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Life among the ruins: A mother walks her children to school in Berlin, 1945

As a British baby-boomer (blissfully unaware of the phrase) I grew up in the afterglow of  World War II. It had been the formative experience of my parents, one who endured the Blitz and the loss of a sister to a V-1, the other a soldier who fought the Germans and the Japanese. All the adults around me seemed to have had similar experiences and shared a pragmatic optimism about the future, tempered by awareness of fallible human nature and, particularly, of the totalitarian threat.

One of the strengths of Year Zero is that it springs from Ian Buruma's personal connection with that pivotal year of 1945. His father Leo, a Dutchman from Nijmegen, worked as a forced labourer in Germany, survived the Allied bombing, near-execution by Soviet liberators, starvation and serious illness. Leo returned to Nijmegen — wrecked during the Allied drive to Arnhem the previous year — and by September had resumed his place at university, with its fraternities and drinking clubs. He was 22 years old.

Year Zero's scope is immense, encompassing the devastating lurch from total war through celebration, revenge, occupation, dislocation, reconstruction and ultimately to the postwar order — mostly benign in the West, totalitarian in Eastern Europe. Buruma brilliantly builds his canvas with many layers of personal anecdote and acute observation. The early chapters describe an anarchic interregnum which the victorious armies struggled to cope with. In many cases they made it worse: the Red Army in particular extracted a horrible revenge on the prostrate (literally, in the case of the women) German population. The appalled liberators of the concentration camps inadvertently killed many survivors by feeding them food their shrivelled digestive tracts couldn't absorb.

The victors avoided the mistakes they had made after World War I: they did not try to extract reparations from a broken and defeated enemy, and they struggled, sometimes to comic effect, to find ways to re-educate them — "to civilise the brutes".

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