Book Review: “1946 – The Making of the Modern World” by Victor Sebestyen


Book information:  London: Pan Books, 2015. 437 pages. 20cm.

Hardly could anyone of us imagine how gloomy during the first year after the end of the Second World War, the bloodiest war ever in history.  Gun shootings and violent slaughters had most fallen silent at the heartland of Europe and East Asia, when citizens wondered how the plummeting economies could ever be revived, wondered when they would be no longer embroiled in mass starvation.  This book, nonetheless suggests that 1946 was not only a year of overwhelming pessimism, but also a year of the beginning of an extraordinary postwar decade, a decade full of dramatic events that shaped the whole world in the latter half of the 20th century.

Alongside tangling mess, desperate refugees and ramshackle buildings after the world war, there came an inexorable shift of the balance of power in 1946.  Gone were the glorious days when the European continent, especially Britain and France, were the immense voices in the world and grasped the dominant decision-making power.  Yet, their supremacy of international affairs diminished soon after severe wartime destruction.  While America, instead of continuing isolationism, resolved to take an imperative role towards global commitment as its foreign policy, flex its military muscles, extoll the virtues of capitalism and liberal democracy.  In the meantime, the Soviets also gained a firm foothold in the world stage after the war, and occupying most of the Eastern, Central Europe and elsewhere behind the “Iron Curtain” by coercion and the spread of communism.  All in all, 1946 was the turning point that transformed the world order into a bipolar world, with the dominance of America and the Soviet Union.

However, the perpetuation of ideological divergence and mutual hostility between America and the Soviet Union in 1946 marked the beginning of zero-sum nature of the Cold War.  Apart from shedding influence in Eastern and Central Europe, as this book illustrated, Stalin also demanded for permitting the Soviets to explore the oilfield in Iran,  albeit unsuccessful, for acquiring drilling rights.  In face of Stalin’s surging power and swift expansion of communism, America endeavoured to set great weight on adopting and adhering the policy of containment.  For instance, for fear of Greece falling into the orbit of communism, America aided the Greek government forces against the communists by funds and weaponry during the civil war.  At the same time, a new constitution was commenced by the orders of General MacArthur to reshape de-militarised Japan as a modern democratic state, so as to check the spread of communism in Asia.  All this unveiled the fact that distrust was already in the air between the two superpowers.

1946 was also a pivotal year in which new countries were emerged and created, and national boundaries in the map were redrawn.  The remaining old European empires, such as the British one, lost their grip on their colonies from the exhaustion of the war and their imperial heydays seemed to be gradually faded, so did their reins of power.  Long regarded as “the jewel in the crown” by the British, India was yet confirmed to be independent, and discussions were commenced for the power transfer to the Indian government for the next year, with two new independent dominions of Hindus-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.  In the other side of the globe, after Britain’s exit from Jerusalem after a fatal bombing by the Zionists in 1946, a decision was made in the United Nations to partitie of Palestine into two independent Arb and Jewish states two years later.  Regardless of the birth of new countries, alas, peace did not endure due to ongoing inter-communal conflicts between two ethnic or religious groups in India/Pakistan and Palestine throughout decades.

With engrossing inclusion of events in the early stages of the Cold War, this book indeed provides an informative account of the  events during mid-20th century that I have ever read.  However, the author would have done better to spend more pages on some significant moments that deserved more subtle analysis, for instance the Chinese civil war which marked the spreading tension of capitalist and communist blocs into Asia,  as well as the formation and functions of the United Nations.  Rather, he bombards readers with  chapters without clear categorisation of similar geographical location or events.  Despite such fly in the ointment, if you would like to further enhance your knowledge of the postwar period other than your history school textbooks, this book, painted a concise picture of the year following the World War II, has to be placed in your shelf. 

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “1946 – The Making of the Modern World” by Victor Sebestyen

    1. How cool! The title just caught my eye when I first discovered this book during the book fair in July. I eventually jotted it down, searched it in the public library and am impressed about a broad array of events covered inside. Enjoy the reading! Discussions about the content are always welcome. 🙂


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