Sam Seitz

The newest edition of Foreign Affairs, “The Undead Past,” focuses on the ways in which countries confront the evils of history. Specifically, it examines how the United States, China, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and Rwanda have addressed (or not) the past crimes of their countries. It’s an excellent collection of essays that, despite being a tad less analytical than I would have liked, is very much worth reading. I think the articles ignore an important component of national memory, however: How past crimes are strategically exploited to achieve foreign policy goals. Of course, it is always important to remember injustices in the past so as to build sympathy for the oppressed and hopefully limit the possibility of large-scale crimes reoccurring. But it’s also important to realize that the memory of past crimes can be manipulated both by victims and victimizers to further their own foreign policy interests. Indeed, it often is.

Consider Germany’s massively underfunded military, for example. Many policymakers in the United States and Europe have grown increasingly frustrated with Berlin’s utter unwillingness to fund its military to a level commensurate with its economic size. Despite what Germans want to believe, their country has become the de facto leader of Europe, and with that comes security responsibilities. But past actions by Germany suggest that Berlin wants all the benefits of being the dominant economic and political power in the EU with none of the costs. Interestingly, this is all tied to history and memory, as German leaders frequently assert that any major leadership push on their part, especially regarding security or military affairs, will startle other countries still wary of the return of Nazism. Having spoken with many Germans, I think it is safe to say that there really is a cultural aversion to taking the reins and becoming the explicit leader of Europe. But I also get the clear feeling that Germans know they can offer more and simply use their nation’s past as an easy cop-out. In other words, German leadership has exploited Germany’s past crimes as an excuse to get out of offering the leadership that the country is naturally suited to provide.

One sees a similar kind of exploitation of past crimes in China, where the narrative on Japan has evolved multiple times to suit the Party’s needs. Immediately following its rise to power in 1949, for example, the CCP denounced Japanese aggression, falsely claimed that it was the communists who defeated the Imperial Japanese Army, and argued that Japan was nothing more than a fascist puppet of American imperialists. This narrative makes sense given the horrific treatment Chinese people suffered at the hands of Japanese soldiers. However, the narrative changed in the mid-1960s, as Chinese leadership sought to boost trade and diplomatic ties with Japan in an effort to break Tokyo away from Taipei. Mao at one point even told Japanese envoys that “You cannot be asked to apologize every day, can you?… It is not good for a nation to feel constantly guilty, and we can understand this point.” Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the PRC, then switched the narrative again after meeting with Kissinger and Nixon. In order to justify improved relations with the United States, he chose to frame Japan once more as an island of militarist barbarians who could only be contained by a strong American military presence in the region. The narrative was once more reversed in the late 1970s due to growing economic ties between China and Japan, and it has since reverted to a more hostile narrative on account of the two countries’ competing territorial claims. The main difference between Germany and China, of course, is that Germany was a victimizer while China was a victim. Nonetheless, both countries have selectively and strategically exploited the past to justify more recent actions.

This same kind of dynamic exists in the Middle East, where Arab countries continue to bang on about the injustices committed by Israel against Palestinians while themselves doing very little to assist those evicted from Palestine. No Arab country outside of Jordan has permitted Palestinian refugees to apply for citizenship, for example, because forcing them to remain a displaced people without a home ensures that the Israel issue will continue to simmer. But even Jordan falls short in providing justice for the Palestinians, biasing the electoral system against the Palestinian vote and expelling Palestinian resistance fighters to Lebanon, thus contributing to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War.

Certainly, it’s important to sympathize with and support those who have suffered injustices and mass violence. The suffering endured by the victims of Nazism, Japanese militarism, and the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is real and serious. But it’s also important to realize that this suffering is frequently exploited by victims and victimizers alike. Does this diminish the ghastliness of the crimes committed? Absolutely not. It does, however, suggest that we should be careful about taking every narrative at face value.