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.
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