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Year Zero: 1945, an end or a beginning?
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