Occupational Hazards

REVIEW: ‘The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II’ by Ian Buruma

June 25, 2023

The Collaborators, the dark, engrossing, and occasionally brilliant new book by the Dutch writer Ian Buruma is not about collaboration—at least not in the way it’s implied in the book’s subtitle. Not really. To be sure, a good portion of its narrative unfolds in countries or territories under foreign occupation during the Second World War (or its Asian preamble), societies reset where new rules had, as well as new rulers, replaced the old, creating undeserved opportunities for, or forcing unwanted choices on, those who lived in them. Buruma draws up a taxonomy of the types of collaborator and touches on the reasons they behaved in the way they did. Some were on the make, others were ideologues, still others told themselves they were the lesser evil, and the list goes on.

In an intriguing passage, Buruma describes the use, in some formerly occupied countries, to which "collaborators" were put in postwar mythmaking: "They were the fallen ones, the symbols of depravity, whose crimes served to highlight the glowing virtuousness of the plucky majority." It was the reaction against that mythmaking (together with unease over anti-Semitism) that allowed Friedrich Weinreb (1910-88), by some distance the most reprehensible of the three people on whom Buruma focuses, to achieve, for a while, a partial rehabilitation, however unmerited.

Buruma’s taxonomy is far from complete (how could it be otherwise?). Even allowing for that, it’s hard to see where one of his trio, Felix Kersten (1898-1960), fits in. Kersten was a Baltic German with a Finnish passport and not, in the most common Second World War usage, someone who had "collaborated." Finland had been the victim of Soviet aggression in 1939-40 and entered the war as a co-belligerent of the Germans when they attacked the USSR. It continued in that role until almost the end of the period when Kersten was acting as Himmler’s masseur and, in many respects, confidant, his "magic Buddha." Kersten thus didn’t betray his country (as Buruma accepts). As a result, other than in a more general sense of the word, it’s hard to agree with Buruma’s assessment that he was "certainly a collaborator."

Buruma’s loose use of that term is consistent with the this book being something other than a conventional history of wartime collaboration. A clue lies in the first part of the book’s subtitle: Three Stories of Deception and Survival. Kersten survived. Not only that, he flourished—the revolting company he kept served him well. His deceptions, however, mainly involved cleaning up his résumé to a point where he could "survive" in the postwar years. To a degree, I suspect, Buruma included Kersten because his story is so extraordinary, and his relationship with the truth so complex that he made a suitable companion for Weinreb and the third of his "leading figures," Kawashima Yoshiko (1907-48).

Much of Buruma’s interest in Weinreb, Yoshiko, and Kersten (beyond the sheer strangeness of their biographies) arises out of, as he sees it, the way they reinvented themselves "in a time of war, persecution, and mass murder" and, relatedly, the way they played games with the truth, at a sometimes terrible cost. But in each case, the reinvention had begun before the war years. Take Beijing-born Kawashima Yoshiko, a cross-dressing Manchu princess (tellingly, she is usually remembered by her Japanese name) whose sense of her nationality was as fluid as her sexual identity. Her transformation began when, at the age of six or seven, she was given over by her father to be adopted by a Japanese ultranationalist he had come to befriend through political intrigues in China. Fatally, her new father (and later, probably, rapist) never completed the paperwork that would have made her a Japanese citizen.

Kersten’s ascent began when, already a qualified masseur, he arrived in the Weimar Republic, where he received further training from two prominent German doctors and, more importantly, a Dr. Ko from China. Ko (supposedly) taught him arcane (and supposedly) Tibetan and Chinese healing techniques well geared to cater to the fashionable fascination with the occult and the "exotic" that was shared by some who would later rise high in the Third Reich. Neither Buruma nor anyone else has been able to find any trace of Dr. Ko, but, adds Buruma cautiously, "this doesn’t necessarily mean that he was an invention, just that his presence remains hard to pin down." Kersten’s apparently remarkable talents as a masseur eventually smoothed his way into high society. This included an industrialist who asked if he would treat a "special friend," who suffered from chronic stomach cramps, namely Heinrich Himmler. In time, the Reichsführer-SS calculating that his masseur might make a useful spy, encouraged Kersten to work on other top Nazis. After all, who doesn’t confide in his masseur?

Friedrich Weinreb’s family, originally Jews from Austro-Hungarian Lemberg (now Lviv) in Galicia had moved to Scheveningen in the Netherlands during the First World War. As Weinreb grew into manhood, so did his feeling that he was cut from a different (and better) cloth than most people. This and the need to protect both himself and his family go a long way to explain the astonishingly elaborate sequence of deceptions on which he embarked during the German occupation of Holland, including selling Jews places on lists that allegedly guaranteed a seat on trains that would take them to safety. There were no trains, but the promise was backed up by a rigmarole that included medical "examinations" (cursory for men but more thorough for some unfortunate women). Out of the roughly 4,000 Jews on Weinreb’s lists only "a handful," notes Buruma, survived the war. Maybe Weinreb helped some Jews go underground, but at some point (it’s not clear when), he began to betray many more.

In trying to establish the truth about his subjects, Buruma received only limited help from their own accounts. These, he relates, were always written "with a particular purpose in mind: to embellish their biographies with exotic tales of adventure, or with demonstrations of great courage and gallant acts of resistance." Early biographers (or their approximate equivalents), whatever their motives, only deepen the murk.  Thus the claim in Yoshiko’s memoir that, braving Chinese machine gun fire, she had driven the last emperor of China (and future emperor of Manchukuo—Japanese-controlled Manchuria)—at breakneck speed to the Japanese steamboat that was waiting for him is made up. It was, in fact, borrowed with necessary changes from a fictionalized version of her life, The Beauty in Men’s Clothes, that she had asked one of her lovers, a Japanese "boulevardier and connoisseur of Chinese low life" to write. Over the years, Yoshiko was indeed a spy (even if details of that remain, to use Buruma’s word, "fuzzy"), a Japanese envoy, a Japanese propagandist, and a supposedly heroic military commander (there is no evidence that her unit saw action). But the wildly exaggerated account of her exploits that she, her accomplices, her handlers, and Japanese media created eventually led to her doom.

Kersten’s memoirs, by contrast, played no small part in his painstaking attempts to reengineer his reputation after the war, something only underlined by the way its American, Swedish, German, and Dutch versions all differ in emphasis, and in the case of the Swedish version, Buruma explains, gives "conflicting accounts on various matters." The Dutch edition contains Kersten’s claim that he persuaded Himmler "not to carry out a plan to deport the entire Dutch population to Poland," a claim that doesn’t appear in the German version and is nonsense. Nor, almost certainly, did Kersten persuade Himmler to "spare" Finland’s Jews (the Finns took that decision of their own volition) or refrain from blowing up The Hague. On the other hand, he helped save the lives of some Swedish businessmen arrested in Warsaw, who had smuggled out information about the horrors underway in Poland. He also played an important role (how important is disputed) in the evacuation of thousands of prisoners from concentration camps, including some Jews, to Sweden in the dying days of the war. While Kersten undoubtedly had an eye on his postwar future in doing so, what he did was not without risk and, maintains Buruma, "we should not discount the possibility that [he] … was also moved by a sliver of human decency."

Weinreb’s account (which ran over a thousand pages), was, according to Buruma, "factually unreliable but does reveal something of his disposition." Greed and the chance of sexual exploitation helped inspire his schemes, but so too did being thought of as a fixer, a man who got things done. Whether he deceived himself, as Buruma suggests was also the case with Yoshiko and Kersten, seems unlikely. Kersten appears to have had all too keen a grasp of reality, and while Weinreb may have seen his success as a trickster (which, for a while, fooled the Germans too) as evidence of his superior talents, I doubt he conned himself. In due course, he saw the game was up and, with his wife and children, went underground. They survived.

Yoshiko, however, may have been caught up in fantasies such as being the "Manchu Joan of Arc." But the fantasies that had been spun about her (whether with her approval or not), including The Beauty in Men’s Clothes, were used as evidence against her at her trial, as a Chinese citizen, for treason. She was executed in Beijing and is buried in Japan, her identity jumping borders, even in death.

The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II

by Ian Buruma

Penguin Press, 320 pp., $30

Andrew Stuttaford is the editor of National Review’s Capital Matters.