| THE HAGUE, April 3
THE HAGUE, April 3 Born to a Dutch father and a
British mother, Ian Buruma was first known as a specialist in
Japan and Asia more broadly, pursuing an eclectic career that
included acting and dancing in 1970s Tokyo.
He spoke to Reuters at the Writers Festival in The Hague,
where he grew up, about his latest book, "Year Zero: A History
of 1945", a study of the days and months that followed the end
of World War Two around the world.
In France, he writes, liberation was accompanied by an orgy
of sexual bingeing, as fit and well-fed American and Canadian
soldiers out-competed their war-weakened French rivals for
women's attention. In some of south-east Asia, the violence of
the war continued as decolonisation was set in train.
It was also the year in which the foundations for the modern
world were laid, with the establishment of the welfare state in
Britain and former belligerents in Europe making the first moves
towards establishing what became the European Union. Further
afield, the United Nations took its first faltering steps.
Buruma, a Dutch citizen who now lives in New York, has
written books on Japan and Europe, as well as Murder in
Amsterdam, about the populist wave that swept the Netherlands
after the murder by a Muslim militant of film director Theo van
He has twice been voted one of the world's Top 100 public
intellectuals by "Foreign Policy" and "Prospect" magazines.
Q: What made you write "Year Zero: A History of 1945"?
A: One reason was that we've seen several wars of choice
unleashed by the U.S. and assisted by Britain in the Middle
East, and all the people who were in charge of these wars were
of a generation that hadn't had any personal memories of World
The leaders themselves, but also their intellectual
boosters, the neocons, talked about war and the use of military
force in a rather lazy manner, as if you could get rid of a
dictator and then things sort themselves out.
There was an idealism about building a better world in 1945,
a more equal one. Winston Churchill was voted out and the Labour
Prime Minister Clement Attlee came in. That year gave a boost to
social democracy and the welfare state?
With the idea of European unity and the United Nations there
was a strong and idealistic sense of building a better world.
That idealism is certainly gone, which is another reason I
thought it would be good to pay attention to that year.
Q: Why does the book have such a melancholic mood?
A: It doesn't make you feel very cheerful about human nature
and human behaviour. The aftermath of the war shows that people
who had been victimised themselves can very quickly become
aggressors and that the capacity for violence and malice is
The stories of post-war violence are an antidote to the way
most of us in Western Europe grew up, those of us in the
post-war generation, who believed the end of the war was all
sweetness and light, dancing in the streets.
Q: And do you see any lessons from your book?
A: I'm sceptical about learning lessons from history. But
one is perhaps that any violent intervention is going to have
unintended consequences that are difficult to deal with.
I have no doubt about the justice of fighting a war of self
defence, but I am increasingly sceptical about using military
force even in the name of humanitarianism. In the early 2000s,
people were too careless about it.
Q: Do you see any reasons to be optimistic about the world
we live in?
A: No not really. You could say it's become unthinkable that
Germany and France will go to war again in any foreseeable
future, so the source of serious conflict in Europe has probably
been pacified and that's a great thing.
But I think we're in a very difficult period with the Middle
East, tensions in east Asia, the fact that the U.S.'s role as
world policeman is coming to an end and probably should come to
an end, the fact that Russia is becoming more authoritarian.
Capitalist economies are creating more and more
inequalities, while European politics is being poisoned by a
populism to which the mainstream parties don't really have an
answer. I'm not saying it's all going to end in Armageddon, but
I think we're in a very difficult place.
Q: In the past you were known primarily as an Asia expert.
Does China's rise not give you grounds for optimism?
A: It would if it were a better form of government. But it's
a very authoritarian government, driven by a form of belligerent
nationalism. If it were a more open and more liberal country
then yeah, it would be a great thing.
I don't see anything wrong with China's rise per se. Nor do
I believe as some people argue that China is somehow culturally
disposed to be closed and authoritarian. Much of the Chinese
world, Taiwan in particular, is more open and liberal.
Q: What comes next for you? Do you have more cheerful topics
up your sleeve?
A: Cheerful topics are rarely the most interesting.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Toby Chopra)