1945: the fateful year when the world stepped back from war

fateful year

I wasn’t old enough in 1945 to be aware of the momentous events of that year. However, the superficial history I learned at school starting two years later ignored most of them, and much of the history I’ve read later in life focused only on a few of the highlights, and in a largely piecemeal fashion at that: the surrender of Germany and Japan, the opening of Germany’s concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the founding of the United Nations, the origins of the Cold War. Ian Buruma’s Year Zero is a global history of that fateful year, and it ably fills in a great many of the blanks.


Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma (2013) 362 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


One of the most noteworthy aspects of this excellent book is the skill the author displays in featuring little-cited comments that help bring the material to life, sometimes quoting from famous and powerful people, sometimes from more modest sources. Another outstanding aspect of this book is Buruma’s evenhandedness. On controversial topics such as the dropping of the atomic bombs or the legitimacy of the war crimes trials, he is scrupulously attentive to both sides of the debates that raged both in 1945 and in the years that followed.

Year Zero is probably best described as an informal work of history — a book intended for general readers. Much of it is social history, with extensive coverage of such topics as “fraternization” between occupation troops and local women, the conditions faced by millions of survivors trapped (sometimes for years) in “displaced person” camps, the bitter and often violent struggles between the partisans who had waged guerrilla war against Germany and the conservatives who had often collaborated with the enemy, and the hunger that swept through the nations hardest hit in the war, especially Japan and Germany. Each of these is a fascinating topic, worthy of a book in its own right (and no doubt the subject of many such books).

There are a great many surprises in Year Zero, some of them trivial, others of great consequence. For a history buff, the book may be worthwhile reading for that reason alone. Buruma did his homework.

Ian Buruma is an English-Dutch writer and academic specializing in Chinese literature and Japanese history. He has written numerous books, some of them academic, others for a general audience. He teaches at Bard College in upstate New York.

For further reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my post, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us.

You’ll also find this book listed on my post, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up).

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).

And if you’re looking for a broader view of human history, check out New perspectives on world history.

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