A Czech Republic flag. Credit: Getty Images
Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
Viking, 480pp, £25
Recently, I attended a conference in Budapest on the practical, political and ethical implications of counting the casualties of the Second World War. Most delegates were from the former communist bloc countries. The organisation was committed to reconciliation but, as the event unfurled, it became clear that old enmities (and inherited myths) die hard. The only common ground was a shared victimhood. But who had inflicted the injury and on what scale and when remain sharply contested issues. It is the origins of this smouldering hostility that forms the substance of Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent.
Lowe made his reputation with Inferno (2007), an excellent study of the firestorm caused by the Allied bombing of Hamburg. This new account of the violent and vengeful aftermath of the Second World War in Europe, though very well written, is less convincing. There have been numerous books of late on the messy aftermath of the conflict as the spotlight has shifted from the years of formal military conflict. There is little to prove here.
It is evident that a war of this scale, intensity and moral bankruptcy would not be neatly cut off on VE Day. The aftermath was in part a product of inherited political tensions and ideological conflicts from before 1939 but chiefly a consequence of the massive destruction, displacement and criminality unleashed by Hitler’s invasion of Poland and, perhaps more important, the Anglo-French decision to resist it.
Lowe says that this is a story that needs to be told and he hopes it will generate debate. But this is perhaps appropriate only for a British readership, which is more likely to take the end of the war as a real caesura and reflect on the (elusive) “New Jerusalem” promised by Labour’s triumph rather than on the savage retribution and squalid vendettas released by peace.
In Europe, the experience is quite different. In Italy and France, for a quarter of a century, there have been bitter arguments over the legacy of the war and postwar conflicts, shared not just by academics but by the wider public. In Greece and former Yugoslavia, the postwar violence and the divisions it engendered – ideological and racial – have never been forgotten. In eastern Europe, ever since the Iron Curtain fell, there have been very public arguments over a great many of the things Lowe writes about. There are few secrets here any longer. It might be better if the debating was given up; a search for reconciliation is seldom top of the protagonists’ agenda.
In fairness, the book does bring it all together in a long catalogue of the awful events that took place in the two years after the formal end of the war. He uses a wide range of personal accounts of those who suffered rape or torture or dispossession (or all three). These are shocking, sometimes touching, just once or twice entertaining (a wartime poll showed that 51 per cent of Danish women preferred the invading German men to their own).
Lowe insists that he is not going to be one of those Whiggish historians who see only hope for a better future in the defeat of Hitler’s Reich. There are not many about, though they are more likely to be in Britain than anywhere else. Yet, in the end, it has to be asked: what purpose is served by a depressingly graphic narrative of the Hobbesian world inhabited by millions of Europeans in 1945? Another question that begs for an answer is just how Europe ever emerged from the abyss, not only shakily recovered, but on the brink of more than half a century of unprecedented economic growth, social and political stabilisation and, above all, no recrudescence of the imperialistic and racist ambitions that fuelled interwar violence.
In a sense, the argument has gone full circle. By emphasising just how vicious, dysfunctional and traumatised Europe was in 1945, it becomes more necessary to explain its revival, not less. What seems to worry Lowe is that a failure to acknowledge the nastiness will somehow come back to haunt European societies; that a distorted view of the past will provoke a distorted view of the present. If the end of the war is seen as “hour zero” (the German is Stunde Null and not Stunde nul, as Lowe has it), then the horrors beforehand and the horrors that followed can perhaps be forgotten as an element of public history. This is just not the case. Just as W G Sebald failed to see how much his fellow Germans were writing about bombing in the 1950s and 1960s, Lowe argues that the unexpurgated version of the postwar years is a relative novelty when it has been known for years.
What matters is not the knowledge of the full and terrible reality but the use to which that knowledge has been put and continues to be put. Laying it all bare, as the delegates at Budapest made clear, is not enough. As Lowe rightly remarks, moral certitude dissolves when perpetrators become victims and victims become perpetrators. The postwar mess in Europe cannot surprise us, nor can the way memories of those atrocious conflicts have been politicised and manipulated. The European Union, for all the criticism it gets for top-heavy and unaccountable bureaucracy and a punctilious defence of rights and entitlements, seems nevertheless sufficiently committed to ensuring that the legacy of the immediate postwar years will not poison our European present.
Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His most recent book is “The Third Reich: a Chronicle” (Quercus, £25)