Book Review: Savage Continent

13167112Savage Content, by Keith Lowe, tells the historical account of what Europe was like in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany.  It spans from about late 1943 into the early 1950s as the allies first expelled Germany from parts of Europe, and then as Europe was put together in its aftermath.

We all have our national myths about the end of the war – how it was a “good war”, a classic good against evil conflict with Germany as the bad guys always doing wrong things and allies and local partisans as good guys always doing the right thing.  in the last decade or so these myths have been corrected – stories of atrocities committed by allied soldiers have been brought to light, local partisans could be just as brutal as the Nazis, etc.

Keith Lowe tells some of these stories, but is also quick to point out that while these are important stories to relate, the new right wing folks in Europe are taking this waaay out of context and inflating the numbers in order to make themselves look equally victimized.

Lowe goes into excruciating detail describing the human devastation of the war.  The continent was on the brink of starvation for several years, where the caloric intake of the average European was in many cases less than 1/3 what was necessary to survive.  Lots of stories about housewives turning to prostitution to the liberation armies just to get basic things like bread.  And how many allied soldiers easily took this up, justifying their actions with comments such as “I risked my life to save these people, this is the least they can do.”

A really stunning chapter was about the treatment of female citizens who took up with German soldiers during the occupation.  This was shown briefly in the miniseries “Band of Brothers” on HBO.  The women would be stripped in a village square and their heads shaved.  this would happen while their neighbors would throw garbage and spit on them.  Even worse was the treatment of children who were the result of many of these relationships.  In many parts of Europe, they were denied citizenship, such that their mother would have to apply every year for immigration cards to keep their children in the country.  The children were mercilessly teased by other children, denied equal opportunities for education, and as a result, many suffered terrible humiliation – the suicide rate for these children is shockingly high.

Another chapter dealt with revenge that was taken out on minorities in the liberated countries.  Eastern Europe was a very diverse place, with people of all ethnicities living in various countries.  The “Volksdeutch”, for example, were German speaking minorities in Poland, Austria, Hungary, etc.  (It was, in fact, these ethnic Germans that were used as excuses by Hitler to invade many places in the first place).  Just as the German army slaughtered and performed mass deportations as they moved eastward in their quest for “Lebensraum”, after the war, the ethnic Germans were equally rounded up into camps, killed, and deported.  The population of Germany swelled by 2-3 million people in the years after the war as Eastern European countries expelled the German minorities.

In addition to things like this, there were simple acts of brutality that had nothing to do with Germany.  Poland, for example, was terribly brutal to ethnic Ukranians, as Ukranians were to ethnic Poles.  to understand what this was like, you have to look no further than Yugoslavia in the 90’s.  Tito held the country together after WWII, building a country of ethnic diversity (brutally).  So, while Romanians were killing Hungarians right after WWII, this didn’t happen in Yugoslavia.  But, as soon as the central government fell, the things we saw of Serbians rounding up and killing/raping Croats, and vice-versa…. things we thought were some remnant of the past, occurred in Yugoslavia as it disintegrated.  The only difference was that it took 45+ years for it to happen.  Right after WWII, this was happening all over eastern Europe.

Special attention is paid near the end of the book to how the Soviets manipulated Eastern European countries into becoming the bloc behind the “Iron Curtain”, but this was not unique.  Britain (and later America) did the exact same things in Greece to keep communists out of power – rigging elections, looking the other way when militias eliminated a rival, etc.

All told, this was really a fascinating, if depressing book.  It helped put things like what happened to Yugoslavia in perspective, and helped to further deconstruct the national myths we have told ourselves about this war, while not undermining the validity of what the allies did to liberate Europe from Nazism.  I found it to be well researched and easy to read.  A set of events like this, on such a grand scale with so many individuals, can too easily get confusing, and ultimately boring.  Mr. Lowe did an excellent job avoiding these pitfalls constructing a very coherent narrative of the different aspects of European society immediately after the war.

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