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4.3 out of 5 stars
Year Zero: A History of 1945
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 2014
I first encountered Ian Buruma's writing in 'Wages of Guilt' which I found intelligent and original so I looked forward to this book.

The author shows in 'Year Zero: A History of 1945' the many shades of grey that governed human behaviour when the victors came to dwell with the liberated and the vanquished. The realities of living in damaged or broken societies did not always lead to best behaviour as the new masters, both individuals and as nations, exploited the power wrought by military success. For a book whose subject matter often makes grim reading, its author incorporates historical information into his narratives without overburdening them and writes with humanity but without sentimentality. He succeeds in relating his stories of individual men and women caught up in the maelstrom of war whilst providing context and analysis of the bigger picture.

Buruma attempts to explore thematically, rather than chronologically, the various emotions of the liberated; those enslaved at Belsen, French women enjoying the post-war night life, a rare German anti-Nazi aware of the self-pity of her fellow Berliners. There is joy, there is sex, there is fear, sometimes there is revenge - often encouraged by the liberators - more rarely, mercy. People, especially those in the newly occupied Germany and Japan, survived as best they could, many moral certainties being overturned in the face of starvation. Prostitution, both male and female, flourished in occupied Japan despite the highly controlled and hierarchical society which had gone before.

There were positives. Ostensibly the war been fought for freedom from tyranny and self-determination and a more equal society. The summer of 1945 saw British electors usher in a Labour government in the hope of new beginnings in welfare and housing. The earliest signs of post-war French-German economic co-operation may be found here. Less preacefully, in North Africa and the Far East, the downfall of the old elites led to great expectations of political change. Attempts by former rulers to return as though nothing had happened were resisted. The subject peoples wanted the wartime promises to apply to themselves as well as sovereign nations. Buruma brings us news from the Philippines and Indonesia of the confused nature of political situation.

In Germany, central and eastern Europe and Japan the new masters attempted to create societies based on liberal democracy or the communist system. The relations between the formerly Allied governments deteriorated due to the lack of a common enemy and the new superpowers,the US and the Soviet Union, began to flex their muscles as the Cold War came nearer to reality. The practicalities of administering the defeated was a mixture of long-term planning and reaction to circumstance; combining high ideals and necessary compromise. For example, whilst minor Nazi officials needed to run their localities did not usually face punishment; leading Nazis were imprisoned pending trial before being accused of new crimes against the international community.

Buruma offers much food for thought and he attempts to be balanced in his discussion of right and left in Europe and the rest of the world. This is a book that will please general reader and academic alike and shows how delight at freedom and liberation could go in hand with fear and new inequalities and injustices. Not everything is new but there is enough to make you want to read on and learn more about Year Zero - 1945
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
This latest book of Ian Burama is a vivid and compelling account of the year 1945, the year when the scourge of Nazism was defeated. The standard view of that year is one of relief and joy, of triumph and peace. Burama shows us this view is wrong.
He is the author of some 22 books, for example Occidentalism; Anglomania; and Taming the Gods. All have been acclaimed.

In this book he opens with a very apt quote from Walter Benjamin's 'Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History'. It describes the angel of history perceiving a single catastrophe when he looks into the past. It is a riveting depiction of what we term progress. The author tells us how he was intrigued by his father's experience of WW2.
The family lived in Nijmegen in east Holland where the disatrous Arnhem battle took place in 1944. His father was arrested and taken to a nasty concentration camp where 'Dutch thugs were trained by the SS in the savage techniques of their trade'. He was later sent to a workers camp and then to work in a Berlin factory that made brakes for trains. While there he experienced the day and night bombing by the combined bomber force. What made his son curious after the war ended was 'How did the world emerge from the wrekage'. How, he wondered did people retrieve a sense of normality. Surely, he thought, it is an illusion to think we can cast aside the horrors of the past.

Ian points out, however, that governments all over the world did hold this illusion after 1945. He demonstrates how in many cases the people prevented a return to the 1930's, for example women refused. Stalin used brute force to prevent many East European states from returning to normalcy. Burama says he is not sure that history can teach us a great deal, in the sense that it will prevent us from making similar errors again. He rightly adds that 'History is all a matter of interpretation'. Often the wrong interpretations are far more dangerous than ignorance.

Ian tells how in 1945 many people acted terribly. As a result some suffered worse than during the war. Savagery was commonplace. For example, pogroms took place in Poland of Jews who had survived the horrors of the camps. He reminds us that camp inmates attacked their German nurses after they were freed, 137 SS officers had their manhood delberately destroyed by their American interrogators, starvation was appalling among the thousands of refugees, and of towns that had become places where the inhabitants ate rats and insects. He gives us an astonishing quote by the Chief Rabbi of Britain. He said referring to the condition of Jews in Poland that their conditions had been: 'more humane than anywhere else'.

Burama believes that to view the war as a fight between villains and victors is too simplistic. He believes there were villains on botht sides. He mentions, as have others like Burleigh, that collaborators in France, Holland an elsewhere were guilty of many serious crimes. He informs readers that in Year Zero these collaborators swapped sides with great ease. He also reminds us that many profited from the war, for example black-marketeers. In short, contrary to many accounts, victory brought not only peace and joy but also much that was very nasty.

Many other books have tackled this subject in recent years, for example books by Burleigh, Jude and Applebaum. Like those this one does not cover all countries-Sweden, Norway, India, the Balkan states, and those unfortunates that fell under Soviet domination are not included here. Nevertheless, this is a book that all interested in facts rather than fiction ought to read.

Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2014
Very hard to say why this does not get 5 stars, but it did seem to lose coherence at one or two points. The idea of basing it on the author's father was a really good one, which could have been more developed. There was a fair amount of repetition, perhaps inevitable in the way the book was organised. But I enjoyed reading it and I am sure others will too.
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VINE VOICEon 20 April 2014
Ian Buruma is an excellent writer, I find I finish most of his books in a matter of days. We are exposed to lots of documentaries about the war, but not many about the aftermath. Buruma describes what happened after the concentration camps were liberated and the Allies took over.

He weaves the story of post-war adjustment in Japan and Germany together rather well, showing how the disease was different in each case, but the cures were imagined to be similar. Nearly 70 years on, it's possible to see victor's justice being applied. It's also possible to appreciate how difficult it is to get a country back on its feet after such terrible experiences. Can you get rid of all the bad eggs? Or are they needed to be part of the reconstruction?

Many of the mistakes made by the Allies were probably repeated in Iraq.

The author shows the ways that idealistic people tried to stop similar conflict happening again. As Britain questions its place in the European Union, it's good to be reminded of just how terrible the sufferings of the Second World War were, and how successful the European Union has been at keeping the peace.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2014
I was born soon after the events detailed in the book but I knew nothing of what happened in the short time after the war finished. It does get mentioned. It is as if the world has a degree of shame for what happened. Not surprising as all the authorities were guilty of turning a blind eye to the massacres that occurred. The book is a valuable exposition on a time we all should know about.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 19 February 2014
I thought this would be a constructive, objective review of the immediate post war period, a subject so far little covered and hardly ever, in a single book. Unfortunately this book is not quite like that. It is a far too personal, subjective collection of "accounts". The author is overly keen to pass wayward and rather uncomfortable, even slightly "snide" comments about the erstwhile efforts of others who fought to free "his" Europe. War is war and collateral damage in a war on this scale is totally unavaoidable. The passing of time allows authors such as this the opportunity to constantly take advantage of hindsight to pass their personal judgement on the actions and decisions of others. Picking out small individual moments to then use as a rule for all others is not a good way to tackle a subject such as the liberation of Europe. Of course, some uncomfortable actions no doubt occurred amongst liberating forces, but to put these into a package as this writer has done and to pass them off as representative of all allied intention and callous planning is quite wrong. Sorry, I did not care for this book, its tone, nor its author, at all.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 31 December 2013
I his latest work, Ian Buruma is determinedly writing a global history in terms of content by offering a wide and well-informed coverage which allows discussion of Holland, Greece and China for example. His thematic chapter structure allows paragraphs and sentences which blend and bleed between nations and their disgraced/embraced military leaders, intellectuals, everyday people (discovered through sources such as later-written diaries or memoirs) encouraging readers to make comparisons which postwar biases have previously rendered unpalatable. Interestingly his coverage only really unleashes America as the liberator/foreign presence/GI and not as a war-waging nation itself. He does, however, cover the American GI returning home: "even in America, the men in uniform often failed to live up to the heroic narrative."

Interestingly he also challenges the dividing lines between "liberation" , "victory" and "defeat" and in so doing complicates our comfortable reliance on GB and US as the moral victors. He includes the Soviet Union as part of the victorious "civilising" force. From the perspective of his source material, a generous and palatable proportion is anecdotal but well supported by the writings of observers/reflectors of the time. This choice positions Buruma as not just relying on reflecting on "facts" after the fact but embracing the continuum of judgement and representation which is part of all history writing. For me his most important challenge is that he offers to to the completeness of postwar - "If there is anything to be gleaned from these glimpses of the global mood on New Year's Eve, it is that a certain sense of normality was beginning to seep back into the daily lives of people who were lucky enough to be able to lift their heads from the direst misery of the immediate postwar period. This was not aluxury available to those who were still displaced in Germany, in Japanese POW camps, or in whatever sordid limbo they found themselves."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2014
I learned a lot from this book but it was not an interesting read - not enough personal stories for my taste.
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In the world of stereotypes that our place has become these days, this book sheds light like a searchlight on a spot somewhere deep in our civilized self that we'd rather keep buried there for ever. Great book for all people in our free and human-loving West who are strong enough to be honest with themselves about a certain shade of gray of our self.
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on 2 June 2014
Not a book for the faint hearted. We were never told of these horrific happenings, even after the war our news was sanitised. A well written book that really tells what happened after the war without having a political axe to grind.
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