BOOK REVIEW / People to be reckoned with, again: The wages of guilt - Ian Buruma: Cape, pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
THE WAGES of sin are guilt - but the wages of guilt? Well, in the case of the defeated Axis powers, Germany and Japan, prime movers and principal villains of the Second World War, they would seem to be economic success (balance of payments surplus, high living standards), persistently low international status (circumscribed foreign policy and defence capability), and a sharp division of opinion internally between the Germans and Japanese who want to go on feeling bad and those who think it's high time all that was forgotten.

Holding a German passport myself, I side passionately - maybe too passionately - with the former group: I don't think it's possible for Germans (to speak only for my own lot) to feel badly enough. The political pygmy/economic giant urge, the squeals of 'wir sind wieder wer' (we're people to be reckoned with again) have always seemed repugnant.

Ian Buruma would have me believe otherwise. An Anglo-Dutch writer brought up in Holland, he was 'educated from the point of view of the victim'. Probably he is bored by professions of culpability from otherwise resoundingly successful countries. There is a 'false guilt' that is more like 'false pride' in 'an almost tribal capacity for sublime music and unspeakable crimes', as he puts it. As a savvy political analyst and author of impressive pieces on the Far East and much else, he may be too sophisticated to believe in the possibility of political stasis - the harmless neutrality and medieval contrition that so appeals to younger Germans on the left. No, everything flows. He deprecates the idea of Germans and Japanese as inherently 'dangerous peoples' and - in what seems a late-19th-century fixit way - suggests it is largely a question of making appropriate constitutional arrangements. Japan, held back by MacArthur's strings, largely hasn't (the LDP, the Emperor cult); Germany, swaddled in the sticky embraces of Nato and the EC, on the whole has. I'm not sure.

The subject of attitudes to the war in the two countries is huge, intricate and impalpable. What do you look at, what do you measure and who do you talk to? Politics, of course, is part of it, but so are psychology, religion and art. A 10-page index is testimony to Buruma's assiduous legwork and library sleuthing, but the impalpability remains. He adopts a sort of twinkle-toed approach, cutting from political interview to film to history to monument to linguistic analysis in successive paragraphs. It is very readable - but is it only German of me to want more plod and bottom? Sometimes he adds to the general unreality without seeming to realise it: 'Fantasies about Jewish conspiracies to dominate the world somehow got frozen in the outer reaches of Japanese folk mythology' - six vague concepts joined by 'somehow'.

Hugeness is a problem too, for someone born in the Fifties. He criticises 'cliched' accounts of Auschwitz that describe the bad weather and invoke Dante, but doesn't offer an alternative himself. To say of an SS man 'he was fond of killing people in front of their families' perhaps takes British understatement a little too far. As a result, there is a lack of dignity in some of the writing, for which Buruma tries to compensate by retailing Lebensweisheiten, themselves often underwhelming and fogeyish: 'Very young men have a weakness for the romance of glorious death.' In his striving for authority, he can make himself incredible or even ridiculous: 'Professor Katsube is a man of integrity. It seems he always was.'

What he is best at is intricacy, taking a stance or piece of evidence and insidiously undermining it - for instance the curiously unrepentant, even duplicitous Japanese memorials (where they can be found), affecting to mourn while perpetuating the ethos of empire. He gives a finely sympathetic account of the 'invisible warning monuments' of a German artist, Jochen Gerz, who dug up 1926 paving stones in the town of Saarbrucken, inscribed the names of Jewish cemeteries on the undersides, and then replaced them: a piece of quite exemplary and unGerman delicacy.

Overall, there is a lack of passion, of whole-hearted admiration and indignation. It seems excessively difficult either to shock or impress Buruma. At no stage does he say what he thinks ought to be done - or is that me being German again? He likes, he says almost apologetically, 'the idea of constitutional patriotism', of loyalty to the Verfassung. That puts me in mind of Canadian swimmers with Czech and Hungarian surnames at the Olympics, in tears as the maple leaf flag is raised. But all countries cannot be Canada, and it's perhaps naive to hope they ever might.