors as propaganda (O’Dwyer 2010; Fallows 2014).
‘The ways that Japanese people interact with their Asian neighbors, attitudes toward conflicts in other parts of the globe, nuclear issues, and attitudes concerning the core symbols of Japanese nationhood — the flag, emperor, national anthem, constitution and Japan’s wider global role — are all inextricably linked to memories and interpretations of Japan’s wartime past. The war has not been forgotten. Quite the opposite, the Japanese seem unable to let it go.’ (Seaton 2007).
Many scholars argue that among the Japanese public, ‘the war has not been forgotten’. Although the government are involved in the retelling of history, public views are varied. According to Seaton (2007), there is a wide range of hard-to-reconcile war memories, including: (1) an “I don’t know or care” line; (2) a “progressive” line which makes the case for serious apologies and accepting responsibility of atrocities perpetrated under the flag of Imperial Japan; (3) a “progressive-leaning” line espoused by the Democratic Party, which largely concurs with the progressive line; (4) a “conservative” line espoused by actors like the central government, which admits war guilt but insists that Japan has apologized and made amends to the satisfaction of all victimized governments; and (5) a right-wing– nationalist line which holds that Japanese war aims and conduct were altruistic and beneficial to Asians.
The defeat of Japan in WWII has seen older generations in Japan choose to be silent while younger generations have asked questions about the war. This has, to some extent, given governments cause to educate later generations with a particular set of collective war memories that are not necessarily supported by all Japanese citizens. It is a serious question as to whether or not this has been pursued to rebuild a sense of national pride and patriotism, and redressing the idea that Japan is a ‘land without Patriots’ (Tamamoto 2001).
- War Memory, Movies and Nationalism in Germany
- From taboo to unavoidable topic: rethinking the Nazi regime and the Second World War in 1950-60s.
In the first few years after the WWII, economic reconstruction was the core task for the German government and public. There was a widespread view that the war and crimes against humanity were only related to Hitler and his Nazi regime. However, cultural elites began rethinking the war, stimulating public discussion via essays, books and movies. One of the most famous movie is ‘The Murderers Are Among Us’ (1946, by Wolfgang Staudte). The public realized how deeply the Nazi Germany hurt civilians in other countries. Several agencies were established by the government to investigate crimes in Nazi era, such as The Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes (1958).
- Debating, apologizing and understanding the 1933-1945 history from later 1960s.
One of the typical events that shows the attitude of German government was the Warschauer Kniefall in 1970. Willy Brandt, the chancellor of West Germany, knelt down in Warsaw to show his apology to victims in Poland. A few years later, with the releasing of an American TV series, the Holocaust (1978, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky and created by Gerald Green), the public began to debate that the role of common people in Nazi era and to what extent they should be responsible for the crimes. In the 1980s, the German public agreed that the whole German nation should take responsibility for crimes in WWII, although many were also victims of Nazi regime. Declaring the Nazi’s offenses is the duty of German nation and this is the best way to remember the history and restoring the honor of nation. President Weizsäcker’s famous speech for the 40th anniversary of the end of the WWII (1985) showed this attitude: ‘the 8th of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-Socialist regime.’
Movies and novels after German reunification also inherited the tradition of rethinking and examining Germany’s past. ‘The Downfall’, or ‘Der Untergang’ (2004, by Oliver Hirschbiegel) described the last days of Nazi Germany and ‘The Stalingrad’ (1993, by Joseph Vilsmaier) showed the ‘true’ daily life of German soldiers in eastern front. The ‘Die Welle’ (2008, by Dennis Gansel) seems to be the peak of such introspective movies. It sought to reveal the ‘magic power’ of Nazi ideology by having the blind obedience of young students closely mirror what German public did in Hitler’s era.
- RAF Bomber Command
The controversy around the construction of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command Memorial is arguably rooted in the World War II tactics of the Air Force. German civilians were a prime target of Allied bombing, but at the time, these attacks were considered justifiable under the Just War Tradition as it was in retaliation to German attacks on British soil (Lammers, 1991). However, the controversy around the memorial generally centers around later bombings, when it was becoming clear that the war was won and the bombings could no longer be justifiable as retaliatory. Attacks on German cities, such as Dresden in 1945, are considered by some as war crimes, and Pacifist organisations had demonstrated against a memorial in Lincoln Cathedral in 2006, well before the unveiling of the 2012 Memorial in Green Park (Smith, 2006).
The larger issues surrounding the memorial are not only the allegations of ‘war crimes’, but also debates about who is considered the victim and who is the aggressor. This is not only linked to the British memory of WWII, but also to the German one. Sebald (2002) wrote that “(t)he darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret.” Even though the British had committed acts of horrible suffering on the Germans, they do not consider themselves to be the aggressor, even if today’s critics would argue that the later bombings were unjustifiable. Britain, with its war memorial, has chosen to remember bomber command pilots as heroes: pilots who lost their lives during the war. But there has been little mention of such things as the bombing of Hamburg in 1943 which killed forty thousand German civilians (Childers, 2005).
The delaying of the construction of the Bomber Command Memorial until 2012 shows how controversial RAF bombing tactics had been at the time of the conflict, and still continue to be for decades after the war. Douglas Hudson, a veteran pilot of WWII, had been told after his service to take the Bomber Command off his CV, as it would “harm his job prospects” (Smith, 2006). Moreover, the bombing of Germany might not even have been justifiable even after the Blitzkrieg, as it success in Great Britain was not overwhelmingly achieved (Werrell, 1986). Even Winston Churchill, who had praised the use of bombers during the war, failed (allegedly on purpose) to mention their service when the war was won (Harrison, 2012), even though most discussions about the bombings endorsed them during the war (Lammers, 1991).
The British (and certainly not only the British) remember WWII not for episodes of unjust aggression on German civilians, but as a war to end Nazi aggression and Hitler’s dictatorial terror and domination; a Just War against aggression. Meanwhile, the Green Park memorial has created a site that revives debates about silencing and forgetting, remembering and memorialisation, particularly concerning violence is perpetrated in the name of the nation is remembered and made part of collective memory.
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