1946: The Making of the Modern World. By Victor Sebestyen

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1946: The Making of the Modern World. By Victor Sebestyen


Thu, 27/11/2014 - 12:34


 Victor Sebestyen
Victor Sebestyen
27 November, 2014

I REMEMBER diving under a hedge when the engine of a German doodlebug cut out above me and dropped to earth with its cargo of explosives. I remember the street parties too for VE and VJ days, and, in particular, the end of sweet rationing.

At grammar school, our history lessons were stuck in the industrial revolution and how it made Britain a supreme force in the world. The causes of the Second World War from which we had just escaped were not on the agenda. For the devastating, horrendous blood-splattered facts of 1946 and the suffering years ahead I have had to wait for the deadly aftermath to be exposed in detail in this impressive slice of history, 1946: The Making of the Modern World.

It so happens to have been written by Victor Sebestyen, a child of the Cold War, an escaping refugee, virtually on his potty, from Soviet-dominated Hungary when his family fled from Budapest to London.

And he is the 20-year-old I gave a job to as a trainee reporter at the Ham & High in 1976, staying five years, learning the skills and demands of journalism while living in a damp basement flat in Gayton Road, Hampstead.

Now 59, he has used his talents to paint a series of graphic chapters of what he calls “vivid storytelling” used in his two earlier books to reveal the pivotal events of 1946 that created the modern world, which once again is on the edge of darkness.

His inspiration has come from Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers, which brilliantly recorded the First World War’s aftermath, and its authenticity comes from Sebestyen’s reporting skills, which included interviewing Hugh Lunghi, Churchill’s interpreter at his conference meetings with Stalin and Roosevelt, who died this year, aged 93.

Now Sebestyen reveals the untold savage stories of rampant rape, endless pillage, tortuous death marches, ongoing pogroms against the Jewish with open Catholic compliance, ruthless revenge on an unprece­dented scale in the global upheaval and moral black­out that followed victory.

A handful of facts and figures will give you a glimpse of the successive chapters of hate and horror of human wreckage:

• In Germany alone, there were 14 million homeless because a third of the housing stock had been destroyed, of whom up to nine million had been transported there as forced slave labour by the Nazis, 780,000 of them dumped in the Russian zone alone.

• Nobody knows how many women were raped by Red Army soldiers but 200,000 “Russian” babies were born without fathers in 1946.

• In Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, more Jews were killed in the 12 months after the end of the war than in the 12 years before 1939.

• Inflation was rampant running at 158 per cent a day in Hungary, while in China, where the cigarette was a unit of currency, 100 yuan bought a pig in 1940, a chicken in 1943, a fish in 1945, an egg in 1946 and a third of a box of matches in 1947.

Churchill described Europe as “a vast quivering mass of tormented human beings scanning the horizon for some new tyranny or terror... in a sullen silence of despair”.

And the relentless shocking saga of suffering and sorrow is set against a background of ideological division on either side of the Iron Curtain that sealed the fate of eastern European countries in the new Soviet empire, the final push to victory by the Chinese Communists, Japan in the wake of nuclear destruction, the birth of teeming independent India, the creation of the new state of Israel – America the only nation not directly hit at home by momentous events.

Sebestyen’s narrative makes you cringe with shame. Inevitably, you can then set it against the European and Middle Eastern mess that engulfs us now.

Indeed, today’s MPs should be forced to buy a copy of this book to make them truly aware of holocaust past they want to deny in demanding that Britain quits the EU, in the simplistic belief that this overcrowded island is fit and strong enough to stand alone again, as it did in 1939.

Even then, our special relationship with America failed when it came to borrowing enough money to fight Hitler, the bankers’ charge of 2 per cent having only just been paid off now.

Today’s economic decline and even the disintegration of our once-formidable political party system, now seen as no longer fit for purpose, has trapped us into what Maynard Keynes described as “the long, dragging conditions of semi-slump” caught up in a threatening second 21st-century global crisis. It has left party politicians helpless in trying to solve their own incompetence with mere promises they are unable to deliver.

• 1946: The Making of the Modern World. By Victor Sebestyen, Macmillan, £25.


THE Cold War that ended with the demolition of the Berlin Wall has not returned, according to Sebestyen, who also refutes the so-called War on Terror. “It’s more an old war rather than a cold war,” he told me before leaving for America.

“Dealing with Russia now is like dealing with it 100 years ago when old-fashioned Russian nationalism was at stake. There is no alternative ideology being offered, no alternative view of the world that challenges the West as Communism did.

“I understand why people on Russian border lands are terrified, but they have been in that situation for centuries.”

As to the War on Terror that threatens us, Sebestyen declares: “That’s a pointless phrase. It’s like saying a war against a gun. Terror is simply a weapon, not a cause, a great soundbite that came out after the 9/11 raid on America. We are being mealy-mouthed about what we mean by a war against terror.”

He acknowledges that his researches provide him with no expert view about IS, except this too is historically nothing new.

“A war between Islam and the West has been going on for 1,500 years,”  he explains. “There’s nothing new about that.”

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