Book: The Economist - 2016-01-09

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20th-century history

The cold war’s first chill

The year it all began

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1946: The Making of the Modern World. By Victor Sebestyen. Pantheon; 438 pages; $30. Macmillan; 456 pages; £25.

IT WOULD be hard to imagine a more depressing moment than the first year after the end of the second world war. The guns had mostly fallen silent, but millions were still dying from famine, disease or civil strife. Large areas of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Vast numbers of refugees were on the move. Many people wondered how their economies could ever be revived.

Britain was, in effect, broke; Berlin’s water supply was still polluted by corpses. Japan, an island nation vitally dependent on trade, had lost 80% of its merchant marine. The Marshall Plan, which would use funds provided by America to coax European industries back to life, lay in the future. As Victor Sebestyen points out in his new book, “1946”, optimists were in short supply. “Very few people at the end of 1946 believed that recovery was around the corner, or even that it was possible,” he writes.

The main change that year was the start of the cold war. As Mr Sebestyen argues, it was a Soviet-sponsored coup in an obscure corner of Iran at the beginning of the year that first prompted policymakers in the West to question Moscow’s motives. Stalin stepped up his campaign against internal dissent; the Gulag camps began to fill again. Civil wars in Greece and China pitted communists against defenders of the old order, reflecting global tensions as much as internal ones. All this helps to explain why 1946 was the year when Winston Churchill, by then out of office, gave a speech in America that made “Iron Curtain” a household phrase.

Mr Sebestyen would have been well advised to shape his narrative around this theme. Instead he bombards the reader with short, staccato chapters, in rough chronological order. One moment he is in Japan, as Emperor Hirohito renounces his divinity (on the orders of General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied powers). The next he is in Calcutta, where sectarian riots are hastening British withdrawal from the subcontinent and foreshadowing the horrors of the partition to come. The author would have done better to spend more time on moments that deserve sustained analysis (like the resumption of hostilities between China’s communists and nationalists) and less on events that had little lasting significance (such as the first American nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific).

But these are quibbles. Mr Sebestyen deserves praise for illuminating a low point in modern history. Mass shootings in America are a scandal, but the number of gun-related homicides (a little over 12,000 in 2015) would have excited little notice amid the hardship of the immediate post-war world; 6,000 people died and a further 15,000 were injured in communal riots in Calcutta in just three days in the summer of 1946, itself a drop in the bucket compared with the bloodletting of the Chinese civil war. Terrorist attacks have a huge impact thanks to the power of modern media, yet the number of deaths they cause is modest in comparison with previous eras of violence. In Lwów,” Mr Sebestyen notes, “the story that a mother driven mad with hunger killed and ate her two children barely made the newspapers.”

The one place that approaches the levels of despair experienced in 1946 is Syria, where nearly five years of civil war have resulted in 250,000 deaths and millions more being forced to flee. Inter-state wars have become more rare, but civil conflict, proxy battles and genocide still cause great misery.


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Previous: Britain and America: The slog of war
Next: Mathematics: The master of them all