Why Germany and Japan are rebuilding their military power 8 decades after World War II

War in Ukraine, a rising China and North Korean missiles have changed the game in two famously pacifist nations.

But nowhere has the legacy of the war and its aftermath continued to influence political debate as much as it has in Germany and Japan — particularly when it comes to military matters. Anti-militarist principles are hard-wired into the postwar constitutions of both former Axis powers: Both have strong pacifist movements that continue to wield substantial political influence, both have relied heavily on U.S. security guarantees, and while both have built substantial military forces, they’ve also shown far more reluctance to deploy them overseas than countries with comparable political and economic clout.

The new mindset Scholz describes didn’t emerge overnight, however. Germany and Japan’s respective turning points are the culmination of developments that date back decades.

Out of the ruins

There are key differences between the two. In Germany, it was widely accepted that the country was responsible for World War II and had to shoulder the responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes. Japanese leaders have tended to take a more ambiguous attitude toward the question of war guilt and responsibility. And while Germany’s foreign and defense policies have always emphasized multilateralism and regional alliances like NATO and the EU, Japan’s approach has been more bilateral, emphasizing the U.S. alliance above others.

But in both cases, a strong anti-militarist impulse took root in the years following World War II, an era when Japan and Germany were defeated powers, their cities lay in ruins, they were occupied by their former wartime foes, and many of their former leaders were on trial for war crimes. Public revulsion at the horrors of war may have been partly behind the development of German and Japanese pacifism, but it was also the result of deliberate policies of the occupying powers.

The United States’ desire to keep Germany and Japan demilitarized didn’t last long. During the Cold War, Washington pushed both countries to rearm as a counterweight to rising communist powers. The German Bundeswehr and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were both founded in the 1950s.

Tiptoeing back to military force

And when it comes to deployments abroad, the book notes, both have “military policies that are strikingly different from those of other comparable countries to this day.” For instance, Canada, which has less than half of Germany’s population, has had twice as many troops deployed on missions abroad. And both Japan and Germany have often had to strike a balance maintaining international military commitments and responding to public opinion that’s often highly skeptical of investments in defense.

Are these turning points real?

“All these developments really changed the general attitude of the mainstream Japanese toward increased defense measures,” Naoko Aoki, a lecturer at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, told Grid. The new plan includes increased investments in cyberwarfare as well as so-called counterstrike capabilities: missiles capable of destroying enemy launch sites. “I could not have imagined Japan doing that just a year or two ago,” Aoki said.

Ulrike Franke, a senior fellow at the European Center on Foreign Relations, told Grid that more than any specific policy, the zeitenwende has led to a shift in political culture.

“In Germany, for a long time, we didn’t really understand how to think about what armed forces and the military are for in a liberal democracy. You have politicians that two years ago would not have been able to name any kind of Bundeswehr weapons system, are now standing up to give a whole speech on the advantages and disadvantages of the Panzerhaubitze,” she said, referring to a German-made howitzer gun.

As for how profound this shift will be going forward, Franke added, “this history isn’t going away. The memory of World War II as well as the 30 years that followed the Cold War and that period of peace and calm are experiences that shaped our views and will continue to shape them. But now, we have an additional historical reference point, which is this war.”

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