Two ways of coming to terms with wartime tragedy

Nagasaki atomic bomb Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The atomic bomb explodes above Nagasaki

We are in the year of anniversaries, and anniversaries are about reflecting on the past. How Germany and Japan reflect on 1945 gives an insight into how they see themselves today. Who do they blame for defeat? Where do they think guilt lies?

So, compare and contrast two museums, one in Dresden, the other in Nagasaki.

Both cities were utterly destroyed, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

How are those events portrayed at the place of destruction?

The beautiful German city was destroyed over two days in the middle of February 1945, when 1,299 British and American aircraft fire-bombed it, killing at least 20,000 people, probably many more.

Even Churchill questioned the purpose of "bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror".

"Are we beasts?" he asked.

Accordingly, if ever there were a place for German victimhood, Dresden would be it.

But there is no sense of victimhood in the museum.

Instead, the curators depict the bombing of Dresden as part of a wider picture of horror encompassing many European cities, including those bombed by the Luftwaffe, such as Rotterdam, Coventry, Stalingrad and Warsaw.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Dresden is now a modern, dynamic city

The Dresden curators juxtapose objects to make visitors think - scorched paving stones from Dresden right next to scorched paving stones from Rotterdam, blitzed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and then the paving stones of the Polish town of Wielun after it was bombed by German Stukas in the Nazis' opening shots of the war.

At the museum, there is a special exhibition this anniversary year about the bombing.

Its commentary says: "Dresden was just one of thousands of towns that were destroyed during World War Two, which began on 1 September 1939 with Germany's invasion of Poland and ended on 8 May 1945 with Germany's surrender in Europe."

The commentary also says that the bombing of Dresden saved some lives: the people who would have been killed had the city continued its unchallenged existence, "including Jews, political prisoners and forced labourers".

Dresden bombing:

In four raids between 13 and 15 February 1945, 722 heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force and 527 of the United States Air Force dropped more than 3,900 tonnes of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city

The bombing and resulting firestorm destroyed more 1,600 acres (6.5 sq km) of the city centre

An estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed, although some estimates put the figure much higher

There were so many refugees in the city at the time that the real figure will almost certainly never be known

The museum does not soften the horror.

The room depicting the fire-bombing is at the top of the building (which is itself an old arsenal), and it's next to a high platform with a panoramic view over the city.

The platform, designed by Daniel Libeskind, points from on high out in the direction the waves of bombers took, their flight path of utter destruction.

But this museum does not leave it there, with the horror of war. It does not divorce consequences from actions.

It ties the bombing into the European war and its causes. It does not say the bombing was justified, but nor does it say it was a war-crime. It paints a picture of complexity that visitors are left to contemplate.

'Reaping the whirlwind'

Contemplation is what Dresden has done.

In the Altmarkt, the Old Market Square (where 6,865 bodies were stacked and cremated after the bombing), there is today a small plaque that translates as: "The horror of the War that went out from Germany into the world came back to our city."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Women form a human chain to carry bricks used in the reconstruction of Dresden

A looser but not inaccurate translation would be: "The war started in Germany, and we reaped the whirlwind."

There was a debate in Dresden about that wording. Some wanted blame left out.

Germans were victims, they felt. But these objections were over-ruled, and German guilt was spelt out on the plaque in the city centre. Actions and consequences were linked.

This contrasts with the memorials in Nagasaki, which was flattened on the morning of 9 August 1945 in a single pulverising moment.

Nagasaki bomb:

American forces dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki - the second such attack on Japan in three days

The bomb was dropped by parachute from an American B29 Bomber at 11:02 local time

It exploded about 1,625ft (500m) above the city, on the western side of the Japanese island of Kyushu

About 30% of Nagasaki, including almost all the industrial district was destroyed by the bomb

Nearly 74,000 people were killed and a similar number injured

In the museum in Nagasaki, the horror is graphically described.

The exhibits show it: the fragments of statues from churches, a melted rosary, melted bottles, pictures of the pulverised city where barely a wall remained standing nor a person alive.

But causality is absent, or only hinted at.

In this museum, Japan is a victim not of its own actions but of war. How that war was caused is not addressed with any frankness.

People pray for peace and the atomic bomb victims in front of the Peace Statue at Nagasaki Peace Park.

Image copyright Kiyoshi Ota
Image caption People pray for peace and the atomic bomb victims in front of the Peace Statue at Nagasaki Peace Park

The tense in the commentary at the museum is passive: "Japan was engaged in war constantly for 15 years, first from the Manchurian incident in September 1931 to the outbreak of war with China, and then Pacific War, which ended in August 1945.

"The prolongation of the war with China caused the enforcement of a controlled economy and government domination in Japan.

"Its policy of southern expansion meanwhile brought Japan into confrontation with America, Britain, France and the Netherlands and led to the hardships of the Pacific War.

"The people of other Asian nations were also dragged into the conflict and victimised in various ways."

The picture that emerges from the museum is of Japan confronting colonial rivals in the region and where bad things happen in such a war.

Neither Pearl Harbour nor Emperor Hirohito and his generals have a place.

The Peace Park, as its name implies, is similarly devoted to praising "peace".

That said, some of those praising peace seem a bit odd these days:

The Peace Council of the German Democratic Republic donated a statue, replete with a dove of peace and a column made up of miners and other peace-loving East German folk.

It is similar to the memorial donated by the Soviet Union, except that the Russian memorial has a mother and child.

The East German memorial was donated in 1981, at a time when GDR leader Erich Honecker had allowed Soviet nuclear missiles to be stationed on his territory.

The main peace memorial is a 10m statue of a seated man with his left arm outstretched to the side and his right arm pointing to the heavens.

The inscription says the arm pointing upwards "points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolises tranquillity and world peace".

Avoiding difficult questions

Who can doubt the virtues of peace?

It is better than war. But to intone peace is not to say very much. It dodges questions of guilt and blame.

The reasons for the difference in treatment at the two museums are uncertain and complex. Japan and Germany were different.

The defeat of Germany was the utter destruction of the very belief of the core of the people.

Hitler died, but they could hardly heap all the blame on him.

Emperor Hirohito, however, survived and was let off a war-crimes trial by the Americans, who felt they needed him to remain.

With the emperor still on the post-War throne, guilt was more easily deflected.

In Germany, the newsreel from the death camps was shown in cinemas.

German prisoners were compelled to watch. Individual Germans had to confront their own complicity.

In Japan, the atrocities were far away and might be depicted as the bad things that happen in war.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The 70th anniversary of the Dresden bombing was commemorated in February

And whatever you think of the Rape of Nanking, where soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people, it was still no Holocaust.

And the victims of Germany to the west forgave, or at least they decided to get on with rebuilding a Europe that included Germany.

Japan's invaded neighbours haven't forgiven to this day.

All this is to surmise about guilt in the two countries. There is no doubt attitudes are different.

There is a gift shop in the Nagasaki museum. It sells countless souvenirs adorned with the word "Peace".

You leave through the shop thinking of the horror of war and the goodness of peace. And who could doubt the sentiment?

But you leave the Dresden museum with your mind churning over, thinking about the complexities of war and peace, contemplating the horror of war, of course, but also the causes.

It does not shirk guilt - German guilt.

The museum is a hard and clear look at the German past.

A T-shirt saying "Peace" is no substitute.