On Christmas Day in 1914 in France and Belgium, tens of thousands of German, British and French soldiers spontaneously observed a truce, fraternizing, singing Christmas carols and exchanging gifts in no-man’s land.
This revival of European fraternity was brief, however; hearts soon hardened in the bloody fighting that followed in 1915.
One World War I poem sums up those hardened feelings well:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
This is the final stanza of “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915 by Canadian soldier John McCrae.
For a modern reader knowing only the poem’s classic first stanza, which imagines Flanders poppies blowing gently between the graves of the war dead, these bellicose last lines come as a shock.
But to wartime readers, they made perfect sense. The war dead were our dead, of the British Empire, and the obligation they imposed upon us was to defeat the enemy who killed them.
Even if that obligation no longer binds, the obligation to remember the dead continues in war remembrance ceremonies observed throughout British Commonwealth countries.
However, for Britain and for other former WWI Entente Alliance nations that are members of the European Union, there is a balance to be maintained between remembrance faithful to their “fallen” and consideration for European Union partners like Germany.
The EU is no place for nourishing resentments against past foes. International remembrance ceremonies bringing together European leaders, such as a ceremony in October in Ypres, Belgium, attended by leaders from Germany, France and Belgium help maintain that balance.
We are also used to German leaders expressing contrition for Germany’s 20th-century rampages through Europe, as Chancellor Angela Merkel did in Ypres when she spoke of the “new threshold of cruelty” set by the German use of poison gas in fighting around that town in 1915.
When we turn to the current state of relations between East Asian nations, such a reconciliation about their past appears rather distant.
It seems unimaginable that the prime minister of Japan would stand, say, amid the ruins of the infamous Unit 731 facility in Harbin alongside Chinese and Korean leaders, and denounce the “new threshold of cruelty” set by the vivisections and biological warfare experiments conducted on living human beings there during World War II.
Japan is an easy target for criticism in East Asia’s “memory wars.”
Yes, there is the victim mentality fostered by memorialization of the atomic bombings, which obscures memory of wartime atrocities perpetrated by Japan’s armed forces. And yes, there is the atavism and historical revisionism of conservative politicians, pandering to like-minded constituencies and their misguided national pride.
But Japanese politicians are not alone in their nationalistic folly. In South Korea the period of Japanese colonial rule is framed as an era of national victimhood, and Japan is the victimizer with which “our quarrel” endures.
Such memorializing can yield enhanced legitimacy for whichever ruling party fans nationalist, anti-Japanese sentiments. In South Korea’s young and fractious democracy, where memory of the violence of authoritarian rule still persists, those sentiments can be useful — especially for the present-day legatees of past autocrats.
Look closely at Koreans’ historical entanglements with their former colonial rulers before 1945, and the victim storyline becomes shaky.
Those public officials, policemen and private brokers who tricked, coerced or purchased and then trafficked the poorest of their fellow Koreans into sexual servitude or conscript labor as “subjects” of the Japanese Empire, caring little for what happened to them afterward at the hands of their Japanese masters: Were they victims, too?
And those Koreans who volunteered to serve in Japan’s armed forces, including Lieutenant Takagi Masao, later known as the nation-building President Park Chung-Hee and as the father of South Korean president Park Geun-hye: Were they also victims?
China’s Communist Party government has rather more acute legitimacy problems than any South Korean democratic government does.
The party is presiding over an economic transformation that has made its communist credentials irrelevant, generating steep rises in incomes and economic inequality, labor exploitation and environmental despoliation.
Deflecting social discontent has been a major goal of its patriotic history school curriculums and its propaganda since the 1990s, and outside objects for such discontent are easy to find.
China’s victimhood at the hands of foreign powers, especially of Japan, is played for all it is worth, to “busy giddy minds” with those “foreign quarrels” that humiliated China in the past.
The record of Japan’s military conduct in China between 1937 and 1945 is so brimming with atrocities that the Communist Party hardly needs to invent them.
Still, it does not serve its purposes to see more recent Chinese history taught in schools, of the economic disasters and political terrors Mao Zedong’s regime unleashed in the 1950s and ’60s, inflicting another toll of misery and mass mortality upon the long-suffering Chinese people.
There were times when 20th-century Europe smoldered with chauvinistic nationalisms, aggressive great power aspirations and resentments over past humiliations.
It took the carnage of two world wars to shake most of Europe out of these lethal sentiments, and to renew the vision, abandoned in the late 19th century, of economic and political integration. No one would wish such a sanguinary lesson upon East Asia.
We can only hope that increased economic integration will compel East Asian nations to wean themselves off what writer Murakami Haruki has called the “cheap liquor” of nationalism.
Even if people were saying the same things about Europe before that 1914 summer, maybe it will be different in East Asia this time.
Perhaps — and if China’s rise remains peaceful — East Asia will find a way toward greater integration, and more mutually respectful expressions of patriotism.
If it does, its citizens will recognize a more diverse, ambiguous and shared past that is greater than the sum of national heroes and villains, victims and victimizers, and though atonement should be made in lasting good faith for past crimes, they will recognize the humanity of those on all sides who suffered and died in past conflicts.
From that same recognition of shared humanity came a World War I poem written by the British soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon, in November 1918. Like John McCrae he had lost friends to the war and, like McCrae, he eulogized them in his poetry.
But at the war’s end, perhaps Sassoon could afford an impartiality that McCrae could not in 1915, comprehending the best and the worst done by friends and enemies alike; and recognizing that the dead amongst former foes were also men loved and rightfully mourned. Such impartiality is needed today:
When you are standing at your hero’s grave
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.
Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.
Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University.