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Year Zero: A History of 1945

Edited by Scott Moyers

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.


Other books by Ian Buruma


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.” —Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

“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.” —Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

“[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.” —The Wall Street Journal

“[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.” The Economist

“Elegant and humane…As generations with few memories of the second world war come of age in Europe and Asia, this luminous book will remind them of the importance of what Buruma terms ‘mental surgeons’, the politicians and warriors who reconstructed two continents left in rubble.” —Financial Times

“[A] very human history of ‘postwar 1945.’” —The New Yorker

“[Buruma] makes a compelling case that many of the modern triumphs and traumas yet to come took root in this fateful year of retribution, revenge, suffering and healing.” Smithsonian Magazine

“After total war with millions dead and the Shoah comes what? That is the question that propels critic and historian Ian Buruma’s panoramic history of 1945. It is a personal story for Buruma, inspired by his own father’s experience of the war and its aftermath, but with Buruma’s sharp and careful eye it becomes a window into understanding all the years since then.” —Daily Beast

“I’ve spent countless hours reading about trenches, tank battles, and dogfights, but no book had yet captured what came after all that as superbly as Ian Buruma does in Year Zero: A History of 1945. This book will change the way you think about the postwar era, i.e. ours.” —Lucas Wittmann, Daily Beast

“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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

“[An] insightful meditation on the world’s emergence from the wreckage of World War II. Buruma offers a vivid portrayal of the first steps toward normalcy in human affairs amid the ruins of Europe and Asia…Authoritative, illuminating.” Kirkus Reviews

“In 1945, the war ended, but a new world began. Taken and destroyed cities were transformed; the liberated celebrated; scores were settled; people starved; justice was and was not meted out; soldiers and refugees came home; suffering ended, or continued, or began anew. An eclectic scholar who has written on religion, democracy, and war, Buruma presents a panoramic view of a global transformation and emphasizes common themes: exultation, hunger, revenge, homecoming, renewed confidence. Though there was great cause for pessimism, many of the institutions established in the immediate postwar period—the United Nations, the modern European welfare state, the international criminal-justice system—reflected profound optimism that remains unmatched. Buruma’s facility with Asian history lends this selection a particularly internationalized perspective. But it is the story of his father—a Dutch man who returned home in 1945 after being forced into factory labor by the Nazis—that sews the various pieces together and provides a moving personal touch.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

“A brilliant recreation of that decisive year of victory and defeat, chaos and humiliation, concentrating on peoples, not states. Gripping, poignant and unsparing, Year Zero is worthy of its author in being at home in both Europe and Asia. It is a book at once deeply empathetic and utterly fair, marked by wisdom and great knowledge; the often personal tone inspired by the fate of his father, a Dutchman forced into German labor camps. In the face of so much horror, it is an astounding effort at deep comprehension. A superb book, splendidly written.” —Fritz Stern

Year Zero is the founding moment of the modern era. Ian Buruma’s history of that moment is vivid, compassionate and compelling. Buruma weaves together a tapestry of vital themes: the exultation and sexual liberation that came with victory, the vindictive settling of scores that came with defeat and the longing for a world of peace, justice and human rights after the horror of total war. His story takes in the world: from Holland to Japan, and his heroes and heroines are the ordinary men and women who picked up the pieces of a broken world and put it back together for their children and grandchildren. We are their heirs and Buruma does our parents and grandparents justice in this magnificent history.” —Michael Ignatieff

“A graphic account—well-researched,  splendidly constructed and stylishly written—of the hinge year of the twentieth century, of its horrors, hopes, illusions and roots of troubles to come. Altogether compelling—a fine achievement.” —Sir Ian Kershaw

“Ian Buruma gives a heart-wrenching account of the horrors, the unimaginable cruelties, and the sheer stupidities of the last months of World War II, and the attempts to deal with them in the first months of peace. Even after nearly seventy years, parts of his book are still almost unbearable to read. Buruma’s Dutch father improbably survived Nazi forced labor in Berlin, under allied air attack, until the German surrender; this book reflects an intimacy with the familiar dread of the forces of evil that never goes completely away.” —Sir Brian Urquhart

Author Q&A


Compared to the skinny Dutchmen or Frenchmen, or shabby, unwashed Germans, the spruce Canadians and tall Americans, well fed, well paid, sharp looking in the sexy uniforms of conquerors, must indeed have looked like gods. Not that relations between troops and local women were equal. The men had money, luxury goods, cigarettes, silk stockings, and more important, the food that people desperately needed to survive. And the many expressions of worship for the liberators suggest a potentially humiliating lack of balance. Yet to see the women who were so eager to fraternize as naïve hero worshippers, or powerless victims, would not be entirely accurate.

Benoîte Groult, who later became a popular novelist, wrote an account of her “American hunting” exploits. Groult spoke English and was one of the Frenchwomen who volunteered to fraternize through the American Red Cross. But she spent most of her evenings at clubs catering to Allied soldiers that welcomed French girls, but barred Frenchmen, clubs with names like Canadian Club, Independence, Rainbow Corner. Groult’s descriptions of American and Canadian soldiers are as adoring as those by people who thought they were gazing at saints. Except that they are amazingly down to earth, and the men are far from saintly.

She is well aware of the material benefits of having sex with an American. Lying in bed with Kurt, she remarks, is like sleeping with a whole continent: “And you can’t refuse a continent.” Afterward, they ate: “My appetite was sharpened by four years of occupation and twenty-three years of chastity, well almost. I devoured the eggs hatched two days ago in Washington. Spam canned in Chicago. Corn ripened four thousand miles from here. . . . . It is quite something, the war!”

Reading contemporary accounts, one might get the impression that the summer of 1945 was one long orgy indulged in by foreign servicemen and local women, out of greed, or lust, or loneliness. This impression might be confirmed by statistics: Five times as many women were hospitalized in Paris for venereal disease in 1945 than in 1939. High VD rates can be explained by the lack of medical supervision, or contraceptives, poor hygiene in poverty-stricken areas, or any number of other reasons. But the fact is that many women and men were simply looking for warmth, companionship, love, even marriage. Much as the early months of liberation offered the chance for wild abandon, people also longed for the return to normality. It should not be forgotten that the 277,000 legitimate Dutch births in 1946 were also the highest figure in the recorded history of the nation.

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