Monday, January 20, 2014

"Year Zero" by Ian Buruma (2013)

What a book! Author Ian Buruma; whose father was a German soldier; has written a book about the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and how man’s inhumanity to man continued in the wake of the worst conflict the world has ever known. At times he even draws upon the writings of prominent German, French and Japanese authors such as Nagai Kafu and Benoite Groult to augment his narrative about post war life in the defeated countries. In doing so, he has painted a searing portrait of mankind at its worst.

As soon as the guns ceased their firing people were looking for retribution against their former tormentors; be they Nazi’s, Japanese or Russian military; all were targets of the wrath of the millions who had been crushed under the heels of fascism, or been kicked by the boots of communism. There was no middle ground, and without a doubt these retributions were long overdue.

The point of this book is, I believe, to show how inhumanity can take so many different forms. How else to explain what happened in Poland after the war, when the Polish people continued killing Jews, sometimes just to prevent them from reclaiming their homes.  With a twisted zeal the Poles went after the surviving Jews for being Communists, being Fascists, and just for being Jews. After all, hadn’t they caused this war?

In Germany, the Russians were embarked upon an orgy of rape and violence not unlike the Japanese Rape of Nanking in the 1930’s. In just about every other liberated country the scene was the same, as the newly freed turned on the people who had collaborated with the enemy.

The disparity between the Nuremburg trials and the Japanese war crime trials in the Philippines is astounding. While we executed General Yamashita for the Massacre at Manila and the Bataan Death March; events he was not even present for; we let Lt. Gen. Masaji and his assistant, Lt. Gen. Shiro; go free. These 2 men were amongst the most monstrous of the Japanese war criminals, having conducted brutal “medical” experiments on POW’s and civilians alike. Through the efforts of General Willoughby the United States took the position that these experiments were important enough to keep from the Soviets, and so they were spared. Shiro died peacefully in 1959 while Masaji went on to found Green Cross, the largest blood bank in Japan.

Sexual activity was a big part of the end of the war. It was not only an expression of relief by the people who had endured long separations from loved ones; but also an economy unto itself. In Japan the women who “worked the trade” were known as Pan Pan Girls, and they were the object of resentment by their own countrymen. The reason is primal; what could be worse than losing a war and having the conqueror take your women? It was the same in Germany with the “Ruinenmauschen”, or “mice in the ruins”, who actively sought the company of Allied soldiers in order to obtain the material goods attendant to such a relationship.

One of the most emotional points of this book comes when Bergen-Belzen is liberated. Through a typical Army supply line screw up, cases of lipstick are delivered to the survivors in place of the earnestly needed food and medical supplies. The women; some still too weak to stand; were delighted and began immediately to make an attempt to alter their grotesque appearances. The medical officer in charge stated that the lipstick just might have given these women the little boost they needed to begin reclaiming their former identities. This moved me to tears.

No matter how you slice it, war is hell. And, we never really focus on anything past the joy brought about by the end of hostilities. We all know about the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan. We all know that there was great deprivation in both Europe and Asia after the war was over. But this is the first book I have read which focuses entirely on the year 1945 and the conditions resulting from the end of the war.

For a good follow up to this book I recommend viewing the film “Germany, Year Zero”, which the author mentions and obviously influenced his work. Directed by Roberto Rossellini and released in 1948, this film follows a young German boy as he attempts to navigate life in his war torn country. Having been born and raised in the United States, books and films like these are important reminders of just how lucky we have been for so long.

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