Amoral Traitors? War Heroes? Survivors? Depends Whom You Ask.

Ian Buruma’s “The Collaborators” takes on three complex, disparate figures with notably controversial war records.


It sounds like a tasteless parlor game: What do a Dutch Jewish fixer, a gender-fluid Manchu princess and a lusty Nazi 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 (masseur to Heinrich Himmler and others in the Nazi elite), Yoshiko Kawashima (the dispossessed Manchu princess who spied for the Japanese) and Friedrich Weinreb (the “fixer” whose fellow Jews paid him to secure reprieves from deportation to concentration camps, and were instead betrayed to the German secret police) — also publicly cast themselves as saviors, 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, even compassion. “We should reserve hasty moral judgment,” he writes. “None of the three was utterly depraved. They were all too human, especially in their frailties.” 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 his “Year Zero: A History of 1945,” his treatment of the weaponization of rape during World War II and its aftermath borders on clinical.)

In “The Collaborators,” some readers may find Buruma’s permissiveness toward his subjects’ conduct and moral barometers unnerving, even 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 “to be exempted from deportation” and on nonexistent trains to safety; many of their names and hiding places were instead delivered to Nazi 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.” (His motives here go largely unexamined; Buruma simply states that Weinreb had himself admitted that “he was not an ordinary man, intellectually … or indeed sexually.”) One Nazi officer later recalled that Weinreb “betrayed many families … he 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?

If Weinreb’s betrayals were intimate (to say the least), Yoshiko Kawashima’s treachery largely doomed strangers. Born the daughter of a Manchu prince displaced during the 1911 revolution and mythologized in Japan as the “Mata Hari of the Orient,” Yoshiko worked closely with Japanese authorities to help 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 and uniforms. Buruma details her early years with interest, 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 traveled with “the stressed Reichsf├╝hrer 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 and one another; grand real estate holdings; and labor conveniently imported to one of his homes from the nearby Ravensbr├╝ck concentration camp.

By his own account, however, Kersten maintained that he was actually an embedded resistance hero, claiming that he managed to influence Himmler into lifesaving 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). Still, “Kersten may indeed have done some people favors by exploiting Himmler’s cramps,” says Buruma. “Even if Kersten overstated his role in the rescue of thousands of people … he did more than most people, at some risk to himself.”

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. In the book’s epilogue, he again laments the limitations of historical evidence, and lectures readers on the merits of “living in truth.” 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.”

“By turning your own life into a fiction, you don’t really have an identity at all,” he declares in the book’s final sentences. “That is a melancholy state that threatens many of us, whether we live in a dictatorship or not.”

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. (For the record, 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 emphasizing: 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.

All three eccentric stories in “The Collaborators” raise these grimly urgent issues. Buruma’s choice to focus on this supporting-cast roster of individuals is no misstep. What would be, however, is a failure to drive home the greater lessons and conundrums that their tragic lives present.