70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
I enjoy history, but not dry history. My interest is in the interplay of character and historical circumstances and in social history--the human angle. This book very much appealed to me. It is less about geopolitics than about people adjusting to the changed situation they found themselves in after the defeat of Germany and Japan in World War II. The author presents an interesting and detailed portrait of the world in 1945. He makes the story a bit more personal by discussing the life of his own father, a Dutch national who was carted off to perform forced labor in Germany.
This is the world seen through an extremely wide view lens, so I won't try to summarize everything in the book but just mention a few aspects that stand out for me. I found it striking how Ian Buruma pointed to the seeds of both successful change and contemporary conflicts sown in 1945. Somehow, the United States managed to do some crucial things right in both Germany and Japan. The Americans were sometimes misguided and ignorant, but they were not particularly vengeful. There was a lucky mesh between democratic capitalism, which the U.S. tried to foster, and the cultures of the two conquered nations. The relative prosperity and stability of Germany and Japan obviously owes a great deal to this.
Turning to the question of refugees, the author clarifies a currently relevant and heartbreaking, fact about the Jewish survivors of the concentration camps. No existing nation wanted these people. The fact that Israel was originally a life boat for shipwrecked survivors is too often forgotten now.
To his great credit, Buruma often focuses on the situation of women during and after the war. The widespread rapes--by Japanese troops of women in Asian countries Japan conquered, by Russian troops in Germany--are rarely spoken of nowadays. Buruma does not shrink from this subject, and the reader may be stunned by the incredible barbarism. The book also contains an interesting discussion of fraternization after the war. Former enemies sometimes fell in love, and sometimes got married. Sometimes they just used each other--and it could be a disturbingly unequal exchange between conqueror and conquered.
This book held my interest the way a good novel might and it taught me a great deal about subjects I thought I was fairly well versed in. It is one of the best works of history I've read in recent years. Highly recommended.
43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
"History ... is littered with dreams of starting afresh." The first chapters of this remarkable study attempt to capture people's responses to the end to years of living in Hell. Buruma has personal insight into the topic. His young Dutch father was captured by the Germans and forced to work in wartime Germany. At the end of the war, he was nearly executed by accident as a collaborator although he wasn't one. He wended his way home through a bombed out Europe, only to find when he got back that everything had changed while he was gone. No one wanted to hear his story. They had had enough of that sort of stuff.
Lucien Febvre, co-founder of the Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales in 1929, argued that the history of sensibility (histoire de sensibilite') was just as important to our understanding of the past as the economic and social history that was more standard fare in that groundbreaking journal. We are feeling animals, he argued, and thus how the events of a time make us feel sits deeply in us.
This short book by Ian Buruma (Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College; author of thirteen previous books) is proof that Febvre was right. There are other books on the aftermath of the Second World War which portray the devastation, unresolved antagonisms and mixed feelings caused by the destructiveness of that long, devastating war (wars?) -- Keith Lowe's Savage Continent (2012) and parts of Timothy Snyder's chilling Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2012) are recent entries, and for Europe, Tony Judt's magisterial Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) can't be bettered, but no work of history that I know of that captures so well, and elegantly, the emotions that drove the survivors of that hellish conflict. Nor do I know of another book that spans the Western and Asian conflicts so neatly.
The section of the book which I enjoyed the most addresses such issues as guilt, humiliation and exultation; sex and prostitution; the complicated feelings women had when confronted by conquering healthy soldiers who looked so much better and could offer so much more than their own defeated, malnourished, unattractive men; racism (the persistence of anti-Semitism, attitudes toward African-American soldiers in both Europe and Japan, the enflaming of racial and national enmities in Asia and Eastern Europe); new opportunities for women and their resistance to being shoved back into a box; greed and revenge; the refusal of subject peoples to slide back into the routines of the old colonialism, regardless of the efforts of the colonial powers to contain them; and "the desire to retrieve a sense of normality," which at times led to the ignoring of inconsistencies in attitudes and behavior and to the undervaluing of potential troubles for the future. It's a heady but jolting ride.
The latter half of the book addresses efforts to assess and punish war guilt (concerns about economic recovery trumped concerns about justice in most cases) and to reestablish order locally and internationally, no small task in a world in ruins. I found Buruma's comments on the enthusiasm for state planning in postwar Europe and Asia illuminating. If I don't write much about the second half of the book, it's because it 's been captured elsewhere, but throughout, Buruma is on top of his material and writes with incisiveness and grace.
One of the joys of history as a professional discipline is that academic historians can, if they take the effort, write history that is enjoyable and approachable but still up to the highest professional standards. As in this enjoyable and informative book.
53 of 61 people found the following review helpful
The subject of the immediate post-World War II period has been popular in history books in recent years, including William I. Hitchcock's The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and Tony Judt's The Politics of Retribution in Europe. These are all excellent, well-documented histories.
Even if you've read all those books, I would still recommend Ian Buruma's Year Zero. This is a smoothly readable and compelling treatment of 1945, the year when history reset after World War II, what historian Max Hastings called the greatest and most terrible event in human history. Buruma's book is short by comparison to Judt's and Hitchcock's; not surprising, since it focuses in on that one year. It is also a less academic treatment, and it goes for the gut at least as much as the mind. Buruma organizes the subject as follows:
Part One: Liberation Complex
Part Two: Clearing the Rubble
4. Going Home
5. Draining the Poison
6. The Rule of Law
Part Three: Never Again
7. Bright Confident Morning
8. Civilizing the Brutes
9. One World
The revenge chapter was particularly interesting, with Buruma beginning with the provocative statement that the desire for revenge is as human as the need for sex or food. His observations about the need "to overcome humiliation and restore masculine pride" after the war, and its place in some of the vengeful attacks are insightful. He recounts a number of hair-raising stories from all over the world, including Germany and Poland, of course, but also from France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands, Greece and several locations in Southeast Asia. In fact, the amount of information in this book about the Pacific Theater and Southeast Asia distinguishes it from most other World War II histories.
The use of anecdotes in works of history can be misleading, or a lazy way of making a point. It doesn't feel that way with Buruma, who makes his points and uses anecdotes as illustration, not evidence. Some of the anecdotes are just stunning; for example, the story of Ernst Michel, a young Jewish man from Mannheim, who was taken from his home on September 2, 1939, just the second day of the war, and spent the entire war in forced-labor camps, ending up in the Auschwitz Buna/Monowitz camp and then the death march to Buchenwald. Soon after liberation, he was given a job with the U.S. Army and then became a correspondent for the German General News Agency and was assigned to report from the Nuremberg Trials, where his dispatches were bylined with both his name and his Auschwitz number.
Simple but never simplistic, this is popular history well worth reading, whatever your level of knowledge about World War II and its aftermath.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2013
At the end of World War II after the death camps were liberated, aid workers noticed a strange thing among the survivors waiting to be relocated. Half-dead, grotesquely emaciated, many became sexually promiscuous. The author of the book, Ian Buruma, quotes a doctor that one could not really blame the young girls who had passed through hell and "are now seized by an irresistible desire for affection and forgetfulness..." Outside the camps VD rates and illegitimate births rose sharply. Buruma says "the fact is that many women and men were simply looking for warmth, companionship, love, even marriage." This book is worth reading if for no other reason than to learn what happened to a case of lipstick mistakenly sent to Bergen-Belsen after the war.
More than 60 million people died in World War II, over three percent of the world's population, for no good reason as far as anyone can tell now. Among the least ignoble reasons for the German and Japanese leaders who decided to go to war was to get "living space," because it was thought that without land and colonies their countries would decline. Look at them now, Germany with no eastern territories and Japan with no colonies, two of the richest places on earth. The men in those countries who made World War II caused unspeakable suffering for an idea which was dead wrong.
The country which lost the most people was the Soviet Union. Eight million Soviet soldiers died, of whom 3.3 million were deliberately starved to death. Sixteen million Soviet civilians died. Ten million Chinese civilians died (the United States lost 0.4 million soldiers and civilians).
This is a book about the people who survived. We are wrong to think that the horrors ended after the surrenders of Germany and Japan. Although the magnitude of the horrors was smaller, the stories are harrowing. In 1945 in the Netherlands 18,000 people died of starvation, which got so bad that the British and Americans took to dropping loaves of bread from the sky. In Japan more than 20,000 people died of dysentery in 1945. In Italy 20,000 fascists and collaborators were killed in the north of Italy, 8,000 thousand in the Piedmont, 4,000 in Lombardy, 3,000 in Emilia and 3,000 in Milan province. In France over 10,000 collaborators were murdered. One American soldier machine-gunned three hundred concentration camp guards.
Some the people who were murdered after the war were "collaborators", but as Buruma points out, most of the collaborators were never punished. In fact it would have been impossible to punish all the collaborators, because there would have been no one left to govern the cities or teach the children. Many of the worst offenders went unpunished. Some people were tried and executed, but often the wrong ones and on shaky evidence. Often the people exacting revenge were themselves guilty. One feels after reading this book that a person who lived through World War II could not possibly have known which decisions might save them. The innocent, the righteous, the evil and the sadistic seem to have had equal chances of perishing.
The main point of this book is that after the war as well as during it, there were no good ways to proceed. The victors made bad decisions, but often any decision would have been bad, and many of the decisions were the lesser of many evils. As time went on, people constructed myths about the war, but nothing we thought was true turns out to have been so. For instance,
* Although the rapes committed by the Soviet troops in Germany and the Japanese in China were on a massive scale, the victims being in the millions, one estimate is that at least 40 Japanese women per day were raped by the allied soldiers in the latter half of 1945.
* Although the Germans and Russians were notorious thieves and looters, the American army had its share. After France was liberated some US soldiers deserted from the army, stole army trucks, stocked up on gasoline and sold it to French gangsters (they were caught because they took to living like kings in Paris).
* One weeps for the Jews and Poles who died in the concentration camps, but also for the captured Soviet soldiers whom the allies forced to return home to a certain death (anyone who was captured was by definition a traitor) and for the 10 million (TEN MILLION) German speaking citizens of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania who, after the war, were forced leave their homes for a devastated Germany, where many had never been before. Many were killed on the way.
This is one of those books which teach you that if ever you thought you knew anything definite, you are wrong. The world is too complex. Ian Buruma, half-Dutch, half English, descended from Mennonites and Jews, a scholar of Japanese history and culture, and a flawless prose stylist, is the right man to make this point.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2014
Good book but almost impossible to cover so many regions and nations in a few hundred pages. I had hoped to read more about his father's experience but there was little elaboration.
There are many stories of revenge and sorrows when massive numbers of people were forced to move to others areas. In World War I the concept was to move the borders; here the forced movements of thousands was horrible.
There are parts that will make you guilty for your last meal, and yet you will come away with the incredible belief of the resiliency of humanity in general.
Would also suggest Keith Lowe's Savage Continent as a supplemental work.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2014
Ian Buruma is a professor of Democracy, Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College. He is a prolific author of several books. Buruma's new effort is "Year Zero" referring to 1945 when World War II finally ended. The war cost over sixty million deaths; saw the Holocaust of Europe's Jews and untold suffering and murder throughout the globe. Buruma's Preface tells the story of his father a Dutch legal student who was forced to spend the war years in Berlin who was forced into brutal labor in Berlin, His father survived the war returning to Holland to continue his studies., The book ends with Buruma, his sister and father returning to Berlin in 1989 on the night the Berlin Wall fell and the Communist empire fell. Between those two signposts we take a war ravaged tour of a world recovering from the horror of war. We learn:
a. About continuing violence against the Jews in Poland, Germany and Soviet Union.
b. We Visit DP camps in Europe and Asia.
c. Buruma shows us the move toward centralized government and utopianism in governmental planning.
d. Buruma traces the evolution of war crime trials focusing on the Nuremberg Trials of major Nazi war criminals.
e. The rise of anti-colonialism is presented. Early signs of this movement are seen in Algeria and in Vietnam in the French orbit of their colonial empire.
f. The British empire begins to disintegrate as the British economy is in shambles and post-war drabness becomes reality.
g. The Chinese Civil War in which Mao's Communists duel with the Nationalists is discussed.
h. The different ways in which Japan and Germany were treated by the Western Allies is viewed.
I. Civil war in Greece is given a chapter as the communist rebels fight the British backed conservative government.
The author evinces a deep understanding of this crucial era presenting that slim time between the end of the war and the beginning of the cold war.
A brief review does not do full service to Year Zero. The book would serve well in the classroom or for study by general readers. It is somewhat dry reading but the information is good. Buruma covers both Europe and Asia in his study. Recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2013
Ian Buruma has written a short volume about the year 1945, in which he describes the end and the beginning on a new period in conteporary history. The most vicious and brutal war in the annals of humanity has changed everything and Professor Buruma is excellent when describing whatever happened to the common people immediately after the end of this horrible conflict, which took the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians alike. The chapters are organized thematically and in the background there is the personal history of the author's father who was sent to Berlin during the war.
It would be a waste of time to describe again the contents of each chapter, since previous critics have already done so before.
I would say that the conclusion of the author is not original and he is extremely careful and honest to point this out, and the things that matters most is his optimism about the future of Europe, in particular. This is mandatory reading for any intelligent man or woman who cares about the human race. More than highly recommended !
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2013
The Author's research was extensive and he writes with an interesting style. I had trouble following the thread of his narrative. It seemed to me more like a series of lectures for a history seminar strung together than a work of history with a coherent theme..
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2013
A valuable book; devastating to say the least.
I remember some of the scenes he describes from the later 40s and earliest 50s when I lived in Europe as a child. The destruction was unbelievable, especially in Cologne which I first saw in 1951. Most streets I saw from the train were still just paths with houses crumbled all around; the cathedral stood majestically over all of this misery.
Irritating are the small mistakes here and there, especially with German words.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2014
I took away a sense of how conflict begets more conflict. How revenge follows revenge. How right and wrong are often decided by force. When you read Year Zero, check your righteousness at the door. Guilt and innocence are obscured by the fog of war, and no country or culture comes out with clean hands (though some are arguably cleaner than others).
Baruma has a lovely, conversational style. He's the kind of guy I would enjoy having as a professor, or a long talk with at a coffee shop.