Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II Keith Lowe

Viking, pp.460, 25

Keith Lowe’s horrifying book is a survey of the physical and moral breakdown of Europe in the closing months of the second world war and its immediate aftermath. It is a complex story and he tells it, on the whole, very well. Though the first world war took the lives of more uniformed young men, in the useless slaughter of the Flanders trenches, many more people, chiefly civilians, died in 1939-45. Soviet casualties were the greatest: 23 million killed, of whom two million came from Belarus and seven million from Ukraine. Next came the Poles, with losses of 6,028,000, the largest percentage of the population in any country. The Germans also lost six million, and the Yugoslavs over a million.

The slaughter did not end with the war in May 1945 but, especially in Eastern Europe, continued for many months afterwards, and in some areas — Greece, for instance — for years. In Yugoslavia it broke out again a generation later, when Tito’s state was dismembered. Serbian ethnic cleansing and the transformation of Greece into a kleptocracy both had their origins in the war. In the rough-and-ready settlement of 1945, huge portions of Poland were transferred to Russia, the Poles being compensated by chunks of Germany, including the whole of eastern Prussia. These changes involved the largest population transfers in history, of over 20 million people.

Lowe surveys this continental catastrophe country by country and topic by topic: destruction of buildings, loss of life and fortune, rape, revenge killings and theft, for instance. More women were raped in 1944-5 than at any other period in history, and it is likely that more people died of starvation (250,000 in Greece alone). Bombing produced some large-scale atrocities: 60,000 died in one Hamburg firestorm, and the Allied destruction of German cities exceeded by a factor of 16 anything the Luftwaffe inflicted on Britain. But probably even more buildings were destroyed by scorched-earth tactics or by the Nazis’ systematic policy of blowing up any significant or historic places when they withdrew. That is why 95 per cent of Warsaw was lost.

Lowe has much to say about revenge killings, though the evidence tends to be anecdotal rather than comprehensive. The trouble, of course, is that you cannot order people to kill Germans for six years, then suddenly tell them it is illegal. Lowe relates the tale of a British security officer who watched, horrified, while a Red Army thug asked a German for the time and, when told it, pocketed the watch and knifed the man to death. The officer took the murderer at pistol point to the nearest Soviet military police unit and explained what had happened. The criminal was told ‘You killed a German. Bravo!’, and a red star was pinned on his chest.

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In the general upheaval and reversal of human values which marked the closing period of the war, men and women engaged in hysterical and irrational acts. Lowe quotes an eyewitness account of an incident in Hanover in June 1945 when a mob which included former POWs, displaced persons and even Germans broke into a store selling new doorknobs and began looting:

What they could want with such objects in a city where half the doors no longer existed, is beyond me. But they not only looted those doorknobs but fought over them. They kicked and scratched and beat with iron bars those who had more door-knobs than themselves. I saw one foreign worker trip up a girl, tear the door-knob from her arms and then kick her repeatedly in the face and body until she was covered in blood. Then he raced off down the street. Half-way down he seemed to come to his senses, looked down at the objects he was carrying, and then with a visible gesture of distaste, flung them all away.

The recovery of Western Europe in the quarter century after 1945 is a tremendous testimony to human resilience. Germany’s is the most spectacular and proves beyond doubt that, having achieved full employment in the three years after Hitler came to power — the only nation in the world to do so — it could have realised all his aims, and become the dominant country in Europe, without firing a shot. The second world war, the most destructive in human history, was totally unnecessary.

The biggest loser was Russia because, by winning the war, its regime avoided de-communisation, and thus saddled itself for a further half-century with one of the most inefficient governments in history, which has now been reincarnated in the shape of Putin’s criminal oligarchy. With a shrinking population, declining life-expectancy and a culture of home-made vodka and universal theft, Russia’s only asset is its natural resources, now being plundered to exhaustion.

Poland ought, in theory, to have been another loser, but was saved by the Catholic Church and by securing borders which matched its ethnic contours. It is now energetic and hopeful. So is Hungary, which lost 30 per cent more casualties than Britain, out of a much smaller population, but has prospered mightily since its liberation in 1989 and currently has the most enterprising regime in Europe. Other winners are Slovenia and Croatia, now rid of their backward partners in the Yugoslav ethnic conflict.

The Baltic states have done well too since the 1980s and can be treated, culturally and economically, as part of prosperous Scandinavia rather than hopeless Russia. Poor Greece is a major loser, and rightly blames Germany, for its troubles originated in the Nazi occupation. Italy is another loser, with the world’s lowest birthrate and highest corruption. Spain benefited enormously by Franco’s victory, which kept it out of the war, and it prospered for half a century afterwards until the European Union dragged it down. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, all the members of the EU have been held back by its incorrigible bureaucracy and regulations.

Israel is the most enigmatic survivor of the war. According to Lowe, 5,830,400 Jews were killed by the Nazis, and in some areas anti-Semites continued to slaughter Jews for months after the end of hostilities. On the other hand, the Holocaust made the Jewish homeland possible, and it has since become one of the most efficient states in the world, militarily, commercially and culturally, with a tremendous, if precarious, fortune. It is an ironic fact that Germany and Israel now have the most cause to look back with satisfaction on the postwar period as a whole.

As for Britain, we have the record for decency, despite all the temptations of the war and the postwar chaos. It should never be forgotten that Clement Attlee diverted food ships from Britain to starving Europe in 1946, which meant we had to endure bread rationing, something we had avoided in wartime. Lowe prints a significant table of the deaths of prisoners of war. In Russian custody officially over a million POWs died, but there may have been many more — almost as many as the number of Russians who died in German custody. In Yugoslavia it was over 80,000, and in France 24,178 — a disgraceful figure, all things considered. In Britain only 1,254 died, out of 3,635,000. We were a big loser from the war, but at least we emerged with our honour intact — Dresden excepted.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Britain, Europe, Germany, History, Non-fiction, War history