Year Zero is a history of the events of 1945, those events that would shape the immediate post Second World War period. The book is divided into three sections titled ‘Liberation Complex’ ‘Clearing the Rubble’ and ‘Never Again’. Buruma gives an account of the various difficulties facing the world at the cessation of combat. As can be gleaned from the section heads the work details the experiences of immediate post-war emotions in section one, followed by the attempt to return to normalcy in section two and finally the attempts to protect the future from the past in section three.

Uniquely this work is commenced and terminated at the human level through the lens of S.L Buruma the author’s father who was coerced into Nazi forced-labour in a Berlin railway factory. Additionally this human-centric approach is reinforced by the experiences of Brian Urquhart, the British veteran of the Second World War, and later Undersecretary General of the United Nations. Together these two characters who as far as the book suggests never met, underline one of the oft forgotten aspects of grand historical narratives; that they are the product of human beings, be they great or small (I was throughout reminded of George McDonald Frasers description of official reports of military movements as being something like “ Section ‘A’ moved from point X to Y where in reality it was 10 tired and hungry men carrying half their bodyweight across unforgiving terrain under an unforgiving sun”[1]). Buruma does an excellent job of putting the human back in the ring and this is one of the three key features of this book.

The second is his ability to deal with a time of great global upheaval in a manner that is both detailed and diverse. Considering the events of the year and the cast of thousands, we can be forgiven to have expected broad brushstrokes or a traditional ‘great-mans history’, but the dramatis personae here range from all sections of society and from all corners of the globe, we are introduced to people as diverse as Yugoslavians, Koreans, Filipinos, and quite interestingly some Dutch from the East Indies, most of whom would normally be excused from a general work in favour of Germans, French or Polish Jews.

The third key feature is the book’s truly global in scope; there seems to be a dichotomy at work where every European event has an Asian or Middle Eastern companion. In terms of this globalism there are of course some exceptions; South America, Southern Africa, Australasia and (exposing my bias here) Ireland are all virtually ignored, but, that is acceptable when we consider that the regions covered correspond the theatres of combat and thus it makes sense to detail these.

If one were to briefly summarise the book it could be seen as a history of contrasts and contradictions, to elaborate this it must be remembered that the key point here is that despite being set in a time of high political significance is a story of humanity and human nature. The participants are flawed, be they French partisans engaging in orgiastic mob justice to hide the shame of non-resistance, or Douglas MacArthur going to great lengths to protect Emperor Hirohito from being held legally responsible for atrocities committed in his name Buruma does an excellent job of underlining the humanity in these situations.

In reinforcing this Buruma re-utilises his dialectic technique that sees him go from one point on the globe to another with great ease; however in this second sense he does it in with greater abstraction, by juxtaposing conceptual contrasts. This is seen in the debate on the aspirations of the nascent United Nations Organisation and its four freedoms, contrasted with its failure to hold the French to account for the massacre at Setif. This is explained as being one of the inherent contradictions of the post-war world, where idealism was trumped by pragmatism, though if we, like Buruma, take the long view it may be apparent that such pragmatism was probably imprudent. It is a testament to Buruma that he has written an excellent work that would easily be well suited to both non-expert general and academic readers alike. I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in modern history to go out and pick up a copy of this book.

[1] I have paraphrased this as my copy of Quartered Safe Out Here is unfortunately at home in Dublin. But the point stands that in history we tend to lose sight of the human element of the story.