A study of the months following WW2

2014-05-07 00:00

THE HAGUE — Born to a Dutch father and a British mother, Ian Buruma was first known as a specialist in Japan and Asia, pursuing an eclectic career that included acting and dancing in seventies Tokyo.

He spoke to Reuters at the Writers Festival in The Hague, where he grew up, about his latest book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, which is a study of the days and months that followed the end of World War 2 around the world.

In France, he writes, liberation was accompanied by an orgy of sexual bingeing, as fit and well-fed American and Canadian soldiers out-competed their war-weakened French rivals for women’s attention. In some of southeast Asia, the violence of the war continued as decolonisation was set in train.

It was also the year in which the foundations for the modern world were laid, with the establishment of the welfare state in Britain and former belligerents in Europe making the first moves towards establishing what became the European Union. Further afield, the United Nations took its first faltering steps.

Buruma, a Dutch citizen who now lives in New York, has twice been voted one of the world’s Top 100 public intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines.

What made you write Year Zero: A History of 1945?

One reason was that we’ve seen several wars of choice unleashed by the United States and assisted by Britain in the Middle East, and all the people who were in charge of those wars were of a generation that hadn’t had any personal memories of World War 2.

The leaders themselves, but also their intellectual boosters, the neocons, talked about war and the use of military force in a rather lazy manner, as if you could get rid of a dictator and then things sort themselves out.

There was an idealism about building a better world in 1945, a more equal one. Winston Churchill was voted out and the Labour prime minister Clement Attlee came in. That year saw a boost to social democracy and the welfare state.

With the idea of European unity and the United Nations, there was a strong and idealistic sense of building a better world. That idealism is certainly gone, which is another reason I thought it would be good to pay attention to that year.

Why does the book have such a melancholic mood?

It doesn’t make you feel very cheerful about human nature and human behaviour.

The aftermath of the war showed that people who have been victimised themselves can very quickly become aggressors and that the capacity for violence and malice is there constantly.

The stories of post-war violence are an antidote to the way most of us in Western Europe grew up, those of us in the post-war generation, who believed the end of the war was all sweetness and light, dancing in the streets.

And do you see any lessons from your book?

I’m sceptical about learning lessons from history. But one is perhaps that any violent intervention is going to have unintended consequences that are difficult to deal with.

I have no doubt about the justice of fighting a war of self-defence, but I am increasingly sceptical about using military force, even in the name of humanitarianism. In the early 2000s, people were too careless about it.

Do you see any reasons to be optimistic about the world we live in?

No, not really. You could say it’s become unthinkable that Germany and France will go to war again in any foreseeable future, so the source of serious conflict in Europe has probably been pacified and that’s a great thing.

But I think we’re in a very difficult period with the Middle East, tensions in east Asia, the fact that the U.S.’s role as world policeman is coming to an end and probably should come to an end, and the fact that Russia is becoming more authoritarian.

Capitalist economies are creating more and more inequalities, while European politics is being poisoned by a populism to which the mainstream parties don’t really have an answer. I’m not saying it’s all going to end in Armageddon, but I think we’re in a very difficult place.

— Reuters.

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