Ian Buruma’s spellbinding account of three near-mythic figures—a Dutch fixer, a Manchu princess, and Himmler’s masseur—who may have been con artists and collaborators under Japanese and German rule, or true heroes, or something in between.
On the face of it, the three characters in this book seem to have little in common—aside from the fact that each committed wartime acts that led some to see them as national heroes, and others as villains. All three were mythmakers, larger-than-life storytellers, for whom the truth was beside the point. Felix Kersten was a plump Finnish pleasure-seeker who became Heinrich Himmler’s indispensable personal masseur—Himmler calling him his “magic Buddha.” Kersten presented himself after the war as a resistance hero who convinced Himmler to save countless people from mass murder. Kawashima Yoshiko, a gender-fluid Manchu princess, spied for the Japanese secret police in China, and was mythologized by the Japanese as a heroic combination of Mata Hari and Joan of Arc. Friedrich Weinreb was a Hasidic Jew in Holland who took large amounts of money from fellow Jews in an imaginary scheme to save them from deportation, while in fact betraying some of them to the German secret police. Sentenced after the war as a con artist, he was regarded regarded by supporters as the “Dutch Dreyfus.”
All three figures have been vilified and mythologized, out of a never-ending need, Ian Buruma argues, to see history, and particularly war, and above all World War II, as a neat story of angels and devils. The Collaborators is a fascinating reconstruction of what in fact we can know about these incredible figures and what will always remain out of reach. What emerges is all the more mesmerizing for being painted in chiaroscuro. In times of life-and-death stakes, the truth quickly gets buried under lies and self-deception. Now, when demagogues abroad and at home are assaulting the truth once more, the stories of the collaborators and their lessons are indispensable.
About the Author
Ian Buruma was born in the Netherlands. He studied Chinese at Leiden University and cinema at Nihon University, Tokyo. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, and New York. He is a regular contributor to Harper’s and The New Yorker and writes monthly columns for Project Syndicate and Bloomberg. He is a professor at Bard College and lives in New York City.
“Ian Buruma's new book is a gripping dissection of wartime lies. But it is also something more. Rather than indict his subjects, Buruma, a historian of novelistic temperament and imagination, seeks to navigate the grey zone they inhabited, and to explore what their behavior (and self-rationalizations) might tell us about ordinary men and women living, as we increasingly do, in a world of alternative facts. Imagine Better Call Saul set in a country occupied by the Axis powers, and you will have an idea how this fascinating book reads.” —Adam Shatz, US editor, London Review of Books
“The Collaborators is at once fascinating and frightening, an apposite tract for our increasingly mendacious, treacherous times. The accounts Ian Buruma gives of the lives and dark doings of three egregious collaborators starkly illustrate our depthless capacity for betrayal and subsequent self-justification; they are also fascinating life studies. It would be shocking to be entertained by such a book, but I was.” —John Banville, author of The Singularities
“With impressive skill and meticulous research, Buruma has woven three very different wartime characters into a fascinating tale of alternative realities, riven by mythomania, perfidy and collusion.” —Caroline Moorehead, author of Mussolini’s Daughter: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
“At a time when manifold forms of authoritarianism are on the rise, this book could not be more welcome and necessary. By masterfully exploring the complicity, guilt and ambivalence pervading three parallel lives in imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and occupied Holland, Buruma conjures up and richly evokes a thick web of history, allowing contemporary readers to understand how easy it is to condone systematic violence and untold suffering in the name of misguided ideals.” —Ariel Dorfman
“In The Collaborators, Ian Buruma brings his rare combination of attributes—intelligence, discipline, a commitment to truth (but wariness of certitude), modesty, wisdom, and wit—to revisit the celebrated and clouded sagas of three notorious World War II scoundrels. Their range taps into yet another of Buruma's gifts: his fluency in the cultures and histories of two continents. Telling their tales, disassembling their dissembling, he catalogues the very different set of traits that helped the three survive and even, thanks both to their own lies and the connivance of chroniclers lacking everything Buruma exemplifies, find a measure of rehabilitation they did not deserve.” —David Margolick
“Compulsively readable as always, Buruma has taken a riveting subject—collaboration—and delved deep into it, probing concepts of national identity, self-reinvention, loyalty and treason. The Collaborators offers a radical reconsideration of episodes from recent history, while often being unexpectedly entertaining.” —Simon Callow
“Buruma sifts through his subjects’ complex, multinational backgrounds in fluid prose and brings a welcome measure of sympathy to their lives without minimizing the repercussions of their actions. It’s a captivating portrait of what happens when survival turns into self-deception.” —Publishers Weekly
“Meticulously, relentlessly, Buruma dissects these collaborators’ contradictory and self-serving accounts and cross-references with other sources to get closer to the truth. A powerful exploration of complicity, ambivalence, and the human capacity for deception and self-rationalization.” —Library Journal