Lead book review

How Hitler's dreams came true in 1946

A review of 1946: The Making of the Modern World, by Victor Sebestyen. There aren’t many laughs, and such as there are tend to be dark

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

1946: The Making of the Modern World Victor Sebestyen

Macmillan, pp.438, £21, ISBN: 9780230758001

I should begin this review, in the spirit of full disclosure, by admitting that I know the author very slightly. Something close to 14 years ago, we were on the same press freebie: a slap-up lunch in Paris courtesy of — was it? — LBC radio. Who knows? The ignominious occasion of our acquaintance isn’t the reason I mention it: rather that, somewhere on the Eurostar under the Channel, he and I fell into a conversation about the European Union. As I trotted out the usual boilerplate grumbles about sovereignty and bureaucratic opacity and the iniquities of the Common Fisheries Policy, he exclaimed so passionately in its favour that the conversation stayed with me. After all these years I of course paraphrase, but what he said was: ‘Yes, yes, but it is such a beautiful idea.’

You may — I imagine most Spectator readers will — think this intellectually nugatory, or indictably hippy-sounding, or both. But the combination of impatience with detail and deep feeling (this was an outbound conversation at about 10 a.m. so we were nearly sober) struck me. And reading this book — a snapshot of what was going on in four continents, but especially in Europe, in the year after the end of the second world war, by a man whose family fled Hungary as refugees when he was a child — I better understand where it came from.

There aren’t all that many laughs in 1946, and such as there are tend to be dark black. If anyone had the notion that the war coming to an end would cause a general improvement, they had it (at least in the short to medium term) quite wrong. Indeed, there was even a term minted for that particular stripe of disappointment. A 1946 study by British psychologists discovered that those freed from forced labour in the camps still seemed a bit grumpy about the state of the world. They were suffering, apparently, from ‘Liberation Complex’.

With the exception of the US — which, obviously, didn’t get bombed and ended the war much better off than it started — the political chaos and the human wreckage worldwide was astonishing. Greece was a basket case. Iran and Turkey were Cold War crucibles. China was in the grip of a power struggle between Mao Zedong and, if it were possible, the even less appealing Chiang Kai-Shek; not to mention starving after the retreating Japanese blew the dykes on the Yellow River and flooded three million acres of farmland. In Japan, newspapers were running advice columns with headlines such as ‘Let’s catch grasshoppers’ and ‘How to eat acorns’. And Germany was fucked: literally. Sebestyen’s account of the way the Red Army raped its way across Eastern Germany is too grisly to rehearse here in detail, but detail there is.

Economically, where do we begin? With the reparations process? The Red Army went about uprooting all and any German industry they could get their hands on, taking factories to bits, loading them onto trains and reassembling them in the Motherland. The western powers (who, less interested in light manufacturing, did the same thing with Germany’s intellectual talent) disapproved but weren’t in a position to make too much of a fuss.


The cigarette was a serious unit of currency. Currency, in many places, was not. China was bad: an economist quoted by Sebestyen had it that, ‘In 1940, 100 yuan bought a pig; in 1943 a chicken; in 1945 a fish; in 1946 an egg and in 1947 one third of a box of matches.’ Hungary was worse. Inflation ran at 158,000 per cent a day: one author ran to the nearest market to spend his advance on a chicken, a few veggies and a litre of olive oil because he knew it would have become worthless by the time he’d walked across the city.

The plight of displaced people — and their sheer numbers — gives Sebestyen one of his most powerful chapters. In Germany alone, 14–15 million people were homeless and fully a third of the housing stock had been destroyed. And amid all this chaos, the Allied powers were hell-bent on denazification, to be achieved, it was decided, by making people fill out forms. Emmy Goering, in Straubing prison while her husband awaited trial in Nuremberg, was asked to fill out one such: ‘Did you have a relative or a close friend with a high position in the Third Reich?’ ‘I can’t remember my husband’s titles any more.’ ‘Don’t worry. Just write Hermann Goering. We’ve got enough information on him already.’

Nor did doing for the Nazis put an end to ethnic cleansing: it simply set off a whole new round. German nationals outside Germany, and Russian nationals outside Russia, were repatriated with extreme prejudice. There were the informal beatings, expropriations, rapes and death-marches with which ethnic Germans were seen off by their former neighbours in the Sudetenland and elsewhere; and then there were the more by-the-book ways in which British and American governments knowingly sent Soviet refugees to their deaths. ‘Our troops find it not only shocking but incomprehensible,’ one American diplomat reported to his superiors, ‘when Soviet refugees targeted for extradition bite each other’s jugular veins rather than submit to repatriation.’

And, after everything everyone now knew about the camps, did anyone — just for once — give the Jews a break? Hell no: quite the opposite. The pogrom in Kielce — sparked when an eight-year-old truant in Central Poland claimed to have been abducted by local Jews and kept with other children in a basement (no basement existed; no other children were held) — claimed 42 lives. In Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, far more Jews were killed in the 12 months after the end of the war than in the 12 years before 1939. The most senior figures in the Catholic church flatly refused to condemn anti-Semitism. The right of Holocaust survivors, all over Eastern Europe, to return to their own homes was resisted.

Sebestyen quotes the sad, shrewd analysis of the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Ossowski: ‘Compassion is not the only imaginable response to a misfortune suffered by other people.’ Guilt, among the beneficiaries of that misfortune, can turn to hate:

Those whom fate has destined for annihilation easily can appear disgusting to others and be removed beyond the pale of human relations… if one person’s disaster benefits someone else, an urge appears to persuade oneself, and others, that the disaster was morally justified.

And the results of all this, as Sebestyen remarks, were that after the second world war, Europe was more ethnically homogeneous than it had been for many centuries, and would remain so until immigrants from outside the continent began to arrive in large numbers from the 1960s onwards. The Jews all but disappeared. The Germans were not wanted anywhere outside Germany. Vast populations had been forced to uproot in the biggest refugee crisis the world had ever seen. Hitler had dreamed of an ethnically pure Europe. Paradoxically, Germany’s defeat ensured that, by the end of 1946 his dream was, to a great extent, a reality.

This is an exceptionally involving and horrifying book. Sebestyen isn’t that much of a stylist, but heaven knows he can tell a story. His short chapters are full of sharp judgments, apt and really colourful quotations and (I mean this as a compliment) grindingly awful detail. Such little flares of light as there are shine all the brighter for the background. There are the moments of generosity or realpolitik — the US’s handling of Germany and Japan, for instance; and there are piercing bits of ground-level human detail, such as the extraordinary rates of ‘sexual irregularity’ in the camps for displaced persons: ‘Sex was not just a pleasure,’ writes a historian quoted by Sebestyen. ‘It was an act of defiance against extinction.’

Gee whiz. My dad was born in 1946. This was not — and it’s a virtue of this book that it makes you ponder on it — really all that long ago. To those of us who have grown up in peace and in ignorance and who have the luxury of thinking the Common Fisheries Policy a big deal, 1946 is if nothing else a useful prompt to pause — gratefully — for thought.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21 Tel: 08430 600033. Sam Leith is The Spectator’s next literary editor. He starts on Monday.

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Show comments
  • SchtenGraby

    See also ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe.
    Western Europe had it easy…

    • Paddy Kilshamus

      I read that a couple of years ago. It is quite breath-taking the scale of destruction that went on after the war ended. I think he used the analogy of a very large ship which will continue for miles even when the engine is dead just on sheer momentum. It should be better known especially the Eastern European history, but instead we have the black and white morality tale, a clear and simple narrative for mass consumption. Great book.

    • lookout

      Americas Nazi Secret by John Loftus, the killers ended up in the White house leading the prayers before the presidential breakfast, you couldn’t make it up.

  • ashleyhk

    Chiang Kai Shek breached the dams, not the Japanese.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      That is not the only inaccuracy … the old canard, repeated here, about the Catholic church and the Jews has long been proven false.

      • jjjj

        No, the liar is you. The Catholic Church reacted shamefully after Kielce. But keep whitewashing.

  • red2black

    ‘The Jews all but disappeared… Hitler had dreamed of an ethnically pure Europe. Paradoxically, Germany’s defeat ensured that, by the end of 1946 his dream was, to a great extent, a reality.’
    I’m currently reading ‘Crimes And Mercies’ by James Bacque, about the fate of the German civilian population under Allied Occupation after the end of WW2. It might have been a dream for some, but it was a ghastly nightmare for so many millions more.

    • jjjj

      Yes, poor German POWs. Perhaps they should have let the Jews guard them. I’m sure they would have treated them better. And did you wilfully misunderstand this quote from the article: ‘It might have been a dream for some,…’?

      • Paddy Kilshamus

        You should read the other side for once it might rid you of all your hatred and bile. You might also realise the extent of your manipulation.

        • jjjj

          Who is the ‘other side’? The Nazis? The Germans who voted for the Nazis? The Wehrmacht?

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Yeah that side.

      • red2black

        The ‘dream for some’ was Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’. Please don’t imagine that I’m in any way in favour of such a thing. Mr Bacque’s book, in part, compares the consequences of the destructive Morgenthau Plan with those of the reconstructive approach of people like Herbert Hoover.

        • jjjj

          But the Morgenthau plan was never actually implemented in Germany. And good that it wasn’t.

          • red2black

            I think one of the inferences of Mr Bacque’s book is that it may as well have been, considering conditions ‘on the ground’, and that sadly, things were done for a few years after the war that Morgenthau and others would have approved of.

          • jjjj

            Yeah, like the Berlin airlift by the Americans. Yawn.

          • Ace

            Perhaps you could read Mr. Bacque’s book. Crazy thought, I know.

  • global city

    But the core idea of the EU, from the very start was not beautiful, it was based on denying the peoples’ of Europe democracy, and impose ‘benign’ rule by technocrats instead. It was based on a crass and prejudiced notion of Europeans as inherently evil, with the capacity to repeat wht the Nazis had just done….. or at least that was the excuse used to justify a non-democratic, centrally controlled model of governance.

    As has been repeatedly stated, but glibly ignored by the dreamers, it is just another of the authoritarian based ‘ideals’ dreamt up on the continent for the perfect organisation of the perfect ‘European’….as desirable in real life as much as John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or that coca cola ad from the 1970s’.

    We should also remember that those sorts of ideas were themselves attractive in the UK in the 50s and 60s’ when we were building a mixed economy that Whitehall would control. Democracy was not seen as important to the elites of Europe, an attitude that they still share to this day.

    We need OUT!

    • Dr Corvus

      There’s a good case for seeing the real roots of the EU in Vichy France. French bureaucrats* repeatedly put plans for economic integration to the German authorities in Paris and, whenever they could get a hearing, Berlin. They saw this as a way for France to regain honour in the context of Hitler’s New Europe. These proposals made from Vichy look very similar to the Monnet Plan.

      *Vichy was the happy time of the bureaucrats – Fascism is not populism; Fascism is technocracy with a little ranty front man to distract the populace.

      • global city

        Precisely!

    • Julian Beach

      Indeed.

      That, in truth, is Hitler’s dream come true.

  • John Carins

    The only winner was the US. The war stimulated US industry as the British paid for war materiel. The US depression was ended. The US at the end of the war was the only superpower and carried out its plans to create and protect an European market. At the same time it forced the British to dismantle its empire. The French were not to be so easily persuaded. If Roosevelt had lived to 1946 all of his dreams had become a reality.

    • global city

      So, the Yanks had a plan?

      • John Carins

        Did I say that they had a plan? No, but as events played out the US played a game that was to their advantage. Roosevelt’s plan (if he had one) was to delay entering the war for as long as possible. His hand was only forced by the Japanese and Hitler declaring war on the US.

  • Ed  

    Ah yes, a unitary European state is such a lovely idea. It has such wonderful results, every time it’s tried.

  • jjjj

    ‘The western powers (who, less interested in light manufacturing, did the same thing with Germany’s intellectual talent…’

    One might argue that most of Germany’s intellectual talent had either fled in the 30s or had been exterminated. I’m talking about the Jews.

    • Paddy Kilshamus

      You mean the Frankfurt School intellectuals? They certainly made the world a better place didn’t they?

      • jjjj

        Typical of the Fascist mindset with the usual dross and crap of the ‘Frankfurt School’. Next you’ll be telling us of the Trilateral Commission blah blah blah. One big yawn in your face.

        • Paddy Kilshamus

          There is the hate and bile i mentioned below. Emotional over-reaction as if you know you are defending a weak argument so you just over compensate with sweeping dismissals. Good luck in your fragile bubble. Hope it won’t burst too painfully.

          • jjjj

            Good luck in your psychiatric treatment. You are in for a rude awakening when you discover the truth about yourself.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Psychiatry is a Jewish invention to fleece the guilty and set themselves up as high priests of the libido (aiming low to bring society down to their materialistic level). So I wont be turning to any shyster like that. Truth is something you should know. After all stamping on it seems to be a full time occupation for you. Good luck with that. Shalom.PS take a look at the film The Greatest Story Never Told. You will love it.

          • jjjj

            You know, a good psychiatrist would be able to cure you of your self-hared, Arminius. You need examine your morality or what is left of it. As to your recommendation to watch a film, I don’t do requests to order. Learn a bit of history, read up on some culture and if I’m not busy I might agree to debate you. Until then, keep reading your Norse fables and wanking over Odin.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Projection is one thing old Siggy Freud could teach you about. I see your last comment is in the area beloved of the tribe. Not long now, keep a suitcase packed.

          • jjjj

            Yawn.I Fart in your face, Paddy.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            My god you are obsessed with toilet functions! Retarded development or bad potty training or just the level of your mentality? We really need to cleanse our nations as in the past.

  • paulthorgan

    “How Hitler’s dreams came true in 1946”

    It was Alan Coren who noted in the 1970s that perennial best-selling titles appeared to fall into three categories; those about golf, those about cats and those with a swastika on the cover. He tested this theory in a collection of his articles from Punch entitled ‘Golfing for Cats’ which had the Nazi emblem on its dust-jacket. It became a best-seller.

    This article does the same, grabbing the attention by making a tenuous connection between genocide and the mass migrations of 1945-46 by using the H-word. They are not related.

    Hitler did want all Volksdeutsche to return to the fatherland. But this was to be a fatherland expanded with lebensraum in the east at the expense of Poland. In fact the reverse happened. The Poles extended westward to the Oder-Niesse, just as the USSR extended into Eastern Poland.

    To compare the disruption of 1946 with a Nazi ascendancy is absurd.

    Hitler’s dreams did not come true in 1946. Roosevelt and Stalin’s did.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so”
    [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941]
    “For how shall we fill people with blind faith in the correctness of a doctrine, if we ourselves spread uncertainty and doubt by constant changes in its outward structure? …Here, too, we can learn by the example of the Catholic Church. Though its doctrinal edifice, and in part quite superfluously, comes into collision with exact science and research, it is none the less unwilling to sacrifice so much as one little syllable of its dogmas… it is only such dogmas which lend to the whole body the character of a faith.”
    [Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf” Vol. 2 Chapter 5]

    Just thought I’d preempt the inevitable assertion that Hitler wasn’t a catholic.

    • Paddy Kilshamus

      I think there was a little swastika symbol in the church he went to in his childhood. That is not a joke, it was an ancient sun symbol I think.

    • lookout

      He was also an occultist and mad, he teamed up with Islam as will the present cult of rome

      • Paddy Kilshamus

        You have been watching the History Channel again haven’t you? Did he hypnotise all those millions of voters?

      • red2black

        Passages in Mein Kampf also attest to his being a Conservative and a Nationalist.

        • jjjj

          Passages in Mein Kampf attest to him being sick in the head.

          • red2black

            Yes, that as well. Also, being a Socialist and a Catholic.

          • jjjj

            Er…Conservative AND socialist? Ha ha!!

          • red2black

            Any contradictions were always overshadowed by his serious intentions, which were very unfunny indeed.

  • Rifleman1853

    ” . . and then there were the more by-the-book ways in which British and
    American governments knowingly sent Soviet refugees to their deaths.”

    I think it would have been more fair, having mentioned this, if you could have explained why it was done. Large numbers of the refugees were Ukrainians who had seen the German armies as liberating them from Stalin’s tyranny, and had fought alongside them against the Red Army. Needless to say, at the end of the war, Stalin wanted them back in order to execute them. He had previously made it clear to Churchill and Roosevelt that, if those refugees were not returned to Russia, the British and American PoWs who were liberated by the Red Army (and there were lots of PoW camps in the Russian sector), would not be returned to the West. Ever.

    So what else could Churchill and Roosevelt have done?

    • Paddy Kilshamus

      Maybe they could have not joined with communism in the first place and not aided the destruction of the one force resisting it? Then turn around as Churchill did when Stalin showed his intentions for Europe and say ‘We slaughtered the wrong pig’.

      • Rifleman1853

        Well, hindsight is always 20/20 vision, isn’t it?

        It’s pretty obvious from where we stand, 70 odd years later, but how do you think it looked in the summer of 1941, when the German U-boats were sinking our merchant ships faster than we could build replacements, and Rommel’s army was battering its way towards the oil-fields in the Middle East?

        Anything which could ease some of the pressure on our forces at that time would have been seen as a godsend.

        Equally, the barely believable brutality of Stalin’s regime is well known, now – but it was virtually unknown in the West at that time; Russia was practically sealed off from Western observers, and even diplomats were severely restricted in where they could go in Russia, and were constantly watched.

        • Paddy Kilshamus

          There is a different view worth hearing. Take a look at ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’ on the internet. It is high time we took a more objective view of all this period. Have you noticed that every time we are involved in conflict the leader becomes ‘another Hitler’ and ‘we know where appeasement leads’ etc. By the way Russian atrocities were well known from 1917 forward and the later Ukrainian famine and the Gulags etc. Anyway if you are genuinely interested take a look at that film, it is an experience worth having no matter how you judge its conclusions.

        • Ace

          The Red Terror in Russia was published in 1926 and leaves no doubt as to the hideous nature of the Bolsheviks. The show trials a few years later were a further education, as were the Red terror and purge of the Army later in the 1930s.

          I don’t think one can say that the true nature of the Soviet regime was unknown well before the end of WWII.

          Your earlier point about Allied POWs in Soviet hands is a good one but sending Russian citizens back against their will was hardly the best option to obtain their release. I believe even then many were held by the Soviets till they died.

          The return of the Russians, Ukrainians, Vlasov and his troops, and the like were also illegal forced repatriations, I believe, but I can’t make that case adequately now.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      The Allies were fighting the wrong enemy.

      • jjjj

        Fancy being transported back in time and going on a train to a Death Camp, Jackie boy?

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          You mean through neutral Switzerland? Lucky the Swiss were only neutral.

  • Ace

    >> the even less appealing Chiang Kai-Shek <<

    You're serious, aren't you?

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