World War II is ever with us, although perhaps for Americans rather less immediately than what we narcissistically call “Vietnam,” as though the word described our own pain and disillusion rather than a country in Southeast Asia. As George Orwell wrote in 1948: “As the successive wars, like ranges of hills, rear their bulk between ourselves and the past, autobiography becomes a sort of antiquarianism.” Yet World War II still haunts. A Texas farmer sends photographs to his family from New Guinea, with handwritten captions such as “Village elder. 32 years old and already an old man,” for his brother’s grandson to find and wonder about a half a century later. A Munich brewery worker vacationing on Hungary’s Lake Balaton recalls with lingering amazement the arrival of American troops in his country: “When the American soldiers came to Germany in 1945, we were so poor. We were so glad they came. It was the first time I ever saw a Negro.” A woman in Gdansk travels, in the summer after the fall of the Berlin Wall, from Düsseldorf to her childhood village which, if it still exists, is part of Poland; her West German granddaughter accompanies her. A German in his thirties tells of his father’s eight years in prison camps in Siberia—years the former Nazi soldier still refuses to discuss. An American man and a German woman, both in their twenties, discuss the film Schindler’s List (1993) as they hike along in Kashmir. “I’m sick and tired of this assumption that the Jews are the only people who have ever been mass-murdered,” says the American; “then along comes Jewish Spielberg. . . . Why doesn’t someone make a movie about Bosnia?” The German laughs, then calmly tells of the huge impact the film has had on public debate in her country. Australian, American, and Dutch former prisoners of war and a few of their Japanese former captors still converge on Kanchanaburi in western Thailand to remember the infamous Death Railway, the building of which remains the most important landmark in their long lives.
The paragraph above relates more or less random encounters in the life of the present reviewer. One might expect a book about German and Japanese memories of World War II to be replete with such scenes; for a reader with a provincial and plebeian bias, Ian Buruma’s The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan is disappointingly arid. On one page of the book, he makes a telling slip. Describing the critical reaction in Germany to the 1977 film Deutschland in Herbst, Buruma writes: “The country (or at least the country’s intelligentsia) was on the verge of hysteria.” It is as if, in mid-sentence, it occurred to the writer that the masses might appreciate a feint in their direction. The feint is half-hearted and unconvincing. Buruma’s earlier books—including the excellent God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey (1989) and the unsuccessful quasi-novel Playing the Game (1991)—as well as his many essays in The New York Review of Booksshow clearly that his main purpose and identity as a writer is as a retailer of ideas both for and about his fellow intellectuals. To say this is not to denigrate Buruma’s work. Intellectuals, present company not excepted, always run a risk when they accuse other intellectuals of being intellectuals.
The claim made on the book’s dust jacket that Buruma is “perhaps the West’s leading commentator about Asian politics and culture” seems unduly and unbecomingly bold—although it must be said that the Japanese sections of the book are written with a most impressive quiet authority. Nor need readers accept Robert Kaplan’s back-cover claim that Buruma “probes the psychological abyss of two nations . . . not by abstract intellectualizing, but by being a travel writer.” In his work, Buruma quotes a right-wing Japanese politician on the infamous 1937 Nanking Massacre, in which Japanese troops slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. Buruma then writes: “Ishihara Shintaro’s remarks were one reason why I came to be sitting in a stuffy hotel room in Nanking during the summer of 1991.” There are many such segues from intellection to diffident self-portrayal, but a comment in passing that a hotel room was stuffy does not constitute “travel writing.” This is just as well; much dross has been published under that rubric. The Wages of Guilt, like God’s Dust, really is intellectualizing, but that is okay. It is a valuable and timely book on a portion of a huge topic—the legacies of World War II—whose immense relevance is most unlikely to diminish.
Buruma discusses Germany’s unstable cultural and geopolitical position in the center of Europe in terms of the Federal Republic’s highly self-conscious assumption of membership in “the West,” and German debate over the...
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