The Fear and the Freedom

‘I was never happy in my life.’ That is how Georgina Sand, well into her 80s at the time when I interviewed her, summed herself up. ‘I never really belonged anywhere. If I’m in England I still consider myself a refugee. Even now I’m asked where I come from – I have to say to some of them that I’ve been here longer than they’ve been alive. But when I’m in Vienna I don’t feel any more like an Austrian. I feel a stranger. A sense of belonging has gone.’

From the outside, Georgina appears elegant and self-assured. Intelligent, erudite, she is never afraid to express an opinion. She is also quick to laugh, not only at the absurdities of the world, but also often at herself and at the quirks and eccentricities of her family, which she finds endlessly endearing.


She knows that she has a lot to feel thankful for. For more than fifty years she was married to her childhood sweetheart, Walter, with whom she had children, and then a grandchild, of whom she is enormously proud. She is an accomplished artist, and since the death of her husband has had exhibitions both in Britain and in Austria. She lives a life that most people would consider comfortable, in a large and stylish apartment on London’s South Bank, with a view over the River Thames towards St Paul’s Cathedral. But beneath her easy smile, beneath her accomplishments and her elegance and all the apparent comfort of her surroundings, lies a shaky foundation. ‘I have a lot of insecurities. I always have had... My life was a constant worry... For example, I was always over-anxious with my children. I was always worried that I was going to lose them or something. Even now I dream that I have lost them somewhere. The insecurity is always there... My son says there was always an undercurrent in our house – an undercurrent of unease.’

She is unequivocal about the source of this unease. It comes, she says, from the events that she and her husband experienced during the Second World War – events that she describes unashamedly as a ‘trauma’. The war changed her life massively and irrevocably, and the memory of what it did to her still haunts her today. And yet she feels an obligation to tell her story because she knows that it has affected not only her own life, but also those of her family and her community. She senses too the echoes that her story has in the wider world. The events that she lived through changed the lives of millions of people just like her throughout Europe and beyond. In its own small way, therefore, her story is emblematic of our age.


Georgina was born in Vienna at the end of 1927, at a time when the city had lost its status as the centre of an empire and was struggling to find a new identity. When the Nazis marched into Vienna in 1938, the people cheered, imagining the return of a greatness they felt they deserved. But as a Jew, Georgina had no cause to celebrate. Within days she was told to sit at the back of her classroom at school, and several of her friends said that their parents had forbidden them to speak to her. She witnessed the painting of anti-Semitic slogans on the windows of Jewish shops, and the harassment of Orthodox Jews in the street. On one occasion she saw a crowd of people gathered around some Jewish men who were being forced to lick spit from the pavement. ‘And the people around were laughing and spurring them on. It was terrible.’


Georgina’s family also had other reasons to feel anxious at the arrival of the Nazis: her father was a committed Communist, and was already under surveillance by the government. Deciding that the new environment was too dangerous, he silently disappeared – to Prague. A couple of months later Georgina and her mother followed him. Under the pretence that they were going on a picnic in the countryside they gathered a few belongings and took a train to the border, where a ‘strange-looking man’ smuggled them across to Czechoslovakia.


For the next year, the family lived together in her grandfather’s apartment in Prague, and Georgina was happy; until the Nazis arrived here as well, and the whole process began all over again. Her father once again went into hiding. To make her safe, Georgina’s mother enrolled her on a new British initiative designed to save vulnerable children from Hitler’s clutches – a program known as the Kindertransport. Her grandfather, who had been to Britain several times, told her that she was going to live in a big house, in luxury, with a rich family. Her mother told her that she would be joining her very soon. And so eleven-year-old Georgina was put on a train and sent to Britain to live amongst strangers. Though she did not know it at the time, she would never see her mother again. Georgina arrived in London on a summer’s day in 1939, full of excitement, as if she were starting a holiday rather than a whole new life. It did not take long for the excitement to wear off. The first family she was sent to was a military family in Sandhurst, who seemed cold and dour, especially the mother. ‘I think she wanted a little, cuddly girl, you know, because she had two sons. But I was always crying, because I missed my family.’


From there she was sent to live with a very old couple in a damp, dilapidated house – effectively a slum – in a poor district of Reading. ‘That’s where they dumped me. Literally dumped me. I think they must have paid this couple a bit of maintenance, but they were incapable of looking after me. I was very, very unhappy. They had a grandson who was a bully – he was a grown-up man, and he was living in the house. He tried to do unpleasant things with me... I was so scared of him.’ Over the next six months she developed boils under her arms, and grew increasingly fearful of the attentions of the man she had to share the house with. She was eventually rescued by her father, who had somehow managed to smuggle himself to Britain, and who now came and collected her. But her father could not look after her for long either because the British authorities, suspicious of German-speaking men, wanted to intern him as a potential enemy alien. So once again she was taken away to live amongst strangers, this time on the south coast of England.


So began the series of displacements that would characterise her teenage years. She was soon evacuated from the south coast because of the threat of invasion. She spent a while in the Lake District, and then at a boarding school in North Wales, before returning to London to live with her father in the autumn of 1943. She never stayed in one place for more than a year or two, and all the time she developed a fear of English people, none of whom really seemed to understand or care about her.


When the war came to an end, Georgina was 17 years old. Her greatest wish was to be reunited with her mother. She returned to Prague where she managed to find her aunt, but of her mother there was no trace. Her aunt told her of how they had all been rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Unfortunately, Georgina’s mother had been put on a transport to Auschwitz, where she had undoubtedly perished.

These events still haunt Georgina to this day: the repeated displacements, the loss of her mother, the anxiety and uncertainty of the war and its aftermath, and all the time the background threat, never fully acknowledged, of violence. Though she has lived in London since 1948, she cannot forget the ten years of continual disruption that characterised her life between the ages of 10 and 20. That this was infinitely better than the alternative is undeniable, but the thought of what might have happened to her had she stayed in Central Europe does not console her. She can’t bear to think about what happened to her family and friends who died in the concentration camps, and yet she cannot escape from thinking about them either. Even today she cannot bring herself to watch films of Jews being deported during the war for fear of seeing her mother among the victims. She is also haunted by what might have been. ‘When I go to Vienna, and when I used to go to visit my aunt in Germany and so on, I saw families – healthy, beautiful families with young kids. I don’t ski, but we sometimes went to the mountains and I watched, you know, and looked at children, all German speaking, and all hale and hearty. And I thought, I could have had a better life. I could have been with my family, growing up in a more secure environment. And certainly knowing where I belong. I never really belonged anywhere.’


My interest in Georgina’s story is threefold. Firstly, as a historian of the Second World War and its aftermath I am an inveterate collector of stories. Georgina’s story is just one of twenty-five I collected for this book, one for each chapter. Some of these stories I gathered personally through interviews or by email correspondence, others were gleaned from archival documents or published memoirs; some are from famous people, and others from people who are unknown to anyone but their family and friends. These stories are in turn just a tiny sample of the hundreds I have sifted through out of the thousands – millions – of individual stories that make up our communal history. Secondly, and more importantly, Georgina is a member of my wife’s family, and hence of my family. What she has to tell me makes sense of who my family are – their fears and anxieties, their obsessions, their longings, some of which have been transmitted silently to my wife, to me, and to our children, almost as if by a process of osmosis. No person’s story belongs exclusively to them – it is part of a web that families and communities build together, and Georgina’s story is no different. Lastly and most importantly, at least in the context of this book, there is something emblematic about her story. Like Georgina, hundreds of thousands of other European Jews – those who survived the war – were displaced from their homes and scattered across the globe. They and their offspring can be found today in every major city from Buenos Aires to Vladivostok. Like Georgina, millions of other German-speakers, perhaps as many as 12 million in total, were also uprooted and exiled from their homes in the chaotic aftermath of the war. Her story has echoes throughout Europe, but also in China, Korea and Southeast Asia, where tens of millions were likewise displaced; and in North Africa and the Middle East, where the to-ing and fro-ing of vast armies caused irreversible disruption throughout the war years. The echoes are fainter, but still recognisable, in the stories of refugees from later conflicts, such as Korea, Algeria, Vietnam, Bosnia – conflicts which also have roots in the Second World War. These stories have been passed on to the children of refugees, and to their communities – just as Georgina has shared her memories with her family and friends – and are now woven into the very fabric of nations and diasporas around the world.

The more one studies the events that people like Georgina lived through, the deeper and more widespread their consequences seem to be. The Second World War was not just another crisis – it directly affected more people than any other conflict in history. Over 100 million men and women were mobilized between 1937 and 1945, a figure that easily dwarfs the number who fought in any previous war, including the First World War. Hundreds of millions of civilians around the world were also dragged into the conflict – not only as refugees like Georgina, but also as factory workers, as suppliers of food or fuel, as providers of comfort and entertainment, as prisoners, as slave labourers, and as targets. For the first time in modern history the number of civilians killed vastly outweighed the number of soldiers – not just by millions, but by tens of millions. Four times as many people were killed in the Second World War as in the First. For every one of those people there were dozens who were indirectly affected by the vast economic and psychological upheavals that also accompanied the war.


As the world struggled to recover in 1945 entire societies were transformed. The landscapes that rose from the rubble of the battlefield looked nothing like the landscapes that had existed before. Cities changed their names, economies changed their currencies, people changed their nationalities. Communities that had been homogeneous for centuries were suddenly inundated with strangers of all nationalities, all races, and all colours – people like Georgina, who didn’t belong. Entire nations were set free, or newly enslaved. Empires fell, and were replaced with new empires, equally glorious, and equally cruel.


The universal desire to find antidotes to war gave birth to an unprecedented rush of new ideas and innovations. Scientists dreamed of using new technologies – many of them created during the war – to make the world a better, safer place. Architects dreamed of building new cities out of the rubble of the old, with better housing, brighter public spaces, and happier populations. Politicians, economists and philosophers fantasized about more equal societies, centrally planned and efficiently run for the happiness of all. New political parties, and new moral movements, sprang up everywhere. Some of these changes built on ideas that had come about as a result of earlier upheavals, such as the First World War or the Russian Revolution, and some of them were entirely new; but even some the older ideas were adopted after 1945 with a speed and an urgency that would have been unthinkable at any other time. The overwhelming nature of the war, its uniquely horrific violence and its unparalleled geographical scope had created a thirst for change that was more universal than at any other time in our history. The word that came to everyone’s lips was ‘freedom’. America’s wartime leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had spoken of four freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Atlantic Charter, drawn up with the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had also spoken of the freedom of all peoples to choose their own form of government. Communists spoke of freedom from exploitation, while economists spoke of free trade and free markets. And in the wake of the war, some of the world’s most influential philosophers and psychologists wrote of even deeper freedoms, fundamental to the human condition.


The call was taken up all over the world, even in those countries that were far away from the fighting. As early as 1942, the future Nigerian statesman Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe was demanding that liberty and justice be extended to the colonial world once the war was won. ‘Africa,’ he wrote, ‘will accept no other prize than freedom.’ Some of the most enthusiastic founder members of the United Nations were the Central and South American countries, who envisaged an international system that would see ‘injustice and poverty banished from the world’, and a new era in which ‘all nations, large and small’, would ‘cooperate as equals’. The winds of change were blowing everywhere.


According to the American statesman Wendell Willkie, the atmosphere during the Second World War was far more revolutionary than it had been during the First World War. After touring the globe in 1942, he returned to Washington inspired by the way that men and women all over the world were struggling to throw off imperialism, reclaim their human and civil rights and build ‘a new society... invigorated by independence and freedom’. It was, he said, enormously exciting, because people everywhere seemed to have a newfound confidence ‘that with freedom they can achieve anything’. But he also confessed that he found this atmosphere more than a little frightening. No-one seemed able to agree on a common goal. If they did not do so before the war was over, Willkie predicted a collapse of the spirit of cooperation that was holding the Allies together, and a return to the same discontents that had led to war in the first place.


Thus the Second World War sowed the seeds not only of a new freedom, but also of a new anxiety. As soon as the war was over people began to eye their former allies with distrust once again. Tension returned between the European powers and their colonies, between Right and Left and, most importantly, between the USA and the Soviet Union. Having only recently witnessed an unprecedented global catastrophe, people everywhere began to fear that a new, even bigger war was coming. The ‘undercurrent of unease’ described by Georgina Sand was a universal phenomenon after 1945.


In this respect, Georgina’s story in the immediate aftermath of the war is perhaps also emblematic. After peace was declared she returned to Prague in the hope of finding the sense of belonging she had lost as a child; but when she did not find it, she hoped instead that she could create it anew. She met Walter again, whom she had known as a girl, and fell in love. She got married, made friends, prepared to settle down. With all the optimism of youth, she imagined that her future could only be bright, despite the obstinate shadow that the war was still casting over her life. Even after discovering the death of her mother she truly believed that she would be able to put the misery of the war years behind her, because she wanted to move on, to reinvent herself. She wanted to be free.


Unfortunately the Czech authorities had different ideas. In 1948, when the Communists seized control, she and Walter were instructed to pledge their unquestioning loyalty to the new regime, and by extension to the Soviet superpower. Since they were not prepared to do so, they were forced to flee the country once again. Their flight was symbolic of yet another consequence of

the Second World War – the new Cold War, which saw the whole world polarised between West and East and between Right and Left. An iron curtain was drawn across the centre of Europe; revolutions, coups and civil wars broke out across the developing world. More refugees, more stories .


This book is an attempt to survey the major changes – both destructive and constructive – that took place in the world because of the war. It necessarily covers all of the major geopolitical events: the emergence of the superpowers, the start of the Cold War, the long, slow collapse of European colonialism, and so on. It also covers the great social and economic consequences of the war: the changes to our physical environment; the massive changes in living standards, in world demographics, in world trade; the rise and fall of free market controls; the birth of the Nuclear Age. But more importantly, it attempts to look beyond these events and trends to consider the mythological, philosophical and psychological effects of the war. How did the memory of bloodshed affect our relationships with one another and with the world? How did it change our view of what human beings were capable of? How did it influence our fears of violence and power, our craving for freedom and belonging, our dreams of equality and fairness and justice?


In order to dramatise these questions I have chosen to place at the heart of each chapter the story of a single man or woman who, like Georgina Sand, lived through the events of the war and its aftermath, and was profoundly affected by them. In each chapter, this individual story is used as a starting point to guide the reader towards glimpses of the wider picture that lies beyond – the story of that person’s community, their nation, their region, the whole world. This is not just a stylistic device – it is absolutely fundamental to what I am trying to express. I do not pretend that one person’s story can ever sum up the full range of experiences lived by the rest of the world; but there are elements of the universal in everything we do and everything we remember, particularly in the stories we tell each other about ourselves and about our past. History has always involved a negotiation between the personal and the universal, and nowhere is this relationship more relevant than in the history of the Second World War.


In 1945 there was a general understanding that the actions and beliefs of every individual, and by extension their memories and past experiences, concerned not only themselves but also mankind as a whole. This was an era when psychoanalysts like S.H. Foulkes and Erich Fromm were first beginning to investigate the relationship between the individual and the groups to which they belonged. ‘The basic entity of the social process,’ said Fromm in 1942, ‘is the individual... Any group consists of individuals and nothing but individuals, and psychological mechanisms which we find operating in a group can therefore only be mechanisms that operate in individuals.’ Sociologists and philosophers of the time were also exploring the way that the individual is reflected in the whole, and vice versa: ‘In fashioning myself, I fashion man,’ said Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of 1945, and many of his fellow existentialists were keen to draw universal conclusions from the events that they had witnessed during the war.


Of course, I am aware that the stories people tell do not always reflect the absolute truth. Stories told by survivors of the war are notoriously unreliable. Facts get forgotten, or misremembered, or embellished. People’s opinion of themselves or their deeds can change quite dramatically; and, when they do, they can be backdated and inserted into their stories as if they had always thought that way. But nations and societies also act like this. The myths and downright lies we have told ourselves over the decades since the Second World War are just as important in forming our world as the truths ever were. It is the historian’s responsibility to check these stories against the record of the time, and try to fashion something that is as close to the objective truth as possible. I have tried not to sit in judgement of the individuals whose stories I tell, even when I do not personally agree with them. Instead, since this is a global history, I have reserved my criticism for those instances where our collective emotions have got the better of us and led us to remember

things, collectively, in a way that is entirely contradictory to the evidence. Thus the individual stories are exactly that – stories. It is in the way that they interact with the collective narrative that ‘story’ ends, and history begins. I have tried to include case studies from all around the world, and from a variety of political perspectives, some of which are far from my own liberal, Western point of view. There are stories here from Africa and Latin America, as well as from Europe, North America and Asia, because these regions were also deeply affected by the war. Nevertheless, there is a higher proportion of stories from the parts of the world that were directly involved in the fighting, because they undoubtedly experienced greater changes as a consequence of the war. There are more stories from the USA than anywhere else. This is not out of my own Western bias – or, at least, not only because of that – but because it reflects the balance of power that emerged from the war: like it or not, the twentieth century was called the ‘American century’ for a reason. Japan also features heavily in the opening part of the book, because I feel that its symbolic importance is under-represented in Western narratives of the war. The reader will also notice that there are more stories here from those who held Leftist political views than from those on the Right. Once more, this is deliberate. In global history, 1945 was probably the high water mark for the Left – those with socially progressive ideas, even openly Communist ideas, dominated the political agenda like they never have since. But I am a firm believer that nobody is entirely consistent in their political beliefs, and I have included stories of people who underwent dramatic changes in their beliefs as a result of their experiences, both from Right to Left, and from Left to Right.


Finally, it is important to say that this book is supposed to be at least a little bit challenging. In the following pages the reader will find many things he recognises from his experience of the world around him, but also, hopefully, some things that he will find unfamiliar, perhaps even alienating. In today’s echo-chamber world, where more and more of us are exposed only to those points of view that chime closely with our own, it is more important than ever to have our views challenged occasionally, and to allow ourselves to be open to that challenge. The world looks very different when considered from the viewpoint of a soldier or a civilian, a man or a woman, a scientist or an artist, a businessman or a trade unionist, a hero, a victim or a criminal. All of these points of view are represented in the following pages. But I would urge the reader to approach this book rather with the eyes of an outsider – a refugee – whose own pre-conceptions must be put temporarily to one side if the context of what follows is to be understood. I myself have struggled with this. Historians can be just as prejudiced as anyone else, and in the following pages I have tried to be honest about some of my own preconceived ideas and beliefs. Once or twice, as in the chapter on postwar European nationalism, I have taken the difficult decision to put my own fears and longings under the spotlight. I would urge the reader occasionally to do the same.


A historian is also a kind of refugee: if the past is another country, it is one to which he can never return, no matter how enthusiastic his efforts to recreate it. I embarked upon this book knowing that it could only ever be a blurred representation of the bright new world that emerged from the ashes of 1945, which in any case was always too vast to be contained comfortably between the covers of a single volume. I can only hope that the fragments I have found and glued together will inspire readers to explore further, and fill in some of the wider cracks and omissions for themselves. But then, in many respects, this book is not really about the past at all. It is about why our cities look the way they do today, why our communities are becoming so diverse, and why our technologies have developed in the way that they have. It is about why nobody believes in Utopia any more, why we champion human rights even as we undermine them, and why there is such despair over the possibilities of ever reforming our economic system. It is about why our efforts at world peace are so punctuated by violence, and why our countless quarrels and civil conflicts still have not been resolved despite decades of politics and diplomacy. All of these issues and more fill our newspapers on a daily basis, and have their roots in the Second World War.


Above all else, this book is about the eternal conflict between our desire to unite with our neighbours and allies, and our simultaneous desire to keep ourselves separate – a conflict that was played out on a worldwide scale in the aftermath of the Second World War, and which continues to inform our personal and communal relationships today. Our nature, but also our history, keeps us in an ambiguous space that is neither entirely inside nor outside our communities. Like Georgina Sand, none of us can truly say that we belong.







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