A lesson about ourselves

To understand the aftermath of the Second World War, we must look beyond individuals to institutions
September 18, 2013

Children playing among the ruins in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, in 1945. (© Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos)

Year Zero: A History of 1945by Ian Buruma (Atlantic, £14.99)

Ian Buruma’s sprightly new book is not literally a history of 1945. Instead “year zero” is a metaphor for the immediate response to peace, even if hostilities in Japan did not end until the last few months of 1945. Buruma, an insightful essayist who has written several books about Japan as well as his Dutch homeland, gives his book a refreshingly global perspective, with emphasis on the Asian experience alongside the usual focus on the European countries. But Year Zero is most interesting as one era’s judgement of another. What we find noteworthy about the past, after all, depends heavily on our current experiences and expectations.

Buruma excels as a social historian of the aftermath of the war, combing published memoirs and major newspapers for the texture of personal experience. It is hard to overstate Buruma’s accomplishment in crafting the first truly worldwide account of perceptions and experience in the pivotal years after the guns had fallen silent and the radiation had begun to dissipate. Buruma’s intermittent recollection of what his own father must have felt along the way is a perfect device. He was an ordinary Dutchman released from a workers’ camp in Berlin, where he helped make train parts, who came home in a turbulent age. Buruma returns to this individual life as he recreates the period as a whole.

In his most accomplished chapters Buruma shows the hunger that followed in the wake of the war. Describing black markets that came and went and strict rationing policies, Buruma brilliantly connects testimonies from different places to attest to kindred incidents. He cites Stephen Spender writing from the city of Cologne, watching citizens who, unable to “form a scar over the city’s wounds, are parasites sucking a dead carcass, digging among the ruins for hidden food, doing business at their black market near the cathedral—the commerce of destruction instead of production.”

Citizens’ appetites went beyond a new taste for food. Buruma’s global survey of sexual morals after the war is a considerable accomplishment. He cites the observation of a British officer, charged with surveying the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, that a shipment of lipstick did more to raise the morale of survivors than anything else. Revealing the intensity of the sexual reawakening in practically every country, Buruma shows that it was a lusty response to survival of horror no matter what one’s exact experience during the war: “Like the lipstick, sexual desire restored a sense of humanity to people, who had been left with none.”

When he looks beyond the dense texture of social relations, however, Buruma’s approach comes up against its limits. A historical method emphasising the perfect quotation and a writing style that unfailingly finds le mot juste does not take the reader beyond the play of individual perceptions of a moment in time. As indispensable as these elements are, history is as much about institutions as individuals, and the job of writing history is also about seeing what people on the ground fail to see.

No one who lived through the end of the Second World War could ever have believed he stood at “the end of history.” The Cold War was yet to crystallise and it seemed that many political options were on the table, especially when it came to the role of the state in society. In spite of massive war debts, governments were shouldering the burden of the new social compact—one promising jobs, healthcare, and adequate standards of living—that they had announced in wartime to persuade citizens to fight. The minimal state was regarded as an outmoded 19th century relic, though substantial debate remained about what sort of welfarism—and what sort of state—the common good required. Winston Churchill’s immediate fall from power in July 1945, which has often seemed unintelligible to those schooled on his wartime eloquence, is only the most graphic symbol of this widespread commitment. Clement Attlee’s Labour party swept to victory even at Churchill’s moment of military triumph, because the former understood the war had been about a new deal for citizens, where the latter could not pivot beyond his rhetoric about how western civilisation itself forbade the welfare state.

For the most part, however, Buruma sidesteps these ideological and party political debates. He does devote one of his lively chapters to the extreme optimism that arose in the aftermath of war but he allows the world-weariness of our era to trump our predecessors’ visionary response to war-weariness. Year Zero, often written with a kind of emotional distance, illustrates in its very dispassion how easily historians can make seem inevitable what people in the past regarded as open-ended. Buruma reports antiseptically that Attlee, “like so many Europeans of his time, put his faith in government planning. This was more than an opportunistic exploitation of conditions made necessary by war.” Buruma writes as if his readers would automatically assume that welfarist politics could only be a cynical sop to a fickle mood. Such a judgement reveals more about what our age thinks about politicians and politics than about why Attlee won so resoundingly.

Similarly, Buruma remarks on how many people—in east and west alike, and among elites and masses—saw communism “as a more viable alternative to the old order.” But knowing in advance that they were misguided, if not worse, a sceptical Buruma conceals the very optimism he intends to reveal. “Utopian dreams,” he knows, “are destined to end in a junkyard of shattered illusions.” This is a zero hour in which the narrator is all too aware of what the world is going to look like when the clock eventually runs down.

There is only one place where Buruma focuses on high politics—when he turns to the UN in his final chapter. In part he does so out of deference to our own newfound appreciation, since the end of the Cold War, of what the UN’s founders wrought in the domain of international governance, from tools to ensure economic stability to the development of international human rights.

Even so, it is odd that Buruma pays more attention to the UN than to the furious political disputes about social policy that took place at a domestic level. Citizens cared far more about how their governments would achieve full employment, and what sort of healthcare they would get, than they did about the realm of international governance. This was partly because it was clear that the UN would have little impact on the pre-established world of national sovereignty. An American politician, Wendell Willkie, had introduced the notion of “one world” in 1943, but in the aftermath of the war it became clear that national sovereignty would hold sway—it was too early for “globalisation.” As a result, welfare states were pursued as emphatically nationalist projects. What was going on at the national, not international, level is key to understanding the aftermath of the war.

Buruma’s own acknowledgment of how much the UN owed the past could have provided more useful guidance to the whole postwar scene. Instead, he is sometimes too ready to assume a clean break with the past. “The world could not possibly be the same,” he writes. “Too much had happened, too much had changed, too many people, even entire societies, had been uprooted.” People often respond to events—9/11 is the best recent example—by mistakenly concluding that now everything is different. But often precisely that perception allows ingrained habits to stay, and extant institutions to come into their own (consider how America’s Cold War security state today enjoys a new life in a different era). Buruma devotes much of his analysis to how people dealt with the immediate past through revenge or trial, and attempted to set up a new rule of law on the ruins of evil. However, many who were committed to prewar and wartime parties survived to help rule after the worst criminals were shot or hanged. (Those thrown in jail, at Nuremberg and elsewhere, were often let out rapidly.) And the continuities went far deeper than sedulous functionaries.

Especially in western Europe, those institutions that had been created in the decade before 1940 were the most important influence on postwar life. Family policies forged to “regenerate” nations, to take one example, persisted across the 1930s and 40s. Without the massive expansion of the state in war, furthermore, no welfare state would have been possible. And in the realm of security, the creation of states primed for a global threat environment made the transition into the Cold War easier, especially when it came to the United States and those it protected.

Yet these concerns should not overshadow Buruma’s achievement. 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. If the postwar moment was even more complex than Buruma makes out, it only means the “zero hour” deserves more of the sort of attention Buruma gives it in his outstanding book.