Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and a 4,500-year-old peace treaty — the world’s oldest — represent opposite poles in the eternal human struggle between the propulsion to war and the desire for peace.
They are among 135 priceless manuscripts, books, documents and other items on display at a new exhibit near Geneva, housed in the sprawling basement of the Martin Bodmer Foundation.
The dimly lit show features several pages of Leo Tolstoy’s original manuscript for “War and Peace”, permitted to leave Russia for the first time since he wrote the book in the 1860s.
Each of the yellowed pages, filled with Tolstoy’s tight, elegant Cyrillic cursive, with crossed-out words and margin notes, has been insured for $800,000 (725,000 euros).
Curator Pierre Hazan told AFP he was thrilled that “this treasure, which belongs to Russia but also to the world heritage,” could be included in the exhibit.
The text on display, set on the eve of the decisive battle in 1812 between Napoleon’s troops and the Russian army, is fitting, he said, pointing to its message that “war is not a chess game but an abomination.”
The exhibit includes declarations of war and the propaganda used to justify brutality, as well as calls for diplomacy and peace treaties.
There is France’s original declaration of war on Prussia in 1870 and a reproduction of a European map, signed in 1939 by Joseph Stalin and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, marking out the two countries’ respective spheres of influence.
But there is also King Entemena’s nail, a large clay peg inscribed with a treaty of alliance between two peoples in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) from around 2430 BC.
Elsewhere, a long row of glass cases holds an impressive collection of peace treaties, including the original 1648 decree, adorned with a red wax seal affixed on a silk cord, of the Peace of Westphalia, marking the end of the Thirty Year War and a turning point in the history of modern Europe.
Hazan, who works as a peace mediator with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said portraying this dichotomy is timely as global tensions are surging.
Pointing to the challenges of mass migration, growing social inequality and increasingly complex and drawn-out conflicts, he suggested it is time to “step back and reflect on what historical period we are living through.”
‘Multilateralism under attack’
The exhibit, created in cooperation with the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, also aims to celebrate the achievements of the multilateral system.
Multilateralism has been credited with maintaining relative global peace for more than seven decades, but today finds itself increasingly under attack, including repeatedly by US President Donald Trump.
“For nearly 75 years, the multilateral arrangements established after the Second World War have saved lives, expanded economic and social progress, upheld human rights and, not least, helped to prevent a third descent into global conflagration,” UN chief Antonio Guterres writes in the exhibit catalogue.
“Yet today we are living with a paradox: no country alone, no organization alone, can provide the solutions we need for today’s global challenges, but multilateralism is under attack,” he said.
Guterres warned that the rising appeal of nationalist voices is “very dangerous at a time when collective action is essential.”
The exhibit, which runs until next March, contains numerous positive examples of multilateral cooperation, including the Nansen passport.
The internationally recognized travel documents for stateless people and refugees were created by the League of Nations refugee chief Fridtjof Nansen in 1922 in the wake of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution.
This “safe-passage allowed millions of people to cross borders and reach safety,” Hazan said, describing it as a “beautiful” example of how multilateral efforts can dramatically improve regular people’s lives.
He said creating an exhibit documenting the constant human tension between hostility and a longing for peace presented some unexpected challenges.
The restorers recoiled at the idea of working on “Mein Kampf” — an autographed first edition — and Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl”, also a first edition, at the same time.
“It was not possible to work on the two books simultaneously,” Hazan said, adding that the books are displayed in separate parts of the exhibit.
“These books are historically charged,” he said.
“They radiate something, the opposing positive and negative vibes” present in the human condition.