A Review of Year Zero: A History of 1945

Image“An astonishing global history of the pivotal year 1945 as a new world emerged from the ruins of World War II.”

Many approaches exist to teaching World War II. The International Baccalaureate (IB) History of the Americas course approaches World War II through its causes, practices, and effects. Doing so, students in the IB History course receive a global view of World War II. This approach is still heavily focused on the military history of the war. Much like the results of World War I causing many global conflict, including World War II, the results of World War II are still impacting the world today. Unfortunately, these results are often overlooked. Teachers and students are too quick to move onto the next topic that the results are simplified.

For this reason, I picked up Ian Buruma’s book, Year Zero: A History of 1945. I hoped I could recommend it to my students as a supplement to understanding the results of World War II while providing me context for better teaching about the war. Buruma’s book is set up in three thematic sections: Liberation Complex, Clearing the Rubble, and Never Again. Within each theme, Buruma examines different regions around the world in 1945. He provides some context for his investigation outside of 1945, but he holds true to his sole focus of 1945. Topics detailed include: retribution of the victors; postwar war crimes trials internationally; the relationship between the USA and USSR that led to the Cold War, with some mention of the Potsdam and Yalta Conferences, the transfer of power in Germany, Japan, France, China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Great Britain in 1945; and some mention of displaced persons worldwide.

Buruma’s book provides clear connection between World War II and the origins of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, General MacArthur’s career, the second half of the Chinese Civil War, and the Vietnamese conflict in French Indochina. These connections, in particular, are lacking in many histories of World War Two; these are the connections necessary for students of modern world history. Buruma details them very well. I particularly appreciate the last chapter of his book, One World, in which he examines the origins of the United Nations. In this he calls for the need of a global security organization while questioning whether one can be successful. This parallels nicely with Henry Kissinger’s critique of collective security in Diplomacy.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Buruma’s book. It is a quick read, even for someone taking notes. I recommend the book for teachers and very mature readers studying the end of World War Two. The global connectedness of this book make it very applicable as a complement to studying World War Two as a topic for IB History of the Americas. Year Zero includes very graphic detail in the chapters on retribution, which make me hesitate to recommend this book for younger readers. This detail should not be ignored, but as a teacher, I would be more discreet with the detail.

Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 is an important read for anyone who wishes to understand the full implications of World War Two on the next seventy years.



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