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Angela Merkel and Japan’s Wartime Past

The German Chancellor was in Tokyo for a couple of eventful days. Although Merkel sees Abe Shinzo regularly, she noted before leaving  that she has not been to Japan, the country that she tactfully calls “Germany’s second-biggest trading partner in Asia” (after China, naturally), since 2008.

There cannot be a great deal of desire on Merkel’s part to talk about World War II amid the rest of this massive bilateral agenda — mainly the Chancellor wants to talk up trade, nuclear energy, and get help in pressuring Russia on Ukraine, not get caught in the middle of Japan’s historical controversies.

As the AFP put it, this was not meant to be:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Japan on Tuesday to resolve the “comfort women” issue in her second foray into the delicate issue of East Asian history following her comment Monday that settling the wartime past is a prerequisite for reconciliation.

Winding up a whirlwind visit to Japan, Merkel met Katsuya Okada, head of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, and said Tokyo should “go ahead with reconciliation” with South Korea over the comfort women issue.

“Japan and South Korea share values,” Merkel reportedly told Okada. “It’s better to resolve the . . . issue properly.”

On the first day of her visit, Merkel weighed in on Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung:

In a speech at the start of her first visit to Japan since 2008, Merkel referred to a 1985 speech by the late German President Richard von Weizsaecker in which he called the end of World War II in Europe a “day of liberation” and said those who closed their eyes to the past were “blind to the present”.

Asked how Germany was able to reconcile with its one-time enemies after the war, Merkel said: “Without big gestures by our neighbors that would not have been possible. . . . But there was the acceptance in Germany to call things by their name.”

Naturally, the Chinese news media was very eager to amplify this particular message, as it elided nicely with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s vigorous remarks directed at Japan at the NPC in Beijing.  History is nothing if not a cudgel in northeast Asia.

Unfortunately, the Abe government’s eagerness to ostracize the liberal newspaper which hosted one forum for Merkel (the Asahi Shimbun) and to deal aggressively with rolling back even the slightest criticisms of the “comfort women problem / ianfu mondai” meant that her very indirect critiques of the insolubility of Japan’s wartime past went largely unnoticed in Japan itself.

NHK, the state broadcaster, “packed the issue in wool” during its coverage of the Merkel visit, not so much as mentioning the venue of the Asahi speech, and omitting any mention of Merkel’s admonition that a country ultimately has to look itself in the mirror of history. As the Sueddeutsche Zeitung put it (in an article which was translated into Japanese and is making the rounds on Japanese social media as a small corrective):

Wie Japan sogar mit einer derart in Watte gepackten indirekten Kritik umgeht, zeigt die Berichterstattung des öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehsenders NHK über den Merkel-Auftritt. Den Veranstaltungsort, die verfemte Asahi Shimbun, verschweigt der Sender am Montag. Und von Merkels Redebeitrag bringt er nur den Ausschnitt, in dem die Kanzlerin das Glück beschreibt, das Deutschland mit dem Versöhnungswillen seiner Nachbarn gehabt habe. Von Merkels Diktum, man müsse sich selbst der eigenen Verantwortung stellen, ist nichts zu hören. Auch Abe geht auf Merkels Einlassungen in der gemeinsamen Abschlusspressekonferenz nicht ein.

Yet, reading the German-language press just prior to the Merkel visit, one is reminded how complex the issue of war victimization is, and how difficult it is to keep the story sorted into a simple binary of Japanese war guilt and intentional amnesia vs. presumably unblemished Western/Chinese/Korean justified vigilance. March 10, after all, was the 70th anniversary of the US firebombing of Tokyo, an attack which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians in a single night. Patrick Zoll, the correspondent for Neue Zuercher Zeitung in Tokyo, interviewed a survivor of that bombing and published an extensive article on 7 March about it.

Reading the Tokyo section of Volume 10 of The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (as I did this morning), it quickly becomes clear that mass killings of civilians in World War II in Asia was an activity anything but monopolized by the Japanese imperial army. The authors of the survey describe “Incendiary Zone 1” in Tokyo, an area “which included one of the most densely populated areas in the world — Asakusa Ku with a population of more than 135,000 persons per square mile…there was probably no other residential area in the world of a comparable size which equaled the built-upness of Zone 1.” (p. 70). The report goes on:

The combustibility of Japanese dwellings was well illustrated by tests made in this country…Those constructed in “typical Japanese fashion” burned to the ground in 12 minutes; those constructed in accordance with Tokyo fire regulations were consumed in 32 minutes (p. 70).

Shelters for the general public were meager or lacking entirely. Many of those in Zone 1 were built in the sidewalks and consisted of little more than shallow trenches with bamboo or light wood roofs covered with a few inches of earth. These shelters were so close to buildings that they were worthless and were not used to any great extent. The fire susceptibility of Zone 1 was probably greater than that of any other similar area in the world (p. 87).

The 28-mile-per-hour wind during the course of the attack which increased in velocity as the fires merged, contributed considerably to the intensity and further spread of the conflagration. The highly combustible nature of the city resulted in an intense fire of short duration. Observers stated that the heat was so intense that entire block fronts burst into flames before the main body of the fire reached them (p. 84).

There is little space amid this specific memory, the inferno, to look outward at Japan’s wartime empire and the far less technological, yet no less real, suffering of victims of wartime rape by Japanese soldiers operating within a structured system of Army-run brothels. The photo that prefaces this essay speaks to that system. It is from the Australian War Memorial, is of former “comfort women” on Java watching Japanese soldiers unload their belongings after the 1945 surrender.

Chancellor Merkel has no need to become entangled in such local controversies as the construction of “Hiroshima Plaza” in Potsdam, but looking back on what the “comfort women” system really was, and the recognition that it spans well beyond Japanese-Korean parameters, one can understand why she may have felt the need to mention it.

“Hitler’s Stomach” in Beijing: A Review

Today in Berlin, I was cruising through the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, the businessman’s preferred paper, for German response to the Wen Jiabao visit when I ran across an article so completely fascinating that I decided to translate it for inclusion on the blog, as it actually adds something new to the giant slapping waves of somewhat repetitious commentary in the area of China’s relations with Germany.

This translation represents 脑力劳动, which is to say, it is mental labor which has not been strained through the Google-translate machine.  Critiques of any sort are therefore welcome.  Link to the original German is here.

Poster for “Hitler’s Stomach” in Beijing — Photo courtesy Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung

Mark Siemons, “Wenn das der Mao wuesste! [If Only Mao Knew!],” Review of the Beijing Production of “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子], Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, 28 June 2011, p. 33.  [Translation by Adam Cathcart.]

Hitler as a tai chi-practicing pensioner with a birdcage in his hand, Hitler listening to rock ‘n roll with Eva Braun, pregnant Hitler: All of this can be seen in the Beijing “Pioneer Theater of the East,” not far from the central commercial mile of Wangfujing, led by Meng Jinghui, one of China’s most celebrated theater directors.

The premise of the play, as if Beijing were trying to overtake the Berlin Volksbuehne by point of subversive trash, arises out of no particular provocation.  In Meng’s young work, “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子]”, the historical Gestalt [form/形状] of the title character never really emerges: when it comes to ideology or crimes against humanity, nothing in the least is said. There are, however, plenty of Hitlerian logos: the uniform, the mustache, etc., and a sly joke connected to contemporary China: Hitler as a curious foreigner, but one that everyone knows.

Before the commedian Liu Xiaoye takes the stage, films are posted of air attacks on Berlin, and two young men read news reports from the last days of the [European] World War.  But then the entertainer arrives, saying: “Don’t take this all so seriously, I just want to talk with you a little bit.” And straight away, he has the public — mainly youth wearing floral summer clothing —  laughing at his omnipresent lies: “Today, everything is stable.  The economy is stable, the prices of goods are stable.  And the most stable thing of all is speech.”

It is as ever in the traditional improvisational Beijing theater, but then into the conference, suddenly, comes Hitler: He slumps in his uniform, screams in German about the Day of the Party [Parteitag] and is greeted by two young dancers with the Hitler salute.  Later, the commedian also arrives wearing a costume of Charlie Chaplin, whose film “The Great Dictator” Hitler requests and watches a future scene play out of his suicide in the Fuhrerbunker.   Two metrosexual Wehrmacht solders get into a fight which comes to resemble lovemaking during which the stage is full of dancing and Hitler’s pregnancy is made clear like a flatulent joke that farts its way to the very end of the play.  Before his suicide, Hitler asks to be sold to the Chinese as pork.

The author notes everything that is grotesque, as a form of persiflage [bantering / 逗嘴] with history.  Perhaps the desire also here is to make fun of the contemporary [Chinese] dictatorship via the historical mirror.

But as to the degree to which history is used as a premise — and done so completely without analysis or critique — forces one to ask, unavoidably: How is this possible?  How is it possible that in Beijing, in the year 2011, that a director in intellectually respectable circles can depict the recent 20th century this way?  And, moreover, how is it possible that in these circles, no one finds anything objectionable about this?

The answer can be found elsewhere, in the fact that in China, Hitler remains a somewhat unreal figure.  Recently, a posting on Kaixin, the Chinese Facebook, reported that Hitler had been raised in Vienna by a Chinese family.  As a consequence, Hitler for his whole life maintained a grateful attitude toward China, and his greatest wish was that Germany and China could dominate and divide the world together after the war.  Almost none of the four thousand commenters on the page cast this idea in the slightest doubt.  On the contrary, 4.6% said they took Hitler as a personal hero, and 38.8% said they believed Hitler had been raised by a Chinese family.

Of course in the portrait of history put forth by the Chinese Communist Party, there is little sympathy for German National Socialism (e.g., Naziism).  Indeed, Party history is rather straightforward: If anything, it enjoins Japanese revisionists to take up the German method of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (“coming to terms with the past”). But the material collateral of Naziism, its propaganda, its function in the moral and political realm, remains as a kind of folklore in China, in spite of its absence from the official CCP ideology.  Many Germans who have traveled to China have had the irritating experience of being confronted with the Hitler Salute — intended as a sign of goodwill from the Chinese, not as criticism.

Ignorance thus mixes with a rude historical Darwinism among those who are impressed by, above all, how strong Hitler made Germany.  In the internet form “Baidu Zhidao [白度知道 / “Baidu Knows”] the question is frequently asked: “Was Hitler a great man?”  Many answers will take your breath away, with their cold-blooded and relativistic approval of power.  “Any victor would be criticized for being a criminal,” writes one. Another says, “Had he united the world, he would have been the greatest man in all history.”

Hitler thus appears as a reincarnation of China’s First Emperor [Qin Shihuangdi / 秦始皇帝], whose uncontested brutality was considered by a few — not least of which was Mao — to have been the necessary precondition for unifying China.

One also gets the impression that here, Hitler is taken less for his actual historical uses than as a reflexive turn on a Chinese theme, one put forth particularly by the Communist Party, of duty to lift china out of the humiliations of the 19th century and vault China back into great power status.

Another internet commentor describes not Hitler, but instead the Versailles Treaty, as responsible for the Second World War.  The Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany failed to relinquish its colonial possessions to China, but which instead were taken by Japan, sparking patriotic movements for restoration in both China and Germany.  This is the connection between the real Hitler and the one played on stage, one totally missed by the absurd fantasies played among some Chinese.

Otherwise, the propaganda principle holds: Even the evil Hitler, describes one forum reader, was an environmentalist who respected women, loved art, and read philosophy.  Thus is it is no surprise to read an immediate response on the forum: “Hitler is as great as Mao — more positive points than mistakes.”  With this as premise, the kids in the theater can almost take the play as an exhibition of opposition.

Translator’s Note: Although the article was written in early June, and run of the play has now been completed, it is an interesting commentary itself by the somewhat taciturn editors of FAZ to release this piece today, just as it was clever statecraft by Angela Merkel to welcome Wen Jiabao in Wansee at the lakeside estate of an artist,  Max Liebermann, who had been censored and silenced by the Nazi Party in 1933. To be quietly criticized by Germans, as anyone who has performed here knows, is almost as painful as an explicit rebuke.  But more about the Chancellor, and the Artist, and the Premier, in another post…

Contested Era, Blossoming Memory: Reconsidering the Early 1950s in the Present PRC

In walking around Chinese book markets, perusing Chinese newspapers, talking to Chinese scholars and intellectuals, and just plain thinking here in the PRC, the remarkable fact emerges of the enormous gap between what is printed and discussed here and how we talk about it back in the West.

In other words, there are some thorny themes being worked out here in the PRC that seem to have totally escaped commentary by Western scholars and pundits.  Perhaps readers will indulge me as I describe a tiny salient of what is going on, and what is perpetually going on, on the immense canvas of historical debate in the PRC.

A recent blossoming of popular writing about Lin Biao on the mainland seems geared to reevaluating this central (but rarely publicly reappraised) figure. Lin Biao takes part in the revolutionary narrative at various crucial points: he commanded the massive northeastern front in the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), was the shadow ideological helmsman of the People’s Liberation Army of the early and radical Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), and ended up as the would-be coup leader whose body, along with that of his wife and son, was discovered in the wreckage of a “crashed” Chinese airplane on its way to Mongolia/the USSR in 1971.

The irrepressible translators at Danwei.org have in the past undertaken some excellent discussion of Cultural Revolution-themed (and Anti-Rightist Campaign!) publications in the PRC, but as I remain behind the Great Firewall, these are not at my fingertips at present.

For their part, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal seem hardly overly concerned with Chinese history, skewing news coverage as news organizations do, toward the modern.  By contrast, the German press seems slightly better attuned to — or at least can still sell papers writing about — what is called “Erinnerrungspolitik,” or the politics of memory.  Although the best paper in Germany, Munich’s Suddeutscher Zeitung has its gaps, at least the SdZ yesterday carried this appraisal of the Korean War, describing the changes triggered by the Chinese entry into the conflict now just over 60 years ago.

Perhaps for Germans living in a country where 84- and 85- year olds are still occasionally newly wounded by unexploded American ordinance from the Second World War, as occurred yesterday, or where the Japanese government is investing dollars into new Hiroshima monuments has had some impact, or perhaps the living memory of national division and the relative freshness of the Cold War as lived experience in Germany brings one back more easily to the ways that China controls and represses its various past achievements of violence and failings of the Confucian humanitarian impulse.

Though it hardly resembles the through-going German “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (Struggle over the past)” another theme that is emerging with renewed vigor from Chinese presses in the last two or three years is the struggle for law and order (and the repression of “reactionaries,” small capitalists, supposed Guomindang agents, and other enemies of the Republic) in the earliest years of the PRC.

Multiple examples are described in the Party sources as valorous, including a battle in Chongqing on February 13, 1950, the day before the Sino-Soviet Alliance was signed in Moscow.  This county-level conflict alone took the lives of 100 communist soldiers.  This and other efforts all over western China were not merely tiny “mopping-up” operations but often fully pitched battles on territory which Mao’s October 1 1949 declaration from Tiananmen four months and a week earlier had done little to functionally “liberate.”

It seems likely that I am going to continue to publish on this theme as it played out and inflected the earliest years of CCP administration in northeast China, especially among ethnic Koreans.  (In fact, a final “clean up operation” of my own against some proofs of my forthcoming Korean Studies article sparked the present essay, even though blogging has no measurable impact on my scholarly statistics.)  But back to Western China…

Given that Chiang Kai-shek only left Chengdu on December 8, 1949, and that the process of what one scholar calls “saturating, controlling and institutionalizing frontier space” was particularly difficult and violent for the PLA in Sichuan in early 1950, it might bear asking how the process of frontier consolidation played out in eastern Tibet later that year.

Although it’s hardly a fair parallel to make (and I would argue myself against reading genocidal imperatives to either the PLA in Tibet or the Japanese Imperial Army south of the Great Wall), if the Japanese army’s horrific approach to Nanking in late 1937 had negative implications for the occupied population of Nanking, might not a greater appreciation for the violent repression of “bandits” in the Chinese southwest and in Sichuan in late 1950 specifically give us something of a new vantage point through which to view the PLA’s broaching of force as it moved several months later from Sichuan towards Chamdo in the eastern Tibetan plateau?

In other words, bandits are bandits, no matter their ethnicity, and it seems hardly likely that the PLA took the lesson of hundreds of casualties in Sichuan lightly, or the need to resort to force in the process of consolidation in 1950.  More studies of combat trauma and its effects, in any case, seem really quite necessary for we scholars to undertake when it comes to the Chinese Civil War and its multiple appendages in Korea, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Of course, official efforts to valorize the “repression of counter-revolutionaries” in the early 1950s as a movement congruent with contemporary China’s obsession with law and order have not come without counter-commemoration, such as this online effort (以镇反名义杀害的部分抗日国军将领名单) which describes a large number of anti-Japanese officers and generals formerly of the Chinese National Army who were purged and murdered during the same movements in the early 1950s.  This is something akin to the Stalinist purges and murders of General Staff members in the late 1930s, but is rarely if ever broached in the fervent commemorations of either the War of Resistance (into whose belly I will be myself be residing in Chongqing next weekend) or the early years of the PRC.  Sacrifices multiple.

Finally, we see that commemorations of the Korean War are also coming under fire (and are allowed to be vented) in the PRC.  Clearly a directive went out from the Propaganda Ministry to even the most “liberal” organs of the mainland press to feature statist Korean War commemorations on their covers last month.  Thus Southern Weekend / 南方周末(often described as “reformist”) gets front page bromides about old-timers making corrections to Korean War casualty lists in Sichuan and cadre traveling around the country from the Museum to Resist America and Aid Korea in Dandong.

We also get big commemorative series of more than 60 pages in Sanlian Shenghuo / 三连生活 (hardly a “reformist” magazine, but as a product of one of the better intellectual presses in Shanghai/Beijing, as decent an organ as any for globally-minded Chinese who do not wish to leap upon the dirty truck bed of Huanqiu Shibao nationalism) which feature long extracts from CCP-issued official biographies of Army general and Korea field commander Peng Dehuai.   But at the same time, a detailed and critical Phoenix News story on China’s ambivalent relationship with North Korea — including disclosures of much wider violence and criminal activity stemming from the DPRK side of the border than is normally reported —  got wide play on the Chinese internet, and stayed up on the Tiexue BBS with a new title “China’s ‘Blood Alliance’ with North Korea is a Huge Joke on the Chinese People.”

Revolution, counter-revolution, kill the counter-revolutionaries.

Commemorate, and counter-commemorate, but do not silence the counter-commemorators.  If a hundred flowers can bloom from a hundred hundred thousand tombs of the epoch (and when one adds Mao’s own admission of 700,000 executions of “enemies of the people” to the now-official 158,010 Chinese deaths from the Korean War, that is about what we get), then perhaps the violent extremes and the political-military-social whiplash of the early 1950s may be said to have some positive legacy for the present age.

Selected Related Essays:

Adam Cathcart, “On Potsdam’s ‘Hiroshima Plaza,’” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 7, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Creating the Glass Man: Hiroshima Anniversary,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, August 6, 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “December 7 in Chongqing,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, December 7, 2009.

Creating the Glass Man: Hiroshima Anniversary

Today is the 65th anniversary of the American atomic attack on the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.  For the first time, the U.S. government is sending a representative to the commemoration ceremony.  Liberation, the left-wing Parisian paper, has a worthwhile photo gallery on the subject:

Hiroshima Prayers -- click image for gallery, courtesy Liberation.fr

The German press is of course also watching closely.  The Berlin Tagesspiegel carries a long testimony by a bombing survivor, a photo gallery of standard images, and a story with a critique from the head of the commemoration activity noting that American participation in the ceremony came “too late” (all links in German, sorry).  Sueddeutsche Zeitung carries an interview with a survivor as well (“Eyewitness to Apocalypse”), a photo of an American POW killed in the blast, and an interactive graph on nuclear weapons dangers today upon which North Korea stands out nicely.

However, probably the most interesting item on the Hiroshima commemorations to emerge of late in the German press (a press which has been much more focused on the meaning of 1945, perhaps understandably, than the American press in the past several months) is an editorial by Robert S. McKay, an American “old German hand”  and a skeptic.  His editorial appeared in the Berlin Tagesspiegel on June 30, foregrounding all of these commemorations with the notion that Japanese focus on war victimhood has clouded the country’s ability to honestly assess self-culpability in the wartime past, and criticizing the city of Potsdam for setting up a “Hiroshima Plaza” which coheres completely to the “Japanese as victims” point of view.  I’ve been meaning to translate this from the German for more than a month now, but as a concession to time, will link to the article’s original here and the horrible Google-translated version here, hoping that in the near future those German paragraphs will worm their way to the front of my translation queue.

Finally, take note of a new text published by my former northeast Ohio liberal arts college East Asian historian colleague Anne Sherif at Oberlin College, entitled Japan’s Cold War: Media, Literature and the Law (Columbia U. Press, 2009).   She writes to great emotional and intellectual effect about Hara Tamiki, the Japanese author who was, as she wrote, “a martyr of the age of fear and the first man to succumb to the full force of the Cold War” (p. 115).  Citing Oe Kenzaboro’s Hiroshima Notes, she states that “the bomb does more than give life and take it away” (p. 104), describing A-bomb literature, or genbaku bungaku 原爆文学…

Sherif offers a staggering analysis of some staggering literature by Hara Timiki (原 民喜), his story “Feet of Fire / 火の踵 / Hino kakato.”  (There’s another story here involving how I found the full text of this story in spite of what appears to be a misleading footnote, but I’ll spare you.)  Hara himself was in the bathtub in Hiroshima when the bomb hit, and atomic fallout pervades his subsequent output.  In “Feet of Fire,” Hara arrives upon the idea that he needs to create a “music bomb” which he will drop in order to create the man of the future, the “Glass Man.”  The atomic bomb, in other words, calls for new bombs, counter-bombs, artistic aggression.  As he walks down the street, Hara’s character’s eyesight and senses pare away and his psyche is shaken deeply by the appearance of the idea of the “music bomb”, whose power itself forces him to create a new persona.  In Sherif’s translation, here is  the climax of that story:

…Adam….This single name sprang from him, as from divine inspiration…That name came back to him like some kind of salvation.

“So that’s it.  It’s Adam — I am putting you in charge of the idea of the music bomb.”

or, in an extract from the original version:


(さうだ、アダム……。音楽爆弾の空想は君にまかせよう。君はあの死体の容積が二三倍に膨脹し、痙攣がいたるところに配列されてゐるシインのなかから、ぽ つかりと夢のやうに現れたイメージだつた。君の名はアダム……だが君の名をいま僕はニユー・アダムと呼びたい。音楽爆弾でも何でもいいから勝手に勝手な空 想をしてくれ給へ。いづれ僕はそいつも小説に書かうと思ふから、これからは時々やつて来てくれ給へ。だが今は僕はかうして街なかを歩いてゐるのだし、日常 生活の姿勢でゐなければ、どうも困るのだ。)

Hara Tamiki, courtesy Shunkin / Litterature Japonais

Postwar Meditation: Berlin/Tokyo

Postwar is post-nothing: it is the beginning of something.   “Ach!”, trained instinct cries, “but what of ‘tragen’, to carry heavy burdens, of its simple past  trug?  Do not ponderous and blackened memories determine future projections?”  No {we say, affected with blithe mannerisms}, because the burdens have been bombed away.  Digs, belongings, spouses, families, pensions: the war wiped it all away, and one has to begin again.

Rubble is a consequence of conflict, but so too are dandelions, and rain, and vegetable gardens on fields cleared where banks once stood.  Glorious dessication of the once-marble strongholds, giant stone shards become fodder for walls of ersatz properties marked off by pan-sellers hunched over wares.

Music takes new root, art moves steadily toward the AFTERGOLD, whisperings and snitches backstage at the opera portend Wozzeck‘s return: With each “Jawohl, Herr Hauptman!” another ten boys turn their backs on Clausewitz.

Anti-war absurdism breaks out in the theaters, spreading like so many infected rats running crazed and joyful from Ishii Shiro’s neuro-bullpen at Pingfan.  Critters skitter across platforms morphed by atomic blasts, once warped by the ponderous weight of thousands of knees bent to worship state power…

let the sugared tongue lick the hand of absurd pomp /

and bend the ready hinges of the knee /

where profit may follow fawning

yet dawning aerodromes of B-52s limber upwards

and now we fawn upon our own strength,

clutched and grinning to the hand of the conqueror.

Music rockets and power chords sizzle to be pocketed by kids in hipster wards some fifty years hence.  Drizzles of paint-flecks lift drab reverso canvases toward the temple of the avant-garde, because avant — forward — is the only choice.  Here there is no déjà, no relapse into yesterday, and Paris was never beautiful anyway.  Like fluids passed into the oceanic, there is nothing to be recovered.  Instead horizons undulate, suns forge the world entire, species mingle up under sea surfaces and teem fatally toward the giant bay and its volcanic twin.

Laughter erupts like a jazz musician’s lifted aural thought in clubs once darkened by decree, now unregulated by all but the flow of spontaneous yen, unchained linguistic confusions, the syntax of Bach again bubbling up with no memory of the Hitler Youth’s pleasant journey to this old imperial capital in 1938.

Bismark is dead, Tojo is dead, Goebbels waits for his call from an American television network brewing in the mind of a shrewd Australian.  And no one talks today of Okamura, nested in Taiwan’s glorious army bureaucracy, and Taiwan itself only blinks like a traffic light on the edges of some unknown field, a road one has never seen before.  For they have their own postwar grippe as well.  AstroBoy doesn’t care for Liaodong.  And Kishi calmly dons his pinstripes, waiting for that detestable anthem to finish its forte arc over grass fields in the Bronx.

But no amnesia is ever wholly pragmatic: the ambrosia of the new day lifts and then plunges, digging powerfully down into minds rich with nitrogen.  New thoughts too, require Lebensraum.  Memories are thus rounded up, quickly cataloged, and pushed into corners, there to mew futile, to atrophy, or to be exterminated.

Massive distortion or malleable transition?  Wendepunkt/Stunde Null or bent by gentle insistence on a nightly Bierstube chat with the new immigrants?  Identity shifts, but the crows remain black, circling over limber Berlin meadows.  Trees that lived through hailstorms of Soviet bullets remain supple; Goethe has lost a limb but continues to recite.

Speak, memory!

Or remain mute, damply crumpled and dark, while the jazzman plies his trade.

Reptriates in Tokyo, from the Walter A. Pennino Postwar Japan Photo Collection, courtesy of the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Reptriates in Tokyo, from the Walter A. Pennino Postwar Japan Photo Collection, courtesy of the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa