By Elisabeth Asbrink

Other Press. 280 pages. $16.99. ISBN 978-159051-896-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Why 1947? It’s a question that younger readers, perhaps even some older ones, might well ask. As far as Britain is concerned, to refer to 1947 is often to trigger memories of the particularly harsh winter that stretched from late-1946 into 1947. Much more happened in 1947, of course, but the personal experiences are frequently the ones that stay in the mind. I was eleven in 1947 and have memories of the snow piled high in the streets, the lack of coal, food supplies, which were already rationed, running out, and the non-availability of road and rail transport.  And the fact that I couldn’t go to school. I was only dimly aware of other matters, such as the developing Cold War, conditions in places like France and Germany, and what was taking place in India and the Middle East. It was later when I began to fully realise what had been happening while I was throwing snowballs at friends.

Elisabeth Asbrink provides an introductory short account of the situation in Europe in 1947: “All across Europe there is damage. The Austrian city of Wiener Neustadt once had 4,000 buildings; now only 18 are intact. A third of the houses in Budapest are uninhabitable. In France, 460,000 buildings are in ruins. In the Soviet Union, 1,700 small towns and villages have been demolished. In Germany, around 3.6 million apartments have been blitzed – a fifth of the country’s homes. Half the homes in Berlin are derelict”. The list goes on, taking in all the homeless and displaced people, the scarcity of food, clean water, and electricity.

The Nazis had been defeated, but it hadn’t taken long for their supporters to begin re-appearing and arranging for one-time SS members, and others like them, to escape the justice that was being meted out at Nuremberg and elsewhere. In fact, by 1947, there were indications that the Allies, America and Britain, in particular, were keen to scale down the trials of former Nazis. It was all too expensive and time-consuming, and German society had to be reconstituted, even if it meant using many of the judges, policemen, and civil servants who had happily followed Hitler.

The Swedish fascist, Per Engdahl, was involved with setting up networks that would enable people like Eichman to escape to South America. Others went to Egypt. An international organisation, involving wealthy businessmen, began to emerge and incorporated people such as Oswald Mosley, one-time leader of the British Union of Fascists. There was plenty of money to finance publications and meetings, and evidence that governments of some countries, including Argentina and Egypt, were willing to allow ex-Nazis to settle there. The Vatican was also prepared to provide support in certain cases, though there have always been debates about how far that support went.

Despite the evidence that came to light about the extent of the Nazi atrocities, there was little doubt that anti-semitism was still rife, even in a country like Britain. In 1947 Britain was still struggling to keep the peace in Palestine, where the terrorist organisations, the Stern Gang and the Haganah, were actively campaigning for the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Palestine was a British mandate, but its troops were seen as an occupying force, and frequently found themselves caught up in the struggle between Arabs and Jews for control of the land.

When the British condemned three Haganah terrorists to be hanged, the Haganah responded by kidnapping two British soldiers and threatening to hang them if the death sentences were carried out. They were and the soldiers were then executed. The result in Britain was that mobs went on the rampage, attacking Jewish shops and individuals. The rioting was particularly bad in cities like Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, where there were easily-identifiable Jewish areas and targets, and the rioters were egged on by local fascists. In Manchester, “On the third day of the riots up to a thousand people gather in Cheetham Hill, where they make threats, break up a Jewish wedding, and smash windows in eight Jewish-owned shops. Fires are started, police officers are sent out to guard Jewish homes. A number of policemen are injured”.

When the partition of Palestine, and the establishment of the state of Israel, was declared in 1947, there was inevitably armed conflict as attempts were made to destroy the new country before it had an opportunity to properly organise itself. Soon, Arabs were driven from land they had lived on for many years and, sad to say, Jewish militants were responsible for massacres of civilians. It was the beginning of a problem that still has no solution, and possibly never will have. 

The British were also facing difficulties in India, where the country was about to become independent, but was also going to divide on the basis of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh antagonisms. Lord Mountbatten, who had been sent out to oversee the partition of the country later admitted that it hadn’t been handled properly. Millions of people were displaced, Muslims fleeing to what became Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. And bloody massacres took place on both sides. There is still an uneasy relationship between Pakistan and India.

Reading about events in Palestine and India makes one understand why Asbrink sub-titles her book, “Where now begins”. We really are still having to deal with situations in locations where they got off the ground in 1947. The same could be said of the Cold War, which may have theoretically come to an end when the Eastern bloc countries and the Soviet Union broke up between 1989 and 1991, but still resonates today in terms of how the world is structured, and how countries react to each other.

It’s possible to see 1947 as the year when the Cold War began, though there had been intimations of what was about to happen before that. Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 had drawn attention to communist intentions in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries, as non-communist parties and individuals were driven into silence. In Greece, where communists had been fighting a government supported by Britain, the United States stepped in to take over Britain’s role. The post-war Labour government, faced with an economy that was shattered, and with growing doubts about British soldiers being killed in what many people viewed as other people’s wars, had decided to pull out of any further commitments. India, Palestine, Greece – what was essentially happening was the decline of Britain’s status as an Imperial power.

In the United States, the first moves in a renewed attack on alleged communist influence in Hollywood started with the clash between HUAC and the Hollywood Ten, a group of left-wing writers, directors, and producers. They had decided, mistakenly as it turned out, to count on mass support for their outspoken opposition to the Committee. Among them was Herbert Biberman, then working on New Orleans, a film purportedly about jazz but which still had to adhere to conventional views about the way in which blacks were portrayed. Billie Holiday sang in the film, but only had a role as a maid. Hollywood was hardly radical when it came to questions of race.

Still in the USA, Asbrink looks at the life of pianist Thelonious Monk, described as the “creator of bebop”. He wasn’t, of course, because no one person was. Movements in the arts evolve over a period of time and with contributions from various people. I’m being pedantic when I point out that “Mean to Me” wasn’t a Monk composition, nor did he record it with Coleman Hawkins. He did record one of his own tunes, “I Mean You”, with Hawkins, along with “Bean and the Boys” but that latter tune was composed by Hawkins. However, 1947 was significant for Monk because it was the year he recorded twelve tracks under his own name for the adventurous Blue Note label in New York. Previously mostly unacknowledged, he was slowly starting to emerge as a provocative and idiosyncratic performer.

Matters like these might not seem all that important when compared to what was happening in Europe and the Middle East, but they colour the overall picture, as does the arrival of Simone de Beauvoir in America. While there she began an intense, but ill-fated affair with the novelist, Nelson Algren, despite her long commitment to Jean-Paul Sartre. He was at home in Paris, holding court in the cafés to the existentialists. The city was, despite war-damage and post-war austerity, slowly coming back to life. Fashion was reviving with Christian Dior’s New Look which used up more material than some people thought right, and even caused some women to be assaulted for wearing New Look dresses. It wasn’t all frivolity, though, and those who had collaborated with the Germans were being hunted down and tried for their indiscretions.

There was so much else happening in 1947. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded. George Orwell was slowly dying on the Isle of Jura while struggling to finish the novel that summed up what the future could be like, 1984. He wouldn’t actually die until 1950, but it was his final novel and became a byword for what many people in Eastern Europe were experiencing. But I think Orwell could generally see how our lives would become increasingly subject to surveillance and control¸ even in the so-called “Free World”.  Thomas Mann published Dr Faustus and dedicated it to the composer, Arnold Schoenberg, who was offended by what he took to be a fictional character based on him. The two never spoke again.

There was war between India and Pakistan. In the Middle East, Jewish Irgun terrorists attacked the village of Deir Yassin and slaughtered 110 men, women and children. In Europe, children, homeless, and with parents dead in the Holocaust, were fed, clothed, and sent off to places where they might be adopted or given some sort of accommodation. Ships packed with Jewish refugees struggled to get to Palestine, and were, more often than not, intercepted by British warships. The Exodus was a notable example, and even had a Hollywood film made about it some years later.

In Britain, women were being dismissed from jobs they had been given during wartime as men were demobbed and came back to take over again. Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren finally terminated their affair. It had become obvious that, for all her protestations of undying love, she would never end her relationship with Sartre. The curious bond between them was too strong.

1947: Where Now Begins is a book that can both stimulate and shock. The capacity of human beings for violence and prejudice is depressing, and only the stories of people who tried to do the right thing manage to help to raise Asbrink’s book above the level of a documentary account of how easily civilised rules of behaviour will break down, given the appropriate circumstances. And it’s true that events and decisions in 1947 did have an effect that is still with us. There is still tension between Russia and the West.  Can anyone look at the situation in the Middle East today and truly say that there is a way out of it? The seeds of hatred sown in 1947 have flourished and grown into large animosities. And in countries throughout Europe new varieties of fascism continue to emerge and encourage hatred of anyone who doesn’t conform to narrow ideas of nationalism.