THE Cambodians called it chhnam saun, ‘Year 0’. Zero: the gaping digit, the sign of non-existence but also the beginning when the Khmer Rouge regime tried to brutally wipe Cambodia’s past and to eliminate all traces of it. From 1975-1979, the time of The Killing Fields—a million people were killed in the name of communism and the future. The figure ‘0’ signified the end and the radical beginning. History was being broken.
Ian Buruma’s year zero is 1945. World War II, which killed 75 million people, had ended. In his book Year Zero: A History of 1945, a fascinating record of life at this break in history, Buruma relates a situation of destruction, crawling with confusion towards something new. Like Europe’s thousands of grand edifices crushed by bombs, many valuable things were lost. Meanwhile, the replacement, the post-war mood of ‘normality’, brought with it its own tragedies.
Buruma was born in 1951 in The Hague. He is renowned as a non-fiction writer who skillfully combines rich data with fascinating narration, while including a perspective that is generally direct, without illusion, but eye-opening.
We expect Buruma, the Dutchman renowned for ‘knowing Asia’ (he studied at Leiden University and Nihon), to have a lot to say about Indonesia, especially when he speaks about 1945. But no. Year Zero, which was published in 2013, is not a record of decolonization. True, he does speak about liberation, but not in the form of shouts of joy. Nor with the heroism of anti-German Nazism, anti-Japanese fascism, or anti-European colonialism in Asia. The year 1945, in this book, is the year of wounds, hunger, revenge, and moral confusion.
Of Indonesia, Buruma has little to say—and what he does say is linked to the theme of Europe: revenge. The Dutch—who in Europe were occupied by the Germans, and in Indonesia were easily defeated by the Japanese—not only held on to their old imperial illusion, but also rancor. The Hague wanted to reclaim its lost ‘possession’ Indonesia—without seeing that history had broken in 1945.
Buruma views the Dutch government attitude negatively, even though he sees that the Indonesian proclamation of independence was prepared ‘in close consultation’ with the Japanese officers still in power in Jakarta. The reason is easy to explain: realizing that their country was going to lose, Japanese officers decided that it was better to support an Indonesia that was independent and ‘anti-Western’ than give the opportunity of hegemony to enemies. Buruma notes that throughout the war of independence that raged when the Dutch returned to take back ‘Nederlands-Indie’, Indonesian troops received arms from the occupying Japanese army, as gifts, looted, or bought. It is estimated that the Indonesian freedom fighters obtained more than 50,000 rifles, 3,000 machine guns and one hundred million rounds of ammunition.
But the relationship did not always run smoothly. In Semarang, a Japanese unit under Major Kido Shinichiro clashed with Indonesian youth who accused the Japanese of sabotaging the city water supply. When some of the youth were killed, there was revenge. More than 200 Japanese civilians held in the Semarang city jail were slaughtered. A British army report noted: “Some corpses were hanging from the roof and from the windows, others had been pierced through and through with bamboo spears…Some had tried to write last messages in blood on the walls.” Buruma notes “More than 2,000 Indonesians were butchered in retaliation by the enraged Japanese.”
It was different with the position of the Dutch. In the first weeks after the Japanese surrender, Buruma writes, “there was little hostility towards the Dutch civilians.” Sukarno, Hatta and Sjahrir, the figures of opposition to Dutch colonization—were not instigators of hatred towards the Dutch. In Buruma’s words, they “had no interest in revolutionary violence.”
The Hague did not understand this. Dutch political figures saw Sukarno with a view colored—as I mentioned above—by revenge against Japan which had defeated them so easily in Indonesia. They tried to convince the British government that “the so-called Sukarno government” was comparable to “the pro-Nazi Quisling regime, and the young Indonesian fighters for independence to the Hitler Youth and the SS.”
With such an attitude on the Dutch side, the hopes of the head of Allied Command for Southeast Asia, Lord Mountbatten, were thwarted. His idea was “to get the Dutch and the Indonesians to kiss and make friends and then pull out.” But of course the Dutch did not want to get out of their huge colony. Conflict was inevitable. And in the end, the British forces were drawn in too. In the Surabaya battle of November 1945, a British commander was killed, amidst the ruins and bodies of thousands of fighters on both sides.
All this strengthens Buruma’s pessimism: post 1945, those who promised independence and peace were shown to recycle German and Japanese cruelty. Post 1945, revenge drove the eviction of 11 million innocent people of German descent from eastern Austria—without these people being aware that they had to be the signs of retribution.
In the end, there was not much bright dawn in 1945. In the depths of Year Zero, the world already stored the ‘Cold War’ between Moscow and Washington—the war that was definitely not cold at all, from one continent to the next.
It seems that in human history, to this day, ‘normal’ does not mean the same as ‘peace’.