The year our reality was born

Opinion - Books Wednesday, 04 October 2017

Elisabeth Asbrink, award-winning Swedish journalist, talks to BookBrunch about her new book 1947, rights for which have been bought in 12 countries


Why was 1947 such a critical year in the post-war era?
Elisabeth Asbrink: In the year of 1946 there was one reality, but by 1948 there was our reality. The shift took place in 1947. Ideas and morals, politics and literature - they all turned into our present. That year saw the creation of human rights, modern feminism, the contemporary concept of jihad. But also jazz, poetry, the critique of totalitarianism and the idea of leaving nationalism behind. At the same time new nations such as Pakistan and Israel were formed. It was an extremely decisive time, but also very open. No one could have predicted that there would be two Germanies, with two capitals and two citizenships, for instance. The future was open.

You've chosen a vast canvas. How difficult was it to organise your material?
Elisabeth Asbrink: I have worked for years as an investigative journalist and I drew on those skills for this book; going to the archives, checking sources and trying to verify them as far as possible. Of course in writing this book I'm standing on the shoulders of giants, drawing on the work of brilliant historians. But I myself am not a historian, and so I could choose my themes very subjectively. As an investigative journalist I work systematically, but as an author I work associatively. Somewhere in between I made my choices for 1947.

Was the majority of phenomena you've identified as belonging to the new age to be welcomed or deplored?
Elisabeth Asbrink: Fantastic things happened. Thelonious Monk's jazz laid the base of new jazz, and with it hip hop. Eleanor Roosevelt led the work of creating universal human rights, for the first time in history. The world of 1947 was dedicated to building a new moral ground for humanity so that something like the war and its millions of murders never ever could happen again. And they succeeded. Today, individuals have better rights, minorities have better rights, we live in a world where a crime like genocide can be punished. That wasn't the case before 1947.

From a parochially British point of view, what events of 1947 are of particular interest?
Elisabeth Asbrink: There is one particular week in February 1947 which I could have written a whole book about. On Tuesday 18 February, Great Britain relinquished responsibility for Palestine. On Thursday 20 February, the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, announced that the British would be granting India independence. On Friday 21 February, the Americans were informed that Great Britain would no long be supporting Greece and Turkey as it did in the past. Within that week, three major chain events were set in motion with consequences that reach far into our present. An almost incomprehensible week.

The consensus from this year's retrospectives is that the British made a tragic mess of the Partition of India. Would you agree?
Elisabeth Asbrink: You could say that. Lord Mountbatten, the last Indian viceroy, was put in charge of the independence process in 1947, and even he later admitted that he "fucked it up".

Your book is of course non-fiction; but have you tried to bring to it some of the techniques of fiction?
Elisabeth Asbrink: Nowadays I mostly read non-fiction and poetry. When I was planning this book I asked myself if there was a way to combine the two. To write about facts - checked and checkable - but in a poetic language. Is it possible to reach further, to create an undercurrent of empathy, by using a language other than the academic or journalistic one that we are accustomed to? This book is my attempt to answer that question.

Do you see this book as related in themes to your previous works?
Elisabeth Asbrink: When one has the trauma of the Nazi genocide in one's immediate family - my father almost didn't survive in Budapest during the war, my grandfather was brutally murdered - underlying sorrow is a constant in one's writing. The same goes for the drive to understand how a democratic society should deal with antidemocratic ideologies.

In my first book I wrote about Sweden's most acclaimed playwright, Lars Noren, and the play he wrote in cooperation with three criminals. Two of them were Nazis, and the day after the last performance, one of them committed a bank robbery and murdered two policemen. It was a huge scandal that needed to be investigated. My second book was based on over 500 letters from the parents of a Austrian Jewish boy, who was sent to Sweden in 1939 in order to escape Nazi persecution. His parents were murdered and the boy remained in Sweden, where he became a close friend to Ingvar Kamprad, the IKEA founder. In fact, he played a part in IKEA's birth.

In a previous book, you revealed the dark past of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad. What was the reaction in Sweden to your discoveries?
Elisabeth Asbrink: Ingvar Kamprad has an iconic status all over the world, but when I found the Secret Police file on him I discovered that in 1943 he was a member of the hard core Nazi party in Sweden (SSS). It became a world-wide news story. It was a controversial discovery; in Sweden a lot of people thought I was cruel to reveal this about a guy who had done more for Sweden's image abroad, and who had created more jobs, than I ever would. Their view was that I ought to shut up. Others were deeply concerned and have boycotted IKEA ever since.

IKEA tried to make the story go away, but as I had the documents to prove it, they gave up and instead made a huge donation to the UN, achieving good publicity to cover the bad. It kind of worked.

Elisabeth Asbrink is the author of 1947: When Now Begins, published by Scribe on 9 November (£16.99). She will visit the UK at publication.

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