The lesson of Europe
The 1914-1919 war that drew in most of the global powers also became one of the bloodiest wars, killing 9 million soldiers and wounding 20 million others. At the end of the day, a new global order was created. Former major imperial empires - the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman - collapsed and the Soviet Union was born. The identities of many men and women in the 20th century were altered and the map of the world was redrawn. The first global war has inspired over 25,000 books about it, indicating the influence of this single war on the human race.
The Austrian foreign ministry this year issued a lofty memorial report parsing the causes of the war and its consequences to mark the 100th anniversary of its outbreak. The research was praised for the objectiveness shown by the Austrians. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, around the same time, set a poor example for objectivity and historical acuteness by comparing Japan’s tense relationship with China to that of England and Germany before the outbreak of World War I.
What makes these two countries look back on the same event from such different perspectives? The Austrian report pointed to excessive nationalism as the fundamental cause of the war. Nationalism has helped feed the expansion of power of European nations in modern history. But overblown pride turned to arrogance, aggression and pure hubris that resulted in two catastrophic world wars.
After learning their lesson the hard way, Europeans aimed to rein in the dangers of nationalism by uniting independent countries under one European Union system. Through such an integration process, Europeans began to consider themselves citizens of the EU as much as of their independent nations. War and conflicts are unthinkable in the single EU framework as these countries now share common values and aspirations in the realms of human rights, economics and democracy. The successful integration and transformation of Europe contrasts with the Asian continent, where despite close and interlocking economic relationships, suspicions and outright hostility remain due to unresolved historical issues.
The Austrian report hit the nail on the head in terms of assessing public sentiment of a century ago. Many intellectuals had been swept up in the nationalist fervor and championed the justice of a war. Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud also praised the war.
Ravenous nationalistic fervor among intellectual groups spread to the masses, creating a social boiling point. Once the populace gets stirred, a war cannot end easily. The new emperor attempted a cease-fire several times, but was hindered by masses hungry for victory. To incite nationalism for political ends is like opening a Pandora’s Box. That is why what many hoped would be “the war to end all wars” in actuality set the stage for World War II.
The report also studied why the declining Austro-Hungarian empire risked war. It could not afford to go to war with Serbia, which had the backing of Russia. Still it relied on a treaty with Germany. Russia also had a treaty with France and Britain. As a result, two opposing fronts were set: the Allied Forces (France, the United Kingdom and Russia) against Germany and Austria-Hungary.
When Abe referred to World War I, he was likening Japan to Britain and China to Germany. Few would agree that today’s Japan is anything like the British empire a century ago. Still, some worry that Japan today could be as risk-taking as Austria-Hungary to rely on the backing of its alliance with the United States to take on China. Japan’s brewing nationalism poses that significant a threat to peace in Northeast Asia.
Most countries like to hide their shameful past. But Austrians coolly reflected on theirs. They clearly have attained the self-confidence needed to reflect on past mistakes and draw the right lessons for the future.
Through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Austria played a part in world peace and security. It is a relatively small country of 8.4 million today instead of an empire of 53 million at the time of World War I. But it boasts a per capita income of $67,300, the world’s sixth largest. In one survey, its capital has been chosen as the world’s best city to live in for five years in a row. Austrians still enjoy going to a balls in formal dress. But few feel restrained by their traditions. Austrians have grown out of their past. They cannot be compared to Japanese paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine in ludicrous morning coats.
The Vienna Philharmonic is scheduled to hold a centennial concert in Sarajevo on Saturday. When can we hold a similar ceremony to celebrate regional peace? The country that started a war should first sincerely regret its misdeeds and other Asian countries must likewise avoid the temptation of nationalism. The region should promote cooperation to build mutual trust. It is a lesson Europeans can teach us and one we must learn.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, June 22, Page 12
*The author is a former ambassador to Austria and guest professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
By Cho Hyun