OPINION: Lessons Taiwan Can Learn from German Transitional Justice

OPINION: Lessons Taiwan Can Learn from German Transitional Justice
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Students in Taiwan should focus on the period after German reunification to draw lessons on how to deal with transitional justice.

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As Taiwan still struggles to deal with its despotic past and the cruel reign of the KMT, which lasted for several decades after their retreat from the mainland in 1949, students in Taiwan often ask me about transitional justice in Germany.

Germany too, so the students say, had to grapple with the aftermath of dictatorship. So how did the Germans deal with their former tormentors, “after 1945, after the Second World War?” This last clarification strikes me every time I hear it.

In the minds of these young people who so eagerly want to know about German history, their focus is the Nazi party's rule, their ferocious tenure that was responsible for the death of tens of millions. When they think of "transitional justice," they refer to the genocide of the Jews and the Nazis' destruction of an entire continent. Some of them know of the Nuremberg Trials, in which the protagonists of the Shoa, otherwise known as the Holocaust, and those responsible for the war were sentenced.

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Credit: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Roses are pictured at the Berlin Wall memorial in Bernauer Strasse, as Germany marks the 28th anniversary of the fall of the wall in Berlin, Germany November 9, 2017.

While considering this period a phase of "transitional justice" is not entirely wrong, the phase of German history that follows appears more applicable for Taiwan: transitional justice after 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire that had installed the satellite state of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany.

After WWII, Germany was split in four sectors; three of them, controlled by the U.S., the British, and the French, allowed Germany to regain sovereignty relatively soon after the war. The formation of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland as we know it today began in 1948 and stems from the backing of these powers. The Germans in the Russian sector in the East, however, were not allowed by the Russian occupiers to join. As a result of this, a second Germany was founded, the GDR, and until 1989 both Germanys would claim they embody the real Germany. It was, in a way, parallel to the "One China" idea: both Germanys, the free and the communist, each believed they embodied the true Germany.

The communist state in the East was, for a variety of reasons, not very appealing to its new constituents. This is why thousands of them escaped and fled to the West every year. As a result, the iron curtain became literal in Germany, infamously manifested by the Berlin Wall, which cleaved the great city in two: the Western part, which was safeguarded by the Allies, and the Eastern part, which was the capital of the communist state. West Berlin’s safety was guaranteed by the United States. J. F. Kennedy’s words “Ich bin ein Berliner!” (I am one of you, Berliners!") were a warning to the Kremlin that the U.S. would defend the territory if Russian tanks were ever to roll over the border. More than once, provocations led to fears that Berlin may be the cause for a Third World War.

Within the GDR, a system of denunciation and imprisonment prevented the East Germans from developing their own opinions on politics and expressing their views. The Staatssicherheit (State Security) employed thousands of people to spy on their neighbors and report the slightest disagreement with the official line. A denunciation always led to interrogation, and, if deemed appropriate, torture and imprisonment. One of the first things East Germans did after the GDR collapsed was to storm the Stasi's headquarters and destroy all the files they could get their hands on. There was one on each and every inhabitant of the country. The Stasi's rule may be compared with the White Terror of the KMT, the proponents of martial law in Taiwan.

As for the years following the German reunification in 1990, reconciliation was difficult. How could people live together peacefully, knowing one of their neighbors had been spying on them during that dark era? How would you deal with people that were informants in an inhumane system when they run for public office? Germans still struggle with this. Even after 25 years, there is still an office that deals with the remaining Stasi files, sifting through the evidence in an attempt to comprehend the scale and dimensions of injustice in the former GDR. There are initiatives by the Christian churches to bring victims and their former perpetrators together to reconcile the past.

This is not to downplay the events that took place immediately after 1945. However, in terms of societal reconciliation, it took the Germans until the late 60s to produce a new generation that felt obliged to ask their parents what they did during the war, and whether they were involved in the killings in the occupied territories or in the genocide of the Jews. During the 23 years that passed in between, society was traumatized and refused to engage in public discourse about the war.

The young generation in Taiwan strikes me as a bit like the German generation of 1968, which rose up in revolt at the fact that former Nazis still hold prominent roles in society and to protest against a strangled democracy.

They are a new generation, able to ask questions that were taboo after the events of the White Terror. My advice would be to study how Germany dealt with the second dictatorship on its soil in the 20th century, the communist one that crumbled in 1989. The book "Transitional Justice after German Reunification: Exposing Unofficial Collaborators" by Juan Espindola Mata is perhaps an apposite place to start.

Out of the ruins of the Socialist Union Party of Germany, known as the SED and akin to the former incarnation of the KMT, emerged another party, Die Linke (The Left), which has not only radical left ideas but also ties, ideological and monetary, to the atrocious past of an older sister party that brought Eastern Germans to their knees for 40 years.

Die Linke members are frequently asked about their take on the past and how to help society come to terms with it, though the issue of transitional justice is pan-societal and must be shouldered by all Taiwan's political representatives, not just those of the KMT. Only by reconciling the past can society look forward and avoid repeating its missteps, be that in Germany, Taiwan, or any other place in the world that has once been devastated by a cruel, inhumane dictatorship.

Read Next: President Tsai's Transitional Justice Act Opens Old Wounds and New

Editor: David Green

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