Memories, museums and war

01.12.05 Publication:

Anyone who studied my schedule during the past year could be forgiven for concluding that I am obsessed with museums and with war. Nothing could be further from the truth. But nevertheless it is true that I have recently visited a wide range of memorials and museums that look back at the twentieth century´s tragic history—in Britain, Japan, China and Poland, to name just four. And the differences between them, and the way they are perceived by people foreign to those countries, gave me a lot to think about.

            In October, the chief executive of The Economist and I held our annual cocktail reception for the high-level contacts and business partners of our company in the UK. Every year, we choose a different place to hold the party, trying each time to give our guests somewhere interesting to go to, usually an art gallery or a museum.            This year we chose to hold the party in the Imperial War Museum in London. We chose that place because it is a well designed museum with good spaces for cocktail parties, but also because it was holding a special exhibition on the British hero called Lawrence of Arabia (the subject of a classic movie) which might interest our guests. What we did not think about at all was the idea that such a location might be controversial, even though the museum is about war, and it still carries that name of “imperial”.

            And we were right: none of our actual or potential guests thought the choice was provocative. Among our guests was the German ambassador to London, who might object to a war museum given that Germany was Britain´s opponent in the two world wars of the twentieth century; another guest was his Indian equivalent, who might have objected to the museum as a place celebrating India´s 200 years of colonial rule by Britain. But they didn´t seem to mind.

            That could not have been true of any of the other museums I have recently visited: the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where millions of Jews were slaughtered in the 1940s; the Nanjing museum about the massacre by Japanese soldiers in what was then China´s capital city in 1937; or the Yushukan museum at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Anyone visiting those museums has to be acutely conscious of the tragedies that they commemorate and, in the case of the Yushukan, of the history of Japan´s war dead that they represent.

            Why the difference? One reason is simple, of course: London´s Imperial War Museum is a general museum that displays material about many wars over many centuries, all over the world, while both Auschwitz and Nanjing are each dedicated to the commemoration of one terrible occurrence. No one could possibly have a party at such places. But that is not the only difference. Even without thinking about cocktails and socialising, the atmosphere and historical implication of these memorials is very different. So is that of the Yushukan, which commemorates almost entirely the dead just of its home country, Japan (although the Yasukuni Shrine does also contain a shrine dedicated to the dead of other countries).

            To me, the big difference is that Auschwitz, Nanjing and Yasukuni´s Yushukan commemorate a history that feels unresolved. London´s Imperial War Museum is dedicated to a history that feels like a thing of the past, not of the present. The word “imperial” disturbs few people because virtually no one (except perhaps President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) accuses Britain of imperialism any more. The London museum, also, feels as if it is about all sides in the wars it commemorates, not just the British perspective.

            The other three museums are supposedly about the past but all are also being used to influence people´s ideas about the present day. That is understandable at Auschwitz, given the sheer horror and magnitude of what happened there: the industrial killing of innocent civilians. It has a present-day significance because of the continued struggle of Israel to establish its borders and its security in the Middle East, but also because of Poland´s recent independence from the Soviet Union and the Polish people´s desire to highlight in Auschwitz what happened to them, too, at the hands of first the German invaders in 1939 but then their Russian “liberators” in 1944.

            In Nanjing and at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo the use of museums of history to fight continued battles today is much more well known. I went to Nanjing because I was curious to see how the Chinese authorities use memories of the events there in 1937 to shape the way their people think. In fact, what I found was a much more subtle and sophisticated museum than I expected: a very sombre place, with much less dramatic exhibits and less extreme anti-Japanese propaganda than I imagined would be there. But, despite that sombre tone, it was still a place used to propagate a particular point of view, rather than a neutral study of history.

            That use was especially clear in two aspects. One was the highlighting of a number, 300,000, repeated throughout the museum, to represent the number of Chinese supposedly killed in Nanjing by the Japanese invaders. Yet even Chinese scholars who I spoke too were embarrassed by this number, which has no basis in evidence or research. Although the true number of deaths was undoubtedly high, this number is simply an invention, probably made by the Kuomintang nationalist government soon after the massacre. The second is that Iris Chang, the American journalist who rekindled international interest in Nanjing in the 1990s with her book “The Rape of Nanking”, and also emphasised that number of 300,000, is now herself memorialised at the museum with a statue (she committed suicide in 2004).

            This dramatisation is very regrettable. A terrible atrocity should be studied and learned from by all sides, not exploited and distorted for propaganda purposes. That lesson also needs to be adopted at the Yushukan in the Yasukuni Shrine, however, as that museum similarly does not seek to explore and explain history but rather to promote a special, controversial interpretation of it.

Events that are so far in the distant past ought not to be the subject of present-day political disputes, but sadly they often are. Scholars and politicians from China and Japan sorely need to find a way to resolve those disputes and achieve a common approach to history. And not just so that I can hold a cocktail party in their war museums.