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A Potted History




By 1945 and for the second time in the same century the world faced a daunting recovery from war. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell (The Importance of Being Earnest): ʻTo have had to fight one world war may be regarded as a misfortune; to have had to fight another looks like carelessness.ʼ


Heartily sick of warfare, people of good will among both victors and vanquished yearned for a fresh start. But first there was the bombed-out infrastructure of many cities in Britain and Europe to repair, institutions and personal lives to be rebuilt, and much forgiving to be done. The British historian Max Hastings writes:


One of the most important truths about the war, as indeed about all human affairs, is that people can interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances. The fact that, objectively and statistically, the sufferings of some individuals were less terrible than those of others elsewhere in the world was meaningless to those concerned. It would have seemed monstrous to a British or American soldier facing a mortar barrage, with his comrades dying around him, to be told that Russian casualties were many times greater. It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters. Few people who endured the Luftwaffeʼs 1940-41 blitz on London would have been comforted by knowledge that the German and Japanese peoples would later face losses from Allied bombing many times greater, together with unparalleled devastation.

[All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945; London: HarperPress; 2012; xvii]


The war of 1939-45 and its aftermath reconfigured international affairs at many levels, leading to present world conditions. Not least of these changes was the creation of Israel in 1948, a fact of history which from the outset shaped international alliances, dividing reaction between those who thought it was a good idea and those who did not, and who even now would like to wish away the fact. For the Russians, the establishment of Israel and its communal-based society offered a tantalizing prospect of a friendly socialist outpost at the heart of the oil-rich Middle East, the stamping ground of Anglo-American interests. But the Soviets were to be disappointed in this regard; Israel proved to be more akin to a Western democracy, one quite at odds in philosophy and national politics with the hostile territories surrounding it.


Back In the USSR

The Soviet Union and its allies now confronted the West and the burgeoning global power of the United States. This confrontation ranged across several fronts: ideology, politics, diplomacy, economics, military and aerospace. The prize in view was domination and control of Europe; a commensurate influence throughout the rest of the world would flow from this.


The frigid hostility between East and West hampered international co-operation; the distribution of goods and services was lopsided as a result, condemning millions in the East to a low standard of living for decades. Despite the technological successes of the Soviet space programme (Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin), Russia and its East bloc partners were backward compared to Western nations. While Soviet bureaucrats were busy making it difficult for their citizens to obtain a loaf of bread, the especially prosperous United States and its allies were enjoying an economic boom, with increasing access to ample supplies of food, improved social services, new houses and motor cars, and high-speed multi-lane roads on which to drive them. When British prime minister Harold MacMillan declared to the electorate in 1957 that ʻyouʼve never had it so goodʼ, he was right. Medical care had improved, educational opportunities were opening up for students from all backgrounds, wages were rising, and technology had brought colour television and all sorts of electrical appliances into the family home.


In international relations several institutions were set up, mainly through U.S. and allied western initiative, aimed at securing the peace, forestalling further wars, and shoring up the global financial system, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and others.


The New Faces of Revolution

The background music accompanying the early years of the social revolution came first from America in the 1950s, in the form of rock ʼn roll performed by Elvis Presley and imitators; later on from the home-grown Liverpool lads, The Beatles, and a bewildering array of pop groups. The record industry flourished. But as tastes in music and fashion shifted away from those of the pre-war years, so did the relationship of children to their parents. With the invention of the ʻteenagerʼ, advertisers began to target this new demographic set, hiving youngsters off from their elders, catering to this adolescent consumer who had pocket money at will.


Mass demonstrations seemed to spring from nowhere and everywhere, in support of, or in opposition to, a wide range of causes. Racial riots broke out in British cities assumed in the old days to be immune to such angry displays. Police were hard pressed to maintain law and order, as protesters lobbed bricks, bottles and bombs, smashed plate glass windows and torched police cars. In reaction to such events, the police adopted the now-ubiquitous riot gear, complete with shields and side-handle batons, a uniform eerily similar to that used by military and civilian police around the world.


Liberal trends took hold in schools and universities, further eroding parental and institutional authority. The growing use of recreational soft and hard drugs and consequent addiction, along with the breaking down of reserve between the sexes, whittled away at established pre-war traditions and notions of virginity and virtue and fidelity. Chastity became a dirty word. Church-going fell out of style, as faith itself came under attack from a new crop of intellectuals and from some ministers in the Church of England, who sneered at established orthodoxy. The era was a clearing house for materialistic, irreverent, and sacrilegious ideas which had been around for years, but which now found a more receptive audience in the morally lax atmosphere.


The onset of the Second World War had more or less squelched any serious threat of revolutionary overthrow in the West, as all levels of society threw their shoulders into the effort to defeat Germany and Japan, pouring millions of troops into the fray. But now every state had good reason to fear revolutionary and terrorist groups who owe allegiance only to their particular cause, and who have mastered the art of organisation through social media and hide behind encrypted communications. To maintain law and order and preserve their authority, democratic governments respond to these threats pre-emptively and vigorously, such as spying on their own citizens, introducing special powers of detention and secret trials, and other measures, including the application of deadly force.



May-June 2018. no copyright


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