- The Quest for the Lost Nation: Writing History in Germany and Japan in the American Century
This volume by Sebastian Conrad seeks to challenge the “standard narrative” of historical comparison between Germany and Japan which has claimed “Japan has some catching up to do in terms of critically evaluating its own past” (p. 5). Even though the academic field of modern historiography in Japan dates back to the late nineteenth century and was clearly influenced by German students of Leopold Ranke who came to Japan, this foundational moment, Conrad argues, tells us little about what transpired in the postwar era. The way in which both Japanese and German approaches to the past and present developed after the war offers a much richer and more accurate picture of how historians on both sides sought to make sense of the devastation that had taken place as a result of imperialism, fascism, and war.
The main contribution of this book is in providing a conceptual, rather than authoritative, list of key streams and junctures on the modern historical landscape in Japan, as well as in postwar Germany and the United States. [End Page 380] Rather than merely setting modern Japanese historiography within the confluence of U.S.-Japan relations and reciprocal influences, Conrad sets to work considering the role of German historiography in this equation and the factor of U.S. political hegemony in the twentieth century, particularly after 1945. The history of Japanese historiography cannot be told, then, without taking into account the role of U.S. academia and its historical imbrications with geopolitical objectives.
The logic initially given by Conrad for including Germany in his approach is based on the notion that there is an important and unique simultaneity between Germany and Japan. More specifically, Conrad maintains that both were driven into the creation of their respective national histories by the late nineteenth century. In Germany and Japan during the late nineteenth century we find a kind of Enlightenment history, which was then followed by “historicist political history,” and then “historical social science” (p. 29). The structuralist approach of the French Annales School and prewar Japanese Marxism stands as one important example of this. Put differently, history was not only to explain why the nation was legitimate but also why society and social organization were necessary for modernization.
Much of Conrad’s focus, however, is given to the postwar period. The central theme of 1950s historiography, Conrad explains, concerns this very issue of how “to make the nation the subject of history” (p. 11). Following the path of confronting received interpretations of differences between postwar Japan and Germany, he argues that concerns over the nation took the popular and intellectual form of the nation as “victim,” with one difference being that 1950s “Japanese historiography developed a much more strident critique of the national past than most German historians” (p. 11). Although this statement might seem somewhat off the mark in so far as postwar West Germany is seen to have gone through many phases of historical repentance, Conrad argues that the rise of Marxist history in Japan suggests how serious many were about confronting the past. While Marxist history right after the war took aim at the Allied occupation and sought to weave narratives of liberation from the United States, Conrad notes that West Germany was trapped along the fault lines of the cold war. He explains that German historians such as Gerhard Ritter focused on how the periods of Otto von Bismarck and Adolf Hitler saw different foreign policies and thus different societies. Conrad tells us that in West Germany just after the war, “nation-conservative historians” like Ritter, as well as Wilhelm Mommsen and Wilhelm Schussler, saw “the inner structure of a society” as something “determined by its foreign policy” (p. 35). In contrast, Marxist history in early postwar Japan focused on “long-term structural flaws” in Japanese capitalist development that had helped bring about prewar...