For most Americans, the Second World War ended with the surrender of first Germany and then Japan. The GIs who had fought in Europe headed back home to their families and began to rebuild their lives.As a result, every book about WWII that I had seen or read dealt with the wartime effort, the actual fighting or with how the nation joyfully celebrated the end of the war. None dealt with postwar Europe.
In Europe, the situation was very different. The period after the Axis surrender was scarcely different from the worst days of the war. Simmering hatreds surfaced resulting in massacres and atrocities of a scale and ferocity unimaginable to us in America.
In the introduction to his book Savage Continent , Keith Lowe paints a terrifying picture of this ” world where borders between countries seem to have dissolved , leaving a single , endless landscape over which people travel in search of communities that no longer exist, There are no governments any more…no schools or libraries or archives, no access to information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theater…no one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth. There are no banks …no shops … no tools .. no food .”
All of us are familiar with the figure of 6 million , the number of Jews killed during the WWII era. However , authorities put the total number of people who died in Europe as a direct result of WW II at 35 to 40 million, a figure that is almost incomprehensible. Germany lost 6 million and the Soviet Union 27 million people. The accompanying physical destruction was on a similar scale and the anarchy and famine that followed saw men act worse than beasts. Unsurprisingly, it is the weakest segments of the population, the women and the children, who suffered the most. It is heart rending to read what happened to them. After giving us the overall picture, Lowe tells us about the post war happenings in individual countries. This is what gives the book its value because this enables us to understand what happened subsequently in Poland, in the Ukraine, in Greece, the Balkans, the Baltic countries and in the Eastern bloc.
The German defeat unleashed a number of different forces. Overnight, tables were turned as oppressors became the oppressed. The Soviet troops who crossed into Germany were fueled by a thirst for vengeance that led them to commit unspeakable atrocities on German civilians. As German concentration camps were liberated, they were used to house Germans , both POWs and civilians, and the treatment meted out to them was scarcely any different. Similarly, the millions of slave laborers who were set free marauded through Germany as they made their way home. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration ( UNRRA) did yeoman work but it was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and a scarcity of resources.
Prior to the war, many countries had diverse populations with sizable minorities. As Germany expanded , borders were redrawn and there were forced large scale migrations of ethnic minorities along with corresponding German settlement. After the war , borders were redrawn again and those who had been displaced or conquered took their revenge . This resulted in a protracted ethnic cleansing in Poland and the Ukraine. Jews had it the worst of all as they suffered first at the hands of the Nazis and then, when they returned to their former homes , at the hands of those who had taken over their properties.
In Italy and France, it was class hatreds rather than ethnic tensions that resulted in unrest. Landless peasants, unwilling to return to the pre-war status quo, revolted against landowners and tried to take over farms. In this, they were aided by the Communist party but the uprisings were put down with relatively small loss of life. In Greece however, the ineffectual post war British presence was unable to prevent the situation from degenerating into a long lasting civil war.
It was Eastern Europe that suffered the most after the war ended. Horse trading among the Allies had resulted in agreements about spheres of influence . The Soviets quickly used their armed might to overthrow legitimate
governments and install their own puppet governments in Romania , in Hungary ,in Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They did this with a cold blooded thoroughness and disregard for human life that mirrored the worst excesses of the Nazis. The United States and Britain were forced to stand by impotently , unwilling to risk all-out war with the Soviets.
Some of the worst violence occurred in Yugoslavia where Serbs , Croats and Muslims massacred each other with abandon encouraged by their German and Italian occupiers. The horrors intensified after the German defeat, as Tito and his Partisans brutally subjugated the different factions and established his rule.
Keith Lowe does a masterful job of describing the complex events , keeping the different strands separate so that we can grasp the whole picture. Mere statistics cannot convey the extent of the horror so he sprinkles in some individual stories. Thankfully, he only includes only a few relatively innocuous photographs. I don’t think I could stand to see anything more explicit. This is a difficult book to read. There were almost no innocents in this situation ( except for the women and children) as different segments of the population took it out on each other driven by a need for vengeance that resulted in an unending cycle of savagery. One cannot believe that human beings could act like this.
Nevertheless, this is an important book because it helps us understand many realities, among them Why Kosovo happened , why Communism became such an anathema in post war America, Stalinist brutality and many other things. It also makes one wonder about the future. Because of ethnic cleansing during the war , the countries of postwar Europe had populations that were almost homogenous. Yet today, because of the European Union and because of migration not only between European countries but from Asia and the Middle East , Europe is more diversified than ever. What does this bode for the future ?
All in all , this is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in European history and the Europe of today.
Savage Continent : Europe in the aftermath of Word War II . Keith Lowe . St. Martin’s Press. $ 20.