ian buruma’s “Year Zero”

Cover00Siddhartha Mahanta at Bookforum:

Vichy France was a disgusting place. Harper's readers were reminded of that in the October issue of the magazine, which included an excerpt from a 1945 handbook for American soldiers in occupied France. It featured useful tips on navigating filthy streets (where “the acute shortage of gasoline prevents refuse trucks from making daily rounds”), making do with corroded plumbing systems, and coping with villagers' “malodorous custom of piling manure in front of houses.” These descriptions set the stage for Ian Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945, which illustrates in harrowing detail how forging a new world order out of the remains of war can be nasty business. One might have expected that the end of World War II would have immediately ushered in a period of international peace. Buruma demonstrates that before it did, the world descended into a brutal free-for-all, full of reprisal killings against religious and ethnic minorities, political disarray, and carnal excess.

What Buruma delivers in Year Zero is a counter-narrative to the widely accepted idea of 1945 as a year of global reconciliation. At the close of the war, the victors were faced not only with the problems of widespread starvation and ruined cities, but also with the task of creating a new political and economic order, and of resolving (or at least learning to manage) old rivalries.

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