In 1945, four things happened: We dropped a bomb (well, two), a sailor kissed a girl, a war ended and the world got back to making automobiles, airplanes and transistor radios. Or at least, that's how most recall that year, if we think of it at all.
But reality doesn't work that way, even when we try to make it. Year Zero: A History of 1945 is Ian Buruma's stark look at the final year of World War II, when most wanted to see the world start over so that life could get better. That it did not get better, and for many became much worse, even as leaders and politicians promised the opposite, forms a central element of Buruma's account. His own father was a Dutch "DP"—a "Displaced Person"—one of millions of refugees, slave workers and concentration camp survivors scattered around Europe (and Asia) by the war. He becomes the human link to Buruma's tale, the reminder that human faces underlie the big events, and that the machinations of diplomats and dictators, however cloaked in idealistic language, have results that in the end are highly personal, whether fortunate or tragic.
This is not a book in praise of heroes; there are few, and many who might be heroes in one light are tainted by gross abuses in another. Nor is it a book that lauds a generation or a nation or even an ideal; rather it is look at reality, or at least the reality that can be recalled. At times Year Zero is as harsh as the reality it exposes; one cannot read the litany of deaths, rapes and cruelties that continued after the war supposedly ended without feeling horror, however fascinating the account may be.
And it is fascinating, not just for the tragedy it contains, but also for the seeds of hope. For as much as the book is about human reality, it is also about our unreality—the ways people find to survive, even coming to believe that perhaps the world can indeed "start over" and be better than it was before. "What is history, but a myth agreed upon?" Napoleon allegedly observed. Year Zero is a reminder that sometimes we consciously make that myth, in hopes that this time it might come true.
Howard Shirley is a writer and history enthusiast living in Franklin, Tennessee.