Betrayal and survival | Business Standard News

Betrayal and survival | Business Standard News

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THE COLLABORATORS: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II


Author: Ian Buruma


Publisher: Penguin Press


Pages: 307


Price: $30


It sounds like a tasteless parlour game: What do a Dutch Jewish fixer, a gender-fluid Manchu princess and a lusty masseur have in common? At first glance, very little. Yet these three figures feature as the central characters in Ian Buruma’s new group biography, The Collaborators.


What connects this trio, as Buruma presents it, is their outsize, self-delusional fabulism. That, and the fact that each figure — motivated by the prospect of personal gain and pure survival — collaborated with German and Japanese forces during the Second World War. Furthermore, all three — Felix Kersten, Yoshiko Kawashima and Friedrich Weinreb — also publicly cast themselves as saviours, serving noble causes and saving lives.


The truth, Buruma says, lies somewhere in between. The full extent of their treachery (or heroism) has been obfuscated by generations of careless or gullible biographers, self-justifying memoirs and gaping holes in the historical record, he says.


Buruma asserts that he was determined to treat his three subjects with fairness. An academic, prolific historian and author with an ongoing interest in wartime collaboration, Buruma has long demonstrated an ability to depict even horrific wartime events with remove.


In The Collaborators, some readers may find Buruma’s permissiveness toward his subjects’ conduct and moral barometers disturbing. The author painstakingly lays out the discrepant historical evidence surrounding their most egregious actions. Yet in some instances, the existing, court-admissable evidence against them appears damning. Weinreb sold thousands of desperate European Jews places on mythical lists and non-existent trains to safety; many of their names and hiding places were instead delivered to officials supposedly to save himself and his own family.


Insisting that applicants submit to medical exams ostensibly required for emigration, Weinreb also reportedly often pretended to be a doctor and administered to women “thorough, often painful gynecological examinations, involving a lot of probing and useless injections.” One officer later recalled that Weinreb “told us everything, and really did his best.” The cumulative testimonies about Weinreb’s misdeeds make one wonder: Who is more deserving of Buruma’s patient consideration, Weinreb or his scores of victims?


Yoshiko Kawashima’s treachery largely doomed strangers. Born the daughter of a Manchu prince displaced during the 1911 revolution and mythologised in Japan as the “Mata Hari of the Orient,” Yoshiko worked closely with Japanese authorities to undercut Chinese interests. At her 1945 trial in China, the list of allegations against her was long: “She had formed her own army to conquer Chinese territories in Manchuria; … she plotted the invasion of China; she helped to start the Battle of Shanghai; she passed along Chinese military secrets; she spread Japanese propaganda; she sought to revive the Qing dynasty.”


Buruma explores her louche life — nightclubs, drugs and mistress duties — but her fraught childhood holds the key to her torn loyalties. Given as a young girl by her parents to a well-connected Japanese adoptive father, who most likely raped and abused her, Yoshiko decided to “bid farewell to womanhood,” famously cut her hair short, and began wearing men’s clothing. Buruma details her early years, but fails to adequately underscore the trauma of being relegated to probable sexual slavery by one’s own parents; nor does he sufficiently explore the full impact that this brutalization might have had on her actions throughout her brief life.


Of the three profiled subjects, Kersten comes off the best, but only because he “cannot be held responsible for mass murder,” as Buruma puts it. The masseur regularly treated Himmler’s crippling stomach pains and other ailments; he often travelled with “the stressed Reichsführer SS” and gave him massages “so Himmler could start his day refreshed.” Kersten reaped the benefits of being the elite Nazi’s “magic Buddha,” as Himmler called him: Ample food at a time when others resorted to eating grass; pets; grand real estate holdings; and labour imported to one of his homes from the nearby Ravensbrück concentration camp.


By his own account, Kersten maintained that he was actually an embedded resistance hero, claiming that he managed to influence Himmler into life saving acts, including saving the entire Dutch population from deportation to Poland in 1941 (not necessarily true, states Buruma) and persuading Himmler to call off a plan to starve millions of citizens of occupied France, Belgium and Holland (also less than plausible: There was never any such plan in the first place).


Buruma successfully uses the three narratives to warn us about reckless charlatans in power today, and against the ongoing peril of kakistocracies. Yet in drilling down on this central conceit, Buruma arrives at an odd, off-putting conclusion. The primary sin of his subjects was not that they had deceived (and contributed to the murder of) others, but rather that they “conned themselves.”


This is the big takeaway from his raw, violent material? Perhaps a more pressing issue: The disproportion of justice delivered compared with the magnitude of the crimes detailed in the book. Weinreb was convicted of his alleged crimes but pardoned in 1948; Kersten was largely lauded and decorated; and Yoshiko was executed in China. Perhaps other issues worth emphasising: The depravity and grotesque opportunism that lie beneath the veneer of civility, the evaporation of even basic empathy during wartime and the relentless willingness of human beings to worship at the altars of madmen.




The reviewer is author of Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World


©2023 The New York Times News Service


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