By Hannes Mosler, professor of politics at the University of Duisburg-Essen
A member of the German group Grannies against the Right gives a speech protesting far-right violence and memorializing the victims of the comfort women system at a Statue of Peace erected in Berlin on Feb. 19, 2021. (Han Ju-yeon/The Hankyoreh)
A few years back, I received a mystifying email from five Japanese professors. It was only after the incident itself that I found out that they sent the same email not only to myself, but to many other professors in Germany.
The email made the preposterous claim that Germany and Japan never committed war crimes in World War II, and that we should strive to correct fraudulent historical statements.
The authors seemed to think that if they argued that Germany and Japan joined forces but were victimized when the UN stigmatized them as war criminals, it would make sense to German intellectuals.
I was well aware of the fact that there were reactionary extremist groups in Japan who wanted to cover up the crimes against humanity committed during the Japanese colonial period and World War II, and that they also wanted to rewrite their country’s history.
However, I was gobsmacked to see the ludicrous calls to completely disregard the historical facts of the Nazis’ horrors and to subscribe to their warped historical revisionism.
Their message painted a pitiful portrait of the highly educated yet deluded authors.
The real motive behind the email that those five Japanese professors sent to their German counterparts was to facilitate sympathy for the demolition of the Statue of Peace, which had been erected in Berlin at the end of September 2020.
The Statue of Peace, which symbolizes the countless number of young girls and women who were systematically forced into prostitution and even murdered in large numbers, would’ve irked these professors as it was a reminder of the war crimes Japan committed during its colonization of Korea. This is why they accuse the civic activists who erected the statue of being anti-Japanese and pro-North Korea.
Conservative Japanese professors are not the only group of people who are trying to bring the historical battle between Korea and Japan to Germany. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been so persistent that he has twice demanded that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz remove the statue.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by the behavior of the Japanese right wing, but what’s truly shocking is that some Koreans also sympathize with these gross historical distortions.
Korean right-wing reactionaries, including members of a group called the Moms’ Brigade, flew to Berlin last year and held a demonstration calling for the removal of the statue of a young woman that symbolizes the women drafted into the comfort women system. Those reactionaries appealed to the German people and government using logic similar to the Japanese professors, making the ridiculous claim that the comfort women weren’t victims of sexual slavery in wartime because they hadn’t been forced into prostitution by the Japanese military.
To be sure, radical groups exist, to one extent or another, in every country. A radical fringe can be contained by a healthy democracy, just as a little rotten food will be broken down by stomach acid and gut microbes when the body is healthy.
But the situation grows more precarious when influential political parties engage in historical revisionism. In that respect, the trend toward historical revisionism witnessed under the current Korean administration is extremely worrisome. While there haven’t been any outright denials of crimes against humanity or human rights violations, the removal of the bust of Hong Beom-do, an independence fighter, from public spaces; the shelving of the comfort women issue and the issue of forced labor in the Japanese colonial period; and the apparent effort to sweep Japan’s dark history with Korea under the rug are bad enough.
Another thing that’s extremely worrying is the growing sense that the Yoon administration is forcing Koreans to whitewash the past by taking a page from Joe McCarthy’s attacks on the freedom of expression in the Cold War — smearing anyone who criticizes government policy as being “forces of authoritarianism.”
Yet I remain confident that Korean society will never be swayed by some politicians’ perverse attempts to push through historical revisionism. For one thing, that era is already behind us, with enlightened Korean citizens far superior to the guild of backward-looking politicians who are stuck in the past.
And the comfort women statues that have been erected not only in Berlin but in cities around the world continue to stand strong because they are being defended by global citizens who are committed to that critical understanding of history.
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