Two GIs consult dictionaries as they make conversation with Japanese women in Tokyo, December 1945

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Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma, Atlantic, RRP£25/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 384 pages

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the occupying US authorities sought to suppress anything that smacked of “feudalism”. Wooden kabuki swords were banned and images of Mount Fuji (a symbol of ultra-nationalism) hastily torn down. American observers were also enjoined to be vigilant in the face of another, less obvious danger: any women seen breastfeeding in public should be prevented from carrying out that unseemly and degenerate act.

With details of this sort, Ian Buruma’s elegant and humane new book illuminates one of the most important modern historical moments: the spring and summer of 1945, immediately after the second world war. Buruma, a Dutch-British expert on east Asia, has a well-deserved reputation for range. A Japanese Mirror (1984) is still one of the best studies of modern Japanese popular culture, while in The Wages of Guilt (1994) he made one of the first attempts to compare German and Japanese attitudes towards the second world war. In Year Zero, he expands his focus yet further. Concentrating mainly on the Eurasian continent, Buruma analyses the emotional gamut run by those who had survived the war, from initial exultation, to the desire for revenge, to the urge to rebuild civilisation.

Buruma skilfully avoids the “triumph and tragedy” clichés that are so often deployed when describing the end of the war. Instead, he shows why the war was so disruptive to the self-image of so many. For those men who were conquered or defeated, their conception of themselves as confident figures who enjoyed mastery of their own societies had crumbled into dust. The French writer Marguerite Duras (1914-96) recalled the “smile of embarrassment” of her husband Robert Antelme upon their reunion after wartime separation: “He’s apologizing for being here, reduced to such a wreck. And then the smile fades and he becomes a stranger again.”

Buruma combines the memoirs of political and literary figures with the experience of his own father, a Dutchman compelled to carry out factory labour in Nazi Germany. His father’s experience was by no means the worst that conquered peoples had to endure (it was not comparable to the Nazi abuse of slave labourers in eastern Europe) but he nonetheless suffered forced absence from family, hunger and, most crucially, a feeling that his status and standing had been eroded in some fundamental way. In the postwar period, when he returned to the Netherlands, he took part in the traditional “hazing” rituals of the Leiden university undergraduates. One might think that the experience of wartime brutality would turn students against this prewar nastiness. But, in fact, it was the comfort of reappropriating the customs of the era before that encouraged students to carry on as if the war had never intervened.

As well as a panoramic tour of the devastation wreaked upon Europe and Asia, the book delivers judgments on the decisions made, often in haste, about restitution. Buruma is unsparing in describing the horrors visited upon people who might have had no personal responsibility for the war, such as the rape of German women by Soviet troops. He also shows how the Allied victory often provided new occasions for domestic opponents to settle scores with each other. The efforts of communist and non-communist Greeks to eliminate each other as Nazi rule crumbled are particularly depressing, and provide insights as to why the country’s people seem unable to come together in today’s crisis, seven decades later. For many people outside western Europe, 1945 was a pause in conflict, not a conclusion.

Yet Buruma also argues strongly for two important legacies: human rights and social welfarism. Historians have for some time seen the rise of human rights as a transnational theme, part of a wider postwar move towards universal values (for instance, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). However, the shaping of the postwar welfare state has more often been analysed within national boundaries, such as with the US GI bill and the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. Buruma’s broad focus shows the commonalities in the relationship between state and society in all the belligerent nations. A much greater sense of state obligation to the wider population had become a central part of the social contract they made with their citizens.

In fact, the examples could be taken further: China’s Nationalist government, before it lost to Mao’s Communists in 1949, was inspired by British example to consider the idea of a welfare state. Buruma also looks beyond the nation to the importance of international, non-governmental and transnational organisations, including the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which provided emergency famine relief across much of Europe and Asia but also provoked debate about the rights of governments versus international intervention. Many of the debates of 1945 remain highly relevant today.

Buruma ends with an elegiac tribute to the aspirations of 1945. Had he written this book a decade ago, it would have appeared in the context of a seemingly stable postwar settlement in Europe, fundamentally social democratic and based on a converging EU. Today, that stability looks far less assured. The rise of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn movement, with its swastika-like symbol, can only reawaken memories of the 1930s.

At the other end of Eurasia, 1945 has a new and pressing urgency. Today, China seeks to remind the world, particularly the US, that it too was a wartime ally and that its reward for its contribution to the second world war is long overdue. For Beijing, 1945 is a moment of unfinished business that will only be resolved when China has risen to become the dominant power in the region. As generations with few memories of the second world war come of age in Europe and Asia, this luminous book will remind them of the importance of what Buruma terms “mental surgeons”, the politicians and warriors who reconstructed two continents left in rubble.

Rana Mitter is author of ‘China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival’ (Allen Lane)

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