16 Following

Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

Year Zero: A History of 1945 - Ian Buruma The subject of the immediate post-World War II period has been popular in history books in recent years, including William I. Hitchcock's The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, Tony Judt's Postwar and Tony Judt's The Politics of Retribution in Europe. These are all excellent, well-documented histories.

Even if you've read all those books, I would still recommend Ian Buruma's Year Zero. This is a particularly readable and compelling treatment of 1945, the year when history reset after World War II, what historian Max Hastings called the greatest and most terrible event in human history. Buruma's book is short by comparison to Judt's and Hitchcock's; not surprising, since it focuses in on that one year. It is also a less academic treatment, and it goes for the gut at least as much as the mind. Buruma organizes the subject as follows:

Part One: Liberation Complex
2. Hunger
3. Revenge

Part Two: Clearing the Rubble
4. Going Home
5. Draining the Poison
6. The Rule of Law

Part Three: Never Again
7. Bright Confident Morning
8. Civilizing the Brutes
9. One World

The revenge chapter was particularly interesting, with Buruma beginning with the provocative statement that the desire for revenge is as human as the need for sex or food. His observations about the need "to overcome humiliation and restore masculine pride" after the war, and its place in some of the vengeful attacks are insightful. He recounts a number of hair-raising stories from all over the world, including Germany and Poland, of course, but also from France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands, Greece and several locations in Southeast Asia. In fact, the amount of information in this book about the Pacific Theater and Southeast Asia distinguishes it from most other World War II histories.

The use of anecdotes in works of history can be misleading, or a lazy way of making a point. It doesn't feel that way with Buruma, who makes his points and uses anecdotes as illustration, not evidence. Some of the anecdotes are just stunning; for example, the story of Ernst Michel, a young Jewish man from Mannheim, who was taken from his home on September 2, 1939, just the second day of the war, and spent the entire war in forced-labor camps, ending up in the Auschwitz Buna/Monowitz camp and then the death march to Buchenwald. Soon after liberation, he was given a job with the U.S. Army and then became a correspondent for the German General News Agency and was assigned to report from the Nuremberg Trials, where his dispatches were bylined with both his name and his Auschwitz number.

Simple but never simplistic, this is popular history well worth reading, whatever your level of knowledge about World War II and its aftermath.