History can hinge on a single decision. One is near over North Korea
If you are stuck for a book to read on the beach (or the grouse moor) this August, I recommend Stefan Zweig’s Decisive Moments in History. Published in 1927, Zweig’s book is now largely forgotten. My interest was piqued when a friend in Beijing told me it was the latest western book to be recommended by Wang Qishan to his colleagues on the standing committee of the politburo. (A few years ago it was Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution; more recently the Australian historian John Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe.)
It always pays to know what Mr Wang is reading. As the head of the Communist Party’s anti-corruption commission, he is seen as the second most powerful man in China after President Xi Jinping. As the supreme decision-making body in the People’s Republic (population: one-fifth of humanity), the standing committee is certainly the world’s most influential book club. As we approach what may be the next decisive moment in history, we too should probably know what to look out for.
“Usually,” wrote Zweig, “history indifferently and persistently does nothing but add link to link in that enormous chain that stretches through the millennia.” Very occasionally, however, “a critical moment occurs in the world” that is “decisive for decades and centuries . . . a single moment that determines and decides everything: a single yes, a single no, a too early or a too late makes that hour irrevocable for a hundred generations.” Zweig, a Viennese, called such moments Sternstunden— “star hours”, best translated as “stellar moments”.
Part of the charm of Decisive Moments in History is the idiosyncrasy of Zweig’s selection. Three are famous events in political history: the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. Others are less obvious but still significant in the history of exploration and economics: Balboa’s first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, John Sutter’s discovery of gold in California and the fatal race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole.
As a literary man, Zweig was also attracted to stellar moments in the arts: Handel’s “resurrection” from a severe stroke to write his immortal Messiah, the final love affair that inspired Goethe’s “Marienbad Elegy”, Dostoevsky’s last-minute reprieve from execution, and Tolstoy’s strange death at Astapovo station. Yet it is to the first three turning points that the reader returns.
The fall of Constantinople, in Zweig’s telling, is mainly the triumph of ruthless calculation by the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmed the Conqueror — but the fatal breach in the city’s defences is the result of a humble gate, the Kerkoporta, inadvertently left ajar. “A minute chance happening . . . the forgotten door decided world history.”
Napoleon’s final defeat is the result of a fatal hesitation by Marshal Grouchy, who sticks to his orders to pursue the Prussian III Corps instead of (as his subordinates urge) riding to Waterloo when loud cannon fire heralds the battle’s decisive moment. “For one second Grouchy considers it, and this one second determines his own fate, that of Napoleon and that of the world.”
Lenin’s return to Russia is the result of an even bigger miscalculation: the belief of the German high command that the Bolshevik revolution will disrupt only the Tsar’s empire, whereas by November 1918 Germany too is in the grip of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. “No shell was more far-reaching and fatal than that train . . . loaded with the most dangerous, determined revolutionaries of the century.”
A Jew, a pacifist, a Freudian and a pan-European, Zweig was what today’s alt-right would call a “globalist”. He shrank from both Lenin’s revolution and the fascist counter-revolutions that followed it — in Italy, in Germany and then in his native Austria. In 1934 he and his wife left Austria for England. In 1940, as Hitler swept all before him, they fled to New York, but opted to settle in Brazil rather than the US. In February 1942 they committed suicide together, despairing — wrongly — of Europe’s future.
A certain type of unimaginative historian fondly insists there are no decisive moments in history; that events unfold inexorably on the basis of vast socioeconomic forces. Everyone else knows from their own experience that this is nonsense. There are moments of decision; there are fateful sins of omission and commission. In every life there is at least one Kerkoporta, at least one moment of Grouchian hesitation that changes everything.
The question of the summer is whether or not the Korean missile crisis will be President Donald Trump’s Sternstunde — his decisive historical moment. The conventional wisdom is that his rhetoric last week — the threat of “fire and fury”, the warning that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded”— was yet more evidence of his recklessness. Perhaps.
But Trump is not handling this crisis much differently from the way John F Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK also talked tough. At the same time, he applied diplomatic and military pressure, showing himself willing to take the world to the brink of war if the Soviets did not back down. That is pretty much what Trump is doing — or did you miss the unanimous UN security council resolution his ambassador, Nikki Haley, secured last weekend? And I see no evidence that his national security adviser or defence secretary opposed what he said last week.
This crisis is the result of three previous presidents’ inability to stop the tinpot totalitarians of Pyongyang acquiring fissile material and missiles. According to US intelligence, Kim Jong-un has achieved two things that experts had believed would take him five years: he has an intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on the end of it. It is not so much that he will fire a nuke at San Francisco next week. It is more that his success is a signal to the world: the non-proliferation era is over. Have nukes, have impunity!
Confronting Kim is risky, but not as risky as confronting Khrushchev and Castro in 1962, when a third world war really was a possibility. Moreover, unlike in 1950, I believe China will not intervene if the US takes military action against North Korea, provided the US does not attempt regime change and reunification of Korea.
It is hard to have any confidence in a president so impetuous, so undisciplined. Yet, as Zweig understood, you do not have to be a nice guy to change history. Indeed, sensible types tend to be the ones (like Grouchy) who miss their historic moments.
No one knows how this will turn out: stellar moment or epic fail. Socioeconomic forces will not tell you. And that is why, these days, China’s leaders are reading not Karl Marx but Stefan Zweig.