Year Zero, by Ian Buruma

>> Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TITLE: Year Zero: A History of 1945
AUTHOR: Ian Buruma

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Books

SETTING: 1945, various locations around the world
TYPE: Non fiction

Many books have been written, and continue to be written, about the Second World War: military histories, histories of the Holocaust, the war in Asia, or collaboration and resistance in Europe. Few books have taken a close look at the immediate aftermath of the worldwide catastrophe.

Drawing on hundreds of eye-witness accounts and personal stories, this sweeping book examines the seven months (in Europe) and four months (in Asia) that followed the surrender of the Axis powers, from the fate of Holocaust survivors liberated from the concentration camps, and the formation of the state of Israel, to the incipient civil war in China, and the allied occupation of Japan.

It was a time when terrible revenge was taken on collaborators and their former masters; of ubiquitous black markets, war crime tribunals; and the servicing of millions of occupation troops, former foes in some places, liberators in others. But Year Zero is not just a story of vengeance. It was also a new beginning, of democratic restorations in Japan and West Germany, of social democracy in Britain and of a new world order under the United Nations.

If construction follows destruction, Year Zero describes that extraordinary moment in between, when people faced the wreckage, full of despair, as well as great hope. An old world had been destroyed; a new one was yet to be built.

Year Zero, as the blurb describes, takes "a close look at the immediate aftermath of the worldwide catastrophe" that was World War II. As soon as I heard about the book, I realised that this was a subject I’d never actually thought about properly, although I should have. I knew about some things (e.g. that rationing continued in Britain, about the Marshall plan, some bare facts about the American occupation of Japan), but I'd thought pathetically little about all the other hundreds of areas where there had to have been something between the enormous upheaval of the war and normality. For instance, how do you get the millions of displaced people back to where they came from? Should you send them back to where they came from? Could you?

Well, after reading this, I feel I know a lot more. Year Zero is not a book with a thesis or argument to try to convince us of, the point is just to paint a picture of what things were like. It covers all sorts of themes (the celebration of just after the war, the desire for revenge) and locales (from Holland to the Philippines, Greece to Japan). Buruma manages to constantly give us arresting and fascinating vignettes that perfectly illustrate what the situation would have been like.

It's also a very readable and well-written book. It does get a tiny bit dry near the end... still really interesting, but a bit dryer than the first sections. That wasn't a huge problem for me, though.

I particularly liked the sensitivity with which Buruma wrote about certain subjects. For instance, when writing about the women who fraternised, either with the Allied 'rescuers' or with the Germans, he does so in a way that is subtle (going beyond the seeing of such women as either exploited or calculating prostitutes), sensitive and sympathetic. It's also very non judgmental. Sometimes history books feel callous when taking a wide view (especially with things like rape), but Buruma never seems to lose sight of the fact that he's talking about real people here.

I was also particularly struck by his point that when a country is taken over (whether by invaders or rescuers) it is entirely understandable that minorities would seek to ally themselves with the new prople in charge against their former oppressors. That's a little bit of insight that I will remember, as it still helps understand the world today.

Highly recommended, and I'm glad to see my library has got several books by this author.



Liz Mc2 11 March 2014 at 04:06  

I just downloaded the audiobook of this from the library. A couple of years ago I listened to Tony Judt's Postwar which was great but such a big picture that I found it hard to grab hold of somehow. I'm looking forward to something a bit more focused about this period.

Rosario 12 March 2014 at 06:42  

I hope you enjoy it. I read the ebook version, but I think it's the sort of book that would work well in audio.

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