Savage Continent; Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. St. Martin’s Press, 2013 paper.
Keith Lowe asks the reader to imagine a world without institutions, no functioning governments, no courts, no schools, universities, no cinema or theater. Railroads had all but ceased running, no telephones, post offices, no banks or stores. That was the situation throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe in April 1945 when Germany surrendered.
World War II is dated by that German surrender. But its ending occurred over several years. Sicily and Southern Italy were liberated by the autumn of 1943. France and Belgium by the in fall of 1944. Russian armies swept through Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States and brought their ‘peace’ to the region later that same year. However, civil wars and ethnic conflicts troubled Eastern Europe and the Balkans for years after their liberation.
As his title would suggest, Lowe does not diminish the savagery of the last years of World War II or the slaughter the followed German defeat. He does, however, warn us that casualty figures are exaggerated. As is the myth of Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc. united in opposition to German occupation. Lowe shows that there were many divisions within the ranks of those partisans fighting the Germans, and they reflect long-standing ethnic and class conflict unleashed by the war.
Much has been made of the flight of Germans from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and the former Czechoslovakia in front of the advancing Russian army. Later, the 12.4 million Germans living outside post-war Germany were forced to move, sometimes by governments, sometimes by civilian brutality. But as the author reminds us, ‘ethnic cleansing’ had been a well-used policy of both Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany prior to 1945. Moreover this removal of Germans had been blessed by the Allied leadership. In World War I, peacemakers had attempted to move borders to reflect ethnic patterns. After World War II, the policy was to transfer populations to achieve that homogeneity.
The rape of German and Austrian women by the Russian soldiers is the well documented. Lowe reminds us, however, that rape was only one of the forms of revenge. Many, many women were raped; Men and boys were hanged, shot, and beaten to death. Lowe explains that the police and the courts had collaborated with the Germans and that justified individuals taking the law into one’s own hands. There was no one in authority to stop the revenge.
I can remember seeing newsreels of revenge against women who had slept with German soldiers. They were often stripped and their heads shaven. (This was documented by Movietone News and screened in the Savoy Theater in Garwin, Iowa.) Lowe suggests that the number of sexual unions of French women with German soldiers is “staggering.” The children that resulted from these unions were ostracized after the war, considered Germans.
Lowe makes it clear that what happened in post-war Europe is nothing like the scale of barbarities committed by the Third Reich; nothing like the destruction of Eastern Europe’s Jewry.
The anti-Semitism that had fueled German savagery didn’t disappear after April 1945. At that point the surviving Jews had to decide to return to and rebuild their communities. Or emigrate. But their homes and property hand been seized and occupied by their Christian neighbors. And they were quickly made to feel unwelcome. Lowe warns that individual incidents of violence can misrepresent the more universal story. But the pogrom at the town of Kielce in Poland in July 1946, he believes, the incident which convinced Polish Jews that return was not an option. They fled, if they could, to displaced persons’ camps in the British, French, and American sectors to await an alternative.
The Russians were the first to liberate a German concentration camp, Majdanek near Lublin. And very soon after that Auschwitz. Their reports were at first discounted as Russian propaganda, but then an American unit liberated a camp in Alsace. The discovery of the camps, Lowe contends, changed the moral landscape.
What to do with camp survivors? At first camp inmates were released, with little in the way of assistance in returning to their home. The ensuing lawlessness and savagery compelled the Allied occupation forces to create camps for these displaced persons’ camps, often the camps from which they had been recently liberated.
Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent; Europe in the Aftermath of World War II should make readers cautious about the traditional date for the end of the war, or any war. In 1949 both West Germany (British, French, and American zones of occupation) and East Germany (Russian zone) were independently established. Perhaps 1949 would, therefore, be a better date for the end of World War II.