A French woman has her head shaved as punishment for consorting with the Germans.
A French woman has her head shaved as punishment for consorting with the Germans, Montelimar area, France, August 29, 1944.
Bettmann/ Corbis

Year Zero: A History of 1945. By Ian Buruma. Penguin Press, 2013, 384 pp. $29.95. 

For decades, World War II suffused the hearts and minds of the American generation that experienced it as “the good war,” in which Allied virtue eventually triumphed over fascist evil. Today, Western societies are mature enough to adopt a more nuanced perspective. There remains no doubt that “our side” deserved to win; terrible consequences would have befallen the world following an Axis victory. But the Allied cause was morally compromised by the need to enlist the services of Joseph Stalin’s tyranny in order to defeat the forces of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo.

Moreover, in almost every belligerent society, there were profound fissures and differences of attitude toward the rival powers, often reflecting splits between left- and right-wing opinion. Many people in France, for instance, disliked and feared communism more than fascism and shared the Nazis’ distaste for Jews. Even when it became plain that the Nazis were conducting an unprecedented persecution of the Jewish people, many people around the world, Americans included, displayed little sympathy for their plight and certainly refused to tolerate a large influx of Jewish refugees -- even to save their lives.

The United States and the United Kingdom celebrated V-E Day in May 1945 and then V-J Day three months later with unparalleled exuberance. In their eyes, the end of the struggles with Germany and Japan represented closure: the dawning of peace, the resumption of what passed for normality, and the lifting of fear and the threat of violence. But for tens of millions of others around the world, there was no such happy ending, nor even an early prospect of one. In formerly occupied nations, divisions were brutally exposed and recriminations indulged. Summary justice or often injustice was imposed on those who had picked the wrong side. In imperial possessions, of which British India was the largest, new struggles began in efforts to secure independence from colonial mastery, provoking sustained turbulence. And in the vanquished states, people scrabbled for existence amid starvation and humiliation.

Ian Buruma seeks to tell this sweeping story in Year Zero: A History of 1945. His book’s most substantial merit is its grasp of the moral, social, and political confusions that pervaded every nation following the war. How could Germans, for instance, recover their self-respect when so many German women had been raped by the Red Army and their men had failed the most basic of all tests of masculinity, that of warriorhood? Meanwhile, France was riven. Buruma quotes the British historian Tony Judt’s observation about both the French Resistance and the Vichy collaborators. “Their main enemy, more often than not, was each other,” Judt wrote. “The Germans were largely absent.” In almost every society affected by the war, factional rivalries, tensions, and hatreds overlaid the confrontation between the Allies and the Axis. Buruma has much to say about the shifting sands of loyalties as the Nazi and Japanese empires collapsed and the dominions of the old European imperialist powers tottered.

When the Japanese were told that it was no longer appropriate to worship their emperor, many decided instead to worship General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. occupation, although Buruma shows MacArthur to have been an even less suitable object of veneration than Emperor Hirohito. The Allied war crimes court at Nuremberg included among its presiding judges one of the Soviets who had conducted Stalin’s show trials. No wonder most of mankind found the world in 1945 even more bewildering than it had been during six years of brutal war.

MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR

Buruma, a Dutch journalist and academic who teaches in the United States, opens Year Zero with some family history: the liberation of his father, a former law student, after two years as a forced laborer in Germany. He had refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Nazi government of the occupied Netherlands. Buruma draws on his father’s experiences to make the point that violence did not stop when the Nazis surrendered. Since the Allies lacked the troops to supervise the defeated German units that remained in the Netherlands, for several weeks they allowed German officers to hold on to their weapons and their authority. The results were predictable. On May 13, for example, less than a week after V-E Day, the Germans enjoyed the privilege of executing two deserters in Amsterdam: anti-Nazis, one of whom had had a Jewish mother and had foolishly supposed it was safe to emerge from hiding. In France, the settling of scores between embittered factions caused the executions of thousands during the so-called épuration légale, or “legal purge,” the cleansing of Vichy society.

But the period wasn’t entirely grim. One less violent way that the newly liberated societies celebrated their freedom was with unprecedented sexual promiscuity, much of which involved the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers suddenly idled by the end of the war. One French woman quoted by Buruma, Benoite Groult, extolled the perceived physical beauty of Americans as compared with the pallid charms of her own countrymen and gave thanks for the liberators’ ability to provide food along with sex. Lying under one GI’s body, she wrote later, was like sleeping with a whole continent, “and you can’t refuse a continent.”

Of course, all this sex came with consequences. In Paris, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in 1945 rose to five times its 1939 level. In the Netherlands, illegitimate births tripled. But there were other side effects as well. Buruma says it is no coincidence that most European socie­ties soon felt obliged to enfranchise women who had already empowered themselves in other respects. “Postwar conditions upset the old order,” he writes. “Women were no longer under male control. Perhaps that was their greatest sin.”

In Germany, the end of the war introduced what every occupied country in Europe had experienced in varying degrees during the war: hunger. Germans only really started to suffer from it in May 1945; before that, Hitler had ruthlessly starved the continent to feed his own people. Germans responded to the new privations in various ways, including the development of a black market that thrived for years to come, enriching more than a few Allied soldiers, as well as native traders. Polish peasants dug in the ashes of Treblinka in search of gold teeth that had belonged to slaughtered Jews. In many places, cigarettes became a more useful currency than bank notes.

JUDGMENT DAY

Meanwhile, the Holocaust, as it is perceived today, was still little understood in 1945. Appalled by what they found in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, British soldiers assumed that it represented the worst Nazism could do; they did not realize that Bergen-Belsen was not even an extermination camp, where conditions were even more dire. The Allies did not know how to deal with the camps’ eight million inhabi­tants, refugees who had been uprooted from their homes and societies and whom the Allies now gathered in displaced persons camps, some of which offered conditions little better than those the refugees had experienced under the Nazis.

Some historians have criticized the way in which many of those people were relocated. Buruma approaches the controversy with nuance and explains its context. The British government, for example, has been maligned over the past nearly 70 years for forcibly repatriating Soviet soldiers and refugees to the Soviet Union at the war’s end, where many faced imprisonment or execution under Stalin. But the British feared that if they balked, Stalin would halt the repatriation of thousands of former British prisoners of war who remained in Soviet hands. Furthermore, most of those the British sent back had been captured in German uniform, making them doubtful candidates for pity.

Many who today pass harsh judgments on the Allied governments’ mistakes both during and after the war fail to understand the muddle, ignorance, moral exhaustion, and practical difficulties faced by those in charge in London and Washington. Many of the Cossacks sent back to Stalin, for example, who have inspired widespread Western sympathy in the past few decades, were responsible for horrific war crimes in Italy and Yugoslavia while wearing Wehrmacht uniforms. There was no right or wrong decision about their repatriation, only an intractable judgment call.

Across Europe, efforts to come to terms with the war’s other atrocities were no less compromised. In Germany, “denazification” was a clumsy, halfhearted process. Self-pity, rather than guilt, dominated the emotions of Hitler’s former followers, encouraged by the physical devastation inflicted by Allied bombing. The war crimes trials at Nuremberg, which started in November 1945, swiftly lost their capacity to shock and descended into a parade of “the banality of evil,” in the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s phrase. The British writer Rebecca West described the courtroom at the Palace of Justice as “a citadel of boredom,” and so it seemed to many of her fellow spectators.

As Buruma observes, although some minor war criminals were executed, many big fish, especially industrialists, escaped punishment. Only several hundred essentially symbolic capital sentences were carried out, and sometimes for dubious reasons. Buruma notes the case of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, “the Tiger of Malaya,” who was hanged for inflicting military humiliations on MacArthur in the Philippines, rather than for his doubtful personal guilt on war crimes charges.

Part of the problem was that if strict justice had been meted out in Germany and Japan, hundreds of thousands of punitive executions would have been required, which nobody had the stomach for. On Stalin’s jocular 1943 proposal to shoot 50,000 German officers, Buruma writes, “Stalin had a point. Even if there is no such thing as collective guilt, there are far more guilty people than can possibly be tried. But justice must be seen to be done.” There was also the large practical issue that if all collaborators were removed from their posts in bureaucracies, industries, or utilities, the machinery of society would grind to a halt: “Punishment of the guilty had to be balanced by other interests. Too much zeal would have made the rebuilding of societies impossible.”

In most former Axis-occupied nations, the Allies favored restoring to power conservative politicians and industrialists, many of whom had collaborated enthusiastically with their occupiers, even as left-wing forces continued to fight and lead new resistance after the war. In the Philippines, Huk guerrillas who had fought the Japanese were driven back into the jungle, from where they then fought the new government installed by the Allies. In Greece, a civil war pitting communists against a conservative administration backed by the British and the Americans raged for four years.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Allied commander of Southeast Asia, begged the authorities in The Hague not to try to restore a colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies, but he was ignored. As a result, as also occurred in French Indochina, the liberators found themselves fighting fierce battles with nationalists, in which Japanese troops participated on both sides. On November 10, 1945, Allied aircraft bombed and strafed the East Indies city of Surabaya after nationalists killed a British brigadier. In Saigon, during the autumn, defeated Japanese troops opened their armories to the Vietminh nationalists. Some of Hirohito’s officers joined their ranks either from conviction -- “Asia for the Asians” -- or to escape war crimes prosecutions.

In September, thousands of Vietnamese armed with knives, spears, and machetes spontaneously attacked French people where they found them. The waiters at Hanoi’s grand Metropole Hotel assaulted French guests in their rooms and barricaded them in the dining room. An orgy of violence and counterviolence ensued, which progressively degenerated into the all-out war that continued for almost a decade and ended with France’s expulsion from Indochina.

PIONEERING FOR PEACE

Buruma’s book reflects his character as a writer: humane, perceptive, and whimsical. Buruma focuses on some people, places, and issues that catch his interest, while saying little or nothing about others. He ignores Spain, where Francisco Franco was permitted to sustain a brutal fascist dictatorship to serve the West’s new conveniences in the Cold War. He says little about the Soviet Union’s campaign of murder and oppression in Poland and Ukraine to suppress dissent against Stalin’s new imperialism. And much of the material Buruma cites is already familiar to students of the period. He offers only an introduction to the huge issues he identifies, rather than a comprehensive narrative or analysis.

Still, Buruma conveys a powerful sense of the horror and chaos of 1945, especially in Europe. He writes movingly, as when he discusses Sir Brian Urquhart, a British wartime army intelligence officer who went on to become one of the guiding spirits of the United Nations. Urquhart helps Buruma illustrate how 1945, for all its horrors and disappointments, was also 
a time of hope and purpose for many idealists. “It is hard to recapture the freshness and enthusiasm of those pioneering days,” Buruma quotes Urquhart recounting. “The war was still vivid in everyone’s mind and experience. Many of us had been in the armed forces, and others had only emerged from underground resistance movements a few months before. To work for peace was a dream fulfilled, and the fact that everything had to be organized from scratch was an additional incentive.”

Buruma ends his narrative as he opens it, with his family. He and his sister went to Berlin on New Year’s Eve in 1989 to celebrate at the Berlin Wall with their father, who had been in that city 44 years earlier as a forced laborer. They lost one another in the rejoicing crowd, and only many hours later did Buruma’s father reappear at their hotel, his face bandaged: “Round about the stroke of midnight,” the son writes, “pretty much on the same spot where my father once had to dodge British bombs, Stalin Organs [Katyusha rockets], and German sniper fire, a firecracker found its way to him and hit him right between the eyes.” Buruma tells a story of horrors and tragic disappointments, but this note of humanity defines his book.

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  • MAX HASTINGS is former Editor of The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard. He is the author, most recently, of Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.
  • More By Max Hastings