The Collaborators: Three Stories of Deception and Survival in World War II by Ian Buruma - review by Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines

The Princess, the Mystic & the Masseur

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


Atlantic Books 320pp £20

Imposture is a critical threat to the stability of civilisation. The damage done in the English-speaking world by liars, cheats, risk-takers, sinister enchanters and deluded egoists since 2016 is almost too affrighting to bear. And yet, as Ian Buruma shows in his richly enjoyable, vital and astute book, in every age there have been ‘self-invented figures’ for whom image matters more than reality. Such impostors impart the melodrama of cheap fiction to their choices and actions.

Buruma, a Dutchman of matrilineal Jewish ancestry who has lived in Japan, takes three fraudsters from the last century as his focus. Felix Kersten (1898–1960) was an Estonian-Dutch masseur who claimed to hold arcane influence on his patient Heinrich Himmler. Kawashima Yoshiko (1907–48), to use her Japanese name, was a non-binary Manchu princess who collaborated with the Japanese invaders of China. Friedrich Weinreb (1910–88), originally from Lviv, settled in the Netherlands, where he swindled money from his fellow Jews by pretending that he would save them from deportation to death camps. Instead, he betrayed some of them to the Gestapo.

Each of this trio had childhoods dislocated by war, which left them with confused nationalities, divided loyalties, fallen status and idealised memories of lost paradises. Buruma sees them as exemplary figures for the 2020s: avid, idealistic, thrill-seeking, improvisational, lusting for status and with an overmastering need to be valued

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