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Darkness at dawn
A review of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe
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The starving, shattered Europe that Hitler left behind is a topic so vast, so terrible and so chaotic that it is hard to see how it could be confined to a single volume. The British historian Keith Lowe has not attempted to do so. In Savage Continent he uses just some of the fragments of history to assemble a vivid, if occasionally unevenly written, portrait of a broken, vagrant place oscillating between ancient barbarism and a post-apocalyptic future. With the Marshall Plan as yet undreamed, and Marshal Stalin on the prowl, no safe haven lay in sight.
Such a vision goes too far. More of old Europe endured than this volume—and its title—let on, but to worry about that, or the fact that Lowe has little to say about economics, the arts, or the broader culture of the time is to miss the point of what he is trying to do. This is primarily a book about the horrors of the first years of a questionable peace. That’s a story that’s well worth telling, and in Lowe’s hands, well worth reading. That it challenges the reassuring narrative of the Good War is another reason that it deserves an audience in America. And not just for historical accuracy’s sake: Old ghosts are stirring in Europe. We would do well to grasp where they come from, and why.
There is little in this book about Britain. There is less than might be expected on that slice of the Reich that rapidly and hungrily became West Germany, and—chocolates and Trümmerfrauen and black market and GIs and war brides and all that—never slipped far from the Anglo-American gaze. Instead, Lowe’s focus rests mainly on those nations that had emerged from under German occupation, nations in which (in the West) memories of the immediate postwar had either been muddled by (as he shows) kindly legend and convenient amnesia or (in the East) were suppressed under totalitarian rule.
Mr. Lowe describes a fragile, combustible, and lawless European wasteland so physically and morally degraded that it takes on the quality of nightmare, or a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch. Where to begin? With the rape of millions by a brutalized and brutalizing Red Army in a frenzy so revolting that to read about it is to despair (again) of mankind? There are so many abominations to choose from. Quieter, lesser known atrocities shine a new light on the extent of the abyss. Take, say, the fate of the ten thousand or so children fathered by German soldiers in occupied Norway. After the liberation that was not for them, many were labeled retarded by the Norwegian authorities on, Lowe maintains, “no evidence whatsoever.” A number were permanently institutionalized, and “right up until the start of the 1960s” all “had to undergo the annual humiliation of applying to the local police . . . for permission to remain in the country” of their birth.
They were a constant and peculiarly emasculating reminder of the powerlessness of life under a tyranny imposed from the outside. And it was not just in Norway that such feelings darkened the new dawn. The disgusting—and clearly related—spectacle of women stripped and shorn for sleeping with the enemy was, throughout Western Europe, a frequent accompaniment to the giddy celebration of liberation, shame repaid with shaming, the old sexual order reasserted. It would have been of no consolation to the wretched victims that these violent, but by the grotesque standards of this period, “relatively safe” (to use Lowe’s words) acts of retribution may have brought some sort of closure to communities that might have otherwise wanted much, much more.
Vengeance dominates this book. It “permeated everything” writes Lowe. It was “a fundamental part of the bedrock upon which postwar Europe was rebuilt.” After six years of Nazi savagery, 1945 was a time for a settling of scores. The Red Army was not alone in its ferocity. Without ever drawing facile analogies between the deeds of Germans and their collaborators and what was now being done to them, Lowe tracks the grim trajectory of revenge back and forth across the continent from the early explosions of long repressed rage—the first shootings, lynchings, and beatings—to the more systematic cruelties that followed.
Lowe explains that mob law waned once incoming governments took strong enough action to persuade their citizens that the state would punish those that merited it. In the West, this did the trick more often than not, and more quickly than not. This was helped along by the presence of liberating armies infinitely more benign than the Soviets and by the fact that the fabric of civilization had survived far better there than in the East. There was also something else at play. The ambiguities of occupations much gentler in the West than in the lands of the Lebensraum, and which even had some appeal to certain strands of local opinion, were impossible to reconcile with the sagas of unified resistance that were to play so prominent a role in the task of national reconstruction. To pursue the guilty too aggressively would be to uncover truths too incendiary for these battered societies to take. After an initial, demonstrative wave of harsh sentences, there were many who were left untouched.
In Western Europe, wild justice persisted in those parts of France and Italy where it could be transformed into vicious “revolutions in miniature” by a hard left that was on the ascendant all throughout Europe, a phenomenon about which Lowe is oddly insouciant: “Communism in Western Europe was a hugely popular, and largely democratic movement.” Maybe: Had it prevailed, it would not have been either for long.
But it was in the East that vengeance was the bloodiest, the most prolonged, and the most politically useful. These were the territories where Nazi criminality had descended to its dreadful nadir. What it hadn’t destroyed, it had warped and polluted. As the Wehrmacht retreated, these portions of the Bloodlands (to borrow the title of Timothy Snyder’s indispensable book) became Hobbes’ kingdom, and Stalin’s opportunity. Already emptied of its slaughtered Jews, the venerable overlap of peoples that had once given this region much of its character was too complex, too awkward, and, after decades in which touchy ethnic sensitivities had been groomed by rising nationalist ideologies, too dangerous to survive—but all too easy to manipulate.
Communities that had flourished for centuries were smashed up. In the greatest purge of all, some twelve million Germans were expelled from a wide swath of Eastern Europe including territories that had, until 1945, formed part of the old Reich. Half a million or, quite possibly, many more, died, a toll that seems heavier than the “many, many thousands” mentioned by Lowe. Germany itself shrank as Stalin shifted his puppet Poland miles to the West, a move sweetened for Poles by the fact that this land was to be theirs alone. Jews who returned to what they had still thought was home risked a roughing-up and, sometimes, much worse. But this at least did not have the official sanction of the state. Ukrainians were not so fortunate. Another unhappy minority of the old Poland, they were either driven from, or made to assimilate into, the new. Meanwhile, a feral civil war between Poles and Ukrainians in Western Ukraine concluded with the resumption of Soviet control and the region’s depolonization. Ukrainian nationalist insurgents were next on Moscow’s list.
They held out into the following decade, as did their counterparts in the re-enslaved Baltic States, three countries for whom 1945 was just another in a series of very bad years. Lowe focuses rare, overdue, but perversely grudging attention on the heroic and hopeless battle by Baltic “forest brothers” against Soviet despotism. Barely known, even now, in the West, it was a struggle that did much to keep alive the ideas of nationhood that were to prove so powerful in the Gorbachev era. Those who fought did not die in vain.
Even for a book that makes no claim to be comprehensive, there are puzzling omissions, however. Lowe makes room for the Communist takeovers in Hungary and Romania, but includes little on the one in Poland. Stranger still, in a work so attuned to the twisted politics of this twisted time, there is nothing on the forcible repatriation by the Western allies (and certain neutrals too) of huge numbers of individuals to the USSR and, all too often, their doom. By contrast, too much effort is devoted to finding a degree of equivalence between the actions of the Soviets and of those doing their best to keep them out of the half of Europe they had not already devoured.
Savage Continent combines hand-wringing with Kumbaya in its conclusion. There is happy talk of reconciliation, but there is also some fretting that older and darker sentiments may still be around. That the latter are increasingly stoked by the stresses and strains induced by an EU that portrays itself as the guarantor of European peace is an irony apparently lost on Lowe. Then again, his book went to press before neo-Nazis rode the Eurozone crisis into the Greek parliament with 7 percent of the vote.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 June 2012, on page 82
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