The Shadow of the Short Century

I was born in 1959. The first world event I remember is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when I was 3½ years old. No, I did not understand that the world was on the brink of a nuclear World War 3, but my mother kept the radio on from dawn till dusk and there were newsreports at the top of each hour. One unknown word appeared frequently in a sombre tone: Cuba. I had no idea what it meant, but associated it with a Swedish word with a similar pronunciation: kupa (a man-made bee-hive). [Some people may wonder how it is possible to remember childhood events like that. My only explanation is that I have an extraordinary memory.]

I have read how contemporary historians have coined the expression the short century for the years 1914-1989, a 20th century of only 75 years. We Europeans experienced it in the shadow of war: either hot ones or cold ones. Yes, there was peace most of these years, but it was mostly an armed and uneasy armistice.

Now twenty years have passed since the Soviet empire collapsed with a whimper. The giant turned out to have clay feet, but during my youth, we did not see it that way in our part of the world. There was a tangible feeling of menace with those armadas of tanks, warships and planes lurking to the east.

I started writing fiction stories in the early 1990s, partially as a way of dealing with what I had faced when I worked as a civilian specialist in the Swedish logistic tail of the UNPROFOR mission in the Bosnian war. I never went to the Balkans myself , but what I heard from the soldiers coming back was unsettling enough, and I needed to put it on paper.

Since then I have completed two novels and a few shortstories. All of them deal with impending or ongoing wars in fictional worlds. I write about civilians who involuntarily get involved in conflicts ignited by men in power, whose strivings the protagonists disapprove of. My characters are men and women of action, who do what they think is right in a frightening world. Even if they succeed with their intentions, they pay a steep price. Nobody wins a complete victory and everyone gets scarred in body or mind.

When I look at the stories, I see how much I am a product of the Short Century. My fiction deals with a troubling set of issues that has no simple answer:

1. During the Short Century, our world experienced its two most devastating wars, its three most murderous tyrannies (Mao’s China, Stalin’s Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany), one pandemic that killed about as many people as the wars (the 1918-20 influenza), and the creation of military forces capable of wrecking civilization in the name of maintaining peace (Peace Is Our Profession was the motto of the nuclear strike command of the US Air Force).

2. These developments were the products of the Western civilization. (Mao justified his actions by a political philosophy developed by two Germans. And the great pandemic was aggravated by taking place during a major European war.) During the Short Century this civilization loudly claimed to be a child of the enlightenment and to be characterized by rational and scientific thinking. That is how the tyrants justified their atrocities, too. Killing “evil people” was “scientifically necessary” to make “a good future” for everyone else.

3. The modern state, first appearing in 18th-century Prussia, Great Britain and France, claims to be the best guarantor of stability, security and prosperity for its subjects or citizens. During the Short Century, it also turned out to be an efficient tool for causing terror and death on a continental scale.

The protagonists of my stories wrestle with these contradictions. They find no clear solutions or explanations. But they stand up for what they believe in. They are common people who want to help other common people while trying to survive among ruthless giants.

That is the shadow that the Short Century. And even though the world has changed a lot, man has not. So the tales I spin still have something to tell the people of the 21st century.

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