[FORUM]Wars, plunder and historyMany historians who study the history of civilization say that invasions in modern times have been wars for the plunder of cultural assets. Of course, conquerors who carried off booty have existed throughout history, but the founder of systemic, organized plunder of other countries’ cultural relics was Napoleon Bonaparte. He perceived that culture is an asset to national power, and brought back assets from as far away as the Middle East and Africa. The obelisk that stands high on the Place de la Concorde and many of artworks in the Louvre in Paris are relics of Napoleon’s plunder. Then Great Britain, the owner of an empire on which the sun never set, followed on the heels of Napoleon. The British Museum has nearly as many examples of such plunder as the Louvre.
Germany, which thrust itself forward late in the colonizing era, played a great role in plunder; it removed the Pergamon shrine in Turkey to Berlin in its entirety and built the Pergamon Museum. In the 20th century, Nazi Germany plundered foreign cultural assets as well. Hitler was particularly avaricious for works of art. Einsatzstab, the special unit for collecting cultural assets founded by Herman Goering, plundered works of art in the occupied countries. The paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez were its main targets. In the case of the Louvre, the unit tried to take it away entirely. “The Train” featuring Burt Lancaster as the protagonist, is a movie whose subject is a fierce scramble for cultural assets between the Nazis and the resistance.
Because the plunder of the Louvre did not work out as he wished, Hitler ordered all of Paris destroyed. On Aug. 8, 1944, Hitler asked General Alfred Jodl, a military commander, “Is Paris burning?” But General Jodl was silent, because the German commander of occupied Paris refused to carry out Hitler’s order to blast all major facilities if the Germans had to retreat from the city.
Some assert that Hitler’s frantic obsession for cultural assets revealed his complex at having failed an art school entrance examination. But he tried to display the grand appearance of the German empire through cultural assets. He, like Napoleon, knew well the fact that culture was national power and thought that the cultural assets representing human civilization should of course be placed in Germany, “the mightiest power in the world.” Surely, on the other side, Germany’s complex at being a relatively culturally underdeveloped nation was hidden.
In the East, imperialistic Japan followed the lead of the Western powers, but it was more evil than its Western predecessors. It deprived Korea of its language and even distorted its history, not to mention the plunder of cultural assets. It tried to ruin our souls completely.
One example is that Japan gave a far-fetched interpretation of the letters inscribed on the monument of King Gwanggaeto and created a theory that Japan had occupied the Imna region of ancient Korea. Friday is Liberation Day and also our National Humiliation Day when any of us think about our history. Amid the chaotic conditions of the Korean Peninsula, China’s moves are also suspicious. That does not mean China covets our cultural assets. China is said to be trying hard to include our authentic historical Goguryeo Kingdom as a part of China.
It is a message that “Do not ever dream of claiming the area Goguryeo accupied in the past (the present northeastern China).” China’s deep thoughts to prepare for the possible future reunification of Korea are felt seriously. As the JoongAng Ilbo reported such a move, our academic world became suddenly tense. But the government, which actually should grasp the truth and prepare for measures, seems to be occupied with its biggest pending question, “war with media.”
There are no “ifs” in history. But, there is one “if” case that all of us may have thought once ―“if Goguryeo had reunited the three kingdoms in ancient Korea...” To be the hub of Northeast Asia in the future, we should protect our history of Goguryeo that “cannot be forgotten even in our dreams.” The day when Goguryeo’s history would be taken by China ― for example, if the Janggunchong royal tombs would become the tomb of an old Chinese tribal nation in the region ― that would be our second national day of humiliation.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yoo Jae-sik