Year Zero: A History of 1945

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 sixteenth-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, Brünn, 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.