To understand the aftermath of the Second World War, we must look beyond individuals to institutionsby Samuel Moyn / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
Children playing among the ruins in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, in 1945. (© Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos)
Year Zero: A History of 1945 by 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…