1946: The Making of the Modern World

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9781101910283: 1946: The Making of the Modern World

Nineteen forty-six is the year that would signal the beginning of the Cold War, the end of the British Empire, and the beginning of the rivalry between the United States and the USSR. Victor Sebestyen reveals the year’s events by chronologically framing what was taking place in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, with seminal decisions made by heads of state that would profoundly change the old order forever. The map of Eastern Europe would be redrawn, Chinese communists would gain decisive victories in their fight for power, and the world would witness the birth of Israel. 1946 was a year of seismic and dramatic events.
 
Drawing on personal testimonies and new archival research, Sebestyen has written a vivid and compelling narrative that brilliantly evokes the beginning of the Cold War set against a devastated landscape of dystopian horrors.

(With 16 pages of black-and-white photographs.)

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About the Author:

VICTOR SEBESTYEN was born in Budapest. Newspapers he has worked for include The Times (London), The Daily Mail, and the London Evening Standard. Sebestyen has written for many American publications, including The New York Times. He was an associate editor at Newsweek.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
‘I’m Tired of Babying the Soviets’


The coup had been almost bloodless. On 15 December 1945, the new Prime Minister of the People’s Government of Azerbaijan had just announced his first proclamation to a bemused people, from his capital, Tabriz, in north-west Iran. Henceforth, he declared, his fledgling nation would cease to be a province of Iran, ruled by a distant and ‘alien’ shah in Tehran. It would become an autonomous republic. Rather than Farsi, the Turkic dialect spoken by most Azeris would now be the official state language. A new constitution would guarantee freedoms long suppressed by Iran’s autocratic rulers. The banks would be nationalised. There would be ‘a job for everybody who wants one’. Peasants would be given land expropriated from big absentee landlords in a far-reaching socialist revolution.
Ja’far Pishevari was an unlikely nationalist firebrand much less communist dictator. At fifty-two, this stocky, good-natured PM had been a journalist most of his life, and a low-level Comintern agent, apart from the nine years he had spent in an Iranian prison for ‘subversion’. Most of his family had lived in the USSR for years; one of his brothers was a doctor in the Red Army. Pishevari had been relatively unknown until 1944, except as the author of a few fiery articles promoting Azeri nationalism. His story became a brief cause célèbre among the left/liberal intelligentsia in Tehran when he won election to the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, but was barred from taking his seat by the Shah’s government. He returned to obscurity, then to his own amazement, let alone that of anyone else, he was handpicked by Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader in the Kremlin, to be front man for the new order in a strategic part of central Asia, bordering the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
 
In Marco Polo’s time Tabriz had been one of the largest cities in the world, the principal gateway to the Orient – ‘a great city of beautiful gardens . . . exceptionally positioned for merchants,’ as the Venetian traveller described it. After Tamerlane sacked it in 1392, history and other potential conquerors passed by Tabriz for several hundred years. In the middle of the twentieth century it was a dusty, sleepy town of some 110,000 mostly poor artisans, traders and subsistence farmers. The gardens were long gone. A few grand buildings stood amidst the mud huts and general squalor. Now this backwater was centre stage again. If the Cold War can be said to have started anywhere, Tabriz is the place. Over the next few weeks, only a few people at the highest levels in Washington, London and Moscow knew how very close the world came to the start of a new war.
 
Pishevari established himself in the biggest and grandest of the remaining buildings – an enormous, if ugly, palace that had once belonged to an Iranian provincial governor. He held court in a vast reception room decorated in gilded eighteenth-century French style. Soviet troops stood guard outside the door. ‘He looked deceptively unlike a ruthless communist gauleiter,’ a visitor recorded. ‘He stood about five feet five inches, had steely grey hair and a small brush moustache under a sharp hook nose . . . [he wore] a shiny blue serge suit and a collared shirt frayed at the cuffs and noticeably soiled at the collar, which was buttoned but tieless. His hands were the rough hands of the peasant and the fingernails were dirty.’
 
Western diplomats agreed that the real power in the new state belonged to the diminutive, smartly dressed Mohammed Biriya, a sinister figure in his mid-forties who had done much to foment revolution as head of the Society of Friends of the USSR. Formerly, Biriya had been a talented professional flautist and leader of the Tabriz street cleaners’ union. Officially, his title was Minister of Propaganda but, more importantly, he ran the secret police, whose members were trained by Russian advisors from the NKVD. They had been arresting opponents for the last few days, roughing up well-known anti-communists and other potential opponents.
 
Three days earlier, members of Pishevari’s ragbag People’s Army had taken over the police stations in Tabriz and the sur­rounding area, the central post office and the radio station, the classic revolutionary targets, and blocked all principal roads into the city. But the coup could not have succeeded without help from outside. There were between thirty and fifty thousand Soviet troops in or near Tabriz. Without firing a shot, one Russian detachment surrounded the Iranian army headquarters on the outskirts of the city and disarmed the garrison. The central gov­ernment in Tehran despatched a small relief column, but it was halted on the main road between the two cities when confronted by a far stronger Soviet force as it reached the border of the ‘rebel’ province. The commander turned his soldiers back.
 
The Soviets claimed they were aiding freedom-loving Azeris, many of whom had family connections in the USSR, and had intervened ‘to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.’ But it was a lie. Amidst the strictest secrecy in order to maintain plausible deniability, the Russians had begun planning the takeover in the summer of 1945. The proof emerged only five decades later, after the USSR fell apart. Officials from Baku, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, and in Moscow, organised the coup meticulously and financed it. Stalin personally gave the go-ahead and later was made aware of every significant detail. The Soviet spy chief, Lavrenti Beria, was in nominal charge of the operation from Moscow, but the nuts and bolts would be the responsibility of the local Communist Party boss in Baku, Mir Bagirov.
 
The strategy had been decided in Moscow on 6 July, at a meeting of senior Soviet magnates who authorised Bagirov to ‘organise a separatist movement . . . which would agitate for an autonomous Azerbaijani province’. It named Pishevari as leader of the new organisation, which Kremlin officials insisted should be called the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, the ADP, in a crude and pointless effort to make it look different from the Communist Party, the Tudeh. Funds were provided, reasonably generous sums given the dire condition of the post-war Soviet economy. The ADP launched a newspaper that avoided socialist agitprop but was designed to fuel ethnic tensions.
 
The ADP was supplied with weapons to arm a partisan group of around 3,000 fighters, which would later form the core of a People’s Army. But Kremlin officials insisted that ‘the equipment must be of foreign make’ to hide its origins. Pishevari was given a million US dollars in convertible currency, a large sum for Moscow at the time. By the end of November, the ADP proudly reported to the Kremlin that it had assembled thirty units of a hundred men each, supplied with 11,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns, 2,000 grenades and more than a million rounds of ammunition ‘ready to fight whoever stood in the way of . . . autonomy for Azerbaijan.’
 
The takeover mystified Iranian Azeris, most of whom were unconcerned with nationalism. Poverty, the rapacity of absentee landlords, and the scarcity of water were more pressing concerns, as Moscow was told by its own agents and military on the ground. Iranian rulers, including the former Shah, had periodically tried to ban the Turkic language, which was deeply resented. But the laws were invariably disobeyed. Over the centuries the various ethnic groups in Iran had gotten along together reasonably well with no serious bloodshed. The Russians, though, were feared by all the region’s ethnic groups, not only the Azeris. True, the rulers in Tehran were distant and cared little for Azeri feelings, but at least they were fellow Muslims. Apart from a small number of communists and ultra-nationalists in Tabriz, few people felt kinship with the Azeris across the border in the USSR, who had to endure life under the godless and sinful Soviets.
 
Biriya, in particular, knew he and the Soviets faced an uphill struggle to win over hearts and minds for the ADP. Soon after the coup he resorted to traditional methods of persuasion. Tribal leaders and prominent figures brave enough to voice opposition were jailed and a few were murdered. Dissent was quickly silenced.
 
One of the few Western observers who had seen the takeover coming was John Wall, the British Consul in Tabriz. Wall had been monitoring troop movements and café talk in the bazaar and wrote a series of warning telegrams to London, to which he seldom received a response – until the coup. Now he was pessi­mistic for the future. He saw how his Soviet equivalent behaved more like a commissar in one of the Baltic states than a diplomat in a foreign country. ‘The Russians are more determined than ever to maintain their hold on the province,’ he reported in mid-December. ‘There is no railway to Tehran, but there is to Baku and that is where “autonomous” Azerbaijan is heading . . . [it] feels more like a part of Russia than of Iran.’

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