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Ushering in a New Age

Anu Kumar ( is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink, translated from Swedish by Fiona Graham, New York: Other Press, 2017; $16.99 (Kindle edition).

In the subcontinent’s history, the year 1947 is a seminal marker. From a wider perspective, however, 1947 appeared a year the world seemed too fatigued after World War II; the task of remaking had scarcely begun. By way of argument, 1945 might be the more significant year, as Ian Buruma elucidates in his book, Year Zero: A History of 1945. This was a year marked by several changes: a time of hope, transformation, and new challenges. A year, Buruma’s own father, captured in Holland by the Nazis and forced to work as a labourer in Berlin, sought a return to “normalcy.”

Åsbrink’s non-fictional work, 1947: Where Now Begins, first published in Swedish in 2016 and now available in its English translation by Fiona Graham, is, like Buruma’s, set in the span of an entire year and is a work of equal ambition. For all its unvarying insistence on dates and facts, 1947: Where Now Begins, also has a surprising poignancy. In an earlier work, translated as And in the Vienna Woods, the Trees Remain (Elisabeth Åsbrink, Och i Wienerwald står träden kvar [Stockholm, Natur & Kultur, 2011]), Åsbrink had revealed the Nazi past of Ikea’s Swedish founder, Ingvar Kamprad, who died recently.

Written in diary form, 1947 offers a chronological look at worldwide events, interspersed with tales of love, longing and hope. If 1945 was the year of new beginnings and idealism, in 1947, in very many ways, the divide between good and evil was made clearer than ever before. As in the 12 subsequent military tribunals in Nuremberg, where, despite the growing differences among Allied powers, Nazi war criminals were tried by American prosecutors. Of special significance in 1947 was the trial of several Nazi regime doctors convicted for multiple war crimes, especially the conducting of “scientific experiments” on their victims, “without the latter’s consent”—words that would lead to their conviction. The trial began later that year also of the Einsatzgruppen—officers of the Schutzstaffel (SS) death squads—who were responsible for the deaths of millions in eastern Europe, including Jews, and those the Nazis classified as dangerous or seen as opponents, that is, communists, partisans, the Roma, homosexuals, and others.

Naming Evil

There were those, who despite opposition, persisted in their insistence that the evil that had occurred could neither be forgotten nor forgiven. For instance, the Hungarian-born American lawyer, Benjamin Ferencz, whose discovery of Nazi-era files relating to the Einsatzgruppen led to criminal proceedings against the latter, at Nuremberg. And Raphael Lemkin, who gave up everything, and worked tirelessly towards the recognition of “genocide,” a term he coined to describe what Winston Churchill had referred to as “a crime without a name.”

Åsbrink’s personal story appears towards the middle of the book, in actual mid-year. In 1947, in a camp for rescued Jewish children in Ansbach, Åsbrink’s father, a 10-year old survivor of Nazi war crimes in Hungary—chiefly committed by the Einsatzgruppen—was faced with a momentous decision: A choice to live in Budapest, the city that had already claimed his father and grandmother, or the promised land of Palestine.

Power, Partition and Pain

In early 1947, war-ravaged and bankrupted Britain’s loss of imperial grandeur came with immense consequences for the regions it had dominated. In the space of only a week, in February 1947, Britain’s government made these momentous decisions, as Åsbrink details:

On Tuesday, February 18, Great Britain relinquishes responsibility for Palestine.

On Thursday, 20 February, the Prime Minister Clement Attlee, announces that the British will be granting India independence.

On Friday, February 21, the Americans are informed that Great Britain will no longer be supporting Greece and Turkey as it did in the past.

The empire is collapsing. The country that once wielded world dominion is now relinquishing it.

The United Nations (UN), on Britain’s request, soon took on the “Palestine question” formally. Yet, even before, several hundred survivors, and émigrés had already begun their journey towards Palestine—“the promised land.” On the ground, in West Asia, it was a far more complicated picture, and Åsbrink’s narrative offers the starkest and most necessary indications.

It is a story whose contours are now broadly familiar: of proposals made, rejected, and the still secret ones framed in the corridors of power. 1947, details and lingers, more than any other event of this year, on the debates, the machinations and power struggles, the diplomatic overtures and the many human dramas that made up the Palestine question. The Arab League—the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini (with his Nazi sympathies) and leaders of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan—had already made their opposition clear to any UN-proposed solution, accusing it of bias.

Jewish paramilitary groups orchestrated attacks on British forces and on Palestinian villages, that would prompt an exodus beginning later in 1947; the Deir Yassin massacre of Palestinian civilians and villagers, would happen the very next year. The two-nation state is still routinely touted as a solution by the world’s leaders, who look on as violence continues unabated in the region. As it does in Kashmir.

Then and Now

On 22 October 1947, Åsbrink writes, the first war over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan; two nations created the same year. In her acknowledgements, Åsbrink cites Stanley Wolpert’s 2006 book, Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, as her main source for the subcontinent’s history; a book that lingers far too much—and Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins, does as well—in almost a Larry Collins–Dominique Lapierre-like way, on the ambitions of key players, while glossing over the failure of state machinery, and the terrible human tragedies of the partition.

The latter is dismissed in a somewhat stark, visceral manner in Åsbrink’s book, with quite deliberate rhyme and repetition.

Villages are raided and torched. Trains are attacked and passengers stabbed. Streams of refugees are attacked.

And again:

Women are abducted and raped. Women are abducted and their breasts cut off. Their noses and arms are cut off. ... Women are abducted, at least 75,000 of them, and subjected to sexual violence to weaken the group they belong to, to humiliate.

1947 saw other movements too, those driven by the desire to escape, and made in secrecy. The Swedish far-right figure, Per Engdahl, aided by former Nazi official, Johann von Leers, organised the secret move of wanted Nazi men to Argentina. It was Engdahl and other Fascists, from elsewhere in Europe, who would meet that same year in Malmö, Sweden, to begin the determined resurrection of the far right.

Of New Beginnings

1947 was also the year of enduring love, when Simone de Beauvoir travelled to the United States on a lecture trip and quite by happenstance, fell in love with the writer Nelson Algren. She also began work on, arguably her most famous book, The Second Sex. War survivors found a language, and a way to tell their story. Åsbrink tells a few such stories. Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, found a publisher; Paul Ancel gave himself a new name, and looked for ways to write poetry in German, which was not just his native language but also that of his Nazi oppressors. George Orwell, racked with ill-health, began work on 1984, a work of amazing prescience.

In New York, the genius of Thelonious Monk—who inspired Charlie “The Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others—was made known to a wider world when the journalist William Gottlieb wrote about Monk in Down Beat. Science and technology straddled new worlds. Grace Hopper began work on the programming language, COBOL; UFOs (unidentified flying objects) were reported-ly sighted in Oregon and Mikhail Kalashnikov made his final improvements on the assault rifle that would bear his name. The “AK-47” would, in time, become popular among armies and insurgents worldwide.

But a year can still miss much, as is inevitable in a book that packs in much detail otherwise. There are places that have fallen off Åsbrink’s map of 1947. The war in China between the Communists led by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang began, and France found an implacable, resolute force in the Viet Minh.

Åsbrink often brings up symbols that mark time. The father of Hassan al-Banna—who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo that year—was a clockmaker, and the latter liked taking clocks apart. In Budapest, the Nazis broke every clock they found in the Jewish households they forcibly entered. When Jews went to their deaths, they were asked to remove their watches and other valuables. This could be almost self-mockery on Åsbrink’s part; a year, after all, is of little significance in time’s relentless march. But as Åsbrink details some key events over days in 1947: When Now Begins, she also makes us ask, if “now” could have “begun” any other way.



Updated On : 11th Jun, 2018


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