Anarchic Interregnum

Ian Buruma’s Year Zero deftly tells the story of 1945: the year the modern world began

Books History
Life among the ruins: A mother walks her children to school in Berlin, 1945

As a British baby-boomer (blissfully unaware of the phrase) I grew up in the afterglow of  World War II. It had been the formative experience of my parents, one who endured the Blitz and the loss of a sister to a V-1, the other a soldier who fought the Germans and the Japanese. All the adults around me seemed to have had similar experiences and shared a pragmatic optimism about the future, tempered by awareness of fallible human nature and, particularly, of the totalitarian threat.

One of the strengths of Year Zero is that it springs from Ian Buruma’s personal connection with that pivotal year of 1945. His father Leo, a Dutchman from Nijmegen, worked as a forced labourer in Germany, survived the Allied bombing, near-execution by Soviet liberators, starvation and serious illness. Leo returned to Nijmegen — wrecked during the Allied drive to Arnhem the previous year — and by September had resumed his place at university, with its fraternities and drinking clubs. He was 22 years old.

Year Zero‘s scope is immense, encompassing the devastating lurch from total war through celebration, revenge, occupation, dislocation, reconstruction and ultimately to the postwar order — mostly benign in the West, totalitarian in Eastern Europe. Buruma brilliantly builds his canvas with many layers of personal anecdote and acute observation. The early chapters describe an anarchic interregnum which the victorious armies struggled to cope with. In many cases they made it worse: the Red Army in particular extracted a horrible revenge on the prostrate (literally, in the case of the women) German population. The appalled liberators of the concentration camps inadvertently killed many survivors by feeding them food their shrivelled digestive tracts couldn’t absorb.

The victors avoided the mistakes they had made after World War I: they did not try to extract reparations from a broken and defeated enemy, and they struggled, sometimes to comic effect, to find ways to re-educate them — “to civilise the brutes”.

For most people in the defeated nations life was desperate. There were several million displaced persons in Germany, many of them slave labourers like Buruma père, others fleeing before the Soviet tide. Women, when not being raped, could at least sell their bodies. Men generally had less to offer, though enormous black markets sprang up everywhere which gave some scope to the fleet of foot. There was a symbiosis between well-meaning Allied relief efforts and the new gangsters.

Germans and Japanese had to come to terms not only with their defeat but with the realities of the immediate past. Oddly, this seems to have been easier in Japan, where there was wide revulsion against the raw militarism that had left the nation a broken wreck. It may have helped also that postwar Japan was firmly an American responsibility, and that responsibility lay with one man: General Douglas MacArthur, who had the right mixture of vanity, self-belief and determination to make the Japanese dance to a new and partly progressive tune.

In both the defeated Axis nations, the conquerors had to make decisions about whom to punish and whom to rehabilitate. Nuremberg and some high profile Japanese trials apart, the Allies soon accommodated themselves to the reality that they needed to employ former enemies with questionable wartime records if they were going to rebuild effectively.

Amid the overwhelming human wreckage, the surviving Jews found themselves in the most poignant position. Those who had endured the camps were often told to keep their heads down and get on with their lives. It is no wonder that Zionism and the promise of an independent Israel loomed ever larger.

Jewish migration to Mandate Palestine was a particular challenge for the British, who faced an impossible balancing act around the world: the duty to restore order while adapting themselves to their post-imperial role, especially in the light of the overwhelming Labour victory in July 1945.

British and American troops often found themselves in equivocal positions. The forced expulsion, to certain death in the USSR, of Cossacks and other Soviet vassals who had fought for Germany tortured many consciences in the summer of 1945. Like Germans before them, Allied troops “were only following orders”: but these orders had been formulated by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. This was realpolitik of the most bitter kind, forced on Western leaders by the need to placate the Soviets. And, however shameful, it was horribly eclipsed by what was beginning to unfold across Communist-occupied Eastern Europe.

The Germans had fought to the bitter end, but the Japanese surrender, after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, left huge swathes of Asia and the Pacific still occupied by their forces. The Americans did not wish to police former European colonies, and left Malaya, Indochina and Indonesia to the British. American policy was anti-imperialist, and they gave little or no material support.

Here Buruma’s narrative fails to convince. He refers briefly and slightingly to British efforts to restore the colonial power in Indochina and Indonesia. For a Dutchman, his account of the events in Java is both thin and inaccurate, and ignores the pressing need to locate and succour hundreds of thousands of military and civilian prisoners.

Buruma largely ignores the events in Soviet-occupied Europe, for which you would need to read Anne Applebaum’s excellent Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. He leaves the high-level diplomacy until the very end, to some extent stripping these tens of millions of extraordinary human stories of context. But they are extraordinary stories nevertheless, and they are deftly told. This was how the modern world began, with a great cacophony of bangs and whimpers, and Buruma brilliantly captures the echo.