Why Nations Go to War – John G. Stoessinger

Perhaps the essential truth about Lyndon Johnson and the men who made Vietnam policy during his presidency was that they had never experienced the kind of pain or tragedy that is the source of empathy. These men had only been successful, and their vision was limited to the American experience. None knew, until it was too late, that nations, like people, can die. None knew that intelligence alone, without wisdom and empathy for suffering, is hollow.
Myths are heady stuff and will not be easily dispelled by even the most conscientious historians. These legends tend to develop a life of their own and those who pass them on from one generation to another stubbornly refuse to be confused by historical facts.
Why does the human species learn so slowly and at such terrible cost? I keep wondering. What I do know is that, in the last analysis, the answer to war must be sought in humanity’s capacity to learn from its self-inflicted catastrophes. Why did the Germans and the French make war between them well nigh impossible after a century that had witnessed three horrendous wars and the Holocaust? And why have the Serbs learned nothing after six hundred years? Perhaps because Germany and France came up with visionary postwar leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Jean Monnet, who said No to war once and for all while Serbia produced a Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps it is like with ordinary people, some of whom learn and grow from tragedy while others just get older-and more stupid.
How was it possible for Hitler to inflict himself on the German people, to mesmerize them, and to take them with him to disaster in the wastes of Russia?

I am convinced that Hitler’s charismatic grip on Germany can best be explained by the authoritarian structure of the German family. Erik Erikson paints a convincing portrait of the typical German father, whose frequent remoteness and tyranny over his children make their maturation process excessively difficult:

When the father comes home from work, even the walls seem to pull themselves together. . . . The children hold their breath, for the father does not approve of “nonsense”-that is, neither of the mother’s feminine moods nor of the children’s playfulness. . . .

Later, when the boy comes to observe the father in company, when he notices his father’s subservience to superiors, and when he observes his excessive sentimentality when he drinks and sings with his equals, the boy acquires the first ingredient of Weltschmerz: a deep doubt of the dignity of man-or at any rate of the “old man.”. . .

The average German father’s dominance and harshness was not blended with the tenderness and dignity which come from participation in an integrating cause. Rather, the average father, either habitually or in decisive moments, came to represent the habits and ethics of the German top sergeant and petty official who-“dressed in a little brief authority” -would never be more but was in constant danger of becoming less; and who had sold the birthright of a free man for an official title or a life pension.

This kind of father, of course, makes the son’s adolescence an unusually difficult period of “storm and stress” that becomes a strange mixture of open rebellion and submissive obedience, of romanticism and despondency. For each act of rebellion the boy suffers profound guilt, but for each act of submission he is punished by self-disgust. Hence, the search for identity frequently ends in stunned exhaustion, with the boy “reverting to type” and, despite everything, identifying with his father. The excessively severe superego implanted by the father in his son during childhood has entrenched itself like a garrison in a conquered city. The boy now becomes a “bourgeois” after all, but he suffers eternal shame for having succumbed.

During the 1930s the catalytic agent that offered the possibility of escape from this vicious cycle was Adolf Hitler. In the Fuhrer’s world the adolescent could feel emancipated. The motto of the Hitler Youth, “Youth shapes its own destiny,” was profoundly appealing to a youth whose psychological quest for identity was often thwarted. Erikson points out that Hitler did not fill the role of the father image. Had he done so, he would have elicited great ambivalence in German youth. Rather, he became the symbol of a glorified older brother, a rebel whose will could never be crushed, an unbroken adolescent who could lead others into self-sufficiency-in short, a leader. Since he had become their conscience, he made it possible for the young to rebel against authority without incurring guilt. Hermann Goering echoed the sentiments of the Hitler Youth when he stated categorically that his conscience was Adolf Hitler. It was this complete official absolution from guilt that made the German pattern of authoritarianism unique.

Parents were to be silenced if their views conflicted with the official doctrines of the Third Reich: “All those who from the perspective of their experience and from that alone combat our method of letting youth lead youth, must be silenced.” The young Nazi was taught that he was destined by Providence to bring a new order to the world. Young Nazi women too felt a surge of pride to learn that childbirth, legitimate or illegitimate, was a meaningful act because “German women must give children to the Fuhrer.” I recall how, on numerous occasions, large groups of young women would march through the streets chanting in chorus: “We want to beget children for the Fuhrer!” National socialism made it possible for the young to rid themselves of their deep-seated personal insecurities by merging their identities with the image of a superior and glorious German nation. This image of a common future was well expressed in the famous Nazi marching song sung by the German soldiers as they advanced into Russia: “Let everything go to pieces, we shall march on. For today Germany is ours; tomorrow the whole world!”

Gregor Strasser summed up Hitler’s appeal concisely:

Hitler responds to the vibrations of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph. . . enabling him, with a certainty with which no conscious gift could endow him, to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least permissible instincts, the sufferings, and personal revolts of a whole nation.


A few weeks before an earthquake devastated Kobe, I was in the Japanese port city as the keynote speaker to the World Congress of Junior Chamber International. The Jaycees were celebrating their fiftieth anniversary year. It was a festive event with a huge gathering of delegates from every continent.

I was seated on the stage about to be introduced by the JCI’s world president, a charming man from the island nation of Mauritius. As I looked over my audience, I noticed a large group of Japanese VIPs in the gallery. They stood out from the glittering assemblage by their dark, solemn-looking suits. A sudden flash of memory came back to me. I had been in Kobe before, under very different circumstances. It was in April 1941 and I was then a boy of thirteen, en route from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Shanghai, China, fleeing for my life from the Nazi Holocaust.

The story of my family was not unusual for those unusual times. I was growing up in Vienna, Austria, in a middle-class Jewish family when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.

My parents divorced when my father emigrated to Palestine, where my mother refused to follow him. She did not want to leave her parents behind in Prague. She and my grandparents were convinced that matters would not get worse for the Jews; hence my mother and I moved to Prague to join them.

Shortly after Hitler entered Prague in 1939, my mother learned that my father had died in Palestine, and a year later, lonely and frightened, she remarried. By late 1940, terrible fights erupted between my stepfather and my grandparents, with my mother caught in the middle. My stepfather, who seemed to understand Hitler, insisted upon leaving Europe immediately.

“You are an adventurer,” my grandparents shouted. “This is after all the twentieth century. It can’t get any worse.”

However, the evidence to the contrary was mounting steadily. Hitler had conquered most of Western Europe and the war against the Jews was beginning in earnest. By January 1941, my stepfather dragged my mother and me to dozens of consulates in Prague, begging for visas.

Finally, an official at the Chinese Embassy, in a gesture of compassion, granted us a visa to Shanghai in exchange for “landing money,” which cost us most of our belongings. This visa, however, was useless unless we could procure a transit visa across the Soviet Union, and that, in turn, was unavailable unless we could prove that we could leave the Soviet Union and somehow get to Shanghai. This meant yet another transit visa, this time via Japan.

But it was well known in the Prague Jewish community that the Japanese were sympathetic to the Germans and therefore reluctant to help the Jews. Thus without this indispensable Japanese link in the chain of flight, the Shanghai visa was worthless. In February 1941, however, long lines suddenly formed in front of the Japanese Consulate in Prague. The news had spread like wildfire that a new consul was issuing Japanese transit visas via Kobe to hundreds of desperate Jews.

After several days in line, we were ushered into the office of an elegant, kindly-looking man who, after patting me on the head, issued us three visas without the slightest difficulty. “Good luck,” he said to us in German as the next applicants were already being ushered in. Three days later, my stepfather procured the transit visa across Russia, the final link in the chain. Departure date was set for March 4, 1941, my mother’s birthday.

Pain has etched the memory of that night into my mind forever. My grandparents had come to the station to say goodbye. We were taking the train to Moscow, where we were to connect to the TransSiberian “Express” to Vladivostok on the Soviet Pacific coast. My mother was frantic with grief, my stepfather icy and determined. The train was to leave at 8 P.M.

“I don’t want to go, I want to stay with you,” I screamed, leaping from the train into my grandparents’ arms.

“No,” my grandfather admonished. “You must go.”

He gently lifted me back onto the train, and a few minutes later the train left the station. My grandparents waved a flashlight, the light flickering up and down in the darkness. Up and down. A few weeks later, they were deported to Theresienstadt, the way station to Auschwitz, where they perished in 1944.

The journey through Siberia seemed endless. Most of the time, I stared out at the vast expanses of the Russian landscape, infinitely patient in its snow-covered silence. We shared a compartment with a Japanese diplomat who introduced himself as Dr. Ryoichi Manabe. He was being transferred from Berlin to Shanghai to a new diplomatic post, he explained to us in fluent German. He seemed quite young, perhaps in his early thirties, and had a courtly, gentle manner about him.

We shared our meals with him and I played chess with him occasionally. After the first week of the long journey, my mother mentioned to him that we too were headed for Shanghai, as refugees. After all, the Japanese consul in Prague had helped us, and she saw no reason to fear this nice young man, so well versed in German literature. Before we parted, he handed us his card and invited my mother, quite matter-of-factly, to call him in Shanghai if we should ever need his help.

We then crossed on a small fishing vessel from Vladivostok to Kobe, Japan, where we were allowed to await passage to Shanghai. The three weeks of waiting were tinged with trepidation since we knew absolutely no one in Shanghai. Finally, we were able to book passage and arrived in the Chinese port city in April 1941.

My stepfather, a resourceful man, was able to land a job as a teller in a small bank in the international settlement. My mother developed a talent for millinery, and I was enrolled in a British public school with excellent teachers who thrived on Shakespeare. We lived in two little rooms in the French concession of the city, and my mother prepared modest Chinese culinary miracles. Things were looking up. But this brief interlude came to an abrupt end.

In June 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and in December the Japanese, in another surprise assault, attacked Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were now military allies in a war for world domination. Not surprisingly, the Germans now instructed the Japanese what to do with the Jews under their control.

There were approximately 15,000 European Jews living in Shanghai at the time of Pearl Harbor. In early 1943 all Jews were ordered to move into a ghetto in Hongkew, an impoverished and neglected section of the city. Within a few weeks, most of Shanghai’s Jews were herded into large, overcrowded communal centers, or tiny, equally overcrowded dwelling places. Food was scarce, sanitation terrible, and education for the ghetto children sporadic and disorganized at best. The ghetto was placed under the direct control of the Japanese military, complete with barbed wire and police dogs. Then, with eviction from our little apartment in the French concession only a week or so away, my mother remembered Dr. Manabe.

I recall my mother agonizing over whether she should take up Dr. Manabe’s invitation to call him. After all, the political situation had deteriorated drastically since that long trek across Siberia. We knew nothing about Dr. Manabe except that he was assigned to Shanghai as part of the Japanese Diplomatic Corps.

Finally, with the move to the ghetto only three days away, my mother decided to take the chance and see him. My stepfather had developed a heart ailment and was afraid to accompany her. He and I spent the day anxiously awaiting her return. She came back at 6 P.M., her eyes shining-Dr. Manabe had been as kind as ever.

Not only had he remembered us, but when my mother asked him to allow us to remain outside the ghetto, he immediately issued a one year extension of stay so that my stepfather could be near a good hospital and I could continue my education in the British public school where the teachers protested against the Japanese occupation of the city by continuing to teach us Shakespeare.

Thus it came about that, in the midst of war and devastation, I received a first-class education. My mother went back in 1944 and again in 1945 to ask Dr. Manabe for another extension, and both times he complied. We eked out a living from my mother’s millinery work; my stepfather had become too ill to hold a job.

I learned excellent English, good French, and passable Chinese and Japanese at a school which, despite the noise of war all around, somehow maintained superior standards. When I graduated in the spring of 1945, I knew the part of Hamlet by heart. Then, after V-J Day, I became a shoeshine boy because that was the best way to meet one of the American demigods who had liberated us and might help me build a future.

Luck smiled on me. In September 1946 a young lieutenant from Iowa, Peter Delamater, wrote a letter on my behalf to his alma mater, Grinnell College, and that fine Midwestern school admitted me with a scholarship in 1947.

My mother and stepfather followed me to America in 1949. In 1950, incredibly enough, I was admitted to Harvard, where I earned a Ph.D. in International Relations in 1954. Thus I became one of the lucky few who had survived the Holocaust and was able to fashion a life in the New World.

After the war, my mother tried to track down Dr. Manabe, to thank him for what he had done for us. She finally received a letter from him in 1952 from an address in Tokyo, thanking her for thanking him for the “small favor” he had extended us. He was living in obscurity now, he wrote. He added that he was happy, though, that in our case, “Humanity had triumphed over evil.” Then he simply disappeared.

Despite repeated efforts to contact him again we failed, and, finally, we assumed that he had died. Yet two questions never ceased to haunt me: Who was the mysterious consul in Prague who gave us that transit visa via Kobe, and why did Dr. Manabe put himself at risk to help us?

I was nearing the end of my speech in Kobe. Then, I briefly told the story of my stay in Kobe over half a century ago and asked the press corps if they could help me find any information they could about the two Japanese diplomats who had saved my life during the Holocaust years. Since I had to return to the United States the following evening, I begged the reporters to give the search priority.

That night the phone rang in my hotel room. It was Mr. Toshinori Masuno of the Kobe Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper.

“We found out how you got your visas,” the reporter said. “It was Consul Chiune Sugihara who issued thousands of visas to Jewish refugees against the express orders of his superiors in Tokyo.”

I began to tremble. Was this a Japanese Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg? I wondered. “Sugihara issued most of these visas in Lithuania until they posted him to Prague in early 1941,”
Masuno continued. “And the three of you were on the list. You were among the last before they shut down his consulate.”

“How did he do it?” I inquired.

“He saw this as a conflict between his government and his conscience,” the reporter replied, “and he followed his conscience.” “When did he die?” I asked.

“In 1986, in disgrace for not having followed orders,” Masuno said sadly. “But he was a moral hero in Israel. They planted a tree in his honor in Jerusalem.”

“And what about Dr. Manabe?” I queried.

“We are still searching,” the reporter replied. “But he’s probably deceased.”

That night I returned to the United States to teach my classes at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. My emotions were in turmoil. Too late, I thought. I cannot thank either one of them; it’s too late.

The next morning, the phone woke me from a troubled sleep. It was Mr. Masuno.

“We’ve found Dr. Manabe,” he exclaimed. “He is eighty-seven years old and quite frail, but he remembers everything. He lives alone and has an unlisted phone number. We managed to get it for you, though. Here it is.”

I thought of little else that day, November 16, 1994. And then, in the middle of the night-the middle of his day-I dialed the number.

He did indeed remember everything. We were not the only ones he had helped more than fifty years ago. Other desperate Jews had benefited from his selfless generosity. A music lover, he had come to the rescue of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra by saving its Jewish members from the ghetto. We both tried not to weep as we recalled those far-gone events that seemed to have taken place on another planet. I sent him one of my books that would never have been written without him, and a picture of my mother taken in 1991, a year before her death.

Yet letters and phone calls were not enough. Thinking of his age, I flew to Tokyo and went to see him in the small apartment where he lived, surrounded by his books. I found a man with a beautiful, deeply spiritual face, and a natural grace and dignity. Bridging half a century proved surprisingly easy. He, like myself, had chosen an academic life after the war and had served as a professor of German literature at Tokai University in Tokyo.

We saw each other every day for a week and I quickly grew to love him. On my last day in Tokyo I finally asked the question that had always haunted me: “Weren’t you ever afraid to help us?” I asked. “After all, you could have lost your job, or worse, they could have killed you.”

He looked at me in amazement. “That thought never occurred to me,” he answered. “Besides, people should not be forced to live in ghettos. “

I hugged him goodbye, and by so doing, embraced my long-dead father and my murdered grandparents who had been wrenched out of my childhood during the Hitler years. An old wound, open for more than fifty years, had begun to heal.

Dr. Manabe died in April 1996.

I had the privilege to express my gratitude to one of the true moral heroes of our time and to do so while he was still alive. Most of us who carry such unredeemable debts must somehow try to honor them after our benefactor’s death. I was given the chance to do so in the here and now.

As a teacher of young college students, I see now that I must teach a most important truth: that there is no such thing as collective guilt, and that, in dark times, there are always men and women who will confront evil, even in its most absolute form, and reaffirm our humanity. In the depths of the abyss, moral courage still survives, and at times even prevails.

My life was saved that way not once, but twice.


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