Civil wars, deportations and divisions: 1946 and its contemporary significance (Book Review)

Title: 1946: The Making of the Modern World; Author: Victor Sebestyen; Publisher: Pan Macmillan; Pages: 464; Price: Rs.899

War’s opposite is peace. So once war ends, is it peace again? Not always in our world. The Second World War ended in 1945, leaving in its wake a ruined Europe and ravaged Asia. But as a new year began began a few months later, vast swathes of the world, including several not directly affected by the conflict, were still far from peaceful with no let up in misery or violence for millions and the ground being laid for a new set of conflicts including a few that linger on right on into our day.

So which year holds more significance for our world now? 1945, the year which saw the end of the Second World War, or 1946, the first full year of “peace”? It depends on how we choose to estimate the significance of a year – on the basis of major events which happened then, or apparently lesser events whose real import is only realised in hindsight, often much in the future.

British journalist, historian and author Victor Sebestyen makes a compelling case for the latter position and the latter year.

Sebestyen, whose previous works include “Twelve Days” on the 1956 Hungarian Uprising (which his parents fled when he was an infant), and “Revolution 1989”, on the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe, notes that when he, as a historian, sought to trace roots of events he covered as a journalist – the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Soviet Union’s collapse, violence in the Middle East, China’s shift from “permanent revolution to rampant capitalism”- he found he returned continuously to 1946.

As he brings out, the year saw India start on the road to independence but also division (and birth of the tensions that would continue to bedevil its relations with Pakistan down to the present day), the growing pressure in Palestine that weakened British resolve to stay and would soon explode into a long, bloody war between Jews and the Arabs, and charting of the future course of China and Japan.

That in itself should be enough but there was much more happening.

He begins from Russian-occupied northern Iran where a ‘People’s Government of Azerbaijan’ had been proclaimed in Tabriz – and the issue, along with the Soviets’ delay in withdrawing troops, became the first flashpoint between the Allies, whose relations had been getting strained in the post-war period.

The spell-binding narrative, broken into small chapters, then moves to the US, basking in prosperity and moving towards superpower status, and the Soviet Union, which is not so well-off but also getting stronger, defeated Germany, where bodies are still being found, a broke and hungry Britain, Bikini Atoll and the tests of US’ more powerful atomic bombs, Czechoslovakia where ethnic Germans are now on the receiving end, Poland where anti-Semitic riots break out, a restive India, China where civil war is raging (and US moves to arrange peace are ultimately unsuccessful), Japan, where Gen.Douglas McArthur is ushering a paradigm shift in its political and social structure (but stopped from doing so to business), Palestine where a spectacular terror attack has taken place and many more. It ends with the unprecedented cold December in devastated Europe.

One sparkling interlude is the account of a cafe-crawl in Paris, slowly recovering its gaiety, by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Arthur Koestler. Similarly, Sebestyen does not just concentrate on the high and mighty though there are more than enough here but also others who have their significance too – Justice Radhabinod Pal and his dissent in the Japanese war crimes trials, for one.

One perceptive point the author makes among his ruminations on the Cold war mentality and the retreat of imperialism is the shape of Asia now and US’ views on using military power if staunchly anti-imperialist US President Harry Truman had instead of letting France to reoccupy its Southeast Asian colonies, allowed the Vietnamese freedom fighters, though Communist, to take over?

History at its most accessible – and pertinent, this work, coming in today’s unsettled world, proves the study of the past is not just an academic activity and can only be neglected at one’s peril.

(07.10.2015 – Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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