What really happened in Europe after May 8/9, 1945 has remained largely unknown to the general public, especially in the United States. Keith Lowe argues, in the Introduction to Savage Continent, that neither historians nor the members of the foreign business and government elites who worked on the resurrection of western Europe ever wrote publicly about the reality of “life on the ground” in the immediate postwar era. They chose instead to depict the period as one in which Europe “rose like a phoenix from the ashes of destruction.”
Keith Lowe is not silly enough to contend that Europe did not ultimately rise “like a phoenix”. He is perceptive enough to know, however, that this did not happen either quickly or immediately after the war, and that it would likely not have happened the way it did without the East/West political conflict and the resultant Marshall Plan. But as Lowe makes abundantly clear, Savage Continent is not about the happy ending brought to Europe by the Marshall Plan and related western intervention. It is about the several immediate postwar years during which Europeans availed themselves of the opportunity to “settle scores”.
Lowe makes clear from the beginning of Savage Continent that his work is not the product of original research. Instead, he synthesizes a raft of existing books and articles written by many disparate authors. Lowe does a masterful job in bringing this material together in order to give the reader a more comprehensive description of the process by which Europe continued sinking into the moral abyss that filled the void left by the war’s conclusion.
The author’s prose is compelling, and nowhere more favorably demonstrated than in the first three paragraphs of his introduction, in which he invites the reader to “Imagine a world without institutions”. In such a world, there would be no governments, no education, no way of knowing about the rest of the world or communicating with it, no means of locomotion, no jobs, no money, no food, and utter chaos instead of law and order. These things strike one as the product of an overactive imagination, but Lowe cautions us to recognize that there remain several “hundreds of thousands of people alive today” who experienced such a way of living throughout Europe in the years after the end of the Second World War.
In order to best describe the events with which he deals, Lowe breaks the story down into manageable portions. He uses his first such section, called “The Legacy of War”, to lay the literal and figurative groundwork for the rest of his work. Here we are confronted with such horrors as the purposeful destruction during 1944-1945, on direct orders from Adolf Hitler, of “93 per cent of Warsaw’s dwellings”, as well as many priceless architectural treasures such as Pilsudski Square, the Jesuit Church, and the Royal Castle, along with numerous archives and libraries, including their contents.
There was also the partial or complete destruction, primarily by aerial bombing, of hundreds of cities throughout Europe, the nearly complete devastation of both cities and countryside in European Russia, the “de-housing” of 10 million Ukrainians and 18-20 million Germans, the obliteration of tens of thousands of places of work like factories, mines, and shipyards, and the reduction of the European transportation system to pre-Industrial Revolution standards through the destruction of roads, railroad tracks, harbors and canals.
Apart from the physical destruction of much of Europe, the war brought about the destruction of families, the displacement of millions of people, and perhaps most importantly, the catastrophic and nearly total undermining of moral standards, especially as they related to human interaction and the relationship between the powerful and the weak. And it is this aspect of the war’s legacy that is well documented and described in the remaining three parts of Lowe’s work.
Each of those parts is grim in the extreme. In the second section of the book, the author speaks to the question of vengeance, the all-consuming sentiment of those peoples who were on the receiving end of brutality for four years and more. So aroused were the victims of fascism that Europe was tortured for several more years beyond the coming of “peace”, wallowing in a pall of human suffering and grief the like of which had not been seen since the Thirty Years War. Yet further millions of human beings were brutally murdered, deliberately starved or frozen to death, herded into death camps, and otherwise brutalized for no other reason than that their existence was intolerable to others.
What we now refer to as “ethnic cleansing” was often treated as sport by the newly empowered in postwar Europe. It expressed the longings of its perpetrators not only for vengeance against their former masters, but also for their long-nurtured loathing and envy of their neighbors of differing ethnic background. Those groups with the upper hand seized the land and belongings of their victims, and drove them out of their traditional homes, often through the wilderness and in the dead of winter. By far the most victimized groups in this respect were large populations of ethnic Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia, whom their persecutors drove pitilessly west, out of the homes that they had occupied for centuries. Millions more human beings died miserably as a result of these forced “relocations”; most of the victims were women, children and the aged, as the majority of the able-bodied men had long since died in combat or were toiling without respite in a gulag of Soviet prisoner of war camps.
The last of Lowe’s topics is the series of civil wars that wracked Europe from the end of the war until the early 1950’s. These conflicts, which raged in France and Italy, as well as in Greece and Romania, stemmed from long-standing political disputes and were often exacerbated by the wartime collusion of one or another faction with the Nazis or Italian fascists. The already volatile relationships between differing political groups in these countries were not mollified by mutual accusations of treason. The result was yet another round of political murders, mass killings, and general lawlessness.
In Savage Continent Keith Lowe has continued the tradition of the synthesis in historical writing, and in doing so has made accessible to both the specialist and the general public a gruesome story of revenge in mid-twentieth century Europe. That story rarely sees the light of day, even though it is one that is important to readers trying to make sense of the Second World War. It would seem that one of the most important rewards given to the reader of Savage Continent is the understanding that the Second World War, including the Holocaust and like crimes against humanity, was not an aberrant event brought about solely through the agency of a blood-thirsty tyrant and his fanatical followers. Nazi Germany was but one of many places in Europe where groups of people consumed by fear of “the Other”, when provided with an opportunity to exorcise their fears, seized the chance to eradicate those fears as well as “the Other” itself.
Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Released: July 3, 2012
Softcover: 460 pages
Publisher contact: John Karle 646-307-5546 firstname.lastname@example.org
Nonfiction History Military History & Affairs World War II