Sunday, October 12, 2014

A son and historian's attempt to understand the world of his father (Books - Year Zero by Ian Buruma)

Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945 (The Penguin Press, 2013), as is clear from its title, is a history written from the perspective that the legacy of World War II was so uniquely pervasive that it reset the clock.  The immediate post-war political,cultural, and moral spheres may be said to have been newly created out of the devastation of  that experience.  If you lived on earth in the 1940s, you were on one side of the moral battle or the other, and you were unlikely by its end to have been untouched by death as a result of it, as I have written before here.  I was drawn to this book because, aside from what I know of the quality of Buruma's storytelling, this book was said to use the story of Buruma's father, a Dutchman imprisoned by the Nazis in Berlin, and his subsequent journey home through a ravaged Europe, as a touchstone, and I am drawn to the use of personal narrative as a device which can turn intellectual interest into experiential engagement.  Buruma does write about his father as an inciting reason for his seeking understanding about this period in history in the prologue, setting the stage for a literary driving force like that in Greek tragedy, as Buruma himself recognizes:
The story of postwar 1945 is in some ways a very old one.  The ancient Greeks knew well the destructive force of the human thirst for revenge, and their tragedians dramatized ways in which blood feuds might be overcome by the rule of law; trials instead of vendetta.  And history, in the East no less that the West, is littered with dreams of starting afresh, of treating the ruins of war as an open building site of societies based on new ideas, which were often not as new as people thought.

This could have actively driven the reader's interest had Buruma's curiosity and its accompanying emotion been fully integrated as a literary motif, but while Buruma recognized the opportunity he did not entirely succeed in realizing it.  Year Zero is nonetheless, effectively structured due to Buruma's interest in the kind of world created by his father's generation in the wake of the War.
...the world my father helped to create from the ruins of the war that so nearly killed him is the world that we grew up in.  My generation was nurtured 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 Russian and eastern Europe, Mao's rise in the Chinese civial war, the Cold War.

Much of this world of our father has already been dismantled, or is fast coming apart at the seams...
The volume that follows is an argument, based on the idea that the exultation of victory, hunger resulting from deprivation, and desire for revenge fueled a world in which the combined loss and euphoria had the potential to unleash continued destruction and lawlessness.  The political structures which arose from those circumstances began with Allied efforts to create conditions in which people, particularly among them the Jews, would feel it right to return home. This included the imposed demilitarization and democratization of Germany and Japan.  Subsequently, the rule of law was invoked to punish Fascists and their collaborators in other countries.  In some cases, this amounted to the prosecution of tens of thousands of people.  Buruma's analysis of the Communists is nuanced in that he reduces them neither to either angels nor demons.  While in the United States, the Communists quickly became the postwar enemy, and in Russia Communists became the next persecutor of the Jews, in many countries communism had been the only choice available to fight the fascists.  This laid the foundation for many postwar European socialist or communist governments as well as the ensuing political struggles of the postwar world, like the Korean and Vietnam wars.  An innovation in the postwar period was the application of the rule of law in addressing the Nazi genocide with the Nuremberg trials.  This was the first attempt to invoke justice on an international basis, the legacy of which has included such bodies as the International Criminal Court in the Hague and the United Nations - structures meant to create a legal entity to enforce international standards of morality and decency, even in the context of war.  One could argue that such unifying vision also presaged the creation of the European Union.  Out of a world of chaos, Buruma argues, order had to be created.  The political legacy of World War II in the United States was a mileu in which law and strong government were seen as the solution rather than the impediment to pursuit of one's happiness and exercise of one's liberties.  But if this legacy was the product of having lived through World War II, Buruma acknowledges that later generations are creating their world out of a new context.  Year Zero seems neither nostalgic nor celebratory, rather its goal is creating an understanding of how such structures evolved out of their history and is reflective about their transience.

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