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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2499

Without doubt, 1945 was a crucial year in world history. “Null Jahr” (Year Zero) as the Germans called it, saw developments which were to shape world affairs: the suicide of Hitler and the fall of National Socialism in Germany, the first indications of hostility between the Western democracies and the...

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Without doubt, 1945 was a crucial year in world history. “Null Jahr” (Year Zero) as the Germans called it, saw developments which were to shape world affairs: the suicide of Hitler and the fall of National Socialism in Germany, the first indications of hostility between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union that foreshadowed the Cold War, the dropping of the atomic bombs upon Japan, and the clear emergence of the United States as a dominant power in the world. In this book, Lukacs seeks to explain the importance of the major personages and events of 1945, and to revive some sense of what Europeans and Americans were thinking in Year Zero.

Most readers will probably find the chapters devoted to the several world leaders of greatest interest, particularly the chapter on Adolf Hitler. For several months before his suicide in April, 1945, Hitler spent time dictating his thoughts and observations to Martin Bormann. These would later be published and are now known as “Hitler’s Testament.” Calling the Testament a document of much historical significance, Lukacs excerpts some of the remarks and gives his commentary on them. Lukacs regards Hitler as having been a neoidealist who believed in the power of mind over matter. The most powerful of Hitler’s ideas, of course, was National Socialism. Hitler believed that National Socialism, as an idea or ideology, was more dynamic, stronger, and inevitably superior to Marxist socialism. For that reason, until the very end of his life, Hitler would be convinced that Germany and National Socialism would triumph over the Soviet Union and Marxist socialism.

Hitler was also obsessed with two other ideas: a determination to gain more land for the German people, and to rid Germany of the Jews. He blamed American intervention in the war against Germany on the Jews in the United States and declared, in the midst of the collapsing Third Reich, that “within a quarter of a century either the Americans will become violently anti-Semitic or they will be devoured by the Jews.” As for the Jews of Europe, Hitler proudly asserts in his Testament that at least they have been eliminated and, for that, future Europeans should be eternally grateful to him and to National Socialism. Lukacs recognizes the extraordinary revival of interest in Hitler, but he thinks that National Socialism as an ideology was finished and discredited in 1945.

Winston Churchill is another world figure whose thought and conduct in 1945 are considered. Lukacs points out that Churchill was an antagonist of Hitler longer than anyone else in World War II, yet despite that, Churchill would react to the final defeat of Hitler with mixed emotions. In Churchill’s view, the triumph was soon followed by tragedy. A new danger appeared with the thrust of the Soviet Union into Eastern Europe. Churchill had not been unduly concerned with the spread of Communism as an ideology; it was the presence of the troops of imperial Russia in middle Europe in 1945 which he now viewed with alarm, although why Churchill should have been alarmed or surprised by the Soviet advances is perplexing. As is well known, in 1944, Churchill had gone to Moscow to strike a deal with Stalin whereby several of the nations of eastern Europe were, in effect, turned over to Soviet occupation in return for British dominance in Greece. Churchill’s apprehension must have been over the Russian presence in eastern Germany. The occupation of Germany had not been part of the 1944 Moscow accord, yet the Russians were there. In 1945, Churchill urged the armies of the western Allies to push forward to Berlin and deny Germany to the Soviets. In that, he was overruled by the Americans who saw no strategic value in that city. Churchill then hoped that the special relationship of Britain with the United States would be retained and strengthened, and the English-speaking nations would stand together to resist any further advances of the Soviets into central Europe. Here again, Churchill would feel frustrated.

Friendship with the Russians seemed to the Americans in 1945 more important than the special relationship with Britain. Britain would not, it appeared to the Americans, carry much weight in postwar affairs, whereas Stalin and the Soviet Union were, it seemed, to become a major force, a force which the United States should placate and accommodate, not oppose. It would not be long before the Americans altered their attitude and became the most determined opponents of Communist ideology and Soviet expansion, but in 1945, Churchill’s efforts to arouse the United States to the Soviet danger fell mostly on deaf ears. Compounding the tragic situation, from Churchill’s viewpoint, was the rejection of himself and his government by the British people in 1945. The succeeding Labour government backed away from assuming leadership in European affairs, and shared the American desire for accommodation with the Soviets. At the end of 1945, out of power, and faced with the apparent failure to bring about the kind of European comity he devoutly wished, Churchill faced the “chill of old age” with a sense of tragic foreboding.

Franklin Roosevelt had died only three months before Winston Churchill lost the prime ministership in July, 1945. Lukacs makes much of Roosevelt’s deteriorating health in the months before his death. He thinks that a great deal of the explanation for the American decisions can be traced to President Roosevelt’s declining physical and mental capacities. Like Churchill, Roosevelt was not a fanatic anti-Communist. He was, in fact, “slightly left of center,” and a man who regarded the right as greater enemies to freedom than the left. Fundamentally, Roosevelt believed in American democracy. He further believed, like his spiritual mentor, Woodrow Wilson, that American democracy could and should be carried to the rest of the world. What was good for Americans must be good for everyone else. Roosevelt visualized the postwar world in terms of progressive democratic evolution with free elections, constitutional governments, the Four Freedoms, all under the benevolent guidance of the United Nations. It was a high ideal, however naïve in the light of the realities of 1945. As Roosevelt said to Churchill at Yalta, “You have in your veins the blood of tens of generations of people accustomed to conquest. We are here . . . to build up a new world which will know neither injustice nor violence, a world of justice and equity.” Reportedly, even Stalin was moved to tears by the sincerity of Roosevelt’s utterance. And the agreement signed at Yalta would, it was hoped, lead substantially to the building of the sort of just, equitable world that Roosevelt envisioned. The decisions made at Yalta in 1945 were, we now know, incomplete and flawed, but at the time they were hailed in the United States as “a landmark in human history,” “the greatest hope of the world,” and a “complete success.” Recognition that Roosevelt had misread Stalin, and the subsequent disillusion about the Yalta accords set in only after Roosevelt had died. It was after 1945 that the confrontation between East and West which Roosevelt had tried to avert emerged. Then, the cost that Roosevelt had paid at Yalta to accommodate Stalin came to be regarded as too high.

Lukacs’ insights into the character and conduct of Joseph Stalin are among the most penetrating of any in the book, although they are scarcely admiring of the Soviet leader. Essentially he sees Stalin as having been a national dictator, not a world revolutionary. By 1945, Stalin had gathered the headship of the Communist party, as well as the state and the army into his hands. A crude, brutal, suspicious tyrant yet with a sense of inferiority and unsureness, especially when dealing with foreigners, Stalin “regarded as sure only whatever he held in his fist, and everyone beyond the control of his police was a potential enemy.” His unsureness would be shown in the cautious policy he pursued during 1945 so as not to risk antagonizing the Americans and the British. His chief aim, at that time, was to consolidate the Russian conquests, not to expand them further. “Everyone imposes his system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise,” he said. Yet the Russian conquests had not engendered a heightened sense of security within Stalin. Although Russia had regained the lands it lost after World War I and more, Stalin, the Russian nationalist, did not feel safe.

Roosevelt and the other internationalists expected that Stalin would carry Russia gradually into greater participation in world affairs, and then the isolation which characterized the Russian past would melt away. But that was not to be. Stalin chose instead to isolate Russia from the rest of the world as much as possible, participating in international activities in only a limited and self-serving fashion. By the end of 1945, Stalin was clearly a national socialist, aiming at rebuilding Russia, and fearful that the western powers would challenge Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe, while, at the same time, the United States feared that the Red menace would soon engulf Western Europe. Neither side, in Lukacs’ opinion, should have really felt threatened by the other, but as they did, the mentality of the Cold War inevitably appeared.

Lukacs regards Harry Truman as one of the bravest and best American presidents. In his admiration for Roosevelt’s successor, he uses such terms as liberal, generous, realistic, a man of his own mind. This assessment is based, in part, on Truman’s conduct in dealing with the Soviets in 1945. Truman’s inclination in those dealings was to be tough-minded and businesslike, often over the objections of that circle of remaining Roosevelt advisers who continued to counsel appeasement of the Soviets. Truman seized on one issue very early: that the Soviets were not living up to the Yalta agreements. Stalin, on his side, thought the new American president was trying to pressure Russia into giving up what was rightly its territory in Eastern Europe as agreed to in the 1944 Churchill accord. By the end of 1945, Truman had moved away from earlier efforts to placate the Russians to a position more nearly that of Churchill. As Truman wrote in a letter to James Byrnes, “Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. I’m tired of babying the Soviets.” He was already by the end of 1945 taking steps toward the containment policy, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. Historians less enamored than Lukacs might well view Truman as a major instigator of the Cold War and wish that he had not been so quick to abandon the accommodation and friendship policies of Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, Truman probably did reflect the changing attitudes of the American people toward the Soviets in 1945. Commenting on the mood and thinking of Americans as expressed in the newspapers and periodicals of that year, Lukacs finds that the euphoria over the ending of the war was accompanied by a continuing good will toward the Soviets. Most American writers and opinion makers in 1945 shut their eyes to the uglier aspects of Russian behavior in Eastern Europe. Admiration, at least respect, for the valiant Soviet people and the great sacrifices they had made continued to be felt and expressed through all of 1945. At the same time, American attitudes on the world in general tended to divide by the end of that year. In one direction were those who pressed for continued involvement of the United States in world affairs; in the other direction were those who wanted to draw back. The United States had saved the world from Nazi tyranny and Japanese imperialism, now in growing numbers, Americans were saying, let us return to paying attention to our own problems at home. Although still full of good will, Lukacs finds, the Americans longed to be left alone. Yet, paradoxically, they were afraid of loneliness. So the American national mind was split, and that was to become a perilous condition.

Summing up 1945: Year Zero, Lukacs makes some general observations. One of his most sweeping is how little conditions have changed in Europe and the United States since 1945. There were, as he points out, only two super-powers in 1945, the United States and Russia, and there are still only two. Europe remains divided between East and West as it was in 1945. Britain has declined. The Soviet Union is still governed by a tyranny. There have, he asserts, been no great wars, no revolutions in the last thirty years (at least in Europe). Why then does he call 1945 Year Zero, or Year One? Because it was the first year of the atomic age, because it marked the end of a united Germany, and it brought the era of two world wars to a close. Most importantly, it marked the end of the European Age, the period during which, starting in the seventeenth century, Europe had become the richest, most powerful, most respected portion of the world. All that ended in the cataclysm of World War II. Yet of the many earthshaking events of 1945, one of the most important may have been the most obscure. This was something that happened in the mind of an unknown Soviet captain in the forests of East Prussia. There Alexander Solzhenitsyn first began thinking of the reasons for his hatred and opposition to the oppressive system under which he had been reared. Calling Solzhenitsyn a “Light from the East,” Lukacs sees the possibility that the idea of freedom which crystallized in Solzhenitsyn’s mind as the germ which may well hasten the collapse of the Soviet system that both Solzhenitsyn and Lukacs obviously detest.

The latter portion of this book is entitled “Recalling Zero.” In it the author recounts some personal experiences and observations during that year in his native Hungary. He tells of the coming of the Russians to Budapest and of their looting, raping, and destruction. He tells of the arrival of the Americans and the British, and how they were welcomed by the Hungarians, and of his finding work with the American forces which ultimately enabled him to immigrate to the United States.

Throughout 1945: Year Zero, Lukacs concentrates almost wholly on individuals, their actions and ideas. This is in keeping with his stated belief that “all knowledge, including historical knowledge, is personal; and all knowledge, including personal knowledge, is historical.” Accordingly, he avoids virtually any mention of the impersonal: of military operations in 1945, of economic factors, of governmental operations. This gives the book something of a one-dimensional tone, as though the actors were performing their roles on an almost bare stage.

Since Lukacs relies almost entirely on previously published materials in the first part of the book, most readers probably will find there little factual information that is new. He does, however, offer many interesting, sometimes startling, and often controversial observations and judgments on the principal world figures of 1945. The writing is sprightly and readable, but one is left, after reading the book, with a feeling of incompleteness; so much more might have been added to give a fuller picture of that most fateful year.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, July, 1978, p. 129.

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 926.

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