A FRIEND GAVE me a warning when he heard I was going on a book tour of Germany.
“If I were you, I wouldn't mention the war,” he said. “They're probably still sensitive about it.”
I told him that his advice was imbecilic.
“Thanks,” he replied. “Always happy to help.”
In the event, it was hard to imagine any of the discussions I had on route, which were mainly with flight attendants, veering onto the subject of World War II. “Chicken or fish? And what do you think about the rise of Socialist Nazism in the 1930s?”
Arriving at a German hotel at dawn, I went straight to the dining room to find a stand of brochures, which I read over breakfast—sausages, of course.
“Come and see where Hitler had lunch,” said one.
Another offered (this is not a joke) a scenic bicycle tour of the Dachau concentration camp.
A third offered The Third Reich Tour with Lunch and Two Types of Beer.
Modern Germans are sophisticated, cool, laid-back people who are totally upfront about the sins of their forebears. “Hitler was SUCH a monster,” they say. “Have another sausage.”
What a contrast to Asia. In the east, it is considered bad form to complain about atrocities such as the government executing family members, the president committing genocide or the man downstairs buying a karaoke machine.
Asians prefer to gently massage (“censor”) history. For example, Chairman Mao was responsible for more deaths than Hitler but still has a massive fan base in China and South Asia. On a trip to Nepal, I said to a Mao fan: “What do you think about the fact that Mao killed 30 million?” The guy wagged his head diagonally and said: “Hey, we are all making the mistakes.”
Strolling through Munich, my guide and I chanced upon famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a cuddly fat man who had assembled a 100-meter-long outdoor artwork made of brightly colored schoolbags to remember children killed in the Sichuan earthquake.
My German host was entranced, saying: “You say that Asians are encouraged not to remember the sins of the past, but this artist has dramatically captured a dark event in Chinese history.”
“Yes, he has,” I replied. “But why do you think he's put it up in Europe? The last time he campaigned for earthquake victims in China he was beaten up by police.”
Here's a quick lesson in how to write an Asian history book. Simply copy the text below and delete the bits you don't like.
“Before independence, our country was ruled by
(a) an evil feudal society
(b) a glorious free society.
But then the country was taken over by
(a) a band of heroic freedom fighters
(b) a ragtag guerrilla army after
(a) a bloodless coup
(b) a cruel massacre.
(a) hailed their liberators
(b) suffered under their hated oppressors.”
Meanwhile, the last chapter of almost every Asian history book is the same:
“Today, the rulers talk about freedom, democracy and pluralism but
(a) the people suffer one-party rule
(b) the people suffer one-party rule, or
( c) the people suffer one-party rule.”