Ian Buruma.  Year Zero: A History of 1945.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

I am not entirely sure how to describe Ian Buruma.  He’s a Dutch citizen based in New York, with an academic background in Asian and film studies, a journalist and an educator, and a prolific author with interests in history, foreign policy and theology.  He’d be a fascinating guy to have a beer with.    All of these interests are in play in his 2013 book, Year Zero: A History of 1945.  The title, a homage to the 1948 film Germany Year Zero by Roberto Rossellini, shows Buruma’s interest in film.

My father was a young Canadian officer in Holland when World War Two ended.   For him there was demobilization and a return to Canada and its (in comparison to Europe) unbelievable prosperity to look forward to.   Dad once told me that in the months after the war, the roads of NW Europe were full of uprooted people, known officially as Displaced Persons, trying to make their way back to whatever might remain of home.   Some still wore their striped clothing from the concentration camps.   One of them might have been Ian Buruma’s father, whose story serves as a kind of opening metaphor for the story of the book.

Buruma’s father was in Berlin when the war ended.  A student in Holland before the war, Buruma Sr. got involved in the student resistance, was captured by the Nazis, and sent to Berlin in 1943 for forced labour in a factory, making brake parts for German trains.   His lot wasn’t cushy, but despite “freezing and verminous” barracks he had some pleasures denied to concentration camp inmates.    Buruma’s father was able to attend concerts of the Berlin Philharnonic, and the factory management were probably sheltering Jews, so they were relatively benign compared to some.   He survived two years of Allied bombing and, thanks to a German couple that sheltered him, he lived through the Russian capture of Berlin.  Eventually he made it back to Holland, where there was already a spirit of get over it and an impatience with those who wanted to dwell on their suffering.  Buruma Sr. rejoined his Utrecht student fraternity, where he had to go through the hazing rituals that were interrupted by the war.   The hazing was quite brutal, and known to the students as “playing Dachau”. 

Buruma remembers being “baffled” at how his father and his generation could treat each other this way with the war still a fresh memory to them.   How could they?   To his father “it seemed normal”.   Buruma eventually came to understand that “People were so desperate to return to the world they had known before the Nazi occupation, before the bombs, the camps, and the murders, that hazing … seemed normal.  It was a way back to the way things once were, a way, as it were, of coming home.”

The theme of this book is both about how the world changed in 1945 and how, in some ways, the “reset” was really just the old normal in new packaging.   From Greece to Indonesia, Buruma tells a fascinating story of how people tried to put the world back to normal.   Some of these attempts were less successful than others.  The French in Algeria and SE Asia, the Dutch in Indonesia, and the British in the Balkans and the Middle East, tried and generally failed to put their old empires back together.   New empires were constructed, brutally and cynically by the Soviets, and, more naively, by the Americans (who unlike the Soviets had the advantage of fabulous wealth to smooth their way).   

In part this is a story of vengeance and justice, and as Buruma skillfully tells the story, vengeance (as in Greece where the left and the right followed a bloody course straight out of ancient drama) was generally easier than justice.   Some had to be executed as collaborators and war criminals, and those who were put to death sometimes did not deserve their fate.  The Japanese general Yamashita, executed for crimes committed by Japanese troops in the Philippines during the US reconquest, “certainly didn’t face a fair trial” and had no command influence on the troops doing the killing in Manila in 1945.   But, like certain collaborationist leaders such as France’s Laval, his trial and execution was a convenient way to show that justice was being done.  In reality, there were far too many to punish – industrialists, technocrats, bankers and functionaries were needed to rebuild their countries, even if they had blood on their hands.  They couldn’t all be punished, even if many of them should have been.  Some of them in Germany and Japan went on to be captains of industry and heads of state.

I was reading Year Zero just as Rwanda was marking the twentieth anniversary of its own trauma of genocide, and Buruma got me thinking about the dynamics of vengeance vs reconciliation.  There wasn’t a reconciliation process as such in 1945, as there was years later in South Africa or Rwanda.   A friend of mine who has travelled in and studied Rwanda tells me that the demands of reconciliation on everyday life can be heroic, like farmers guilty of massacres working to feed the families of those they killed, and often living with them.   Reconciliation may seem impractical or even abhorrent to some who have suffered greatly, but when guilt is social rather than individual, it may be the only way forward.   For every female collaborator who was shaved and vilified, or for every supposed fascist killed by mob violence, there may well have been far more informal arrangements to try and set aside the past.  A memorable quote from the book comes from a German Resistance member after the war had ended.

“The Fuher is dead.  If you want to live you must eat.  If you want to eat, and eat well, you’d better not be a Nazi.   So they aren’t Nazis.  Therefore they weren’t Nazis and they swear by all that’s holy that they’ve never been …  Denouncing and condemning don’t help in the perfection of men.  Help them get up when they’ve fallen.  Give them a chance to atone for their sins.   And then no more reprisals.  Once and for all.”   (Buruma 235-236)  

For someone to be able to say those words in the rubble of Europe, with so many scores to settle, would it seems to me take equal parts practicality and moral courage.

Year Zero invites other comparisons to recent history.   In some respects the role of the US in Germany, Japan and Korea is comparable to its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan sixty years later.  In both cases, a conquering military had little knowledge of the culture or language, needed malleable local leaders to make the system work, and tried to purge societies of the old order while installing pliant local leadership.  Buruma doesn’t make the comparison, but someone should write a PhD thesis comparing DeNazification or its similar policy in Japan in 1945 with DeBaathification in Iraq in the mid 2000s.  The comparison would be fascinating.

At the end of 1945, most people just wanted to get on with their lives and forget the past.   For those who were trying to build a new world order, Buruma pretty much says that their efforts were doomed, since the rivalries of what would become the Cold War were already gelled.   As new and old empires were contested, high-flown promises and lofty ideals proclaimed in the dark days of the war were now being reinterpreted and qualified.   As a British delegation member said in San Francisco in April 1945, as the Big Powers drafted what would become the UN Charter, “Our policy is to avoid guarantee of human rights, though we might not object to a declaration” (322).   The UN Charter grew out of what was already known as the Atlantic Charter, a document worked out by the Big Three (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) in 1941 that had expressed the hopes that all peoples would have the right to choose their own governments and have the right to self-determination.  The Atlantic Charter principles were well known to nationalist leaders like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Sukarno of Indonesia, and India’s Nehru.  Algerian protesters were carrying banners reading “Long Live the Atlantic Charter” when they were gunned down by their French colonial masters.   In the end, the principles of world peace and self-determination were no match for what old and new empires saw as their right to reorganize the world according to their own interests.   Polish leaders were being tortured by Stalin’s secret police during the San Francisco conference, and their fate was largely ignored, even though Polish self-determination had been the cause that started the war.   None of the big powers were willing to surrender their own prerogatives and powers to allow the constraining ideal of a true international order to emerge.  As E.B. White wrote of the San Francisco conference, under all the rhetoric was “the steady throbbing of the engines: sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty” (326).

Is this story a victory for cynicism?  Buruma would be the first to say that for many, the world after 1945 was better than it had been.  “Those of us who grew up in western Europe, or indeed in Japan, could easily take for granted what our parents had built: the welfare states, economies that just seemed to grow, international law, a “free world” protected by the seemingly unassailable American hegemon.”   Today those achievements now look decidedly shaky.  The welfare states are fiscally bankrupt and ideologically forsaken, the prosperity that my parents’ generation enjoyed is now in full reverse, and the Pax Americana now looks uncertain and unsustainable.  However, as Buruma says we can still “pay tribute to the men and women who were alive in 1945, to their hardships and to their hopes and aspirations, even though many of these would turn to ash, as everything eventually does” (333).






0 Responses

  1. A very intresting review, specially putting the book in the current historiacal context. One for my wish list at Amazon but looking forward to read pretty soon, I guess as yoiu have awoken my interest

  2. I think looks to the failures and successes of the past are of service as the world continues to be re-organized.