Der vergessene Krieg: Korea 1950-1953 (review)
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Reviewed by
Rolf Steininger, Der vergessene Krieg: Korea 1950–1953. Munich: Olzog Verlag, 2006. 247 pp. €24.90.

The war in Korea—is it really forgotten? Of course it is not, as Rolf Steininger, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Innsbruck, explains in his conclusion. But public memory, much like individual memory, is subject to many unintended influences and variations that depend on changes in the perception of the outside world. Memory also depends on public commemoration. In South Korea, for example, where the army is kept on almost permanent alert and officers even today are constantly ready to defend against a surprise attack, the "War" has never left people's minds. The war and its commemoration are omnipresent in daily life. But in the United States, as Steininger plausibly argues, the Korean War at least for a time left public memory, "forgotten" between the memory of the "good" World War II and the "bad" war in Vietnam.

Historical memory is not the subject of Steininger's book on the Korean War, but in a way the aim of Der vergessene Krieg is to bring the Korean War back to the public memory in German-speaking countries. The book is addressed to a general, modern reader who wants a concise account drawing on the latest scholarly research available—not the least from Internet and electronic sources. The book is relatively compact (140 pages of text, including document facsimiles), reads easily, and puts notes, glossary, biographical comments, and observations on sources at the end allowing readers to maintain the illusion of reading a thriller.

But this is no work of fiction, unlike many other books (and films and television series) on the Korean War. Instead, the reader has much to gain from Steininger's deep knowledge of the matter and from his ability to differentiate between important and unimportant details, a welcome skill in such a compact book. Steininger is particularly familiar with the latest research on Western, especially U.S. and West German, policies. His discussion of U.S. policies is especially lively, often reading like a thriller. On many crucial questions—proposals to limit the war to the Korean peninsula or extend it beyond the Yalu to China and thus, possibly, turn it into a third world war; the possible use of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons; the conflict between Truman and MacArthur; Korea and its consequences for West German rearmament; Korea and the development of the bipolar international system—Steininger is well informed and conveys the material well.

The other "side of the moon" does not remain "dark," but it is considerably less illuminated. Josif Stalin's plans and ambitions in East Asia, Western Europe, and the United States are mentioned only fragmentarily and without the same level of knowledge and information. Stalin's strange decision to order the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Yakov Malik, to boycott the UN Security Council session on 27 June 1950, against the strong advice of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, goes unmentioned here. Stalin's decision in January 1951 to order the East European states to embark on crash buildups of their armed forces—an action that was first disclosed in the [End Page 136] late 1970s in the book 30 ans de secrets du Bloc Soviétique by the Czech historian Karel Kaplan, based on documents he had seen in the Czechoslovak Communist Party archives in 1968—might have been "something like the counterpart to Washington's NSC 68" (p. 183), as Steininger suggests. But at this point no one really knows. The same applies to Stalin's apparent role in preventing the armistice talks from making any headway after July 1951. Steininger's assumption that Stalin wanted to keep China dependent on the Soviet Union is similar to his assumption that Stalin wanted to keep the United States engaged in what General Omar Bradley famously described as the "wrong war" at the wrong place and the wrong time with the wrong enemy (pp. 182–183). But whether it was really Stalin and only Stalin who was responsible for the prolongation of the war, Steininger cannot tell us. The inaccessibility of key documents means...