Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2017

1947 When Now Begins, by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated by Fiona Graham

This is one of those books that’s going to change the way I look at the world forever…

To quote part of the blurb:

In 1947, Elisabeth Åsbrink chronicles the creation of the modern world, as the forces that will go on to govern all our lives during the next 70 years first make themselves known.

It’s a remarkable book.  It charts world events – month by month, city by city – for the year of 1947,  as the world recovers from the cataclysm of WW2.  And even if you think you are reasonably up to speed with modern history because you’ve read books and watched films and you know people who lived through it, you will probably find yourself surprised by some of what’s chronicled here.  I certainly was.

The author does include the unsurprising past i.e. the beginnings of Soviet reprisals against its dissidents; the collapse of the British Empire (and blaming Britain for the catastrophe of Partition in India); the emerging Cold War and the Truman Doctrine of two Germanys.  But by personalising these events with the people involved, Åsbrink shakes off the dust of history and makes them vivid.  Mikhail Kalashnikov rewarded with a watch.  Musa Alami’s cautious attempts to influence the fate of Palestine. Christian Dior hounded over the extravagance of his designs in Britain under the bitterness of austerity.  (My mother wasn’t one of them.  She loved Dior).

One of the events that did surprise me was the Dutch expulsion of Germans:

… no one even wants to hear the word ‘Germany’ so strong is their hatred after the Occupation.  Under a new law, 25,000 Dutch nationals of German ancestry are branded ‘hostile subjects’ and sentenced to deportation – even if they happen to be Jews, liberals, or opponents of the Nazis.

The violence takes a well-trodden path.  The Dutch-Germans are given an hour to pack everything they can carry, up to a maximum of 50kg, then they are despatched to jails, or to prison camps near the Dutch-German border.  Their homes and businesses are confiscated by the state.  Operation Black Tulip.  (p.26)

Another element that surprised me was the stats about the homelessness.  I knew about the Blitz, of course, because my parents lived through it.  My father was bombed out of his home when he was a boy, and relations I never got to know were killed.  And as a small child in the middle 1950s I saw unrepaired bomb damage in my grandmother’s house as well as vacant blocks still with bomb rubble so I knew it took many years to sort everything out.  But still, having seen Russian photos of the German ‘scorched earth’ policy, and footage of the rubble in the cities of Europe, I had thought that Britain got off lightly by comparison.  But Åsbrink tells me that more than 4.5 million buildings in Britain are damaged…and 3.6 million apartments in Germany.  I had thought France got off scot-free because they surrendered, but nearly half a million French buildings were in ruins.  What these and other stats reveal is the unimaginable scale of the task ahead of postwar Europe and Britain, and while I’ve always been aware of the human misery, now I’m conscious of the work of the planners, the engineers, and the logistics people.  The mind rebels against it: where to start?  where to source the materials?  how to organise the workforce? And how to reconcile the urgency of the rehousing the homeless with building better living conditions than had gone before?

I didn’t know that a peace treaty wasn’t actually signed till 1947:

Never again, never again, never again.  These words have echoed for nearly two years, from the first day of the German capitulation in May 1945, until the last name is signed under the peace treaty, on 10 February 1947, in Paris.

When I looked it up at Wikipedia, I could see why the terms took so long to negotiate.

I had no idea that Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publications inspired leaders of the Hitler Youth, and that he’s the only American mentioned by name in Mein Kampf.  I looked that up on Wikipedia too: apparently every customer who bought a car from a Ford Franchise got a copy of ‘The Dearborn Independent.’

That’s creepy, but creepier still is the way Åsbrink carefully unravels the way that Nazi fugitives not only escaped justice but also how the weary allies gave up the pursuit.  These people didn’t just die a comfortable old age, they thrived enough to continue their poisonous work and establish new conduits which persist to the present day.  She documents the origins of Islamic jihad too…

Miraculously, she also unpicks the complicated politics of the foundation of the State of Israel, and she quotes the prophets who foresaw the consequences.  The villains include Britain, whose weariness is a theme throughout the book, as is the theme of US betrayals, and the struggle to achieve a declaration of human rights, and a legal definition of genocide.  Åsbrink notes the omissions too:

What is not said in court dissipates into silence.  The Nazi’s persecution and murder of homosexuals does not even constitute grounds for prosecution, and is not part of the trials.  The killing of Roma people is mentioned by some of the leading Nazis, but no Roma witnesses are called. Although about 650,000 Polish Jews and an unknown number of Roma were murdered in Belzec and Sobibor, neither death camp is mentioned even once in the course of the 13 Nuremberg trials.  The death camp at Treblinka is referred to in passing on one occasion, when it is described as a concentration camp.  The fate of the Jews passes in a black flash, but the racial hatred that forms the core of Nazi ideology is not one of the main issues.  Rather, it is Nazi Germany’s aggression, striving for world domination, and crimes against peace that dominate. (p. 37-8)

There are individuals whose activities thread through the book – perhaps not the names you might expect: George Orwell, Simone de Beauvoir, Billie Holliday, Christian Dior, and Primo Levi.  And also Per Engdahl, the thriving leader of the Swedish fascists, and Hasan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

I like Åsbrink’s shrewd awareness of how human nature can influence major events, just because we’re people with all our flaws.  For a while, German children learn no history at all because of the allies’ differing ideas about what the new school curriculum should include:

First of all the Russians come up with a textbook which stresses the material aspects of past times, how societal changes are driven by economic and social conditions.  But that is not an acceptable interpretation of history in the eyes of the Americans, who put together a version of history that they believe takes a broader view.

At the same time, the French prepare their selection of key events from the past, illustrated with reproductions of works by Eugene Delacroix. However, the French version of history is judged to be chauvinistic by the other Allies, and is not approved by any of them.

The British are painstaking in their approach, producing two volumes that are so bursting with detail that the first book only gets as far as humankind’s discovery of the pendulum. (p.92)

And if the past is an open question, the future is equally unclear.  What direction will Germany take?

By the time it is August, Åsbrink writes:

The world continues to fall apart.  In a number of places, at the same time, ideas are taking shape of a third power, a unified Europe: the notion of dismantling borders while nonetheless maintaining them.

That may be feasible.  That must be feasible.  There is no alternative.  If nationalism was the explosive that ignited the First World War, scepticism of that nationalism now seems to offer a possible path to peace.  The word on everyone’s lips is universalism.  The nation-state has had its day.  Europe must unite or perish.  (p.154)

Are today’s convulsions a sign that the world has stepped away from the path of peace that was trodden for decades since the formation of the EU?  Åsbrink doesn’t say but the reader can sense her dismay.

There are omissions, of course there are.  The book would be impossibly long, and perhaps less engaging if it covered everything.  But Åsbrink and her translator Fiona Graham have given us a vivid and compelling vision of a world long gone and yet still with us.  Highly recommended!

Author: Elisabeth Åsbrink
Title: 1947, When Now Begins
Translated from the Swedish by Fiona Graham
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925322439
Review copy courtesy of Scribe

Available from Fishpond: 1947: when now begins and direct from Scribe where you can also get it as an eBook or an audio book.

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for this review. My late Mum was born in 1947 and I have been looking for books to read that were set in her year of birth. Mum was born in February and it was brutal winter. Apparently she laid in a drawer in my Grandparents bedroom for warmth. I contacted the Met office who record the weather here and they sent me a report of what the weather was like. The snow and ice were dreadful and there were numerous power shortages.

    • Hello Julie, thanks for your comment:)
      This book will certainly set a context for you, showing the world she was born into. Your grandmother would have had the same travails as my mother used to recall with tales of her first child, trying to get nappies dry in foul weather and giving their one egg per week ration always to the baby. I found myself wondering how much of what Asbrink tells us was known to the general population, or if they took much notice of it, given that they must have been heartily sick of world affairs by then and preoccupied with getting by. I wish I’d been able to read this book while my father was still alive, and discuss it with him.

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. It’s on my list. My dear brother was born that year and remember my mother saying how cold it was and that was Scotland. Very harsh conditions and should not be forgotten. The poor always take the biggest share of the devastation. It was also the year the National Health Service began. Post war conditions were awful from what I remember hence the big journey to Australia.

    • It must have been a nightmare, those awful conditions as well as the grief that affected almost everyone, one way or another.

  4. This is the year my parents married. I remember tales of how desperately cold it was here in the Europe which was already suffering the privations and exhaustion inevitable after a long war: food, fuel and accommodation shortages topped the list. Definitely one for me! Thanks for alerting me to it, Lisa.

    • I think there are many of us who have parents as adults at this time, and it is fascinating to be ‘in their world’ so to speak. One thing I forgot to say in my review is that the narrative accumulates, that is, you get bits of it at a time, month by month, as they would have if they were watching newsreels or reading the newspaper. Only there are also items that were going on covertly that they wouldn’t have known about.
      It makes you wonder what’s going on under our radar now…

      • It sounds both a novel and fascinating way to present history. What’s going on above the radar is worrying enough!

  5. That would be a fascinating audio book, letting all that history wash over you. One of the ‘interesting’ effects of any disaster, and in this case, all those bombed out cities, is that re-building is very good for the economy.

    • Yes, and no. It creates jobs in the local economy. But money circulating in the local economy is not enough. At the end of the day, there have to be exports going out to balance the imports coming in, which in Britain’s case includes essentials such as food, because Britain cannot feed its population from its own resources.

  6. This looks like a fascinating book with much in it to make one uncomfortable and anxious. How can we forget the importance of the reasons Europe turned away from nationalism? And it’s just my own era: I was born in 1945. Though the US didn’t experience the devastation of that war, its effects were present in my young life. Thanks for your review.

    • It’s definitely a must-read for our generation!


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: