Even though the last of the remaining aged survivors of the Second World War who fought and suffered through its horrors are now dying out, interpretations of what happened remain politically and morally contested. It is now an old story that West (but not East) Germany admitted the criminal nature of the Nazi regime, apologized, and incorporated recognition of what occurred into its school curriculum. Officially, Japan never has unambiguously done so and Japanese remain deeply divided over their wartime historical record, including its colonial rule in Asia.
But the story is much more complicated than that because most of the West European countries occupied by Germany during the war only gradually and belatedly admitted that their many collaborators played a crucial role in helping the Germans carry out the Holocaust and fight their war. This was even more the case in East Europe, where many are still evasive about the widespread cooperation with the Nazis that occurred during those years. Poland had to be shocked by Jan Gross’s path-breaking book, Neighbors, before starting to come to grips with the reality of its anti-Semitism, and in many other parts of the region that has not really begun to take place, even now. And in East Asia, the successful channeling of nationalist passions against Japan by the Koreans and Chinese has allowed them to evade the records of their own numerous collaborators.
The importance of World War II memories goes well beyond arguments about guilt or innocence, or concerns about official obscurantism in school textbooks and public avoidance, even denial of the relevance of the topic. The reality is that people have their own version of what happened passed on in family lore, while leaders’ interpretations of their past continue to shape present policy choices.
There has been much valuable scholarship on how both Europe and East Asia have approached issues related to World War II, but relatively little that directly compares the two areas. By bringing together a small group of the best analysts of the contentious twentieth century in both Europe and East Asia, we hope to deepen the comparative scholarship of how they have shaped their historical memory of the wartime past and how that legacy continues to shape current history in both regions. Each panel focuses on a key question and pairs specialists from Asian and European studies to address that same question.
This conference draws upon the three-year Divided Memories and Reconciliation project of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. The papers presented here will be published as an edited volume by a major university press.