Year Zero: A History of 1945

Justice, hope, sex and revenge

By David Cesarani, January 20, 2014
London goes waving mad: celebrating crowd in Whitehall stirred by Winston Churchill’s speech on May 8

London goes waving mad: celebrating crowd in Whitehall stirred by Winston Churchill’s speech on May 8

Year Zero: A History of 1945
By Ian Buruma
Atlantic Books, £25

Several books on the end of the Second World War have been published recently, but Ian Buruma's is distinctive by virtue of its scope and personal tone. Buruma adopts a global perspective, framed by the story of his own family.

His father was a student in Utrecht until 1943, when he was seized for forced labour in Berlin. He returned undernourished and ill, having witnessed terrible scenes. Buruma's interest in the post-war period emerged from curiosity about his father's quick recovery. How did societies, as a whole, emerge from the ruins?

To answer this puzzle, he reconstructs 1945 through the lives of diverse individuals on several continents, using documents, letters, diaries, memoirs, and interviews. The experience of Jewish survivors permeates almost every chapter.

According to one official, "revenge, hunger, and exaltation" characterised the feelings of the newly liberated. Buruma is fascinated by the erotic quality of liberation, ranging from fraternisation with the liberators to revenge on "horizontal collaborators". Hunger drove women into prostitution or pragmatic relationships with officers and soldiers. Emaciated, emasculated Germans responded with contempt for the "Niggerwomen" who cosied up to the occupiers.

In Japan, the Americans were dubbed "The Mistress Army". The camps for Jewish "displaced persons" were "sites of feverish sexual activity". Buruma alleges that "biological regeneration was officially promoted by Zionist and other Jewish organisations…

"As human as the need for sex or food, "he observes, was "the desire for revenge". Freed concentration camp inmates beat kapos and guards to death whenever they had the chance. Poles and Czechs uprooted and expelled millions of ethnic Germans with a brutality that equalled anything they had endured at the hands of the Nazi occupiers.

Yet "the people who had suffered most [the Jews] showed extraordinary restraint". Buruma describes the efforts of Jewish Brigade soldiers to assassinate Nazi officers, and Abba Kovner's half-baked plan to poison the population of Nuremberg, but he implies that, ultimately, Palestinian Arabs paid the price for Jewish suffering.

Bankrupt countries struggled to rehabilitate returning soldiers, PoWs, forced labourers and political deportees. And Buruma gives an unvarnished picture of how callously Jewish survivors were treated, even in the Netherlands. They were "an embarrassment. They did not fit into the heroic narrative that was being hastily constructed."

Across Europe, collaborators faced retribution. Often, it was little better than vengeance clad in legal garb. The British set a better example with the trial of those responsible for Belsen.

This was a "dress rehearsal" for the Nuremberg tribunal, which Buruma argues made a reasonable job of revealing the systematic murder of Europe's Jews. Trials were part of a broad re-education programme, although the sight of "victors' justice" tended to undermine the preaching of democracy and human rights.

Buruma has a sharp eye for the paradoxes and hypocrisy that marred the resolve to create a unified Europe and a world organisation, the UN, that would prevent a recurrence of barbarism. Although his narrative meanders somewhat, this is an immensely readable account, full of insight and humanity.

David Cesarani is Professor of History, Royal Holloway, University of London

Last updated: 11:27am, January 20 2014