There is nothing hyperbolic about the title of this remarkable book. As Keith Lowe makes painfully plain, Europe in the months and years after the end of World War II was as much a cauldron of hate, murder and despair as it had been during the reign of Nazi Germany. “From the distance of the twenty-first century,” he writes, “we tend to look back on the end of the war as a time of celebration. We have seen images of sailors kissing girls in New York’s Times Square, and smiling troops of all nationalities linking arms along Paris’s Champs Elysees. However, for all the celebration that took place at the end of the war, Europe was actually a place in mourning. The sense of loss was both personal and communal. Just as the continent’s towns and cities had been replaced by a landscape of crumbling ruins, so too had families and communities been replaced by a series of gaping holes.”
The end of the war was not really an end at all, Lowe argues, not only because violence continued long after peace had been declared, but because hidden behind the big conflict between the Allies and the Axis were “dozens of other, more local wars, which had different flavours and different motivations in each country and each region. In some cases they were conflicts over class or other political differences. In other cases . . . they were conflicts over race or nationalism.” Certainly the defeat of Nazi Germany was and still is cause for gratitude and even elation, but achieving that defeat left virtually all of Europe so devastated that “it is difficult to convey in meaningful terms the scale of the wreckage caused by the Second World War,” wreckage not merely physical but psychological and moral as well. The great journalist Alan Moorehead, in Naples immediately after its liberation, witnessed “the whole list of sordid human vices” and wrote, “What we were witnessing in fact was the moral collapse of a people.”
What is nearly as remarkable as the story itself is that it has taken nearly seven decades for it to be properly told. Why this is so is a mystery, although Lowe suspects that it is connected to the “tendency by some Western historians and politicians to look back at the aftermath of the Second World War through rose-tinted spectacles,” focusing in particular on the Marshall Plan as evidence of Europe’s speedy rebirth. Lowe — a British writer who has published two novels and the well-regarded “Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg 1943” — will have none of that, and “Savage Continent” leaves no doubt that he is right:
“The immediate postwar period is one of the most important times in our recent history. If the Second World War destroyed the old continent, then its immediate aftermath was the protean chaos out of which the new Europe was formed. It was during this violent, vengeful time that many of our hopes, aspirations, prejudices and resentments first took shape. Anyone who truly wants to understand Europe as it is today must first have an understanding of what occurred here during this crucial formative period. There is no value in shying away from difficult or sensitive themes, since these are the very building blocks upon which the modern Europe has been built.”
Lowe divides his study into three broad areas: vengeance, ethnic and racial cleansing, and civil wars. Of these, vengeance “is perhaps the most universal,” emerging as “a thread in virtually every event that took place, from the arrest of Nazis and their collaborators to the wording of the postwar treaties that shaped Europe for the decades to come,” and: “Leaders from Roosevelt to Tito happily indulged the vengeful fantasies of their subordinates, and sought to harness the popular desire for vengeance to further their own political causes. Commanders in all the Allied armies turned a blind eye to the excesses of their men; and civilians took advantage of the chaos to redress years of impotence and victimization by dictators and petty tyrants alike.”
It is important to emphasize that much of the vengeance was rooted in legitimate grievances and that “it served several purposes, not all of which were entirely negative,” including restoring “a sense of the moral equilibrium, even if it did so at the expense of relinquishing some of the moral high ground.” Nonetheless, the violence committed in vengeances’s name was appalling and widespread. Women and children were victimized over and over again; the most famous instances involved French women whose heads were shaved by angry mobs because they had slept with Germans or otherwise collaborated, but uncountable thousands of women and children were maimed or killed simply because somebody had the inclination, for whatever reason, to do so.
Lowe doesn’t flatly say it, but in at least one important sense the Nazis won the war: Their notions of racial identity and superiority became commonplace among various groups who had coexisted before the war, however uneasily, and now were motivated to expel others from their countries or territories “purely on the basis of what was written on their wartime identity cards.” Anti-Semitism “would increase after the war,” and “by 1948 much of [Eastern Europe] had become, even more than in Hitler’s time, Judenfrei.” But if Jews were perhaps the most mercilessly persecuted, they were scarcely alone. Poland, “easily the most dangerous country for Jews after the war,” was also dangerous for ethnic Ukrainians and Germans. Indeed, the “statistics associated with the expulsion of the Germans between 1945 and 1949 defy imagination.” Most of these, about 7 million, occurred in “the lands east of the Oder and Neisse that had been incorporated into the new Poland,” but many other countries indulged in the orgy of expulsion, leaving “a cleansed landscape” in which “eastern Europe became far less multicultural than it had been at any time in modern history.” That process has continued to the present, as the terrible warfare in Bosnia during the 1990s made all too obvious.
“Unsurprisingly,” Lowe writes, in the wake of World War II many people believed that “the entire political system was at fault” and a “radical wind had begun to blow, that would bring with it some of the most violent and tragic episodes of the postwar period.” He describes the violent conflict between left and right in France and Italy, but focuses in particular on Greece, where bitter internecine warfare “was the first and bloodiest clash in what was soon to become a new, Cold War between East and West, left and right, communism and capitalism.” What happened in Greece, Lowe argues, “drew the southern boundary of the Iron Curtain,” “drew the Americans back into Europe by forcing them to understand that isolationism was no longer an option,” and provoked the Soviets “to formalize their control over the other Communist parties of Europe.” The “Greek civil war was therefore not merely a local tragedy, but an event of truly international significance,” the repercussions of which are felt to this day.
It was a time and place in which nobody won: “It was virtually impossible to emerge from the Second World War without enemies. There can hardly be a better demonstration than this of the moral and human legacy of the war. After the desolation of entire regions; after the butchery of over 35 million people; after countless massacres in the name of nationality, race, religion, class or personal prejudice, virtually every person on the continent had suffered some kind of loss or injustice. . . . In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting.” It raged on, in different places, in different ways and for different reasons, for months and years to come, and the remarkable recovery that Europe eventually achieved must not blind us to this inescapable reality.
“Savage Continent,” a superb and immensely important book, leaves absolutely no doubt about that.
Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
By Keith Lowe
St. Martin’s. 460 pp. $30