1947: Where Now Begins

Elis­a­beth Åsbrink; Fiona Gra­ham, trans.

  • Review
By – January 12, 2018

The year 1947 may be remem­bered opti­misti­cal­ly for the Nurem­berg Tri­als, the Mar­shall Plan, and the Unit­ed Nations vote to cre­ate the State of Israel. In jour­nal­ist Elis­a­beth Åsbrink’s view, how­ev­er, those land­mark achieve­ments obscure the dark devel­op­ments that lay behind them.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, the Nurem­berg Tri­als were not orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to pun­ish the per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust. Åsbrink reports that the Allies most­ly want­ed to put Ger­many on tri­al for mil­i­tary expan­sion­ism. It was a young, Hun­gar­i­an-born Jew­ish pros­e­cu­tor, Ben­jamin Fer­encz, who insist­ed on try­ing the lead­ers of the Ein­satz­grup­pen, the rov­ing death squads that mur­dered over a mil­lion Jews and oth­er vic­tims in the Sovi­et Union. Mean­while, the right-wing French author Mau­rice Bardèche claimed that the evi­dence of geno­cide was a forgery, the first of many revi­sion­ist” accounts of the Holocaust.

In the months before the birth of Israel, Great Britain’s main for­eign pol­i­cy con­cern in the Mid­dle East was to main­tain friend­ly rela­tions with the Arabs. The Arab League opposed allow­ing any more Jews to enter the region, so Britain asked the mem­bers of the Unit­ed Nations to pre­vent any refugees from trav­el­ing to Pales­tine. The British also turned back the 4,000 pas­sen­gers aboard the Exo­dus, while a mil­lion Holo­caust sur­vivors lan­guished in Euro­pean refugee camps.

The cli­mac­tic U.N. vote to cre­ate a Jew­ish state in Pales­tine result­ed part­ly from back­stage maneu­ver­ing, Åsbrink finds. The Unit­ed States threat­ened to with­draw for­eign aid from sev­er­al coun­tries unless they vot­ed in favor; Haiti was promised a loan. The Unit­ed Fruit Com­pa­ny pres­sured sev­er­al Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries. The plight of the Jews was not the main con­cern for most.

Else­where, Mus­soli­ni sym­pa­thiz­ers were mak­ing com­mon cause with right-wing move­ments in Britain, Spain, and Argenti­na, while a Swede named Per Eng­dahl ded­i­cat­ed him­self to find­ing refuge for Nazi war crim­i­nals and orga­niz­ing a new fas­cist move­ment. One of its mem­bers was Jean-Marie Le Pen. In their minds the war hadn’t real­ly end­ed; it had only been dri­ven underground.

1947 also pro­vides glimpses of cul­tur­al fig­ures and trends: Dior fash­ions, the music of Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Thelo­nious Monk, the lit­er­ary romance between Simone de Beau­voir and Nel­son Algren, the Holo­caust poet­ry of Nel­ly Sachs and Paul Celan. But Åsbrink is drawn again and again to the fate of the Jews. And no won­der. Her grand­fa­ther in Hun­gary had been impris­oned by the vicious­ly anti-Semit­ic Arrow Cross Par­ty, and he died doing forced labor in Ukraine in 1943. Her father sur­vived the Budapest ghet­to, lib­er­at­ed when he was eight years old.

Åsbrink writes with a sym­pa­thet­ic voice in an acces­si­ble style, yet with an under­tone of grief. She uses an anec­do­tal for­mat rem­i­nis­cent of the news­reels” in John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Tril­o­gy, assem­bling her his­to­ry as if putting togeth­er a puz­zle piece by piece. It forms a pic­ture which reminds us, as Faulkn­er put it, that The past is nev­er dead. It’s not even past.”

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