Lessons learnt, after World War II

In a post-war Europe brutalised by slaughter, this compelling study of life after 1945 shows, everyone had somebody to hate
By Dominic Sandbrook

For obvious reasons, most accounts of the Second World War end in May 1945. Hitler was dead, his empire was shattered and his capital was in ruins.

SAVAGE CONTINENT: Europe in the Aftermath of World War I by KEITH LOWE Viking £25/ebook £25 pp480

In Britain we remember this as a supreme moment of vindication and joy, while the Germans call it "Zero Hour", when "the slate was wiped clean and history could begin again". But was it?

Not according to the historian Keith Lowe. For tens of millions of people, he argues, VE Day marked not the end of a bad dream, but the end of one nightmare and the beginning of another. In central Europe the iron curtain was already descending; even in the West, the rituals of recrimination were being played out. And for many people, Lowe writes, May 1945 marked not the beginning of a brave new era but a "descent into anarchy". This was a frightening world of vengeance and violence, rape and looting, camps and pogroms, all taking place after the war was supposed to have ended; a world, he thinks, that most historians prefer to ignore, and that we have blotted out of our collective memory.

Lowe's accomplishment is to paint a compelling and plausible picture of a continent physically and morally brutalised by slaughter. The visible costs were obvious. In Germany alone, some 20m people were homeless, while 17m "displaced persons", many of them former POWs and forced labourers, were roaming the land. Half of all houses in Berlin were in ruins; so were seven out of ten of those in Cologne. If anything, though, the moral damage went much deeper.

In Naples, the writer Norman Lewis watched as local women, their faces identifying them as "ordinary well-washed respectable shopping and gossiping housewives", lined up to sell themselves to American GIs for a few tins of food.

Another observer in Italy, the war correspondent Alan Moorehead, wrote that he had seen "the moral collapse of a people" who had lost all pride in their "animal struggle for existence". In Holland, one American soldier was propositioned by a 12-year-old girl. In Hungary scores of 13-year-old girls were admitted to hospital with venereal diseases; in Greece, doctors treated girls as young as 10.
Without end

What dominated the life of the continent, apart from the desperate search for food and shelter, was revenge. Everybody, remarks Lowe, had come out of the war with somebody to hate. In Northern Italy, as many as 20,000 people were summarily murdered in the last weeks of the war; in French town squares, women accused of sleeping with German soldiers were stripped and shaved, their breasts branded with swastikas while mobs of men stood and laughed. In Prague, captured German soldiers were "beaten, doused in petrol and burnt to death": In the city's sports stadium, Russian and Czech soldiers gang-raped German women; in the villages of Bohemia and Moravia, hundreds of German families were brutally butchered; in Polish prisons, German inmates were drowned face-down in manure, and one man reportedly choked to death after being made to swallow a live toad.

Everywhere, everywhere, women were raped, whether by the Red Army in Berlin or by Frenchmen and Moroccans in the villages of Bavaria. By and large, however, their leaders turned a blind eye. "When you chop wood," the future Czech president, Antonin Zapotocky, said dismissively, "the splinters fly."

All of this makes for deeply harrowing reading, not simply because almost every page contains some new atrocity, but because we have been conditioned to see the Second World War as a uniquely virtuous crusade against the evil Germans. Indeed, some passages of Lowe's book are distinctly troubling.
When the Americans liberated the Dachau death camp, for example, a handful of GIs lined up scores of German guards and simply machine-gunned them, a war crime by any standards. Wounded guards were handed over to the inmates, and another GI remembered seeing a former prisoner beheading a guard with a bayonet.

Even more disturbingly, Lowe notes that "a very small number" of Jewish prisoners wreaked a bloody revenge on their former captors. This is naturally controversial stuff: when the veteran American war correspondent John Sack, himself Jewish, wrote a book about it in the 1990s, his publishers cancelled the contract and he was accused of Holocaust denial.

Yet the facts seem clear enough, and Lowe treats them with due care and sensitivity. After the liberation of Theresienstadt concentration camp, for example, one Jewish man saw a mob of ex-inmates 'beating an SS man to death - not surprising, perhaps, given what they had endured, but shocking all the same. "We all participated," another Jewish man, Szmulek Gontarz, remembered years later. "It was sweet. The only thing I'm sorry about is that I didn't do more".

To his credit, Lowe never indulges in cheap moral judgments; as he points out, the desire for revenge was both instinctive and understandable, however disturbing we might find it today. Many readers may well decide that the Germans brought their suffering on themselves. As Lowe notes, however, they could hardly have paid a more terrible price.

A staggering 7m Germans were driven out of Poland, another 3m from Czechoslovakia and almost 2m more from other central European countries, often in appalling conditions of hunger, thirst and disease. At the time, the expulsions were seen as "the least worst" way to avoid another war; today, of course, they look like ethnic cleansing on a gigantic scale.

But the Germans were not the only victims. In eastern Poland and western Ukraine, rival nationalists conducted an undeclared war of horrifying savagery, raping and slaughtering women and children and forcing almost 2m people to leave their homes. In 1947, in an attempt to finish the job, the Poles rounded up their remaining Ukrainians and deported them to the formerly German west. It was, Lowe writes, "the final act in a racial war begun by Hitler, continued by Stalin and completed by the Polish authorities".

Perhaps, above all, Lowe reminds us that in eastern Europe the end of the war did not mean the end of suffering, but merely replaced one tyranny with another. The final chapters of his moving, measured and provocative book look ahead to the onset of the cold war, a conflict established on the ideological, ethnic and national hatreds of the 1930s and l940s. We often think of the cold war in Europe as a peaceful stalemate, yet as Lowe points out, between 1944 and 1950 some 400,000 people were involved in anti-Soviet resistance activities in western Ukraine.

In Stalin's stolen Baltic states, meanwhile, tens of thousands of anti-Soviet partisans, called "Forest Brothers", struggled vainly for their independence, even fighting pitched battles against the Red Army and attacking government buildings in large cities. As late as 1965, Lithuanian partisans were still having shoot-outs with the Soviet police, while the last Estonian resistance fighter, 69-year-old August Sabbe, was not killed until 1978, more than 30 years after the Second World War had supposedly ended.

In a rare false note, Lowe thinks this brave man wasted his life, comparing him to "those forgotten Japanese soldiers who continued to hold out on remote Pacific islands until the 1970s". But for Sabbe, as for millions of other people whose nightmares were full of missing husbands, violated wives and damaged children, the war had never truly ended.

- Courtesy the Sunday Times, UK

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