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Wisdom gained from World War II is crumbling

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listened to their countries’ national anthems before talks last week in Berlin.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listened to their countries’ national anthems before talks last week in Berlin.Getty Images

The passage of time is supposed to dull even the most vicious hatreds. One of the most disturbing trends in recent geopolitics is that, instead, it seems to be sharpening them.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and even as the ranks of actual war veterans grow thinner, the conflict somehow seems closer than it did during past anniversaries, and permanent reconciliation farther away. It’s a dangerous pattern that ignores lessons of the last seven decades, and which responsible leaders need to stop.

In Greece, one of the victims of Nazi Germany, the new populist government is clamoring for war reparations from Germany, injecting historical issues into contemporary clashes with Berlin over economic policy. On a far more serious note, China has grown more willing to bring Japan’s World War II crimes into current-day disputes, egged on by a nationalist public raised on stories of Japanese atrocities.

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The more vocal grievances radiating from Greece and East Asia stand in contrast to the generation that actually fought the war, which generally showed great wisdom in the handling of its aftermath. The allies could have held grudges against defeated enemies, but instead rebuilt them. Germany and Japan could have nursed resentments over their defeat, but instead showed unprecedented levels of reflection and repentance.

The former enemies also helped build multilateral institutions like the European Union and NATO, which were supposed to prevent a catastrophic war from breaking out again. And they did: One of the biggest lessons of the postwar period was that while the war should always be remembered, it’s imperative not to live in the past. Seven decades of peace and prosperity have been great advertisements for the value of moving on.

The current attacks on Germany coming from the Greek government are probably just political posturing, though that doesn’t excuse them. There are real and legitimate criticisms of Germany’s current economic policy, but bringing Nazi atrocities into the discussion, as the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has done, in an apparent effort to shame Germany into concessions, is just a cheap shot.

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The rhetoric in East Asia is far more worrisome, and it’s not inconceivable that wartime resentments there could still spill over into actual fighting. The generation that experienced the war should continue to warn that war is serious business, and that fighting over uninhabited islands to avenge long-ago wartime wrongs — as many young China nationalists genuinely seem to want — is crazy.

But those voices are falling silent, and the responsibility not to wallow in the war increasingly falls on those who never experienced it. The United States is hardly in a position to tell other countries how to talk about their own pasts, and it’s not as if juvenile stereotypes of Germans don’t still circulate here, too. But, especially since it’s America’s former allies that are now often stoking historical resentments, the message is worth repeating: It’s over, and we won.

Related:

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Editorial: Asia’s never-ending war

Stephen Kinzer: The truth behind the tinted World War II memories