Guest post: Regrettable instances

Originally a comment by Bjarte Foshaug on From kulaks to Mariupol.

Ukrainian peasants, deprived of food, ate rats, frogs, and boiled grass. They gnawed on tree bark and leather. Many resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Some 4 million died of starvation. […] Soviet propaganda had repeatedly told them that supposedly wealthy peasants, whom they called kulaks, were saboteurs and enemies—rich, stubborn landowners who were preventing the Soviet proletariat from achieving the utopia that its leaders had promised.

According to Jung Chang the same was true in China during the so called Great Leap Forward. There were villages where there was no bark left on the trees because the starving peasants had nothing else to eat after everything else had been taken from them and sold abroad in order to finance the nuclear weapons program. This very deliberate and cynical policy was justified by re-labeling the victims as “land owners” (and hence part of the oppressor class). Meanwhile fat Chairman Mao was portrayed as the true voice of the workers, the peasants, the poor, the oppressed while living like an emperor. Even after most leftists in the west had realized that Stalin was a monster, many continued to see Mao as this selfless idealist and explain away things like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution as idealistic projects gone wrong (despite the Chairman’s good intentions) or entirely the fault of self-serving underlings. Indeed I can’t remember ever meeting a self-professed Stalinist, but I have personally known several Maoists in my lifetime.

When I lived in Germany (from about 1995 until 1999-ish), the weekly papers published detailed descriptions of atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht in WWII on that particular day that the Sunday paper was published. Week after week, month after month, year after year. Not only were the Germans reminding themselves, everyone else was, too: I would go to Italy, and see the same thing (“This week in Nazi Atrocities”) printed in Italian newspapers. Germany and Germans have been paying penance for their sins for decades, and very publicly at that.

That’s very much my experience as well. As someone who studied German, speaks the language (or at least used to…), and even lived in Leipzig for a short while, I have been to lots of German museums that deal with the Nazi era, the Second World War, the Holocaust etc., and in my experience the main focus is always on how monstrously evil the German regime was and the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazis. The one jarring note when I visited Japan back in 2016 was going to the Edo Tokyo Museum (a fantastic museum in every other way – including the building itself!) and noticing the glaring contrast. As I remember, all the horrible war crimes of the Japanese regime were compressed into a couple of vague references to “regrettable instances” (or something along those lines) while the focus otherwise was almost entirely on the (admittedly real and very traumatic!) suffering of the Japanese people. Shortly before I went Emperor Akihito had caused a bit of a stir by expressing (from memory) “deep remorse” for the atrocities of the Japanese army while then prime minister Abe was criticized for doing the politician thing, talking about “looking forward” and not dwelling on the past etc.

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