I wrote recently in my novel Above the Water, "the most dangerous times during a war are at the end. That is when the discipline that has been strictly maintained starts to crumble." The Dutch writer Ian Buruma, who has written several eloquent histories about East Asia, takes a look at the latter half of 1945, when after six years of world war the peoples of the combatant nations began moving around again. In “Year Zero,” which Buruma uses to describe the restart of the world after the long conflict, hunger, sickness, and the burning desire for revenge all drove the desperate peoples of Europe and East Asia to continue committing atrocities, even after the rumble of artillery and air raids had stopped. It's a fascinating look at the moral ambiguities that are shaded grey, which often emerge after the black and white realities of war no longer apply.
Buruma gained an interest in this theme after hearing the stories of his father who was sent from occupied Holland to Berlin to work as a laborer during the war. The elder Buruma barely managed to survive Allied air raids and the Soviet storming of the city in the spring of 1945. The younger Buruma tells the story of soldiers and civilians finally coming home. Some came home to a country under foreign occupation. Others came home to devastated towns with no jobs and no food. Inevitably, vigilante justice emerged in many nations that had been under Nazi or Japanese occupation. French and Dutch citizens shaved and tarred the heads of women that had collaborated, or merely slept, with German soldiers. Citizens of Czechoslovakia meted out ‘justice’ on German civilians that had lived in the Sudetenland for generations, killing thousands of elderly people, women, and children as they were sent back to their ‘homeland’ in Germany. Soviet troops raped their way across Eastern Germany, carrying out Stalin’s dictum: “Two eyes for an eye!” The French soldiers who occupied southwestern Germany were no gentler to the women of that region.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia and North Africa, the Allies were busy attempting to reimpose colonialism. French forces in Algeria killed more than 30,000 Algerians while re-taking possession of this colony. The Dutch carried out offensive actions in Indonesia, burning villages and killing off the opposition. Ironically, the smoothest and least violent imposition of a new order took place under the U.S. occupation authorities in Japan. What had been one of the most visceral and fierce theaters of battle, turned on the broadcast of a reedy voice by a leader that had never been heard before by his subjects. A quarter of a million U.S. troops brought democracy, suffrage to women, economic reform, and eventually the ‘miracle’ recovery of Japan.
Year Zero is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in World War II, political transformation, decolonization, or simply the faults of human beings when being forced to confront almost overnight new realities, new systems, and new forms of government.