Book Review: 1946 - The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen
This was an instant pick-up at the work book sale some time ago. I find some books demand to be read straight away while others bide their time, and I decided the time was right for this one.
The focus in the book, unsurprisingly, is on the major combatants in the Second World War - Britain, the USSR, the USA, France and China on the one hand; Germany and Japan on the other. Three of the allied countries had, to some extent, been overrun by invading forces and a fourth thoroughly worn out by them; only the mainland USA escaped any territorial involvement, though of course sustained loss of life and injury to its armed forces as did the others. Germany was utterly destroyed and carved among its four occupiers; Japan likewise but with a single occupying power. Many chapters in the book are devoted to life in these countries, in particular the ambivalence and variability with which the victors progressed their de-Nazification programmes in Germany. With hindsight, perhaps the USA got it right with Japan, though again there's plenty of scope to feel some were made to pay while others got away with it.
The book isn't just about World War Two, of course, and perhaps this is what really interested me in it: it's about the start of the Cold War, with the USSR occupying much of Eastern Europe and clawing at the Middle East. I remember at school a most unsatisfactory history lesson where the teacher had added "We have created a buffer zone to protect ourselves" in my write-up imagining the Soviet justification for its continued occupation. I didn't question it at the time - by then it had become clear I wasn't taking history any further - but it didn't really hang together as anything more than thin propaganda, mainly because it acknowledged an occupation, whereas I expected the Party line to be simply that those countries had "chosen" socialism and an outright denial that there was any "occupation". Sebestyen at least gives some context to this, in terms of dubious and anti-Soviet pre-War regimes in those countries.
At the edges of Europe, there are chapters on Greece (financially and politically a basket-case) and Turkey, and beyond, to Palestine, India and China. There's interesting material on the equivocal relationship between the USA and the two sides in the Chinese civil war; in India, the British were desperate to leave but also trying to avoid partition and bloodshed; and Palestine, where again the British were keen to leave. India was at least down to the British to solve on their own with the Hindu and Muslim communities; the case of Palestine was complicated further by influx of Jews from across Europe and American involvement (itself influenced by a mix of factors, from Jewish communities in the US through to the perceived risk of a Soviet takeover). On some of these topics one may feel not much has changed. Africa, Latin America and Australia don't feature in the book, so it is not quite global in scope, but feels quite thorough nonetheless.