Prime Minister Abe, You're No Willy Brandt

Japan's leader can't successfully imitate the German chancellor's famous gesture of atonement.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine has generated much uproar. For South Korea and China, the shrine is symbolic of Japan’s unwillingness to properly confront and atone for its military behavior during the first half of the twentieth century. Class A war criminals from the Second World War are enshrined there. The Yushukan, a revisionist museum that defends (if not celebrates) Japan’s role in that global conflict, is adjacent to it. Small wonder, then, that South Korean and Chinese leaders were swift in their condemnation of the first prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni since 2006. Even the US embassy in Tokyo lamented Abe’s decision to visit the controversial shrine.

At stake with Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is how South Korea and China would infer Japanese intentions. A poll conducted in South Korea revealed that respondents see Japan as posing almost as much of a threat to national security as North Korea. In China, tensions with Japan remain over contested maritime territories (e.g., the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands). Japan’s reluctance to recognize its wrongdoing in the Nanking Massacre (and the Second World War, more generally) provides further reason for distrust and animosity. Unsurprisingly, by visiting Yasukuni, Abe helps justify fears that Japan is seeking to reclaim its imperial heritage and project greater political and military power in the region at the expense of its neighbors. Because the gesture has isolated Japan diplomatically, the result of the visit is counterproductive to the Japanese national interest.

So what is to be done?

A number of analysts (and some Chinese media sources) have suggested that Abe should draw on the example of West German chancellor Willy Brandt and his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto in December 1970.[1] During this visit, Brandt famously knelt down in front of a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Because it expressed remorse for German crimes towards Poland during the Second World War, one consequence of his genuflection was a major improvement in Polish-German relations. Abe, the argument goes, might want to consider undertaking a similar action with regards to South Korea, China, or even both.

Yet this suggestion—as appealing as it may be—is based on a problematic reading of the history behind Brandt’s gesture. Misunderstanding the historical context risks drawing the wrong conclusions about whether Abe can, and how he should, proceed with repairing Japanese relations with China and South Korea.

To start, before Brandt became chancellor, a primary goal of West Germany’s foreign policy was the diplomatic isolation of East Germany (called the Hallstein Doctrine). Only the Federal Republic, its political leaders asserted, had the legitimacy to govern over the German people.[2]

Partially for this reason, suspicion deepened amongst Soviet and Soviet satellite leaders regarding West Germany’s intentions. They had good reason to be worried. Memories of Nazism and the horrors of the war were still fresh. Moreover, communist leaders found little assurance in West Germany’s rearmament under NATO. Nor were they comforted by the insistence of West German leaders to play a greater role in nuclear decision-making within the alliance. Indeed, West Germany showed itself to be difficult to accommodate during international negotiations for a nonproliferation treaty.[3]

Implementing the Hallstein Doctrine confronted a number of difficulties, not the least among them was that it forestalled any major effort to relax tensions with the Soviet bloc. As Brandt and his political party steadily grew in political power over the course of the 1960s, he argued that this foreign policy was intellectually bankrupt and needed to be renounced. As a solution, Brandt proposed Ostpolitik, which sought rapprochement with the Soviet Union and expand West German commercial ties with Eastern Europe.[4]

Brandt first had his opportunity to implement Ostpolitik when his party joined a grand coalition. Yet this initial application of the policy was met with skepticism and distrust from the Soviet bloc. Brandt was saying the right things, but other members of the grand coalition were reluctant—if not fully opposed—to truly deliver on the rhetoric.

It was only when he gained the chancellorship upon his party’s victory in 1969 that Brandt could properly implement Ostpolitik. Accordingly, Brandt announced his intention to have West Germany finally sign the Nonproliferation Treaty. He also renounced the use of force (as did the Soviet Union) and recognized the post-war borders with the 1970 Treaty of Moscow. That same year, West Germany and Poland signed the Treaty of Warsaw, whereby West Germany recognized the Oder-Neisse Line, the postwar border between East Germany and Poland.[5]

Such was the context of Brandt’s genuflection before the Warsaw Ghetto monument. It was not an isolated gesture that cleared the way for political cooperation. In fact, it followed political cooperation rather than preceded it.