August 4, 2015

Legacy of WWII Still Evident in German and Japanese Public Opinion and Relevant Today in Dealing with Russia and China

As the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender ending World War II approaches the publics of former enemy nations have unresolved views of their country’s involvement in the largest military conflict in history. And perhaps as a consequence, neither of these regional powers, Germany nor Japan, is anxious to play an active military role to maintain peace and stability in the world despite territorial challenges posed by Russia and China that are faintly reminiscent of the late 1930s.

Looking back on WWII, the Japanese are divided over whether they have apologized enough for their actions during that conflict, and an overwhelming number (79%) believe that the United States dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities was unjustifiable. The Germans, on the other hand, downplay WWII in their expressions of opinion about the U.S. Few German citizens pick the war or the Holocaust as the most important event in U.S.-German relations over the past 75 years.

Americans have very different historical views than both the Germans and Japanese. A recent Pew Research Center survey found 56% of Americans still believing the use of nuclear weapons to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, compared with only 14% holding that view in Japan. Surveys have also found that considerably fewer Americans (37%) than Japanese (48%) believe that Japan has apologized sufficiently for its actions during the war. And with respect to Germany, nearly half the American public (47%) continues to think that the war and Holocaust are the events most important to the U.S.–German relationship; just 20% of Germans agree.

Not surprisingly, there are large generation gaps in attitudes toward the US’s former adversaries. Seven-in-ten Americans 65 years of age and older say the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, but only 47% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree.

With respect to Germany, the generational pattern is just the reverse. Younger Americans, fully 51% of those ages 18 to 29 cite the war and the Holocaust as the memory that first comes to mind when they think of the U.S. and Germany, compared to just 40% among Americans ages 65 and older.

Reticence about taking on a more active military role in helping to maintain peace and stability in the world is the prevailing German sentiment. Only 25% of Germans would like to see their country bear more of the defense burden. The vast majority (69%) believe that, given its history, Germany should limit its military role in world affairs.

Americans would welcome Germany taking on more strategic responsibilities. More than half (54%) think Berlin should play a more active military role in maintaining peace and stability, while only 37% say it should limit its role. Americans of all ages back a more active German military role. And in Germany, both young and old alike want their country to limit its role in military affairs.

Among Japanese, there is a comparable reluctance for their country to be more active. Just over two-thirds (68%) want Japan to limit its military activity. Only 23% want the country to be more active.

The largest war in world history still shapes the views of its combatants’ publics with respect to the use of force, not only for the dwindling share of population that experienced that war, but for the successor generations as well. Look no further than the Ukrainian crisis to see this play out.

A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey of NATO publics found Americans and Canadians were the only nations where more than half think their country should use military action if Russia gets into a serious conflict with a fellow NATO member (56% and 53%, respectively). Germans (58%) were the most likely to say their country should not use military force to protect a NATO ally if attacked by Russia. And just 19% of Germans support sending arms to Ukraine in response to the Russian threat.

Seventy years later, the Germans, Japanese and Americans have drawn different lessons about the use of military force from that “never again” experience. And these sentiments may well define and constrain future allied responses to Russian and Chinese territorial ambitions.