This review appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma
(New York: Penguin Press, 2013)
Year Zero: A History of 1945 is a large, sweeping, unconstrained, and admittedly personal attempt to understand what the author regards as the pivotal year of the twentieth century. It is also a book that needs to be read on its own terms as it is not a conventional history of major events, public figures, or political and economic tendencies. Rather, Year Zero is an attempt to revisit that momentous year as it was experienced by ordinary human beings in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Such a particularized view of history is often wrenching in that each individual’s ordeal is probed and the details fully disclosed. What Buruma uncovers is not pleasant, but it may be necessary so as to impress upon the reader the gravity of what transpired and the importance of its never happening again. No one who reads Year Zero will come away with any doubt as to the depths of evil to which human beings can sink or the extent of suffering that may result.
In what it attempts, Year Zero is ambitious and admirable. By its very nature, this effort to pierce the fog of history with its numbing lists of atrocities and enumerations of loss and to understand the momentous events of 1945 from the ground level is impressionistic and speculative, even novelistic at times, but it is an endeavor that is nonetheless worthwhile. What transpired in 1945 and in the decades leading up to it, with the rise and fall of fascism in Germany and of militarism in Japan, is especially troubling and perplexing to Buruma, given the tribulations of his father, a forced laborer in a German brakes factory from 1943 to 1945. It is history that has never been laid to rest, either at the personal or the national level, as the recent indignation in China and Korea over Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni shrine attests. Within the broad span of history, the horrors of the Second World War occurred only quite recently, just a few years before the author’s birth: what is to say that similar events, or events dissimilar but equally grave, could not be repeated? This concern appears to underlie the author’s inquiry as he grapples with the enormity of what happened and seeks a means of preventing its recurrence.
The means that Buruma has seized on, it would seem, is to shock the reader into a sense of extreme revulsion at the horrors that culminated in 1945. At the beginning of a long section devoted to postwar recriminations, Buruma writes: “The desire for revenge is as human as the need for sex or food” (75), and revenge figures prominently in the author’s account of the Soviet occupation of Germany and the trials of war criminals in Germany and Japan and of collaborators in France, Belgium, and Holland. Other sections of the book focus on the ordeal of repatriation for millions of displaced individuals and the difficulty of reestablishing the rule of law, challenges that resulted in the death of millions of innocent souls. Like Tadeusz Borowski, the fiction writer whom the author praises for his powerful depiction of wartime Poland, Buruma spares the reader none of the details of “sadistic violence, murder, and starvation” (156). The book’s account of the liberation of Dachau and other concentration camps, of the suffering of civilians in postwar Germany and Japan, and of the sheer “scale of human misery in the aftermath of the war” (62) is simply unforgettable.
With its intense account of the human potential for evil, Year Zero may be viewed as an implicit plea for a more rational, well-ordered world, though, it should be noted, the book affords no convincing prescription as to how to arrive at this promised land. The author fails in particular to credit the potential of stable institutions and inherited beliefs, the essential foundation of civilization, which he too readily dismisses in lieu of “change” and the idealistic desire “to build a better world” (8). Was not the promise of a “better world” the basis of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the means by which Hitler rose to power in 1933? As in Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma’s equally vivid account of the murder of Dutch political celebrity Theo van Gogh, there seems inadequate awareness of the crucial role that the conservative virtues of humility and restraint might play in the restoration and maintenance of order.
Despite these limitations, Year Zero is a compelling and well-written account of the Second World War’s culmination, and overall it is an impressive and moving book that will help to ensure that the suffering of that era and the political extremism that spawned it will not soon be forgotten. In such a sweeping and multidisciplinary account, of course, there are bound to be errors, omissions, and unsupported generalizations. Alger Hiss, for example, was not “prosecuted as a Soviet spy” (327) but rather on charges of perjury stemming from his denial of spying. Though the Left may have “played a dominant role in the resistance in many countries,” their demand “that postwar societies should be shaped according to their wishes” (175) can hardly be credited. The reality is that the resistance did not contribute decisively to winning the war: that role was played by the armed forces of Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other allied nations. Buruma fails to make this important distinction and thus leaves it unclear as to whether he supports the Left’s claims, including the Japanese Left’s assertion that they had been “betrayed” by General MacArthur.
Likewise, the claim that British and American women who had entered the workforce during the war “were no longer content to swap their economic independence for domestic subservience” (8) is simplistic at best. I suspect that Rosie the Riveter was not altogether ecstatic about the standard sixty-hour workweek prevailing at munitions plants and other facilities during the war, nor did most women who returned to domestic roles consider themselves subservient. One also doubts that everyone, even middle-aged housewives in Des Moines, celebrated the end of the war in quite the erotic fashion that Buruma suggests in the opening section of Year Zero. Certainly, there were public demonstrations of exultation, but to interpret these as “erotic” seems mistaken. “Jubilant” might be a better characterization.
A larger problem is the book’s apparent bias toward a reductive reading of human nature. Any history of 1945 ought surely to speak of the nobility of those who opposed fascism, including not just combatants but all who sacrificed in support of the war effort. (None of America’s 464 Second World War Medal of Honor recipients is mentioned in this book, not even the most famous, such as Audie Murphy and Jimmy Doolittle. Surprisingly, the names of heroic Europeans such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler are also absent.) A balanced account ought also to speak of the ideals of democracy and liberty that were at the heart of that fight and to communicate the joy of ordinary men and women as they anticipated returning to a normal peacetime existence. Not everyone behaved as did the Soviet army in Germany—raping, pillaging, and murdering at Stalin’s behest. The U.S. forces in occupied zones generally conducted themselves with a marked degree of humanity. For an entire generation of Japanese, memories of the U.S. occupation were so positive that they helped shape U.S.–Japanese relations for the better for decades to come. Unfortunately, Year Zero has far less to say about the heroic and virtuous than it does about the darker side of human nature.
The role of goodness and forbearance receives some discussion in the final section, but that aspect of 1945 is not the focus of Buruma’s book. It may be that the author is determined to oblige the reader to acknowledge the more ghastly aspects of that critical year by concentrating on the more sensationalistic details, more or less in the same manner and for the same reasons that Allied leaders required German civilians to tour Buchenwald and other concentration camps after the war. Certainly, this gripping account should disabuse any reader of the illusion that evil has been banished from the earth. The Old Adam is still with us, as is the malevolent force of authoritarianism, much of it exercised in the name of progress. The most important lesson of Year Zero may be that, given the overwhelming evidence of human imperfection, the need for a traditional order of belief remains as great as ever. ♦
Jeffrey Folks is author of Heartland of the Imagination: Conservative Values in American Literature from Poe to O’Connor to Haruf, among many other books.