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


by Ian Buruma

New York: Penguin Random House, 2023. Pp. viii, 320. Illus., notes, index. $30.00. ISBN: 0593296648

 Three Lives Through War and Holocaust 
Collaborators is the story of three individuals who participated—in wildly disparate fashions—in World War II and the Holocaust. Not one of them is likely to be familiar to American readers, though two of them played significant roles in the postwar history of the Netherlands and Japan, respectively. Collaborators is a misleading title: the traditional collaborator is someone who betrays his country by working with, if not for, the occupying power in wartime. The roles of these two men and one woman were so idiosyncratic that it would be hard find anything they had in common other than self-interest and self-importance.

Felix Kersten was born in Estonia in 1898 to a father of Dutch ancestry. He was, for most of his life, a Finnish citizen. But he was famous, and claimed to play an important role in the war, because he was Heinrich Himmler’s personal masseur. As his skilled hands alleviated the terrible stomach cramps that plagued the head of the SS, Kersten pleaded with him—successfully, he says—not to deport the entire Dutch population to the East. This anecdote is typical, in two ways, of Collaborators. First, there is no evidence that the Nazis ever contemplated deporting the population of the Netherlands, it is something that Kersten made up. Second, the story came out in a book that he wrote after the war, as he was attempting to clean up his reputation and acquire Swedish citizenship. Kersten is the least interesting, and easiest to understand, of the three collaborators. He was not a deep thinker, did not kill anyone, even indirectly, and seemed only to act in his self-interest. Although he spent many hours and days with Himmler, there is no evidence—other than his own, later, claims—that he had any influence on the actions of the man who was the principal architect of the extermination of European Jews.

The other two collaborators are much stranger individuals, and their stories are more interesting, in addition, because they intersected with Ian Buruma’s life. Buruma lives in New York City, working as a writer and editor, but he was born and raised in the Netherlands, spent years in Japan, and is married to a Japanese historian. He can read both Dutch and Japanese. Born in 1951, he lived through the Dutch postwar reckoning with its recent past. Of all Western European countries occupied by the Nazis, Holland lost more of its Jews—75%--than any other. But Friedrich Weinreb was not one of them. Born in what is today Lviv in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910, his family fled political unrest in the East and ended up in the Netherlands in 1916. Friedrich grew up in a secular household in Holland, but suddenly, as a teenager, became extremely religious. For that, and his Eastern European background, he was an outsider in the Jewish community when the Germans invaded in 1940. When Nazi persecution became serious in 1942, Weinreb began his weird career as a conman, tricking both other Jews and German officials. As Dutch Jews were first being rounded up and sent to a transit camp, and, later, deported from that camp to “the East,” Weinreb conjured up his “lists” that they could get on to avoid first one, then the other, step toward death. People paid him huge sums for this imaginary protection. This activity eventually got him arrested by the Germans, but, by various means, he and his family survived. The lists hurt—and helped—no one, but Weinreb also almost certainly turned in Jews who were in hiding, causing their death. Buruma does an excellent job explaining the complex politics of retribution and justice in the Netherlands after the war. Weinreb died in his bed in Switzerland in 1988, never having paid for his sins.

The third figure in Collaborators is by far the strangest person in the book: born Aisin Gioro Xianyu, or perhaps Dongzhen, in Beijing in 1907, she was nominally a princess of the Qing dynasty. But this Manchu dynasty was crumbling during her childhood, and she ended up being adopted by a Japanese man, Kawashima Naniwa, who took her to Japan. For the rest of her life, she bounced between Japan, Mongolia, Manchuria and Beijing, carrying on affairs with men and women, and becoming addicted to opium. She qualifies as a collaborator because many of the men she danced and slept with were high-ranking officers in the Japanese army in China. For that reason, she was tried and then shot as a traitor, by the Chinese after the war. There are photos of all three collaborators in the book: Kersten looks plump and happy, Weinreb looks like a rabbinical scholar, but Kawashima is almost always in a military uniform, her hair cut short—a cross-dresser. Collaborators will interest readers who would like to read about three fascinating figures, two of them at the fringes of the Holocaust, and the other enmeshed in the terrible war Japan fought in China from 1937 to 1945. They will also learn about postwar reckoning with history in both Europe and Asia—all from a very accessible, well written book.


Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book the owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse, Engineering in the Confederate Heartland, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, Armada, and Allied Air Attacks and Civilian Harm in Italy.



Note: The Collaborators is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jonathan Beard   

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