Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
“. . . crimes against humanity are not aberrant events . . .”
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. He is perceptive enough to know this did not happen either quickly or immediately, and it would likely not have happened the way it did without the East/West political conflict and the resultant Marshall Plan.
Mr. Lowe makes clear Savage Continent is about the several immediate postwar years during which Europeans availed themselves of the opportunity to “settle scores.”
The author synthesizes a raft of existing books and articles written by many disparate authors, bringing this material together 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; in the first three paragraphs of his introduction, 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. 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, Mr. Lowe breaks the story down into manageable portions. In the first section, “The Legacy of War,” he presents 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, the Royal Castle, and numerous archives and libraries, including their contents.
There was also the partial or complete destruction 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 Mr. Lowe’s work.
Each of those parts is grim. 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.
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. By far the most victimized groups were large populations of ethnic Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Millions more human beings died miserably as a result of these forced relocations; most of the victims were women, children, and the elderly, 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 Mr. Lowe’s topics is the series of civil wars that wracked Europe from the end of the war until the early 1950s. These conflicts, raging 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 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, making accessible a gruesome story of revenge in mid-20th century Europe.
One of the most important rewards of reading the Savage Continent is the understanding that the Holocaust and like crimes against humanity are not aberrant events brought about solely through the agency of a bloodthirsty tyrants. Nazi Germany is but one of many places in the world where groups of people consumed by fear of The Other seized the chance to eradicate those fears by eliminating those Others.