Book review: 1946: The Making of the Modern World

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Sebestyen. Picture: Contributed

1946: The Making of the Modern World by Sebestyen. Picture: Contributed

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THERE WAS no sharp frontier between war and peace in 1945. The suffering went on after the Axis powers had surrendered.

1946: The Making of the Modern World

Victor Sebesteyn

Macmillan, 464pp, £25

There was no sharp frontier between war and peace in 1945. The suffering went on after the Axis powers had surrendered. Some German soldiers captured on the eastern front did not get home until years later and a few arrived, like Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, to find that their wives had written them off as dead – many women had, in any case, reconciled themselves to accepting whatever male protection might be available at a time when victorious armies raped and looted. Refugees picked their way among the ruins of bombed-out cities – in Japan, children sometimes had white boxes containing the ashes of their parents tied around their necks.

Victor Sebestyen describes all this in a series of striking vignettes. He also argues that 1946 laid the foundations of the modern world, or, at least, of the alignments that were to endure until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The emphasis on “key decisions” can, however, make things seem simpler than they were. The Chinese communists may have embarked on their “final push” in 1946 but they did not win until several years later and the consequences of communist victory in China would seem very different depending on whether we stop the clock in 1968, 1989 or now. As for India, the details of partition, which were to make the whole affair so bloody, were largely decided at the last moment in 1947.

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The year 1946 was, in fact, mainly important for what did not happen rather than what did. America did not immediately assume the leadership of the free world and many Americans would have liked a return to isolationism. Britain and France had not accepted that they would no longer be world powers and they anticipated holding on to significant parts of their empires. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that the division between communism and its enemies would override all other divisions but at the time it often looked as though the world would divide on the basis of race rather than ideology.

South Africa was moving towards apartheid and Australia barred non-white immigrants. Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, with its references to the “strong parent races” of Europe, was given at a university in Missouri and his audience did not include a single black face. Truman’s decision, announced in 1947, to build
up American military strength again had implications for race as well as power – the desegregation of the army preceded that of schools in the South.

Sebestyen’s confident style and acid biographical sketches make this a good read, though I would have liked him to say more about what he considers new in his approach. The notes refer to archives on three continents and in an impressive range of languages, but we do not learn much about how these sources might change existing interpretations. Some of the chapters draw mainly on books published in English. The bibliography includes Jonathan Fenby’s biography of de Gaulle but not the work of, say, Jean Lacouture, Eric Roussel or Georgette Elgey.

Sebestyen has roamed the world to report on war and revolution but I was left with the faint suspicion that, like many British journalists, he derives his information largely from other British journalists. In fairness, one should say that he also has a journalist’s eye for a human story. I particularly liked that of the Countess von Dönhoff, who escaped from her Prussian castle as the Red Army overran it and rode a thousand kilometres west on her favourite horse. She survived to edit Die Zeit and lived to be 92.

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