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How 1947 Changed the World

Elisabeth Asbrink’s new book looks for lessons both in counterfactuals and in post-war history.

Reg Birkett / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In uncertain times, there is always a tendency to look for a historical analogy. Does our time—with its talk of nuclear bombs, false alarms, and Russian spies—resemble a new Cold War? Or does corruption and ever-widening economic disparity mean we are in something more like the Gilded Age? Or could it be that our seemingly fragmented, fragile world is truly on the brink of a global conflict, not seen since 1939? While these analogies are terrifying, they also suggest that the challenges of the moment are in fact hardly new at all, that the sources and solutions to contemporary problems can be located in the near or distant past. That now is really a near reprise of then.

1947: WHERE NOW BEGINS by Elisabeth Asbrink
Other Press, 288 pp., $25.95

In 1947: Where Now Begins, a book that blends history and memoir, Swedish journalist Elisabeth Asbrink proposes that the state of the world today can be traced directly to this consequential year. (The titular “now” is 2016, the year the book was initially published, in Sweden.) Previous books have made similar claims about virtually every year before, during, and after World War II. But 1947 is a particularly alluring inflection point for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is when the war officially came to an end, when the peace treaties were signed in Paris. It is also when the Soviet Union unexpectedly endorsed the creation of the state of Israel, and when Secretary of State George C. Marshall laid out his economic plan for Europe. In 1947, “upon the quagmire of oblivion, the world rebuilds itself,” Asbrink writes. But the causes of destruction prove disturbingly resilient: Revisionism, fascism, and fundamentalism take on new forms, finding footholds in new corners of the world.

Newly translated by Fiona Graham, 1947 compiles fragmented scenes from across time and space, ordered more or less chronologically. The months of the year serve as chapters, cities and villages around the world as characters—the narrative begins in January, jumping from the Palestinian village of ‘Arab al-Zubayd, where a 16-year-old girl is transfixed by a magic box; to the White House, where Harry Truman feels haunted; to Rome, where Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party is reformed with a new name, the Movimento Sociale Italiano. “Soon the men will come closer together, even merge,” Asbrink writes. “The pent-up stillness of a pendulum about to strike back.”

The conviction that the past is never really past, that it is always striking back, animates Asbrink’s work. This is hardly a new or even exciting approach, nor does Asbrink present it as such. What is unusual about her book is that she creates a sense of history unfolding in real time. Asbrink presents scenes from around the world alongside one another, making for juxtapositions that are sometimes ironic, sometimes damning, and always tinged with sadness. In June 1947, for example, Asbrink moves seamlessly from New York, where Eleanor Roosevelt’s working group on human rights at Lake Success exchanges grand visions for human dignity and freedom, “thoughts that seldom touch the ground,” to Oslo, where the Nordic Insurance Congress decides that “no compensation will be provided by damage caused by atomic bombs.” On September 27, the Einsatzgruppen trial, the largest murder trial of the century, begins in Nuremberg, while in Paris, Simone de Beauvoir runs into Albert Camus on the street and he asks if she is pregnant.

“I try to assemble the year 1947 into a splintered whole. This is lunacy, but time does not leave me alone,” Asbrink writes. Her history is hardly exhaustive, expanding no further east than Delhi, where the last Viceroy of India, Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, oversees the disastrous partition of India. “In his view, the task of leading India into the next phase is analogous to the last seven minutes of a [polo] match that his team is losing,” Asbrink reports. Later, reflecting upon the thousands who died as a result of his ignorance, on the millions who had to flee their homes, Mountbatten remarked: “I fucked it up.”

1947 is based entirely upon archival materials, biographies, diaries, and interviews, as well as upon Asbrink’s own family history. She is ruthless in her selection of historical vignettes, which intently follow pivotal developments over the course of the year. British efforts to prevent Jewish immigration to Palestine become progressively more militant, while the United Nations, “still new and unfamiliar with itself,” flirts with incompetency. As George Orwell is frantically writing 1984 from his sick bed, Primo Levi is searching for a publisher, Billie Holiday, at the height of her career, is sentenced to a year in jail for drug possession, and Simone de Beauvoir is partying with Le Corbusier, Kurt Weil, and Charlie Chaplin.

Nazism proves disturbingly resilient, taking on new guises in Scandinavia and South America, where it is welcomed with open arms. The Soviet Union develops the atom bomb and the Kalashnikov, while across Europe, starvation and destruction still reign, the mass graves so shallow that they putrefy the urban air come spring. “Only through detours, unraveling threads of facts, seeking out and piecing together the events of the months that form 1947, can information be found about a time when everything seemed possible,” Asbrink writes.

To identify historical turning points is also to indulge in counterfactuals, to consider how mistakes could have avoided, how events could have taken a different shape. Counterfactuals can be intoxicating, with their pyramids of possible worlds. The bloody partitions of India and Palestine—and the ongoing conflicts they produced—might have been avoided if only Mountbatten had not been in such a rush, if only UN delegates had not bowed to bribes and threats. At times, Asbrink gets caught up in wonder, making her focus on 1947 seem arbitrary: “It might have all been different: if the First World War hadn’t broken out; if Mussolini hadn’t seized power in 1922, if al-Banna hadn’t established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.” That history would have been different is obvious, but Asbrink’s reflection nevertheless hints at a more interesting question: How far do you have to go back to get to the origins of now?

Slowly, Asbrink reveals that she chose 1947 in part because it is a personal turning point, the point at which her father, still just a child, makes a decision that will determine the course of her life. Separated from his mother in Hungary, Jozef spent the war’s aftermath at a refugee camp for Jewish orphans in Ansbach, a stone’s throw from Nuremberg. Jozef enjoys life at the camp, he makes friends who will eventually board the ill-fated Exodus and sail to Palestine, where the British will forbid them to disembark. But before all that, Jozef’s mother unexpectedly appears and offers him a choice: Would he like to return with her to Budapest or go with his friends to Palestine? “Later on, he will recall this decisive moment with resigned melancholy,” Asbrink writes. “If the ten-year-old had known what the grown man knows, the choice might have been a different one.”

Halfway through Asbrink’s tour of 1947, between June and July, memoir abruptly interrupts history. In an isolated chapter titled “Days and Death,” she begins to recount how her father managed to survive the war, how her grandmother saved his life three times, and how her husband, Asbrink’s grandfather, perished. In her family’s story, “now” does not begin in 1947, but in 1788, when Austro-Hungarian Jews were forced to take on Germanized names, only to be similarly ordered to swap them for Hungarian ones 50 years later. “The times repeat themselves. Nationalism repeats itself,” she writes. Memoir is not Asbrink’s strength. Her reflections on traumatic inheritance, on the unreliability and loss of memory, on the paucity of language for the crimes of the 20th century are often overwrought; she needlessly strains to underscore the gravity of her subject when in fact the history, riddled with ambiguities and cruel ironies, speaks for itself.

But without her short diversion into personal history, Asbrink’s work would seem incomplete. Her difficulty capturing the contingency of her father’s life, and her own, has a way of bringing author and reader closer together. We all struggle to position ourselves in history, searching, often in vain, for moments that anchor our lives in the past, for decisions, glances, gestures that meant that the course of events would proceed in one way and not another. We cling to fragments that seem to burst with meaning, only to discover that we have been misled, that we’ve jumped down the wrong rabbit hole. We search our own lives for resonances with the past, we grope for patterns to follow.

Everyone wants to know which way the world is going. But analogies tend to lead us astray—the future does not lie in the past, and now is not 1947. Asbrink’s contribution is to underscore the contingency of the post-war period, to give it a fitting form, and to show that we must learn not only from what happened, but also from everything that might have been.