This book takes one general subject of conflict that characterized Harbin – the Japanese occupation of the city – and examines one of its aspects, namely the “Kaspe Affair”. It is a case study of Harbin as an international city, and an intersection of cultures and ethnics in clash between 1932-1945.
It presents a general conflict that created or reinforced other conflicts. It narrows them down to the kidnapping and murder of Semion Kaspe, a young Jewish musician and French national. It does so by presenting and analyzing historical testimonies, declassified reports and letters, the state of law and order in Manchukuo, as well as brings accounts by persons who once lived in Harbin.
History is not a pile of arbitrary facts, but rather a series of incontrovertible truths that happened in a certain special time, situation, and that hold cause and effects. History is just like a concerto in which some key musical notes are comprised into larger parts and thus make it a complete composition. Therefore, searching for key notes and recognizing them in an overall perspective are a prerequisite to establish a logical connection of the piece, music as well as text.
Searching for facts is by no means easy as in most of the cases history is accounted for not the real happenings but of memories of people. No matter what types of account they were, such as written records, memoirs, or visual materials, historical facts and accounts cannot be revealed in a crystal clear way due to the accouter’ point of view, let alone their acuteness and or deform of memories like semantic, procedural, episodic and field memories, and also with the possibility of evil intentions. Thus, all these may produce barriers between facts in history and the researcher.
The case of Semion Kaspe that examines the Japanese invasion of China, among other things, carried such barriers which produced huge difficulty to the interpretation of events, causes and effects of that time.
This book “The Kaspe File: A Case Study of Harbin as an Intersection of Cultural and Ethnical Communities in Conflict 1932-1945” by Dr. Dan Ben-Canaan from the Sino-Israel Research and Study Center at Heilongjiang University’s School of Western Studies is exactly such model research which intends and indeed peels off the episodes of history to look for key notes for the understanding of the total concerto.
The research done is noted especially for the seeking of accurate facts as well as for the investigation and examination of interpretations within the historical scenario of Harbin when multi-national communities, special policies of the Japanese invaders, Harbin Jews’ living conditions as well as cultural and ethnical communities in conflict, all were entwined to make the case happen. The author’s employment of a great amount of historical files and memoirs and his personal observation offer the reader a clearer view of the case.
With good citation, objectivity and hard facts, the Kaspe case, demonstrating communities in conflict in Harbin, reveal a truth that was hidden for a long time.
From the book, one can see the author’s serious attitude toward narrative research, his endeavors to solve the puzzles and his achievements are just as he writes: “History, in order to educate and live on, is not a matter of secrets of one’s heart. Nor should it be summed up as nonexistent.”
History is history, but history must be interpreted to be understood. The research conducted by Dr. Dan Ben-Canaan is a hard to find model sample of historical studies.
The declassification of the “Kaspe files” stored at the French Foreign Ministry Quai d’Orsay archive provides researchers with new information, although not all conclusive, that put to rest several aspects of the case but casts new ones.
Memory and nostalgia in historical research context is dealt with in various academic disciplines. Scholars have noted that interest in memory is also linked to trauma, particularly those related to war and other violent conflicts. These were part of the new city called Harbin, a classical intersection of various cultures and communities made of different ethnic groups.
The development of Harbin rested on internal and external “conflicts”; a series of clashes, disputes, military hostilities, political frictions and social quarrels, as well as cultural differences, interests and needs. The Kaspe case represents such conflicts.
Several conflicts and their resolution have remained unclear due to the weakness of memory, and new ones that shade better light are surfacing occasionally. The difference between those of the past and those of the present rests on the availability of new first hand information.
There are general agreements among researchers as to what were the circumstances that led to the founding of Harbin. But when trying to examine Harbin as a cluster of different communities, a crossroad of cultures representing different “civilizations” - societies, made of groups of people personifying particular places and different developed social and economic structures, one finds difficulties in achieving an agreed consensus.
The present clash between beliefs and opinions on the nature of conflicts is caused, in part, by fuzzy personal and nostalgic memories of former or present residents of the city, as well as on self-served political proclamations of interested parties.
The conflicts come also from within the many interpretations given to what constituted communities and cultures in early Harbin.
These should be first commonly defined. Did each group that reached this spot in Manchuria stay within its own boundaries or was there a new form of collective culture? Was there a common aspiration for a new home, or did the place constituted just a temporary domicile? What did the many thousands of people, representing different religions, nations, races, professions, and other characteristics, had in common? What dictated their survival? How open were the boundaries between the individual and the collective? How these groups resolve, if any, the differences between and among them? How did they respond to violent conflicts and crisis? Did the series of clashes, disputes, military hostilities, political and social quarrels, between 1898 and 1949, separate the different groups from each other or there was a mark of unity? Were there inherent cultural conflicts between the groups or communities? How it manifested itself and did it create competition in structure, style and form of public and private decision making as well as the daily life?
These are but few of the questions that should be addressed to when considering Harbin as a band of different communities, and an intersection of cultures.
The Kaspe Affair presents clearly not only some the major areas of a conflict created by the Japanese military rule but the hostilities between, among and within the Harbin communities – political, social, institutional, ethnic, cultural and religious. It demonstrates also how unavailable official records gave rise to innuendo and rumors based upon selective memories, politick-correctness, state political maneuverings, hate, and plain ignorance.