Oh, What a Lovely War!

Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos
Children playing among the ruins in Freiburg, Germany, 1945
In a certain sense, the ideas are villains and the people their hapless victims.
—Mary McCarthy

“How empty, how sickish, how senseless everything suddenly seems the moment the war is over!” Edmund Wilson—who had opposed US involvement in World War II—said after a visit to England in 1945. If London looked grim, the appearance of Berlin, Cologne, Warsaw, Stalingrad, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and hundreds of other places, both in Europe and Asia, defied description. Just in Germany, where British planes attacked by night and American planes by day, the Allies dropped nearly two million tons of bombs, leaving cities and towns reduced to smoldering ruins reeking of death. There were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden. “The first thing,” Ian Buruma writes in Year Zero: A History of 1945, “that struck many visitors in the early months after the war was the eerie silence.”

The buildings that remained standing often had some of their floors caved in and their windows blown out from the explosions. There were no more sidewalks since piles of debris lay where houses once stood. The survivors searched through the ruins for anyone still alive and for something to eat. At night, because electricity and gas no longer worked, people groped about with flashlights and candles, sticking to the middle of the street to avoid collapsing walls, leaking water pipes, and the twisted wreckage of civilian and military vehicles.

When the German officers were signing their surrender on May 8, 1945, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel told the Russians that he was horrified by the extent of the destruction wrought on Berlin, whereupon a Russian officer asked Keitel whether he had been equally horrified when on his orders thousands of Soviet villages and towns were obliterated and millions of people, including many children, were buried under the ruins. Keitel shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

The numbers of dead in German cities were staggering, but they were equally ghastly elsewhere. Some 43,000 died in London during the Blitz, 100,000 in Tokyo in 1945, and over 200,000 perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I’ve lost everything. Everything!” people were heard to say. Many of them had lost not only their possessions but also their families, their homes, and their countries. With anywhere from 50 million to 70 million dead in World War II, a great majority of them civilians, the scale of human misery was so vast and so widespread that comparisons are useless and misleading, since rounded-off figures, which are often nothing more than educated guesses, convey the horror on an abstract level, while concealing the fates of individual human beings. A number like 50,000,001 would be far more terrifying to see, since that one additional man, woman, or child would restore reality to the 50 million others.

As is well known, there was an immense outpouring of joy on the day Germany capitulated, not just in the countries that had won the war, but also among millions of occupied people who were now free. In Paris, a US bomber pilot thrilled the crowd by flying his plane through the gap under the Eiffel Tower. Cities that were either completely blacked out during the war, or like New York had known “dim-outs” and then “brownouts,” were flooded with light while 500,000 people celebrated in the streets.

I’m old enough to remember May 9, 1945, in Belgrade and the jubilation as the news came over the radio. Even old women I had never seen smile and men who had lost an arm or a leg in the war were beaming and chatting amiably outside of buildings pockmarked with bullets. The liberators everywhere were greeted with flowers and kisses. I got a ride in a Russian tank, and so did some girls in my neighborhood. The common reaction was that we’ve survived, though in many families there was someone dead or missing and no idea whether he or she was alive. Buruma’s father, who had been conscripted by the Nazis in Holland to work in a factory in Berlin, was also not heard from in the confusion of the final months of the war, and my father, whom we would not see for ten years, was, unknown to us, in Milan after being freed from a Gestapo prison by the arrival of American troops.

“Scenes Worthy of Dante,” the Times headline said after the concentration camps were liberated and the photographs of the piles of corpses and of the survivors, who themselves didn’t look much better than the corpses, were first published. In London, moviegoers unable to stomach atrocity newsreels tried to walk out of a movie theater only to be blocked by British soldiers who told them to go back and face it. No one yet had any idea how many Jews were put to death by the Nazis or that some 60 million people had perished in the war. On top of that, there were eight million uprooted people in Germany, three million more in other parts of Europe, six and a half million Japanese stranded in Asia and the Pacific, a million Korean workers still in Japan, and countless POWs wherever the war was fought.

If the scale of human misery was unimaginable in 1945, it is not easier to grasp today. Perhaps the reason we never learn from history is that we are incapable of picturing the reality of war and its aftermath, for fear that if we did, we would stop believing both in God and in our fellow human beings.

With men in defeated and occupied countries either absent or demoralized, the Allied soldiers who arrived as liberators, wearing nice uniforms and handing out luxury items like Hershey bars and cigarettes, were greeted by young girls and some older women the way the Beatles, as Buruma says, were treated twenty years later when they first became popular. Here are a few statistics:

Reading contemporary accounts and comments in the press, one might get the impression that the summer of ’45 was one long orgy indulged in by foreign servicemen and local women, out of greed, or lust, or loneliness. The impression appears to be confirmed by statistics: five times more women were hospitalized in Paris for sexually transmitted diseases (aka VD) in 1945 than in 1939. In Holland more than seven thousand illegitimate babies were born in 1946, three times the number in 1939….
The fact is that many women and men were simply looking for warmth, companionship, love, even marriage. Much as the early months of liberation offered the chance for wild abandon, people also longed for a return to normality. It should not be forgotten that the 277,000 legitimate Dutch births in 1946 constituted the highest figure in the recorded history of the nation.

Relief workers were shocked at the feverish sexual activity in DP camps—the low moral standards and unrestrained debauchery among the survivors of death camps, and the number of babies born to them every month the following year. The relief workers did not understand their all-consuming want of affection and need to prove to themselves that they were still alive. Buruma reports a story about hundreds of starving, horribly emaciated, newly liberated women in Bergen-Belsen receiving, owing to some British army screw-up, not food and medicine, which they badly needed, but a shipment of large quantities of lipstick. It most certainly lifted their spirits. At last someone had done something to make them look like women again. They hobbled around, barely able to walk, wearing nothing but a threadbare blanket over their shoulders, but with their lips painted scarlet.

In defeated countries, women also sold themselves, because there was no other way to keep themselves and their families alive. I remember being more hungry after the war than during it. I’d come home from school and ask my mother what there was to eat and she’d burst into tears. Of course, there was a black market. Even during the siege of Berlin, I was told, if you could pay with gold or diamonds, you could dine on fois gras and French champagne in your private bomb crater.

It was like that after the war too. People searched their homes for something valuable to barter—a silk dress made in Paris, grandma’s wedding plates and silverware, an old oil painting, preferably with some naked ladies—and then sought some shady character or a yokel rumored to have cash, hoping to come home with a slab of bacon or a chicken. Often, these fellows were not interested in what you had to trade—or if the woman happened to be attractive, they suggested a roll in the hay to help them make up their mind. An American reporter observed the following scene on a marshy plot of land near Hamburg: an elderly German man in a business suit was seen clubbing a duck to death with his cane. In parts of Asia it was even worse. Parents offered their babies for sale.

The prospect of famine and pandemics was quite real not just in defeated nations, but in the recently occupied ones. In Japan, where the population had already been starving well before the war ended, government authorities “were advising people how to prepare meals from acorns, grain husks, sawdust (for pancakes), snails, grasshoppers, and rats.” Germany had to find a way not only to feed its citizens and returning soldiers, but to deal with ten million ethnic Germans who were expelled after the war from their native lands in Eastern Europe with the full approval of the Allied governments. Understandably, there was little sympathy among the victors. Russians had fresh memories of millions of their own prisoners being deliberately starved by the German army, and the thought of cutting British rations and spending more tax dollars in Washington to feed former enemies was not popular.

Still, something urgently had to be done. “Hungry people are fertile fields for the philosophies of the anti-Christ and for those who would make God of the omnipotent state,” a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania warned Congress. Against all expectations, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was formed to help victims of German and Japanese aggression and undeniably saved millions from starvation, including me.

Buruma wrote Year Zero, he tells us, to look back in time and understand the world of his father and his generation, how millions emerged from this catastrophe and restored their societies and countries to normalcy, believing as they did that a new and better world could be created from the ashes of the old with the collapse of Nazism and fascism. Before that could take place, however, there were scores to settle with the occupiers and collaborators by people bent on revenge:

In Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1945, near the town of Budweis (Česke Budějovice), best known for its fine beer, was a concentration camp with a sign nailed to its main gate which read: “An Eye for an Eye, a Tooth for a Tooth.” The camp was now under Czech control. It was filled with German prisoners, most of them civilians. The Czech commandant, a young man with a savage reputation, made the Germans work twelve hours a day on minimal rations, then woke them in the middle of the night and ordered them to the Appelplatz where they were made to sing, crawl, beat each other, dance, or any other torment that amused the Czech guards.

If this comes as a shock, one must not forget that given the opportunity, sadists in every ethnic group will have their fun. It would not surprise me to learn that some of these Germans were completely innocent and some of their torturers were Nazi collaborators. That was often the case. For turncoats, pointing fingers at others always comes easy. Hunting for traitors and leading lynch mobs was one way to cover up one’s guilty past. Germans, in addition, were so hated that no one was likely to come to their defense. “At Dachau,” Buruma writes,

American soldiers stood by as SS guards were lynched, drowned, cut up, strangled, or battered to death with spades, and at least in one case beheaded with a bayonet lent by a GI to a former inmate for this purpose.

Red Army troops were explicitly told to show no pity. “If you kill one German, kill another—there is nothing funnier for us than a pile of German corpses,” Marshal Zhukov stated in an order of January 1945. Collective guilt, whatever form or justification it takes, has to be one of the most evil notions the human brain has concocted, most likely the cause of more suffering of innocents than any other vile belief in history.

Among the worst examples recounted in Year Zero (and there are enough of them in the book to make even those who already hold a low opinion of our species lower it some more), the pogroms of Jews in postwar Poland were so despicable that they sound improbable, except they did happen. Here were Polish Jews, three million of whom were exterminated by the Germans, tormented by another suffering people who themselves had gone through hell and had almost as many killed during the war:

In August 11, 1945, a rumor started in Krakow that Jews had killed a Christian child in the synagogue. This was an updated version of an age-old anti-Semitic canard. People spoke darkly of Jewish survivors using Christian blood to revive their ravaged health. Soon, a mob gathered, led by policemen and militiamen. The synagogue was attacked, Jewish homes were plundered, and men, women and children were beaten up in the streets. Several people (the exact number is not known) were murdered….
Badly wounded Jews were taken to the hospital, where some of them were assaulted again while awaiting surgery. One female survivor recalls “the comments of the escorting soldier and the nurse, who spoke about us as Jewish scum whom they had to save, and that they shouldn’t be doing this because we murdered children, that all of us should be shot.” Another nurse promised to rip the Jews apart as soon as surgery was over. A railway man at the hospital remarked: “It’s a scandal that a Pole does not have the civil courage to hit a defenseless person.” This man, true to his word, proceeded to beat a wounded Jew.

The Allies, too, did some awful things. They expelled from Germany thousands of Russians and other citizens of the Soviet Union who were prisoners of war, or were brought there to be slave workers, or had fought in General Vlasov’s anti-Soviet army, none of whom wanted to return home. Lord Selborne, minister of economic warfare, cautioned Churchill that handing these people back to Russia would mean certain death for them. Nevertheless, it was done. If they couldn’t trust them to get into the cattle cars and trucks, battle-hardened British soldiers, often in tears themselves, had to prod, beat, and use their bayonets to make them comply.

In a Cossack camp in Austria, after being ordered to board a train, thousands of men, women, and children came together in a massive huddle around their priests in full Orthodox regalia, carrying an altar, a large cross, and icons while praying and singing psalms. Their hope was that the soldiers would not assault their fellow Christians at prayer. They were wrong. Everyone was beaten, the weeping children, the screaming women, and even the priests who held their crosses over their heads. Without delay they were shipped to the Soviet Union along with the other Russians, where they were either summarily executed or sent to the Gulag, which only a few of them survived.

As Buruma points out, population transfers, mass expulsions, and shifting borders were commonplace in the policies of Stalin and Hitler, but Churchill’s precedent was the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, when it was agreed to move Greek Muslims to Turkey and Greek Orthodox Turkish citizens to Greece. After the war, this was done not just to Germans and Russians who were expelled en masse, but to countless individuals who found themselves without papers in a foreign country and did not wish to go back to where they came from.

My mother, my brother, and I were sent back to Communist Yugoslavia by the British in 1948 after illegally crossing into Austria, even though our father was living in Italy and working for the American army. Notwithstanding our ripped clothes and grubby appearance after two days of hiking through the Slovenian Alps, the colonel who interviewed us asked to see our passports. My mother replied that had we had passports, we would have taken a sleeping car. Her words made no impression on him. Once you have no papers, you do not exist. Anyone in authority can do what he wishes with you, as millions found out after the war.

Were the Allied governments and the more thoughtful members of the occupation forces the ones who got Germany and Japan back on their feet? They without doubt had an important part in restoring democratic institutions and changing some minds, but as we discover in Year Zero, that is not the whole story. Curing collective madness and restoring the economy, it turns out, involve many factors. Once defeat sinks in, and the lies people lived on for years lose their power to delude them, civic virtues and renewed interest in the welfare of fellow citizens begin to flourish.

Even that, however, was not enough. The Allies realized almost immediately that the industrial and banking elites in Germany and Japan, who had by and large handsomely profited from the various criminal enterprises their countries were engaged in, including vast empires of slave labor camps, had to be brought back to run things. A few prominent people in Germany served short prison sentences that were typically further reduced; they grumbled afterward about the mediocre food and the inferior quality of the wines they had to endure during their confinement. Their Japanese counterparts were spared even that humiliation before being restored to their former eminence.

A Japanese doctor named Shiro Ishii—whose biological warfare unit in Manchuria conducted experiments on Chinese, Russian, and American POWs by injecting bubonic plague, cholera, and other diseases into them, and then cutting them open without anesthetic and removing their organs for study—managed to convince his interrogators, led by an American general, that the data culled from his experiments would be of great interest to the US. He received immunity from prosecution and additional support when army microbiologists back in the States found his research invaluable.

Year Zero is a relatively short book that covers a great deal of history without minimizing the complexity of the events and the issues. It is well written and researched, full of little-known facts and incisive political analysis. What makes it unique among hundreds of other works written about this period is that it gives an overview of the effects of the war and liberation, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. There the defeat of Japan and the collapse of its short-lived empire accelerated and broadened the civil war in China and set in motion revolts against the colonial masters by native populations across the hemisphere. These consequences of the fall of the Japanese empire are still inadequately known. Unlike many recent books about World War II, Buruma’s doesn’t have a revisionist interpretation of history to advance. What he has here, instead, is a stirring account of the year in which the world woke up to the horror of what had just occurred and—while some new horrors were being committed—began to reflect on how to make sure that it never happens again.

Was this then a “good war,” as we still like to call it? As one of those who had the privilege of being bombed by both the Germans and the Allies, I cringe every time I hear it called that, while never doubting for a minute that the war had to be fought. Still, reading page after page of Buruma’s descriptions of death and destruction and the millions of innocent and now long-forgotten victims who were left in its wake, I can’t help but cringe some more. How is it possible, I ask myself, that out of all the winners and losers in 1945, the United States is the only country in all the years since that has not experienced lasting peace, but has grown more and more enamored of military solutions to world problems and has of late come to believe, at least in some high places, that it may have to fight a global war that will go on for decades, if not forever? If anyone needs a fresh reminder of where the illusion of omnipotence and its companion, folly, lead to, with savage and often unintended consequences, this book by Ian Buruma ought to provide plenty of corroboration.