Book review: “Year Zero: A History of 1945”

This book was just added to my 2014 reading list — here’s a review of a it by Francis Phillips at

What happens after a war is often as painful as the war itself.

Some would argue that enough has been written about the last war, including the year 1945, and that Ian Buruma, of Dutch origin and who is Professor of Human Rights and Journalism in Bard College, New York State, is merely retelling a tragic narrative that has already been picked over, analysed and dealt with.

He would beg to differ and, having read his book, so would I. Where other historians, like Anne Applebaum or Max Hastings, have concentrated on how the war itself was waged or its aftermath in Eastern Europe, Buruma asks the question, “How did the world emerge from the wreckage?” and “How are societies…put together again?” It is an urgent question to which there are no easy answers.

Buruma raises them for personal as well as academic reasons. His father, a Dutch student at the outbreak of the war, was conscripted to work in a Berlin factory, where he narrowly avoided losing his life during the Allied air-raids. Buruma wanted to understand “the world of my father and his generation.” For this purpose, he divides his book into three parts: analysing what “liberation” meant in practice; how “the rubble” was cleared; and what the victors tried to do to avoid another world war.


The author’s central thesis, that can hardly be disputed, is that “the scale of human misery in the aftermath of the war was so vast and so widespread, that comparisons are almost useless.” Buruma deals with the Far East and how Japan dealt with the trauma of defeat, as well as the West. In a chapter entitled “Draining the poison”, concerned with the moral corruption of war and what to do with the bureaucrats and officials who did well out of it, he comments that General de Gaulle “mended France in the same way Japan was “mended,” or Italy or Belgium, or even Germany — by keeping damage to the pre-war elites to a minimum.” This meant that although notorious war criminals were tried and imprisoned or executed, as at Nuremburg, countless thousands kept their lives and their jobs so that their societies could begin to function again. Sometimes it is too painful as well as impractical, to ask too many questions.

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