The Second World War was the greatest tragedy in the history of humanity. Millions of lives were lost. Even more were displaced, and suffered long after the battles had been fought. They were forced to live in the ashes of their worlds, knowing that nothing would be the same again. Hunger, poverty, despair, public scorn, and a declining system of moral and social values – these were the issues that everyone had to face. Every country, from France to Russia, China and Japan had to undergo a long process of healing. Soldiers and civilians alike had to regain their human image and start anew.
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There is surprisingly little literature pertaining to the subject of the first years after the end of the war. Countries view the Second World War differently. Some are praising themselves for heroism and integrity, while others are trying to forget. Perhaps this is the reason why such literature has no demand – it brings out the unwanted truth. Year Zero written by Ian Buruma is one such book. It is dedicated to the desperate attempts of so many people to return to normality, to “Status Quo” as it was before the war, and reflects on various aspects of human nature that emerge during such crises. This paper will analyze two chapters of this book and contemplate the author’s message.
The third chapter of the book is called “Revenge.” As the name of the chapter suggests, it addresses the issue of vengeance that happened in all countries after the war. There were plenty of grudges to settle in blood. The prisoners of concentration camps were getting back at their jailors. The Russians were getting back at Germany for what it did to their country by raping German women en masse. Those who fought the oppressors felt scorn towards those who did not.
The collaborators were hated and shunned, personal reasons aside (Buruma 63). After the war there was violence everywhere – from Europe to Asia. However, the author delves deeper, beyond the superficial facade of righteous retribution towards those who deserve it. He addresses the issue of vengeance from all angles and discovers that there were many reasons for it. Some wanted to pay back for all the perceived wrongdoings.
Some were psychologically cracked by the war and could contain themselves no longer. The propaganda played a big role, conditioning people into committing terrible and pointless acts of violence. The specific argument this chapter offers to the reader is that the desire for revenge was driven by the darker impulses of human nature (Buruma 68). This kind of vengeance was rarely just.
The fourth chapter of the book is called “Going Home”. It addresses the issues of displacement. Almost everyone ever involved in the war was displaced. The soldiers were returning home where they were not welcome. The civilians were forced to migrate to escape repressions and hunger. The prisoners were returning from the concentration camps, only to find other people living in their homes. Reasons were numerous. The author expands on this subject and underlines the root causes of alienation. It related closely to the desire of returning to “Status Quo.” The people wanted to forget the horrors of war and to move on.
Yet they were unable to do so with all these displaced people looming about like phantoms. They were the ghosts that reminded the rest of the world about what happened, through their very existence (Buruma 105). The argument the author offers us is that the attempts to pretend the war did not exist were pointless and facetious. One could not demand a victim of a concentration camp or a soldier to erase those years of their lives from the individual or collective memory. It is a wrong and selfish thing to request from them.
The book left a deep impression on me. My knowledge about the first years after the war was lacking. Year Zero managed to fill that gap. It felt like a cold shower, a harsh rebuke to any glorified images of the Second World War. These stories, told by Ian Buruma in such an honest manner, made me reflect on the events of the past and connect them to the events happening in the present. There are still wars happening around the world.
The current crisis in the Middle East had created a massive wave of displaced people. It breeds hate and hate turns into a desire for vengeance, cloaked in all sorts of righteous excuses. Those responsible for the evils that are happening now will likely escape punishment. Retribution would only strike down the vulnerable and the defenseless. War never changes. Wars change the world. The point of Ian Buruma’s book is summarized through a quote of a young British intelligence officer:
I did not meditate that things would never be the same. I hadn’t had too much experience of the old order and did not feel I would miss it. I did think that the greatest task at hand would be to help prevent such disasters from ever happening again (247).
Buruma, Ian. Year Zero. A History of 1945. The Penguin Press, 2013.