Year Zero: A History of 1945

What happens after a war is often as painful as the war itself.
Francis Phillips | 13 December 2013
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Some would argue that enough has been written about the last war, including the year 1945, and that Ian Buruma, of Dutch origin and who is Professor of Human Rights and Journalism in Bard College, New York State, is merely retelling a tragic narrative that has already been picked over, analysed and dealt with.

He would beg to differ and, having read his book, so would I. Where other historians, like Anne Applebaum or Max Hastings, have concentrated on how the war itself was waged or its aftermath in Eastern Europe, Buruma asks the question, “How did the world emerge from the wreckage?” and “How are societies...put together again?” It is an urgent question to which there are no easy answers.

Buruma raises them for personal as well as academic reasons. His father, a Dutch student at the outbreak of the war, was conscripted to work in a Berlin factory, where he narrowly avoided losing his life during the Allied air-raids. Buruma wanted to understand “the world of my father and his generation”. For this purpose, he divides his book into three parts: analysing what “liberation” meant in practice; how “the rubble” was cleared; and what the victors tried to do to avoid another world war.

For those growing up in England in the post-war period (I was born in 1945) the narrative we learnt was different from those countries that had suffered defeat and invasion, like Holland. We did not have to deal with the shame of collaboration and if fraternization between US and Canadian soldiers and local English girls was not encouraged, it did not bear the stigma that sleeping with the enemy had elsewhere in Europe. What Buruma shows is that the suffering caused by the war had consequences that were complex and unpredictable. For instance, writing of Germany he comments, “As was true in all countries under military occupation, the borderlines between romance, desire and prostitution were not always clear.” There was also the shame of enduring and surviving rape, widely experienced by the women of Berlin when the Russian soldiers arrived.

The author’s central thesis, that can hardly be disputed, is that “the scale of human misery in the aftermath of the war was so vast and so widespread, that comparisons are almost useless.” Buruma deals with the Far East and how Japan dealt with the trauma of defeat, as well as the West. In a chapter entitled “Draining the poison”, concerned with the moral corruption of war and what to do with the bureaucrats and officials who did well out of it, he comments that General de Gaulle “mended France in the same way Japan was “mended”, or Italy or Belgium, or even Germany -- by keeping damage to the pre-war elites to a minimum”. This meant that although notorious war criminals were tried and imprisoned or executed, as at Nuremburg, countless thousands kept their lives and their jobs so that their societies could begin to function again. Sometimes it is too painful as well as impractical, to ask too many questions.

The Jews who survived the Holocaust had a particularly difficult time; they reminded their fellow citizens of their own moral failings if not their active complicity in the genocide. In Holland they were an embarrassment; in Poland, a country with an ambivalent attitude towards their large Jewish population, more than 1000 Jews were murdered between the summers of 1945 and 1946. To their credit, the Jews themselves showed considerable restraint in their attitude towards their neighbours – perhaps not wanting to draw attention to themselves and conscious that revenge only repeats the cycle of violence and despair.

One of the particular causes of post-war misery, described by Buruma in great detail, was the displacement of millions of people. Some were self-imposed refugees fleeing the enemy while others, including whole populations, were deliberately made homeless and forced into exile. A case in point was the situation of the Cossacks, kept in suspense in camps in Austria, who had fought against the Russians during the war in order to survive and who were desperate not to be repatriated, knowing their fate under Stalin if this happened. At the Yalta Conference of February 1954 they were not seen so much as an urgent social problem but as pawns in political power-dealing where their fate was sealed. As the author details, there were appalling scenes as they were herded by reluctant British troops onto cattle trucks in 1945 to be returned to the Soviet Union and certain death. Many, including their wives, chose suicide. More widely the author describes the “sense of helplessness of people who suddenly have no home. They can neither go forward nor back...stuck in limbo in a depopulated land which was no longer theirs.”

In this book Buruma shows, carefully and bleakly, that what happens when a war is over is often as painful as the war itself. Yet he also pays tribute to the men and women of 1945 who slowly and painstakingly began to build a new world amidst the ruins of the immediate past – “the welfare states, economies that just seemed to grow, international law, a “free” world protected by the seemingly unassailable American hegemon.” It was observed by the writer Alfred Doblin, that in Germany “they are less depressed by the destruction than inspired to work even harder.” Despite the author’s own tendency to historical pessimism, he nevertheless demonstrates in these pages that the human spirit might be wounded or crushed – but that it can never be defeated.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.

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