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War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II
War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II
Thomas U. Berger
Cambridge University Press, 2012
265 pp., $95.00

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Wilfred M. McClay


The Politics of Guilt

Coming to terms with past wrongs.

Political scientist Thomas U. Berger declares at the outset of this exceptionally thoughtful and useful book on war and guilt in postwar Europe that "We live in an age of apology and recrimination." He could not be more right. Guilt is everywhere around us, and its potential sources have only just begun to be plumbed, as our understanding of the buried past widens and deepens. Questions of guilt and innocence and absolution and expiation and atonement may have been largely banished from our intramural discussions of private morality, on grounds of their being "too judgmental," but they proliferate everywhere else, even as the public authority of traditional religious institutions has declined. Nowhere else is one more likely to find such concerns expressed than in matters relating to foreign affairs and international relations, particularly in the settlement of wars.

The assignment of responsibility for causing a war, the designation of war guilt, the assessing of punishments and reparations, the identification and prosecution of war crimes, the compensation of victims, and so on—all of these are thought to be an essential part of settling a war's effects justly, and are part and parcel of the moral economy of guilt as it now operates on the national and international level. But the standards have been steadily raised, and the demands of justice are at once very demanding, even insistent, and ever more difficult to satisfy.

Berger's book engages precisely these issues by examining how governments in post-1945 Austria, Germany, and Japan have dealt with the aftermath of World War II. How can such states come to terms in an honest way with their pasts, and achieve some appropriate measure of postwar justice without crippling themselves and remaining mired either in the past or in utter denial? Or, by the same token, how can such states achieve internal and external reconciliation without choosing to forgive the unforgivable, and thereby betray the call of justice ...

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