When Ian Buruma was growing up in the Netherlands, a comforting mythology shrouded the traumatic German wartime occupation of the country. Though it was acknowledged that a minority of the Dutch had “collaborat[ed] actively with the enemy”, he recalls, such “symbols of depravity” only served to “highlight the glowing virtuousness of the plucky majority”. Rejecting such simplistic narratives, this intriguing but rather disjointed book sets out to explore moral ambiguity and degrees of guilt.
It does so through the stories of three striking, self-mythologising and elusive figures. All have been seen as heroes and villains, but Buruma sifts their attempts to justify themselves and offers dramatic accounts of their complex careers. He is an authority on Chinese and Japanese culture, so one of his subjects is Kawashima Yoshiko, “a cross-dressing Manchu princess who spied for the Japanese secret police in China”. Sometimes known as “the Mata Hari of the Orient”, she inspired much sensationalist and often salacious fiction and was later one of three women denounced in China as “especially egregious traitors” before being executed in 1948.
The rest of the book focuses on the more familiar territory of collaboration and resistance within Europe. Felix Kersten is described as “a plump bon vivant who became famous, or notorious, as the personal masseur of Heinrich Himmler” – and therefore guilty, at the very least, of “mak[ing] life a great deal easier for the chief mass murderer”. So how did he manage to gain a prestigious Red Cross medal from the Dutch government in 1948? He and an admiring biographer, we read, energetically promoted the story that he had “used his unique position in Himmler’s court to save millions of innocent lives”. There is evidence that he occasionally managed to secure the release or otherwise help some often rather shady individuals. But that is no reason to accept his grandiose postwar claims that he managed to persuade Himmler to abandon an (otherwise unrecorded) plan to deport the whole Dutch population to Poland.
When they heard about the initial steps that led to the Holocaust, according to Kersten, he, Himmler and much of his entourage were horrified. In reality, as Buruma points out, Himmler spent much of 1941 “rushing around conquered areas [and] organising death squads to annihilate suspected Communists, partisans, and Jews”. Kersten not only accompanied him, “to ensure his comfort and relieve his pain”, but (a damning sign of how close he was to such murderous activities) was even provided with a special seat in the cinema set up in Himmler’s temporary headquarters.
Friedrich Weinreb was born into an assimilated Jewish family but then embraced religious orthodoxy. When the Germans took over the Netherlands and began to introduce anti-Jewish measures, he was quick to realise that none of the old norms any longer applied. With the Nazis in charge, as Buruma puts it, “everything – rules, regulations, laws, news, information – was a dangerous sham”. Weinreb’s response was to draw up “official-sounding lists of Jews… spared from deportation” and “allowed to board special trains” to safety via France. The scheme was said to have secured the backing of a (fictitious) general in the German army. Desperate Jews paid large sums to be put on the lists, but the whole thing was a scam that sold “vain hope” in return for money and sometimes sexual favours. Weinreb may have genuinely helped some people, but only a handful of the 4,000 Jews on his lists survived the war.
Strangely enough, however, the unscrupulous Weinreb later came to be regarded as a kind of martyr. His memoirs, explains Buruma, include “descriptions of [wartime] life continuing in a relatively normal manner, even as a horrendous crime was taking place, often in full view”. This picture very much chimed with the perspective of 60s radicals in the Netherlands, who were distressed by the apparent passivity and even complicity of their parents’ generation during the German occupation. They also saw Weinreb’s six-year prison sentence as exceptionally severe: it was only four years longer than the sentence meted out to the commandant of Westerbork camp in the north-east Netherlands, who sent up to 100,000 Jews to their deaths, and made no allowance for the fact that Weinreb and his family faced very real threats to their lives. In the words of the leading Marxist historian Jacques Presser: “The Jew Weinreb became the scapegoat. He had to pay for the shortcomings of many non-Jews.”
At the heart of The Collaborators is the way that countries occupied by the Germans or Japanese during the second world war were left with a deep sense of shame. This led to the creation of comforting national myths such as those about “the plucky majority” of the Dutch. But it also led people to lash out at the most vulnerable of minor offenders, such as women who had slept with German soldiers. Yoshiko was executed, while Weinreb was imprisoned and Kersten never came to trial. Meanwhile, many genuine war criminals got off scot-free.
The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II by Ian Buruma is published by Atlantic (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply