Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
In May 1945 an 18-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Roman Halter, encountered a Red Army soldier. Initially friendly, he quickly realised that the soldier intended to rob him and he protested, in vain, that he was a Jew. With that the soldier ordered him to strip by way of proof and then, with a look of contempt, he drew his pistol, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately for Halter, the gun jammed, but he was left to muse on the fact that his treatment by the Red Army had been little different from what he had endured at the hands of the SS.
This chilling episode is emblematic of Keith Lowe’s new book Savage Continent. It examines Europe in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the guns stopped firing. Yet, as Lowe clearly demonstrates, the absence of war is not the same as an outbreak of peace.
Savage Continent is a grim catalogue of humanity at its lowest ebb. Necessarily pointillist, given its broad scope, it ranges across much of the European continent, portraying a world where civil society and the rule of law were yet to be re-established and where revenge, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing and heightened political sensibilities gave rise to a renewed wave of inter-communal and political violence.
According to Lowe’s account, those immediate postwar years had a thoroughly unedifying air. From the Yugoslav partisans cutting off the noses of their erstwhile opponents, to antisemitic pogroms in Poland, to the massacres of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, he shows a dystopian continent in which the all-pervasive dehumanisation of the war proved difficult to reverse, provoking a hangover of violence that would last, in some places, into the 1950s.
Alongside the now rather well-documented episodes of brutality from the period, such as the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, or the expulsion of the German populations from the same region, Lowe does well to uncover some lesser-known examples of man’s postwar inhumanity to his fellow man. The story of the Lithuanian ‘Forest Brothers’, for instance, and their brave, futile resistance to the imposition of Soviet rule, is one that deserves to be much wider known and is outlined well. Similarly the ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in postwar Poland is rightly placed alongside better-known events, such as the Kielce pogrom and the Vertreibung (expulsion) of the Germans.
Lowe is rather too neat in describing his subject as the ‘protean chaos out of which the new Europe was formed’, when as many of those fighting in the 1940s were re-fighting old battles as were anticipating new ones. But beyond that he sensibly eschews any easy overarching narrative or grand theory to explain events, preferring to note that such Morehorrors were merely part of an infernally complex situation in which the various rivalries and hatreds, some engendered by the wider war and some predating it, were doomed to be played out after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
If there are complaints to be made about the book they are minor. I found Lowe’s occasional use of the first person grating, for instance. But, more seriously, his laudable desire for even-handedness leads him, on occasion, to find equivalences where there are none and to show sympathy to those who scarcely deserve it. His attempt to equate the Communist subversion of Eastern Europe with western initiatives such as the Marshall Plan, is perhaps the most egregious example of this, but there are others. Nonetheless, Lowe is an informed and erudite guide through this complex tale, providing measured comment and analysis. He should be congratulated on a valuable contribution to an under-known chapter of Europe’s modern history.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45