Book review: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Polish survivors hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help
Polish survivors hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help
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An essential spotlight on the forgotten years of social and moral chaos following Hitler’s defeat

War ended, there was joy, there were church bells ringing and bands playing and a passion for making the world new and right; evil was defeated, right had triumphed and it was time to get on with interrupted lives. So it seems, from where we stand.

Across Europe, the story was different. Populations of refugees were on the move. Famine, not rationing, was ordinary. Vengeance was a policy. After genocidal killings came ethnic cleansing on a murderous scale. A whole continent seemed to have been torn up by the roots, and nobody, nothing was safe even if the war had left it standing.

Keith Lowe’s book about that time is unbearable, but it’s essential: a serious account of things we never knew and our fathers would rather forget. He thinks clearly, researches assiduously and his transparent prose makes it difficult to look away from a whole catalogue of horrors; but he’s careful to establish what we can be sure did happen which keeps the horror well away from pornography. The result is appalling and cool all at once and you won’t sleep afterwards.

For this is not the usual headline story. Brave united nations did fight evil and win, but that was only part of what was happening: the comforting part. The war did not come to a clean end in 1945; a hundred competing realities took over, the clash of nationality and Communist ambition, the fault lines exaggerated by the ruthlessness of war. What followed is the sort of story that rapidly turns into myth, exaggerated suffering or forgotten suffering, foundation myths for Israel and the European Union among many other things. Those few, brutal post-war years may have shaped our world even more than war itself.

So it’s shocking to realise the story is about something even grimmer than the hunger, the flat rubble streets, the broken cities and wrecked roads and railways, all the failed systems for feeding people, keeping order, even simply providing shelter. On the one hand, there’s the wonderful hope that came from seeing nations working united, seeing the rigid machine of class break down and men and women more equal.

On the other, there’s what Primo Levi sensed among the ruins of Vienna: “irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling in the guts of Europe and the world, the seed of future harm.” The Nazis had imposed their hierarchy of blood and genes, taught the continent a genocidal racism which insisted that difference always mattered enough to do murder. They also drove the continent to war, which made destruction the new language of politics; survival in a time of anarchy meant ignoring the old rules. As one official report put it: “The brakes have been taken off.”

Europe was a continent of women and children because so many men were either dead or displaced or interned. Hunger was ordinary; for the Germans it had been policy. They meant to clear out the Slavs of Eastern Europe, so they saw no point in feeding them. By the war’s end, even the black market had been exhausted.

The countryside had been a refuge when war started; nice middle-class Italian families complained when their servants bolted back to the villages where there was food. But the countryside suffered like the blitzed cities. Marshes that Mussolini drained in southern Italy were flooded again by the Germans; so malaria came back. The Germans opened the seadykes and ruined half a million acres of Holland, and burnt out one-third of all the houses in Lapland so no Finnish soldier could shelter there. Greece lost one-third of its forests. There was less and less chance to grow food.

In camps for displaced persons cans of sardines were enough to start a riot, so the director of one camp in Bavaria wrote, and bars of vitaminised chocolate “could drive men almost insane with desire”.

Women were all too often raped with a mechanical kind of brutality. STDs flared through the population, in some places infecting three in five, and nobody could afford to get cured: one antibiotic shot cost as much as two pounds of real coffee. In Naples women sat perfectly still, perfectly silent along the walls of a city building, ready to do whatever a soldier wanted for a can of food and the soldiers had truckloads of cans; but most of them were too horrified or shamed to take part. Sex was one part of a moral crisis.

“Germany in 1945 was one huge ants’ nest. Everyone was moving,” one Auschwitz survivor remembered. All through the war, the Germans took men, women, children as slaves to do the dangerous jobs in armament factories and mines. Now those slave labourers were struggling to find their way east and home. The Germans set dogs on them, refused them food, claimed to be afraid of them and somehow managed to blame them for the war; the Poles, it seems, should never have resisted.

The Allies saw only anarchy. In many areas, they rounded up refugees and locked them away. Anyone leaving those camps at night would be shot. The slaves were put back in barracks by their enemies’ enemies.

The circumstances matter, and the circumstances were terrible; Lowe’s calm attention to detail gives us about as wide a view as a few hundred pages will allow. For example: an army opened up the camp at Dachau, on the edges of a live battle. When they saw naked, bone-thin bodies stacked like firewood, when they opened boxcars on a train and found two thousand corpses, they reacted: the SS men were identified, separated and put in front of a battery of machine guns. This, of course, was a war crime – prisoners should be handled decently, not killed – but how were soldiers supposed to deal with the horror of the place? How could anyone expect them to wait to clean it of its true murderers?

We’re rich; hunger makes little sense to us. We’re sure and orderly; we know how to define human rights. We even have a European court to help us. So how do we judge what Tito did in the old Yugoslavia, with no police and no functioning courts, barely a bureaucrat in place to check the records and some 30,000 people in custody who might be collaborators and an active danger? Tito shot the lot of them. When later he watched the French and Italians going through the long labour of the law to do the same job, and never being satisfied after years, he could at least say: “We put an end to it, once and for all.”

Circumstances challenge all the usual moral rules. We can think that collaborators deserved what they got, but their children suffered more and longer; Norway tried to throw out every child with a German father. We can limit our sympathies for Hitler’s willing armies, but they were kept after the war in camps which quickly turned into vast sewers, where daily rations could run as low as one loaf between 25 men. Was that punishment, vengeance, indifference or circumstances? We have the luxury of time to think about what is going wrong and what is right. None of that applied after 1945.

These are years of chaos: famines, because there was no way to truck goods on ruined roads or railways; grotesquely overcrowded camps for displaced persons, because nobody had the resources or the cash to build anything better. In many parts of Europe government was so compromised that the civil servants were lucky to get away with their lives (and perhaps shouldn’t have.) The machinery for imposing order was armies, not malevolent armies but still armed men getting orders and expecting obedience when they pointed a gun. The possibilities for maintaining that order were strictly limited.

German prisoners were four times more likely to die in American camps than British camps, which is shocking, and after the war, American anti-German passions were running very high. The US determination to use law against every war crime meant that prisoners were held far longer, all through brutal winters, until they could all be screened. Mortality rates soared. But would it have been better to forget about war crimes, and was it really vicious to insist on justice? Did the Americans really mean so many to die?

Europe had terrible things to unlearn. A whole continent had been divided up by ethnic group and taught brutal, daily lessons in what to do about difference. More than half a million Jews, Muslims and Serbs were killed in the interests of a purely Croatian Croatia. Bulgarians massacred Greeks. Hungarians went after Serbs. Germans died in Polish labour camps as Poles had died in German labour camps when the Nazis went to work clearing the East in the name of building Greater Germany.

Barracks caught fire, and guards opened fire indiscriminately on the prisoners, even the ones trying to put out the flames; some were thrown still alive into the fire. German women were set to exhume Nazi victims, then made to lie face down on the rotting corpses, their faces smashed with rifle butts into human remains.

These stories were carefully told and retold to make German suffering seem as grandiose as German ambitions: they are true and they are propaganda all at once. The great Swiss writer Max Frisch knew that very well (Lowe doesn’t quote him, but I will.) He had been often in Germany after the war, seen children waiting by the rail lines in Nuremberg, hoping someone on a train would throw them something to eat. He saw ruins that reminded him of the lifeless scree on mountains and doorways that seemed to vomit out the contents of a church or a mansion.

He wrote back to a German corporal who had been at the siege of Stalingrad, infuriated by the German claim on being exceptional. “Your poor nation is no longer the supreme one,” he wrote, “but the nation that is suffering most on this earth, that is, if we ignore the Jews, the Poles, the Greeks and all the others; it is the nation that God has tested most sorely, which implies that it is the nation that God most favours … why is it never one nation among other nations?”

Seventy years later, these brute years are still alive. The figures for the dead vary wildly depending on who is telling the story, and even obviously inflated or deflated figures stay in print for years. Lowe handles this admirably, admitting when there is no hope of stating a plain historical fact and knowing just how dangerous even the facts can be. He doesn’t indulge the notion that somehow a nation’s suffering can be offset against a nation’s greater crimes; he reports both. He’s a man who knows he is handling dynamite with his mind.

For we still haven’t finished sorting out all the injustices done in the war, and the years afterwards: who owns that house, that chocolate factory, that bank account.

And we still pursue a “European Project” which depends on memory of those years. Lowe thinks the point is all the postwar hopefulness, the experience of working together across frontiers and class lines, but the truth may be more complicated. Europe remembers, as the British don’t, seeing the state to which their own homes were reduced, and their own parents.

It isn’t hope but fear that drives Europe’s managers: fear of what the people might do again if not controlled, fear of democracy that can elect a Nazi regime, fear of war which will break up a nice bureaucratic order. The people are made to take the blame for their own suffering; and so the war to defend democracy produces a post-democratic, even anti-democratic world. When Angela Merkel says what would follow the end of the euro she doesn’t talk economics; she tells her fear of the horror of war.

None of that makes sense without the world that Lowe reports: a truly savage continent before a new order was imposed, where the best intentions are as fragile as glass. His book is such good history it keeps all the questions boiling in your mind.

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

by Keith Lowe

Viking, 480pp, £25