1946: The Making of the Modern World

Wartime in extra time


By Victor Sebestyen

Macmillan, £25

Victor Sebestyen is a Hungarian-born journalist, a former foreign editor and leader writer for London's Evening Standard. In his new book, a vivid portrayal of a world trying to pick itself up after the unimaginable horrors of global war, Sebestyen takes us from nation to nation in a succession of 34 short chapters, some of them just four or five pages in length.

His text is packed with colourful and revealing anecdotes, plus close encounters with all the major political and military figures of the time. Truman, we read, was "a snappy dresser [who] sometimes changed shirts two or three times a day", while Stalin had by now "developed a pronounced paunch that was not hidden by the baggy trousers and square-cut tunics that hung loosely around his body".

Churchill and Attlee are there too, and Mao, Eisenhower, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion and many others.

To readers of a certain age (myself included), a book about the year 1946 might seem to offer an exercise in rose-tinted nostalgia. In Britain, we had a government freed from having to concentrate primarily on matters military and able to prepare instead to bring people higher standards of health, education and welfare.

Russia may still have been ruled by that wily and not entirely trustworthy wartime ally, "Uncle Joe". But Stalin's room for politico-military manoeuvre was limited since, unlike our principal friend and ally, the USA, he did not yet have atom bombs at his disposal. America was the one country to come out of the war stronger and largely unscathed, and its leaders spent much time considering how best to contribute to the political, economic and moral resuscitation of our defeated enemies.

Throughout Europe, Jews who had managed to survive (what was yet to be called) the "Holocaust" at last felt free of the brutal antisemitism of recent years and able to dream of a Jewish homeland that might yet become a reality.

All this, Sebestyen includes. Yet for anyone intoxicated with a milk-and-honey view of 1946, he also provides a sobering corrective. In chapter after chapter, as his historical helicopter touches down in Greece, Turkey or Iran, or in post-Hiroshima Japan, India torn by Hindu-Muslim conflict, or China undergoing civil war, we are reminded of the widespread chaos and suffering undergone in the wake of what we still call "the war".

For millions across the world, war was not over. Antisemitism, often violent, continued to be rife in Poland and elsewhere while, in the USSR, dissidents of all kinds - and countless returning POWs - were peremptorily dispatched to the Gulag. In a haunting chapter, Sebestyen reminds us of the ruthlessness with which innocent German communities in central and eastern Europe were ousted from their homes and sent to seek succour within the much-reduced remnant of a Germany in which many had never before set foot.

Don't look to Victor Sebestyen for overall explanations, analyses, themes or arguments; he is more journalist than historian. What he does provide is a richly textured, eminently readable reminder of the vast problems faced by the leaders of the post-war world and the often fumbling, incompetent, cynical - or occasionally visionary - solutions they struggled to provide.

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