Ian Buruma in conversation with Prospect

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Ian Buruma in conversation with Prospect

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The author and historian examines the ideas raised by his new book on the aftermath of the Second World War

On 7th October, Ian Buruma came to the Prospect offices in London to discuss his new book Year Zero: A History of 1945 with the magazine’s managing editor, Jonathan Derbyshire. Samuel Moyn, reviewing Year Zero in the October issue of Prospect, wrote: “For its reconstitution of the atmosphere of an age, Year Zero is unrivalled in how easy it makes work that eludes most historians, which is to realise that the lives of those in the past were as detailed and rich and real as our own.”

What follows is the complete transcript of the discussion between Buruma and Derbyshire, followed by questions from the audience.


JD: Human rights, certainly in their legal sense as opposed to their moral sense, are among the products of the utopian hopes aroused by the Allied victory in the Second World War. Those hopes are one of the subjects of your book aren’t they?

IB: Yes and there are various reasons why I thought of the subject. One is that the world our fathers created after the war in the spirit of “never again” which is very much a part of human rights. The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, the Nuremburg trials were held and after this period of devastation there was an impetus for creation and building a better world or a more equal world. One of the sources of this book that I found most astonishing was a magazine written by American soldiers for American soldiers called Yank. The magazine’s politics were far to the left of the Democratic Party today so there was a different atmosphere.

The United Nations started in San Francisco and people were full of European idealism. It’s a world that I feel is unravelling. Few people still feel as idealistic about European unity. Few people are seriously afraid that without it European nations will go to war again. The United Nations has few really keen supporters. Social democracy is unravelling everywhere. The idea of equality is not foremost in people’s minds. In the late 1980s with the collapse of the Soviet empire almost everybody, quite rightly, applauded. At the same time, this event also discredited everything to do with Marxist thought, social democracy, socialism, even left wing thinking that was anti-communist. Now, in the vacuum, we have this world dominated by neo-liberalism. This is the age we’re living in. I was never a socialist myself. Living in America has made me more left-wing than I’ve ever been. I think the world our fathers created is coming to an end and it’s worrying.

It’s interesting that you became more left-wing since going to America. The same thing happened to Tony Judt. Maybe this is something that happens to European historians when they cross the Atlantic!

Tony was always an idealist and a great believer in causes. He had a tendency to be a very keen believer in a particular model or cause and then he’d grow sceptical and disillusioned. So he was a Zionist and then became very critical of Zionism. He was very idealistic about the United States and then he moved there and suddenly became an idealist for the EU and Europe. I don’t know if that’s quite the case with me.

The book starts with a story about your father and also ends with a story about your father. Your father was deported form the Netherlands by the occupying Germans and he was sent to do forced labour in a factory making railway components in Berlin. The book seems to have been born out of a sense of puzzlement about a story your father told about his return to Holland in 1945. When he got back he readily submitted himself to these very violent hazing rituals that went on in the frat house he belonged to at the University of Utrecht. You ask yourself why he put up with all that nonsense after all he’d been through and that’s the germ of the book. I wondered how you got from that sense of puzzlement to the bigger story you’re telling.

The story begins in 1941 when my father became a law student at the University of Utrecht. If you studied law in those days, and even today, it was customary to join the fraternity. This meant you had to go through initiation ceremonies which involved the kind of things that people in Britain do in public schools: you are bullied and abused for a week and then you become a member and you can do the same thing to others who are younger.

In 1941 student fraternities were banned by the Nazis because they saw it as a source of resistance. But it went on anyway for some time in secret. So when my father came back—bearing in mind he had lived through the Battle of Berlin, he was almost shot by Soviet soldiers, he collapsed due to hunger and exhaustion—he went straight back to university. And because all the initiations had taken place in a clandestine manner in 1941, senior students decided it had to be done all over again. That included all those boys who’d been to Dachau and other camps. They now had to be beaten around by senior students and hop around like frogs.

I asked my father how they could put up with this. It was unpleasant and extraordinary that, after what they’d been through, they would have to do all this childish stuff. He shrugged his shoulders and said “We didn’t think that anything was particularly amiss.” I thought later that it was because they yearned for normality and the way the world had been before the war so much that this was really part of the old society. In a way it was an initiation to go back to normality. The link with the book is to voice my scepticism that one can’t go back to normality; not after a war like that. Too much has happened, the world was going to be different, too much bad blood, too much thirst for vengeance. Wars change society dramatically—and not always for the worse, of course. It can lead to emancipation. Women during the war gained in authority because they took jobs that men had done before, they aided in resistance and so on. The emancipation of blacks in the US was certainly helped by the war. So the moment of creation is not to be dismissed. This idea of normality; either not wanting to go back to normal or wanting to go back to normal is a theme in the book.

During the war, the Nazis were very suspicious of university fraternities as potential hotbeds of resistance. Did your father have some connection with the resistance?

No. My father was not a hero. What happened was that students had to sign an oath of allegiance to the German occupation authorities. If you didn’t sign you were immediately carted off to Germany to work in the German war industry. My father, like 75 per cent of the students, refused to sign. So, like other students who wouldn’t sign, he went into hiding. Something went wrong when someone in the student resistance told all those in hiding that they could go back to their homes, which he did. He was met at the station by my grandfather, who was not in good health, and the German police were hovering around. It was announced that those who didn’t sign up would have their parents arrested. My father didn’t dare risk this so that’s how he ended up in Berlin.

There were different categories of labour in Berlin. There were volunteers to work in these factories. There were essentially slaves who came from the east, the Slavic countries. There were concentration camp labourers. My father was not like these labourers. He was forced, to be sure, but he wasn’t Jewish. He was not in a concentration camp. That meant that he received a small salary and actually he had an extraordinary time. He saw the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He saw football at the weekends. When it got really bad was when the bombings began. Foreigners weren’t allowed in the shelters with German citizens, so they were very vulnerable. His camp was bombed several times. Of course the bombing was relentless. The RAF bombed at night, the Americans during the day, the Red Army was closing from the east. If you weren’t killed in the bombings you would probably collapse from exhaustion because you couldn’t sleep.

Your reluctance to describe your father as a hero is interesting because there’s a bigger ambivalence in the book about the heroic narratives of resistance that have attached themselves to the history of this period.

You need heroes sometimes in periods of crisis. You need them when you’re being occupied by the Nazis and in similar situations. But heroes tend not to be very nice people. They can be. There are of course heroic resistors who do it out of sheer decency but there are a lot of adventurers. To be a hero, especially when it involves violence, means you have to be pretty ruthless. Churchill was a hero but he was absolutely ruthless. The British people were absolutely right to cast him out in 1945. Clement Attlee was the man you needed then just as Churchill was the man you needed instead of Chamberlain and Halifax.

Could one describe this book as revisionist then?

I don’t think it is necessarily revisionist. I don’t doubt that it was right to go to war with Nazi Germany. When I say there is very little of the idealism left, perversely I think the last twitches of post war internationalist idealism were to be seen amongst the neoconservatives. After all, the original neocons were Trotskyites. The American right tended to be isolationist. It was the democrats who tended to be adventurous. So the neocons of the Bush period were quite revolutionary in their attempt to use American force to bring democracy to the world.

One thing that was very much in my mind when I was writing this book is that a generation that has no memories of war, often not even the Vietnam War, at least not as a participant, are now ruling the world. Most people now don’t have the imagination to think through consequences of ideals and decisions without having actually experienced it. So the neocons were, and some still are in the case of Syria, blithely talking about projecting force without thinking of the consequences. All the things that I’ve talked about—broken societies, the desire for vengeance—are rarely thought through by those who use a heroic rhetoric. Now there seems to be a culture where if you do not demonstrate your potential for force you are an appeaser and a coward. There is the feeling that what is needed is the spirit of 1940. Well, I’m sorry but the situation in Syria is not the same as the situation in 1940 in Europe.

Are you inviting the reader to make those sorts of connections?

Yes. I don’t spell it out. I don’t say “this is just like Syria” but I do think a lot of the things that happened after World War Two happen after every major conflict. The two things I would highlight are revenge—how do you stop that? And then, the question of how you disarm people who are armed to resist? It was a big problem for the French to get the resistance who had been encouraged to arm themselves to disarm. The state has to regain the monopoly on force, which is a huge task. Similarly the country is split between those who collaborated and those who resisted, who has legitimacy, all manner of things.

The first third of the book deals with the unleashing of this thirst for vengeance after the end of the war. This was only one of a wave of forces being unleashed. Another was erotic.

Sex and death are closely related. After the huge amount of death people wanted to have a huge amount of sex, which, from a human standpoint, is completely understandable. Armies of occupation, especially if they’re a liberating force, are very sexy. You have all these tough young men in uniforms who women will throw themselves at—much to the chagrin of the local male population. In Germany and Japan, just as much as in countries that were really liberated, there was an orgy of feasting which had a strong sexual component.

Notoriously, Soviet troops used rape as a weapon of revenge.

That was not done in celebration. The Soviet Red Army was actively encouraged by their leaders to wreak vengeance on the Germans. They behaved horribly in Germany and in the places they went through to get there but what the Soviets did to the Germans was not nearly as horrible as what the Germans had done to them. There was also a political agenda. I am convinced, though people may not agree with me, that vengeance on a large scale cannot be spontaneous. There may be spontaneous acts of vengeance on an individual level but on a large scale such emotions are manipulated. It’s as we saw in the former Yugoslavia. It’s not that every Serb was desperate to murder every Muslim because of ancient hatreds. It had to be orchestrated. I think the horrible expulsions of the German population from the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and Poland, which was done with an enormous amount of violence, was not just because people hated the Germans who had lived there for centuries. There was a real revolutionary agenda and it was actively orchestrated along class and ethnic lines by the rural Czechs and Poles against their bourgeois German counterparts. Wherever you look, revenge on such scale almost always has a political agenda behind it.

Women became a focus for vengeance, particularly in France.

There are two things there. One is that the humiliation of being invaded, conquered and occupied is an enormous blow to masculine pride. A lot of the French saw this very much in sexual terms in the sense of the rampant, virile Germans who, from the point of view of right-wing French people, had a right to teach the decadent French Republic a lesson—the French Republic being like a woman who was being mastered by the blonde beast. If you start to equate things in these terms there is huge male humiliation and then to see your own women fraternising with the blonde beast this becomes a great symbol of that humiliation.

The other aspect of this I came by in a French book that deeply impressed me called 1940-1945: The Erotic Years. The author says that the viciousness of the treatment of French women who had German lovers during the war was partly because men were terrified that women were becoming uncontrollable. So the revenge against women; the shaving, the feathering and tarring and sometimes worse, was really a way for men to try to get women under control. Indeed, the behaviour of women in France, Holland, Belgium and so on, when they fell into the arms of American, Canadian, and British troops, were regarded with the same level of contempt and anger by local men as women who had fraternised with the Germans.

You also say that “the desire for revenge is as human as the need for sex or food” and you allude to the lessons we can learn from Greek tragedy. I’m interested in the relationship between those two claims, one of which is metaphysical—about permanent features of human nature—and the other which is historical—that there is always a context for the eruption of a desire for vengeance.

What I mean is that for political reasons people manipulate our base instincts. Every society may have its resentments and those can be easily whipped up. So the history is the one of resentments, the whipping up is the political and then you have the instincts and I’m rather pessimistic about human nature. I’m convinced that if you officially give people the license to do whatever they like with their fellow citizens it will lead to torture and killing and there are enough people who will do it very easily, who may have been living quite peacefully with their neighbours but who, once given license, will throw themselves on them like wild animals. These things are very easy to manipulate and I’m afraid it will always be thus. I’m not a great believer that we will learn the lessons from history and if only people realised how horrible war was they would never do it. We will do it.

The second part of the book is about the return to normality. You talk about the difficulties encountered by homecoming French prisoners of war because they were the embodiment of defeat. It is to the credit of François Mitterrand, for instance, that he made his political reputation defending the interests of the French POWs.

Mitterrand was a slippery character and he was on everybody’s side at one point or another. The French POWs were in a particularly difficult position because they were associated with defeat and then Marshal Pétain used them in his propaganda to call them the true heroes. So not only were they defeated but also tainted by the fact that Pétain was praising them. By the end nobody was pleased with them. They were often treated pretty harshly.

You also talk about the difficulties your father encountered and the ambivalence he felt coming back to the Netherlands.

My father represents in a soft way what others experienced in much harsher circumstances. My father was lucky in that when he returned at least he had a place to go back to. Most people didn’t have that. He got back to his hometown of Nijmegen, which had been quite badly bombed as a result of an American mistake, and when he arrived at the station he didn’t know if his family was alive, he hadn’t spoken to them in such a long time and so much had changed that I think there was a real hesitation as to what he might find. He had cold feet but luckily everyone was fine so he had a relatively easy time when most didn’t.

A lot of people would come back from the camps to reclaim their house or flat to find people who had completely taken over your property, furniture and all, who were not best pleased to have you return. They would say you no longer have any right to this place. Indeed, some people would come back from the worst concentration camps and some people were quite resentful at being told that these people from the camps had a worse experience than they did. They would tell them to stop complaining and say that they didn’t know how bad it was at home. People didn’t like that there were people who had been victimised even more than they had.

The first memorial to the exterminated Jews in the Netherlands wasn’t erected until 1950 was it?

You can read the inscription on it today: “In gratitude to the bravery and humanity of the Dutch nation in saving its Jewish citizens.” 75 per cent of its Jewish citizens disappeared into the death camps. But there’s another example: the POWs in Japanese camps in Asia suffered far worse at the hands of the Japanese than the Europeans did but despite this the war trials held against Japanese war criminals were all conducted based on what they had done to Europeans. There was not one trial about what they’d done to the Indonesians, which was on a larger scale and much more brutal.

You point out that many Allied leaders weren’t convinced of the value of war trials at all. Churchill favoured summary execution of Nazis didn’t he?

Churchill said “put them up against the wall and shoot the bastards.” It’s not entirely to be dismissed as an idiotic viewpoint. He felt that what the Nazi leaders had done was so beyond any existing laws that you couldn’t really indict. Churchill and others felt that if you had trials it would in some way discredit the legal process. Everyone knew of their guilt so what was the point of a trial? Oddly enough it was the Soviets that insisted on it because Stalin was very used to using show trials.

The trials were very flawed but better that they had them than not. Really it created a model for the Germans to follow. I don’t think you would have had the German war crimes trials, the Auschwitz trials and so on which came later if it hadn’t been for Nuremberg. Ideally people would have done these things themselves. The Japanese would have had their own trials and the Germans would have had theirs. But, as we saw in Iraq, if the dictatorship is a long one the judiciary itself is tainted, so where do you find the judges and lawyers who can do this with any credibility? After World War One they did leave it up to German courts to hold their own war trials but they went nowhere, so the original trials had to be done by the Allies—but it set a precedent.

You show in the book that the Allies quickly lost their enthusiasm for administering the process of de-Nazification. They realised that if Germany was to be re-built economically then they needed those tainted members of the industrial elite who had supported Hitler.

If you occupy a country after a dictatorship you need the local elite to run the country. A foreign occupier really has no idea how the native institutions work, which means that you had to use people whose hands had blood on them. Also you don’t want to repeat the tragedy of 1918 where you’re purely punitive and you create a mood of resentment amongst an important element of the elite.

There were some Germans who were not Nazis who wanted an end to the show trials because they wanted to incorporate the old elite, knowing that they had blood on their hands. They didn’t do this out of sympathy but rather because they feared the potential for an anti-democratic, potentially violent, underground.

The other reason for the fact that there cannot be complete justice and that you need to incorporate people who are guilty is that it was the beginning of the Cold War. General Patton was one of the first who said “our army is facing the wrong enemy” with grandiose talk about “going onto Moscow.” Eisenhower fired him but those same ideas very quickly gained currency when they saw that the new threat was the Soviet Union and that you needed Germany as the buffer state and as an ally. War crime trials just began to get in the way.

It’s unseemly but sometimes opportunism is useful. One of the figures I mention in the book was a man called Hermann Abs. He was a young, ambitious banker who was not a Nazi. He was a conservative Rhineland Catholic and an anglophile in the 1930s but because he was ambitious he did business with the Nazis. He became Hitler’s personal banker and his bank bankrolled huge slave labour camps. He was a deeply tainted figure. He went into hiding at the end of the war and was found by a British officer who recognised him because he had done business with him in the City before the war. He said something like “nice to see you, lets go for dinner” and they went to one of the remaining decent restaurants in Hamburg. He said “you’re the man we’re looking for, we want you to rebuild the banking sector in Germany.” The Americans didn’t like this and insisted he was arrested. But they came to realise that they needed his expertise. He refused to help until he was released from jail. So he was released and very quickly ended up on the board of Mercedes Benz, Lufthansa, and became a pillar of the post war German republic. It was unseemly and if you grew up in that situation you knew that your boss or professor probably had a very sticky past, which was very unpleasant.

Questions from the audience

Q. Do you see comparisons between the rise of nationalism in Japan today, particularly in light of the Abe administration, and the context of 1945?

Well it does go back to 1945. The difference between the way the Allies dealt with Japan and Germany are that in Germany it was relatively easy. There was a thuggish regime that came to power in 1933 and came to an end in 1945. So it was fairly easy for people to draw the conclusion that if you got the Nazis out of the way you can rebuild a German democracy without reforming German culture. In Japan there were no Nazis and no Hitler. The same old elite before the war were running things during the war, so the question was what made them go so terribly astray? The conclusion was that there must be something deeply rotten about Japanese culture. There was the Samurai spirit of ancient militarism and feudalism, so it was felt everything had to change.

The Americans wrote a constitution whereby Japan was made to be a pacifist state. They no longer had the right to use force as an aspect of their foreign policy, which was not the case in Germany. The Americans almost immediately regretted it because of the Cold War. Nixon, while he was Vice President under Eisenhower, admitted that Article 9 of the Japanese constitution was our biggest mistake. By that stage, however, the Japanese people were quite happy with it. They were sick of war and the elite was more than happy to get on with re-building the economy and industry and let the Americans take care of security.

The exception to this was a nationalist right minority who felt that the postwar order was a humiliation. The left would say that we should never be allowed be involved in war again but the right would argue that while the war was terrible, all were guilty of being at war so this punishment for eternity by being made to be pacifist was disproportionate. Abe belongs to that faction and they want to revise the constitution. The problem is that history is being used in a polarised way for very political reasons in a way that doesn’t exist in Germany. So when people attack the Japanese for not admitting to war guilt or accepting their responsibility for certain atrocities but praise Germany for their acceptance of guilt and their transparency, they are completely missing the point. There are many Japanese who are completely honest about their past. Indeed, in the 1950s there was more critical writing about World War Two in Japan than there was in Germany. It’s now become a deeply polarised position in Japanese politics and Abe represents the right-wing approach.

Q. You said how different Germany and Japan were historically. Do you take the same view of the Tokyo trials as you do with the Nuremburg trials?

That it was better to have them than not? Yes. One of the interesting things that you sometimes hear in Japan is that they bemoan that they were not allowed to do it themselves because they would have been much harsher. I think it was better that they had it but I think it was an even more flawed trial than the Nuremburg trials. They were charged with “waging aggressive war” which is a bit dubious; it was made up, but then so was the charge of “crimes against humanity.” Another aspect was that a lot of the Japanese felt that the Emperor should take some responsibility. All the atrocities that happened during the war were done with the Emperor’s blessing. General MacArthur, who was in charge of occupied Japan, felt that to force his abdication would plunge Japan into chaos and make it uncontrollable. So he was allowed to keep his throne and was declared an honourable man who had been led astray. That made the question of responsibility rather difficult because they proceeded to hang men who had acted with the Emperor’s blessing. When General Tojo was put on trial he said at one point that “no Japanese would ever act against the will of the Emperor.” This caused a problem because if that were so, how could the Emperor then be innocent? So he was immediately taken aside and told to revise his testimony and the next day he said “well of course the Emperor only ever sought peace.” It was a propaganda exercise and made the whole trial very dubious.

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