In the last couple of years, I’ve read several books about the aftermath of World War Two, including Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Ronald Spector’s In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia, and David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II. When you concentrate on the combat side of war, you can easily miss the destructive side-effects of that combat and it’s hard to imagine how long it can take for a city or a region to recover from being a battlefield. What is even more interesting is the complex interplay of humanitarian, political and social pressures on the winning side, too often leading to actions that we would have called war crimes if they’d happened just days or weeks earlier. In the New York Times, Adam Hochschild looks at an interesting new book covering the immediate postwar period:
Ian Buruma’s lively new history, Year Zero, is about the various ways in which the aftermath of the Good War turned out badly for many people, and splendidly for some who didn’t deserve it. It is enriched by his knowledge of six languages, a sense of personal connection to the era (his Dutch father was a forced laborer in Berlin) and his understanding of this period from a book he wrote two decades ago that is still worth reading, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. His survey rambles over a wide expanse of ground, from sexual behavior (imagine millions of Allied occupation troops in a Germany where women outnumbered men by eight to five), to British and American soldiers unintentionally killing thousands of liberated concentration camp inmates by feeding them more than their shriveled intestinal tracts could handle, to the Allies’ blindness to how much of their cornucopia of food and supplies found its way into the hands of Italian, French and Japanese gangsters, restoring some of their prewar power.
Despite the lofty democratic aura of World War II, Buruma points out that the Allies spent much of the latter half of 1945 reviving colonialism. After Algerian Arabs began an uprising on V-E Day, demanding equal rights, some of the troops the French governor general called in to suppress them included an elite infantry regiment that had just taken part in the final assault on Germany. Rebellious towns and villages were bombed, or shelled by naval vessels; in two months of fighting as many as 30,000 Algerians may have been killed. Thousands were made to kneel before the French flag and beg forgiveness.
On the other side of the world, inhabitants of the Dutch East Indies demanded freedom just after the Japanese surrender. But the Dutch government answered with troops, aided by soldiers from Britain’s large Indian Army, British battleships and abundant American military supplies. Fighting continued for four years. And in Vietnam, where a crowd of more than 300,000 gathered to hear Ho Chi Minh declare independence from France, the story would of course eventually become even bloodier. In 1945 British troops were crucial to restoring the colonial order in Vietnam, with help from French Foreign Legion detachments. These included many German volunteers, recruited from P.O.W. camps, who had recently been fighting the Allies in Europe or North Africa.
Meanwhile, the victorious Allies were uprooting some 10 million ethnic Germans from parts of Eastern Europe, where they had lived for generations, and forcing them to move to a shrunken Germany, with perhaps a half-million or more dying in the process from hunger, exposure or attacks by vengeful neighbors. Buruma, like others before him, notes the paradox of the Allied armies carrying out something that echoed “Hitler’s project . . . of ethnic purity.”