Year Zero: A History of 1945 [NOOK Book]


A marvelous global history of the pivotal year 1945 as a new world emerged from the ruins of World War II

Year Zero is a landmark reckoning with the great drama that ensued after war came to an end in 1945. One world had ended and a new, uncertain one was beginning. Regime change had come on a global scale: across Asia (including China, Korea, Indochina, and the Philippines,...
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Year Zero: A History of 1945

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A marvelous global history of the pivotal year 1945 as a new world emerged from the ruins of World War II

Year Zero is a landmark reckoning with the great drama that ensued after war came to an end in 1945. One world had ended and a new, uncertain one was beginning. Regime change had come on a global scale: across Asia (including China, Korea, Indochina, and the Philippines, and of course Japan) and all of continental Europe. Out of the often vicious power struggles that ensued emerged the modern world as we know it.

In human terms, the scale of transformation is almost impossible to imagine. Great cities around the world lay in ruins, their populations decimated, displaced, starving. Harsh revenge was meted out on a wide scale, and the ground was laid for much horror to come. At the same time, in the wake of unspeakable loss, the euphoria of the liberated was extraordinary, and the revelry unprecedented. The postwar years gave rise to the European welfare state, the United Nations, decolonization, Japanese pacifism, and the European Union. Social, cultural, and political “reeducation” was imposed on vanquished by victors on a scale that also had no historical precedent. Much that was done was ill advised, but in hindsight, as Ian Buruma shows us, these efforts were in fact relatively enlightened, humane, and effective.

A poignant grace note throughout this history is Buruma’s own father’s story. Seized by the Nazis during the occupation of Holland, he spent much of the war in Berlin as a laborer, and by war’s end was literally hiding in the rubble of a flattened city, having barely managed to survive starvation rations, Allied bombing, and Soviet shock troops when the end came. His journey home and attempted reentry into “normalcy” stand in many ways for his generation’s experience.

A work of enormous range and stirring human drama, conjuring both the Asian and European theaters with equal fluency, Year Zero is a book that Ian Buruma is perhaps uniquely positioned to write. It is surely his masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/14/2013
An account of the decisive first moment of the modern world, Buruma's (The China Lover, Occidentalism) history explores the nascent social and political forces that later influenced the Cold War and post–colonial movements and ultimately defined the latter half of the 20th century. Starting with a world ruined by war, Buruma moves adeptly from describing the elation of victory and the desire for revenge to the Allies' attempts to reform societies by eliminating all traces of militarism or fascism and establishing a European welfare state, as destroyed cities are rebuilt and fallen nations reimagined. Despite the growing sense of optimism and confidence of the time, men and women still starved, justice was delayed and soldiers and refugees returned home to find themselves unwanted. Equally critical of the victors and the vanquished, Buruma takes great pains to document the brutality and cruelty committed around the world. Rooted in first-person accounts—most notably, the author's own father, a Dutch student forced into labor by the Nazis—Buruma's compelling book manages to be simultaneously global in its scope and utterly human in its concerns. (Sept.)
The Wall Street Journal
[Buruma is] one of those rare historian-humanists who bridge East and West…Year Zero has a down-to-earth grandeur. Through an array of brief, evocative human portraits and poignant descriptions of events around the globe he hints, rather than going into numbing detail or philosophical discourse, at the dimensions of suffering, the depth of moral confusion and in the end the nascent hope that 1945 entailed…Year Zero is a remarkable book, not because it breaks new ground, but in its combination of magnificence and modesty. (9/27/13)
The Economist
[Buruma] displays a fine grasp of the war's scope and aftermath. Little conventional wisdom survives Mr Buruma's astringent prose. Perhaps his most important insight is that the war was not a neat conflict between two sides. The victors included villains, and the vanquished were not all Nazis. On many fronts—notably Yugoslavia—many sides were at war…Many of the consequences of victory were grim. Normality returned in the decades that followed thanks to the grit and determination of those who pushed on past the horrors of 1945. Mr Buruma's book honours their efforts. (9/28/13)
The New York Review of Books - Charles Simic
Year Zero…covers a great deal of history without minimizing the complexity of the events and the issues. It is well written and researched, full of little-known facts and incisive political analysis. What makes it unique among hundreds of other works written about this period is that it gives an overview of the effects of the war and liberation, not only in Europe, but also in Asia… A stirring account of the year in which the world woke up to the horror of what had just occurred and—while some new horrors were being committed—began to reflect on how to make sure that it never happens again. (10/10 issue)
The New York Times Book Review| - Adam Hochschild
Ian Buruma's lively new history, 'Year Zero,' is about the various ways in which the aftermath of the Good War turned out badly for many people, and splendidly for some who didn't deserve it. It is enriched by his knowledge of six languages, a sense of personal connection to the era (his Dutch father was a forced laborer in Berlin) and his understanding of this period from a book he wrote two decades ago that is still worth reading, 'The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. (9/29 issue)
The New Yorker
A very human history. (9/23 issue)
Kirkus Reviews
Insightful meditation on the world's emergence from the wreckage of World War II. Buruma (Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism/Bard Coll.; Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, 2010, etc.) offers a vivid portrayal of the first steps toward normalcy in human affairs amid the ruins of Europe and Asia. The end of hostilities left landscapes of rubble and eerie silence and an economic collapse that gave rise to countless black markets. There was widespread hunger and misery. Millions were displaced, including Buruma's grandfather, who was seized by the Nazis, forced to work as a laborer in Berlin and finally reunited with his family after the war. Many of the displaced were afraid to go home, fearful that their homes were gone or that they would be regarded as strangers. Buruma re-creates the emotions of the time: the joy that lipstick brought to emaciated women in Bergen-Belsen; the wild abandon and eroticism of the liberation; and the desire for vengeance, sometimes officially encouraged, as in Russian road signs that said, "Soldier, you are in Germany. Take revenge on the Hitlerites." By the end of 1945, after years of danger and chaos, most people yearned for a more traditional order to life. They "hungered for the trappings of the New World, however crude, because the Old World had collapsed in such disgrace, not just physically, but culturally, intellectually, spiritually." Recounting the occupations of Germany and Japan and life in the Allied nations, Buruma finds that the war was a great leveler, eliminating inequalities in Great Britain and rooting out feudal customs and habits in Japan. Despite much longing for a new world under global government, postwar life was shaped not by moral ideals but by the politics of the Cold War. An authoritative, illuminating history/memoir.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Not many people can remember the year 1945. For those of us who were born well after World War II, into a world governed, however imperfectly, by entities like the United Nations, the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and the World Bank, the scale of pure chaos during that fateful year is unimaginable. Many millions lay dead. Beyond the murder of 6 million Jews, 8 million Soviet soldiers and 16 million Soviet civilians had been killed; in China, 10 million civilians. At war's end, 8 million "displaced persons" were stuck in Germany, 3.5 million in other parts of Europe. Six and a half million Japanese were stranded in Asia and the Pacific, a million enslaved Korean workers in Japan. As Ian Buruma comments in his hair-raising account Year Zero: A History of 1945, "The scale of displacement because of World War II was especially horrendous because so much of it was deliberate, for ruthlessly political as well as ideological reasons: slave labor programs, national borders, emigration in search of Lebensraum for the German and Japanese master races, the civil wars ignited, entire populations deported to be killed or languish in exile."

And though the war had ended, the violence went on almost unabated. All over Europe and Asia vengeance was being bloodily and summarily executed: on Germans, on collaborators, on women who had fraternized with the enemy, on "class enemies," on unpopular ethnic and religious minorities. In Czechoslovakia, 10,000 German civilians were packed into a football stadium and machine-gunned. In Poland, the feared Polish Militia "killed at random, and put people in pillories, sometimes for no reason at all," in an orgy of violence Buruma likens to that of the Khmer Rouge. In Vietnam, Algeria, Syria, and Indonesia, subjugated and often starved peoples rose in fury against the colonial powers, only to be brutally suppressed. In Yugoslavia, there were "several civil wars going on at the same time fought along ethnic, political, and religious lines. Croatian Catholics versus Orthodox Serbs versus Muslim Bosnians versus Serbian royalists versus communist Partisans versus Slovenian Home Guardsmen versus Slovenian communists."

One of the most gruesome hallmarks of 1945 was the systematic use of rape as an act of terror by the victors. The Soviet army was particularly fearsome in this respect, especially in China, where Buruma likens their behavior to that of the fifteenth-century conquistadores. "The surest way to repay humiliation with humiliation is to rape the women, in public, in front of the men, who are helpless to do anything about it. It is the oldest form of terror in human conflict. Raping German women, especially those who appeared in front of the emasculated ex-warriors of the 'master-race,' made the despised Untermenschen feel like men again." Male sexual humiliation also underlay the épuration sauvage in France, during which Frenchwomen who had slept with the enemy were particular targets: a new law was even passed, against "national unworthiness," to deal with this source of shame. Of all the victims of this six-year global bloodletting, it seems that only the greatest victims, the Jews, were unwilling to seek revenge, a restraint Buruma attributes to the fact that Jewish leaders were well aware of their dependence on international goodwill in the founding of the State of Israel, which would duly be declared three years later.

Displaced persons were often forcibly returned to homelands where they faced certain death. British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, for example, promised that all Soviet citizens would be returned "whether they were willing to return or not." Hence the heartbreaking plight of the Russian Cossacks: those who did not drown or hang themselves in despair were packed by the British into sealed cattle wagons and taken over the Soviet border. Back in the homeland, those who were not executed immediately were sent to the gulag, where they soon perished. "We cannot afford to be sentimental about this," Eden wrote to Prime Minister Churchill.

How did civilization emerge from the wreckage and start to rebuild itself? It's as epic a story as that of the war itself, and Buruma, whose own father, a Dutchman, was one of the legions of displaced persons at war's end, finds an emotional thread in the tale: the search for a new internationalism that might ensure that this kind of madness would never be allowed to happen again. In May 1945 Europe and much of Asia were in ruins, but murmurs of vitality were audible, to those who could hear. One eyewitness, the playwright Carl Zuckmeyer, likened Germany to a gigantic anthill, with "a constant sensation of crawling, scratching, groping-a ceaseless coming and going, wandering, walking, crossing; the scuffing and grating of millions of shoes. This is the 'Black Market'? The world and the march of the homeless, the refugees, the scattered masses, the marauding bands of youths."

The countries that had undergone national humiliation — nearly all the belligerents, that is, except for the victorious British, Soviets, and Americans — had to construct an alternative narrative for themselves, a way that they could salvage enough national self-respect to build a future. Resistance movements, even the storied French maquis, had played at best a minor role in the military defeat of Germany and Japan. But they were purposely romanticized after the war. "Restoration of democracy," Buruma insists, "rests on such stories, for they help to rebuild not just a sense of civic morale but also of political legitimacy for postwar governments. They are the foundation myths of national revival in postwar Europe."

A canny politician like Charles de Gaulle knew how to nurture and exploit such a myth. He did so by publicly celebrating what he called, the day after Paris's liberation, "the France that fought, the only France, the real France, the eternal France" — thereby implying that his people should suppress the memory the countless collaborationists and those who simply tried to muddle through and stay out of trouble (in fact, the vast majority of the population). De Gaulle presided over a "purging" of French collaborationists that was more symbolic than real, for if every collaborationist had been removed from the industrial, political, economic, and civil service sectors the country would have ground to a halt. The policy, in France as elsewhere, was to publicize a few symbolic cases — the Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval, for instance, who was executed after a show trial — and to let most members of the Establishment quietly return to their posts. "De Gaulle mended France in the same way Japan was 'mended,' or Italy, or Belgium, or even Germany," Buruma writes: "by keeping damage to the prewar elites to a minimum."

Laval's execution was symbolic, allowing him to stand in for others at least as culpable — notably the former president, Marshal Pétain. To execute the aged Pétain, still venerated by many as a great hero of World War I, would have been bad P.R.; the unpopular Laval had to take the rap. The same was true of General Yamashita Tomoyaki in Japan, made the scapegoat for the so-called Massacre of Manila, during which up to 100,000 Filipinos were murdered by Japanese forces early in 1945. Like Laval, the sinister-looking Tomoyaki made a thug right out of Central Casting, but in fact, as Buruma shows, there was little indication that he had actually been responsible for the atrocities: "he was charged with a crime that had not existed before, namely, of not being able to stop atrocities committed by troops over whom he had no control and who deliberately went against his orders."

The Nuremberg war crimes trials were designed to avoid such symbolic and legally dubious shenanigans and to deliberately establish the due process of the law as a moral necessity. "This idea, very much espoused by Eisenhower, that knowledge of the human capacity for evil would make the rest of us behave better, that to learn about the worst would be a civilizing process, was one of the chief motives for the ensuing war crimes trials." Nuremberg eschewed the sensationalism and legal dubiety of the trials of Laval and Tomoyaki; the law was to grind on implacably, and the tedium of the trials (Rebecca West called the Nuremberg Palace of Justice "a citadel of boredom") was, paradoxically, an emblem of their probity. The example worked; the International Criminal Court in The Hague, still active today, is modeled on Nuremberg.

How to ensure that none of this could happen again? Radical programs of "reeducation" were imposed on the vanquished Axis powers. The Japanese proved enthusiastic pupils in this endeavor, ultimately embracing their new identity as an anti-militarist country, spelled out in Article 9 of their American-imposed 1945 constitution. (Indeed, the Japanese became so attached to their identity as pacifists that twenty years later, deep in the Cold War, the Americans were unsuccessful in their efforts to persuade the country to rearm as a bulwark against Communist China.) The Germans were understandably less amenable to the process, for what "was being systematically destroyed in 1945," Buruma tells us, "was German culture, along with many of the people who lived it. Old parts of the German Reich and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, some of whose great cities — Breslau, Danzig, Königsberg, Lemberg, Brï¼½n, Czernowitz, Prague — were centers of German high culture, often carried by German-speaking Jews, now had to be 'de-Germanized.' "

And what was to be put in place of the old militaristic and nationalistic structures? Some sort of internationalism, more effective than the old League of Nations, was clearly called for. A letter to The New York Times signed by numerous luminaries including Albert Einstein and J. W. Fulbright, claimed that the concept of national sovereignty was no longer viable: "We must aim," they concluded, "at a Federal Constitution of the world, a working world-wide legal order, if we hope to prevent another atomic war." This was not to be; as various countries were liberated during the course of 1944 and 1945, they were already being allotted to either the Soviet or the Western spheres of influence, or in some cases — such as Korea and Germany — being divided between them. But the necessity for some sort of supranational organization was clear, and preparations were already being laid before war's end for what was to become the United Nations.

For those of us born, like Buruma, in the postwar baby boom, our fathers' tales of "the war" haunted our childhoods even while society was changing and reformulating itself so quickly that such scenes seemed impossible to credit. "My generation," Buruma writes, was nourished by the dreams of our fathers: the European welfare state, the United Nations, American democracy, Japanese pacifism, the European Union. Then there is the dark side of the world made in 1945: Communist dictatorship in Russia and eastern Europe, Mao's rise in the Chinese civil war, the Cold War." In some places the leveling experience of the war ended forever the immemorial acceptance of vast and rigid discrepancies in income and social class; the shocking 1945 election in Britain, in which the revered war leader Churchill was unceremoniously thrown out in favor of a Labour government and a welfare state, remains the most famous example of this. Though Communist resistance movements were disarmed and excluded from power all over Western Europe, the ideals of the Left were perpetuated there by the social democrats who came to power throughout the region. The European Union, which Buruma deems the most positive outcome of the war, has for all its imperfections been effective in its most important mission: to keep its member states from going to war against one another.

Will it last? This might depend on the lessons learned from World Wars I and II. "Germans and Japanese were disenchanted with the heroic ideal," Buruma claims, with some justice. "They wanted nothing more to do with war. British and Americans, on the other hand, could never quite rid themselves of nostalgia for their finest hours, leading to a fatal propensity to embark on ill-advised military adventures so they and their nations could live like heroes once more." As the Second World War passes out of living memory, in the next twenty years or so, more and more lessons will surely be forgotten. There are already quite a few people who claim that the Holocaust never occurred, though there are still living survivors of the camps. And militaristic nationalism has clearly not left the world stage. Buruma's eloquent reminder of the global savagery that was unleashed only a couple of generations ago is timely — perhaps more than ever so, now that fewer and fewer can actually recall it.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth- Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Brooke Allen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101638699
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/26/2013
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 66,664
  • File size: 11 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Ian Buruma is the Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. His previous books include The China Lover, Murder in Amsterdam, Occidentalism, God's Dust, Behind the Mask, The Wages of Guilt, Bad Elements, and Taming the Gods.
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Read an Excerpt

Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Ian Buruma, 2013


There was something about my father’s story which baffled me for a long time. His experience of the Second World War was not a particularly unusual one for a man of his age and background. There are many worse stories, yet his was bad enough.

I was quite young when I first heard about my father’s war. Unlike some people, he was not reticent about it, even though some memories must have been painful to recall. And I enjoyed hearing them. There was also an illustration of sorts provided by tiny black-and-white photographs, stuck in an album which I retrieved from a drawer in his study for my private pleasure. They were not dramatic images, but sufficiently strange for me to wonder at: pictures of a primitive workers’ camp in eastern Berlin, of my father grimacing grotesquely to sabotage an official photograph, of officious-looking Germans in suits adorned with Nazi insignia, of Sunday outings to a lake in the suburbs, of blond Ukrainian girls smiling at the photographer.

These were the relatively good times. Fraternizing with Ukrainians was probably forbidden, but memories of those women still produce a wistful look in my father’s eyes. There are no photographs of him almost dying from hunger and exhaustion, of being tormented by vermin, of using a waterlogged bomb crater as a common toilet as well as the only available bath. But these hardships were not what baffled me. It was something that happened later, after he had come home.

Home was the largely Catholic town of Nijmegen in the east of Holland, where the Battle of Arnhem took place in 1944. Nijmegen was taken by the Allies after heavy fighting, and Arnhem was the bridge too far. My grandfather had been posted there in the 1920s as a Protestant minister to take care of a relatively small community of Mennonites. Nijmegen is a border town. You could walk to Germany from my father’s home. Since Germany was relatively cheap, most family holidays were spent across the border, until the Nazi presence became insufferable even for tourists round about 1937. Passing by a Hitler Youth camp one day, my family witnessed young boys being severely beaten by uniformed youths. On a boat trip along the Rhine, my grandfather caused (perhaps deliberate) embarrassment among German passengers by reciting Heinrich Heine’s poetic ode to the Rhine maiden, The Lorelei. (Heine was Jewish.) My grandmother decided that enough was enough. Three years later, German troops came pouring across the border.

Life went on, even under German occupation. It was, for most Dutch people, as long as they were not Jewish, still oddly normal, at least in the first year or two. My father entered Utrecht University in 1941, where he studied law. To have a future as a lawyer, it was (and to some extent still is) imperative to become a member of the fraternity, the so-called student corps, which was exclusive and rather expensive. Although socially respectable, being a Protestant minister did not earn enough to pay all my father’s bills. So a maternal uncle from the more affluent side of the family decided to subsidize my father’s social obligations.

However, by the time my father joined, student fraternities had already been banned by the German authorities as potential hives of resistance. This was soon after Jewish professors had been expelled from the universities. At Leyden, the dean of the law faculty, Rudolph Cleveringa, protested against this measure in a famous speech, his bag packed with toothbrush and a change of clothes in case of arrest, which duly came. Students, many of them from the corps, went on strike. Leyden shut down. The fraternity in Amsterdam had already been dissolved by its own members after a German ban on Jewish students.

But Utrecht remained open, and the fraternity continued to function, albeit underground. This meant that the rather brutal hazing rituals for new members had to take place in secret. First-year students, known in the corps as “fetuses,” were no longer forced to shave their heads, for this would have given them away to the Germans, but it was still customary to make the fetuses hop around like frogs, deprive them of sleep, treat them like slaves, and generally humiliate them in a variety of sadistic games that happened to catch the senior boys’ fancy. My father, like others of his class and education, submitted to this ordeal without protest. It is the way things were (and still are) done. It was, as they rather pedantically put it in Latin, mos (the custom).

In early 1943, young men were put to another, more serious test. The German occupiers ordered all students to sign a loyalty oath, swearing to refrain from any action against the Third Reich. Those who refused would be deported to Germany, where they would be forced to work for the Nazi war industry. Like 85 percent of his fellow students, my father refused, and went into hiding.

Later that year, he received a summons from the student resistance in Utrecht to return to his hometown. The reason for this remains obscure. A stupid mistake, perhaps, made in a moment of panic, or it may just have been a case of incompetence; these were students, after all, not hardened guerrilla fighters. My father arrived at the station with his father. Unfortunately, the Nazis had chosen just that moment to round up young men for labor in Germany. The platform was blocked on both sides by the German police. Threats were made that parents would be held responsible for any escapes. Worried about getting his parents in trouble, my father signed up. It was a thoughtful, but not a particularly heroic act, which still bothers him on occasion. He was transported, with other men, to a nasty little concentration camp, where Dutch thugs were trained by the SS in the savage techniques of their trade. After a brief time there, my father spent the rest of the war working in a factory in Berlin manufacturing brakes for railway trains.

This was a mixed experience, at least at first. As long as they did not actively resist the Germans, Dutch student workers were not put in concentration camps. The tedium of factory work, the shame of laboring for the enemy, and the physical discomforts of sleeping in freezing and verminous barracks even had their compensations. My father recalls attending concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Things at the Knorr Brakes factory may also not have been all that they seemed. A taciturn, dark-haired man called Herr Elisohn tended to slink away when approached by the Dutch student workers, and there were others who shunned too much contact, men with names such as Rosenthal. Much later, my father surmised that the factory might have been hiding Jews.

Things got much worse in November 1943, when the Royal Air Force started its long bombing campaign on the German capital. In 1944, the RAF Lancasters were joined by American B-17s. But the wholesale destruction of Berlin, and its people, really began in the first months of 1945, when bombs and firestorms were more or less constant. The Americans attacked by day, the British by night, and in April, the Soviet “Stalin Organs” started shelling the city from the east.

Sometimes the students managed to squeeze themselves into air-raid shelters and subway stations, not a privilege allowed to prisoners in concentration camps. Sometimes a hastily dug ditch was their only protection against the bombing raids, which, in my father’s memory, the students both welcomed and feared. One of the worst torments was lack of sleep, for the bombing and shelling never really stopped. There was a constant din of air-raid sirens, explosions, human screams and falling masonry and glass. Yet the students cheered on the Anglo-American bombers that could so easily have killed them and in some cases did.

In April 1945, the workers’ camp had become uninhabitable: roofs and walls were blown away by wind and fire. Through a contact, possibly made through one of the less Nazified Protestant churches, my father found refuge in a suburban villa. His landlady, Frau Lehnhard, had already taken in several other refugees from the wreckage of central Berlin. Among them was a German couple, Dr. Rümmelin, a lawyer, and his Jewish wife. Ever fearful of her arrest, the husband kept a revolver in the house, so they could die together if this should come to pass. Frau Lehnhard liked to sing German Lieder. My father accompanied her on the piano. It was, in his words, “a rare reminder of civilization” in the mayhem of Berlin’s final battle.

On his way to work in eastern Berlin, my father passed through the ruined streets where Soviet and German troops were fighting from house to house. On the Potsdamer Platz, he stood behind the Stalin Organs as they bombarded Hitler’s chancellery with their sinister screaming noise. It gave him a lifelong horror of big bangs and fireworks.

Sometime in late April, or possibly in early May, 1945, Soviet soldiers arrived at Frau Lehnhard’s house. Such visits usually implied gang rapes of the women, no matter how old, or young, they were. This didn’t happen. But my father almost lost his life when Dr. Rümmelin’s revolver was discovered. None of the soldiers spoke a word of English or German, so explanations for the presence of the gun were useless. The two men in the house, Dr. Rümmelin and my father, were put up against the wall to be executed. My father remembers feeling fatalistic about this. He had seen so much death by then that his own imminent end did not come as much of a surprise. But then, through one of those freakish bits of luck which meant the difference between life and death, there appeared a Russian officer who spoke English. He decided to believe Dr. Rümmelin’s story. The execution was called off.

A certain rapport was struck up between my father and another Soviet officer, a high school teacher from Leningrad. Without any language in common, they communicated by humming snatches of Beethoven and Schubert. This officer, named Valentin, took him to a pickup point somewhere in the rubble that had once been a working class suburb of western Berlin. From there my father had to find his way to a DP (displaced persons) camp in the east of the city. He was joined on his trek through the ruins by another Dutchman, possibly a Nazi collaborator, or a former SS man. Since it had been several weeks since my father had had any proper food or sleep, he could barely walk.

Before they got much farther, my father collapsed. His dubious companion dragged him into a broken building where the man’s girlfriend, a German prostitute, lived in a room up several flights of stairs. My father cannot recall what happened next; he was probably unconscious for much of the time. But the prostitute saved his life by nursing him back to a state sufficient to make it to the DP camp, where more than a thousand people of all nationalities, including concentration camp survivors, had to make do with a single water tap.

A photograph of my father taken in Holland more than six months later shows him still looking puffy from hunger edema. He is wearing a rather ill-fitting suit. It might have been the one he received from a Mennonite charity organization in the United States, which had urine stains on the trousers. Or perhaps it was a hand-me-down from his father. But, although pudgy and a little pale, in the photograph my father looks cheerful enough, surrounded by other men of his age, raising their beer mugs, mouths opened wide, cheering, or singing some student song.

He was back in his fraternity at Utrecht. This would have been in September 1945. My father was twenty-two. Because wartime initiations to the corps had occurred in secret, it had been decided by senior figures in the fraternity that the hazing rituals had to be conducted all over again. My father does not recall having to hop like a frog, or being too badly knocked about himself. This kind of treatment was reserved for younger boys who had just arrived at university, some of them perhaps fresh from camps far worse than my father’s. There may have been Jewish students among them who had been hiding for years under the floorboards of houses belonging to brave Gentiles prepared to risk their necks. But my father does not remember anyone being especially bothered about such things; no one was interested in personal stories, Jewish or otherwise; they all had personal stories, often unpleasant. As part of their initiation to the corps, the new “fetuses” were screamed at, humiliated, and even squashed into tiny cellars (a game later known in fraternity circles as “playing Dachau”).

And this is what baffled me. How could my father have put up with such grotesque behavior after all he had gone through? Did no one find this peculiar, to say the least?

No, my father said repeatedly. No, it seemed normal. That is the way things were done. It was mos. No one questioned it. He later qualified this by saying that he would have found it unseemly to have abused a Jewish survivor, but couldn’t speak for others.

It baffled me, but gradually I think I came to understand. The idea that this was normal seems to me to provide a clue. People were so desperate to return to the world they had known before the Nazi occupation, before the bombs, the camps, and the murders, that hazing “fetuses” seemed normal. It was a way back to the way things once were, a way, as it were, of coming home.

There are other possibilities. Perhaps to men who had seen serious violence, student games seemed relatively inoffensive, the healthy hijinks of youth. But it is more likely that the men who took to hazing with the greatest enthusiasm were those who had not experienced very much at all. Here was a chance to act tough, a pleasure that was all the more keenly felt if the victims were people who had been through a great deal more.


This story of my father—as I said, not as bad as many others, but bad enough—was what made me curious about what happened just after the most devastating war in human history. How did the world emerge from the wreckage? What happens when millions are starving, or bent on bloody revenge? How are societies, or “civilization” (a popular word at the time), put together again? The desire to retrieve a sense of normality is one very human response to catastrophe; human and fanciful. For the idea that the world as it was before the war could simply be restored, as though a murderous decade, which began well before 1939, could be cast aside like a bad memory, was surely an illusion.

It was, however, an illusion held by governments as much as by individual people. The French and Dutch governments thought that their colonies could be repossessed and life would resume, just as it had been before the Japanese invaded Southeast Asia. But it was only that, an illusion. For the world could not possibly be the same. Too much had happened, too much had changed, too many people, even entire societies, had been uprooted. Nor did many people, including some governments, want the world to go back to what it had been. British workers, who had risked their lives for King and country, were no longer content to live under the old class system, and voted Winston Churchill out of office just two months after Hitler’s defeat. Joseph Stalin had no intention of letting Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia restore any kind of liberal democracy. Even in western Europe many intellectuals saw communism, wrapped in the morally cozy gown of “antifascism,” as a more viable alternative to the old order.

In Asia, the incipient change was, if anything, even more dramatic. Once Indonesians, Vietnamese, Malays, Chinese, Burmese, Indians, and others too had seen how a fellow Asian nation could humiliate Western colonial masters, the notion of Western omnipotence was smashed forever, and relations could never be the same again. At the same time, the Japanese, like the Germans, having seen the vainglorious dreams of their leaders turn to ashes, were receptive to changes that were partly encouraged and partly imposed by the victorious Allied occupiers.

British and American women, whom wartime circumstances had propelled into the workforce, were no longer so content to swap their economic independence for domestic subservience. Many still did, of course, just as it took time for colonies to gain full independence. The conservative desire to return to “normal” would always vie with the wish for change, to start again from scratch, to build a better world, where devastating wars would never happen again. Such hopes were inspired by genuine idealism. That the League of Nations had failed to prevent a (second) world war did not hamper the idealism of those who hoped, in 1945, that the United Nations would keep peace forever. That such ideals, in time, turned out to be as illusory as the notion of turning back the clock does not diminish their power, or necessarily devalue their purpose.

The story of postwar 1945 is in some ways a very old one. The ancient Greeks knew well the destructive force of the human thirst for revenge, and their tragedians dramatized ways in which blood feuds might be overcome by the rule of law; trials instead of vendetta. And history, in the East no less than the West, is littered with dreams of starting afresh, of treating the ruins of war as an open building site for societies based on new ideals, which were often not as new as people thought.

My own interest in the immediate postwar period was sparked partly by current affairs. We have seen enough examples in recent years of high hopes invested in revolutionary wars to topple dictators and create new democracies. But mainly I wanted to look back in time to understand the world of my father, and his generation. This is partly, perhaps, because of a child’s natural curiosity about the experience of a parent, a curiosity that grows stronger as the child becomes older than the parent was at that time. Such curiosity is especially acute when the father was tested by hardships that the child can only imagine.

But it is more than that. For the world my father helped to create from the ruins of the war that so nearly killed him is the world that we grew up in. My generation was nurtured by the dreams of our fathers: the European welfare state, the United Nations, American democracy, Japanese pacifism, the European Union. Then there is the dark side of the world made in 1945: communist dictatorship in Russia and eastern Europe, Mao’s rise in the Chinese civil war, the Cold War.

Much of this world of our fathers has already been dismantled, or is fast coming apart at the seams. To be sure, in almost every place that was affected by the last world war, life today is far better than it was in 1945, certainly in material terms. Some of things people feared most have not come to pass. The Soviet empire has fallen. The last battlegrounds of the Cold War are on the Korean peninsula, or possibly the narrow Taiwan straits. Yet, as I write, people everywhere are talking about the decline of the West, of the United States as well as Europe. If some of the fears of the immediate postwar period have faded, so have many of the dreams. Few still believe that eternal peace will come from a kind of world government, or even that the world can be shielded from conflict by the United Nations. Hopes for social democracy and the welfare state—the very reason for Churchill’s defeat in 1945—have been severely bruised, if not dashed, by ideology and economic constraints.

I am skeptical about the idea that we can learn much from history, at least in the sense that knowledge of past follies will prevent us from making similar blunders in the future. History is all a matter of interpretation. Often the wrong interpretations of the past are more dangerous than ignorance. Memories of old hurts and hatreds kindle new conflagrations. And yet it is important to know what happened before, and to try and make sense of it. For if we don’t, we cannot understand our own times. I wanted to know what my father went through, for it helps me to make sense of myself, and indeed all our lives, in the long dark shadow of what came before.

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