Memento bellum

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Memento bellum

I name Stefan Zweig as one of Europe’s most influential literary minds in the 20th century without hesitation. The Jewish Austrian novelist, critic and playwright moved from Europe to the United States to flee the Nazis, and ended his life and his wife’s in Rio de Janeiro despairing about the future of Europe and the poisonous spread of authoritarianism. During his exile, he worked on his autobiography “The World of Yesterday,” which was sent to the publisher a day before his suicide.

Zweig devotes a large part of the book to describe life before, during and after World War I. His memoir includes specific details and rich anecdotes about intellectual and social life, people and geopolitical events leading up to the war and its repercussions. The war came as bombshell surprise and mystery to Zweig, a profound liberalist and pacifist. He recollected that if one looked back on how a mass-scale war erupted in Europe in 1914, there was not a single logical explanation or motivation for it. In the eyes of reason, the madness of the war could not - and should not - have happened.

He believed a war was not possible in his world of reason, peace, uniformity, freedom and progress in the new Age of Enlightenment of the early 20th century.

“Nonsense!” he cried. “You can hang me from this lamp post if the Germans march into Belgium!” Even under the intoxication of expansionism and imperialism, he believed a better form of Europeanism would prevail and wars would be avoided at the last minute. But his confidence in a better world was smashed to smithereens. The bloodiest war in human civilization ensued, killing more than 9 million people. He drily confessed that the “optimistic liberal” outlook had blinded him and his naive contemporaries from noticing the transitions and dangers looming over their heads.

Historians and media around the world are devoting time and space to recollect World War I on the 100th year of its start to draw lessons in hindsight. Entering the Year of the Blue Horse in the traditional Asian calendar cycle, Korea is also looking back on the 1894 peasant revolt that prompted modernization reforms and gave reasons for the Japanese to interfere in Korean affairs.

In its recent edition, the Economist carried an article titled “The First World War: Look Back with Angst,” drawing troubling similarities between the circumstances that led to the horrific and unforeseen war a century ago and now. It likened the United States to Britain, a superpower on the wane that can’t be relied upon to ensure global security. On today’s stage, China would play the part of rising power Germany, building up its armed forces and emboldened by newfound economic wealth. Modern Japan is France, an ally of the retreating hegemon and a declining regional power. The parallels - albeit not exact - are close enough to foresee a global clash between new and old powers.

A gunshot fired by Serbian student Gavrilo Princip at Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife on June 28, 1914, was the direct prelude to World War I. Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia, prompting patriots in Austria and Germany and other global powers to line up to fight one another. The royal couple was an excuse to quench a thirst for bloodshed.

If the Economist is correct about history repeating itself, the flashpoints should come from Asia. The dangerous game of chicken China is playing with its neighbors over its surrounding seas and territories could lead to the kind of decisive gunshot that took place in Sarajevo 100 years ago. Deadly skirmishes could unleash nationalism and patriotism in China and Japan in violent forms. The United States would inevitably be pulled in. The traditional conflict zone for global powers - the Korean Peninsula - would be put in more danger. The United States and China could also clash over the nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea. The United States must exercise diplomatic leadership when it still has some power to keep world order.

Zweig’s biggest mistake was that he trusted reason would prevail over madness. Complacency is as dangerous as pessimism. “Memento bellum,” or remember the war, is the daunting lesson from a century ago.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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