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

The Spoils of War

The Horrors and Hopes of 1945

In This Review

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

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.

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

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