Book review: Year Zero, by Ian Buruma

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 December, 2013, 4:51pm

Year Zero: A History of 1945
by Ian Buruma
The Penguin Press
5 stars

Amy Russell

For a historian to shed original light on the events of the second world war and the ensuing cold war is no mean feat. To do so with character, insight, and intellect is even harder.

Ian Buruma brings us a fascinating, exploratory, and fresh view of events that reshaped the world, providing a close look at Asia and Europe after the second world war - all this without the dry, complex or jargon-packed language you might expect of an academic.

Using his "father's story" to anchor Year Zero, Buruma presents a personal angle that brings home the human side of war, offering a collection of other people's first-hand accounts and drawing on often harrowing sources to expose frightening and tragic personal tales.

The New York-based professor presents meaningful questions such as "How did the world emerge from the wreckage" of the second world war?; "What happens when millions are starving, or bent on bloody revenge?", and "How are societies … put together again?"

In the emotional and psychological societal scars, the lingering hardships and horrors, Buruma explores what an "ending" for a war of such scale truly means. Focusing on the post-war collective desire for normalcy, he reveals the truth of a world that has changed forever: a world of displacement, demilitarisation and disillusion. "Return", for example, becomes a weighted word, ripe with mixed emotions and the complicated identities of people in the war and the identities they take home.

Left with a combination of "gratitude and anxiety … [about] an increasingly divided world", the people of 1945 exemplify here the perseverance of the human spirit, and the acknowledgement that sometimes just getting on with life and moving forward is all that can be done. As for his readers, Buruma leaves us grappling with questions of morality among the ruins of fractured post-war societies.

In this stark account, Buruma evokes emotion and empathy in the various post-war narratives he presents, providing an almost psychological exploration of what kinds of things motivate actions and feelings in a post-war clime.

With the cold war escalating in the wake of the world war, Year Zero shows us social, political and cultural transformation on a global scale: the end of the war giving rise to the United Nations, decolonisation and the European Union.

Year Zero is a superb book in which Buruma takes us on a poignant journey through the lives and events of 1945, while inviting us to dwell on the larger repercussions and things to come. We are advised to remember that history itself is "all a matter of interpretation".