What do the Holocaust and Hiroshima — the two big events of WW II — share in common?

tags: Holocaust, Hiroshima

Ran Zwigenberg is assistant professor of history and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

In 1973, just months before the Yom Kippur War, Muki Tzur, an Israeli historian, wrote in the introduction of the German translation of “Siach Lokhamim” (A Warriors’ Conversation), “[this book] was written by Jewish youths of the 20th century. This century was shaped by two colossal events, two earthquakes in modern civilization: Hiroshima and Auschwitz. It seems that there is no young man in this world who is free from relating to these two events…we (young Israelis) are looking for meaning between these two extremities.” Haim Guri, one of Israel’s leading essayists, took offense at Tzur’s equating of the two tragedies. In a biting critique titled Al ha-hevdel (About the difference), Guri dismissed any effort of comparison or connection between Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Guri presented Hiroshima as a tragedy but one that was conducted as part of a war in which the Japanese were the aggressors, while the Jews were not in any way conducting warfare against the Germans. Furthermore, accepting official American interpretation of the events, Guri presented Hiroshima as an “evil with a purpose,” which was the lesser evil by preventing many more casualties, both Japanese and American, in the event of an invasion. Auschwitz was different. “It had no purpose…it was a crime.” Implicitly (and a-historically) condemning the allies, Guri added, “If the A-bomb was dropped on Auschwitz millions would have been saved.” Guri hinted at what was really at stake when he concluded, “the Germans would be pleased with this false confluence of Hiroshima and Auschwitz,” thus implying that the very comparison served to undermine German guilt. In a forceful reply, Tzur responded to Guri, “I cannot forget Hiroshima… not because I could identify with its victims to the same degree I could with my own people. Not, also, because I attribute to Truman and his advisers the same motives I attribute to Eichmann or Heidrich. But because Hiroshima has put us under the threat of a total weapon…we must understand the horrible absurdity [which is Hiroshima]; even I as an Israeli cannot release myself from that shadow.”

Guri’s particularism, which was, and still is, representative of majority opinion in Israel, stands in sharp contrast to the global role Hiroshima and Japan sought for as universal emissaries of peace. This contrast exposes the enormous gap between the two lessons of World War II’s horrors that are frequently drawn, the universal and the particular, which supposedly position Israel and Japan at two opposite poles. Indeed, the two countries are examined here specifically because they seem to represent such extremes. However, as Tzur's reply demonstrated, and as this paper will argue, this contrast, although very real, obscures the many similarities between the ways these nations dealt with their respective tragedies and the many nuanced arguments in between these two extreme positions. Furthermore, the similarities are largely the result of the two communities being part of an emerging global memory culture. This debate, and others that will be examined here, illuminate the global nature of World War II memory. The war was a world war and as such precipitated global developments and an emerging global memory culture. The histories of war and commemoration are, to use Sebastian Conrad’s words, “entangled histories.” Yet memory studies continue to operate with “tunnel vision,” looking at individual nations in isolation. This paper attempts to go beyond a simple comparison of the two nations in isolation, and instead to examine how both histories were entangled and influenced by similar global developments.

As I demonstrated in greater detail in my manuscript Hiroshima: the Origins of Global Memory Culture, perhaps the most prominent of these developments was the emergence of the idea of the survivor and a culture of testimony that drew on disparate sources, both within and outside the Cold War West. In both communities (and, indeed, many others from Beijing to Vienna) the story told after the war was of a journey from darkness into light, of the nation emerging from the crucible of defeat and victimization to achieve resurrection and national strength. Whether it was the founding of Israel or the reemergence of Japan as a pacifist nation, the recent tragic past was immediately conscripted in service of the present. This journey from victimhood to resurrection was inscribed, literally in stone, in both Hiroshima’s and Jerusalem’s main monuments.

The victims themselves were transformed into survivors as they used their experiences in the service of the greater communal effort to ensure that their tragedy would never be repeated. In the process, their experiences were nationalized (and internationalized) and put to use for political purposes. It was not the individual survivor who was a victim anymore but the community as a whole. The “nation as victim” narrative dominated the history of memory (and still resonates) in Israel, Japan and many other places. Yes, it was not without its challengers and it has undergone much historical change over time. It was challenged both locally, by sub groups of victims and globally by activism in international institutions and forums. It was these challenges and dialogues, above and beyond the nation, that constituted the emerging global memory space.

This essay looks at the emergence of this space through three historical stages looking mainly at Holocaust memory in Israel and Hiroshima memory in Japan. The first stage of memory work pertaining to the two nations, roughly from 1945 to 1960, was what I call, transformational narratives and divided memories, as communities sought to redefine themselves in the face of tragedy. The second stage was the emergence of victim narratives and the subsequent nationalization of narratives from the late fifties to the seventies. Finally, the third stage was the coming on the scene of other victim groups that challenged Jewish and Japanese claims for unique victimhood. These were partially overlapping, not clear-cut stages, nor was this process linear. This history was messy, multi-directional and open to many interpretations with numerous counter-examples and exceptions. Nevertheless, looking back from where we stand now, at the seventieth anniversary, and observing the bigger picture, this article aims at demonstrating the existence of transnational trends and the emergence of a global sphere of memory that is shared, with variations, beyond individual nations. ...

Read entire article at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

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