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Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Keith Lowe

(US: Jul 2013)

In his book, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, Keith Lower has attempted to do the impossible: give a sense of the total destruction of the immediate postwar period across Europe. Rather than write a triumphalist account of Europe rising from the ashes to become peaceful and prosperous, Lower describes the period when such a future seemed impossible.


Even in the most horrific moment of World War II – and the scale of the atrocities that still litter Europe’s landscape astonishes even today – there remained cause for hope. From democratic partisan movements to Christians hiding Jews, World War II brought out the best in some people. 


Lower is not keen to dwell on the positive aspects of the immediate postwar period, and he is quite right to avoid looking at the period with rose-tinted glasses. In some ways, Lowe’s project is the foil of Tony Judt’s magisterial Postwar, which sought to describe postwar Europe’s emergence as a tolerant, integrated continent in light of its terrifying experience during the Second World War. Although Lowe is not looking for the seeds of hope in the destruction, his Savage Continent equals Judt’s capacity for synthesizing sources to produce compelling conclusions about broad swathes of complicated historiography.


Lowe’s ambitions also befit the popular nature of his study. He wants to combat the proliferation of inaccurate histories describing the immediate postwar period. In seeking to affirm victimhood and aggressor, contemporary political movements have mangled the history of the postwar period and used it to demonize outsiders, contributing to the continent’s contemporary struggles with integration and inclusion – a state of affairs that makes Judt’s homage to European integration seem dated.


Savage Continent proceeds by describing the direct physical consequences of war – its devastating effect on landscapes, industry, commerce, and populations – before moving to the less often-heard stories exploring the vengeance taken by victims of the Nazis against perpetrators and collaborators. The final two chapters explore ethnic cleansing and civil wars that continued and sometimes began following the cessation of official hostilities.


The physical destruction of Europe is well known, but popular images of the effects of war disproportionately favor the wartime shelling of cities like London. In reality, the most severe destruction of infrastructure and buildings occurred on the continent, and a significant amount of this was the fault of the Allied armies. The Nazis systematically bombed Warsaw’s classical palace squares, flattened the entire Ghetto district following the 1943 uprising, and ultimately destroyed 93 percent of the city. In rural areas of the Netherlands and Italy, the Nazis opened dykes, flooding agricultural lands. Across the continent, the appropriation of rail and vehicles for the purpose of war and genocide meant that the only possible way to travel was on foot, as if Europe had returned to the middle ages.


In describing the scale of death, Lowe balances the use of statistics, which give a necessary sense of the scope of loss, and personal stories, which give a feel for the effect of those losses on individual lives. All told, between 35 and 40 million people died as a direct result of the war. Once again, the regional variations meant that some areas, particularly in Eastern Europe, suffered more. For example, nearly one quarter of Belorussians died in the conflicts.


Of course, the systematic extermination of Jews meant that this group suffered losses disproportionate to any national, religious, or ethnic group. Lowe effectively communicates the meaning of the loss by relating stories of the survivors who were often the only survivors of families of 60 or village communities of hundreds. The ethnic and also the population density of some areas changed dramatically as a result of the targeted killings. Among the survivors across Europe, women outnumbered men.


Lowe’s descriptions of vengeance continue to explore the gendered effects of war. When the Red Army entered eastern Germany, it raped millions of German women. This section of the book contains anecdotes that lead the reader to wonder whether this mass rape was truly vengeance or a simply a whole new chapter of aggression. Some women were raped dozens of times over months. The children that sometimes came from these encounters endured a personal and social stigma that remained for decades.


The ethnic cleansing that fed into the thirst for vengeance against the Germans would have dramatic effects on Europe’s demographics. Formerly multiethnic areas of the former Russian and Austo-Hungarian Empires, where people existed in sometimes strained cohabitation for centuries, were forcibly homogenized. Tens of thousands of Germans were deported from Czechoslovokia in a brutal postwar reaction against all things German, but this pales in comparison to the 11 million Germans displaced from historically German lands that were promised to Poland – and, by extension, the Soviet Union – in a postwar settlement. These refugees encountered a destroyed country still under occupation.


The civil wars section of the book is the least compelling. Part of this is because the connection with World War II seems less evident. The actors in the Baltic partisan resistance to the Soviets seem more motivated by looking forwards to a future without Soviet oppression than looking backwards to take revenge for the war, even if their conflict had been prefigured by the postwar settlement of the allies. The complicated internal politics of Greece and Yugoslavia are unlikely to be of interest to non-specialists, and the tens of pages devoted to this subject mean that its truly complex origins are compromised. The chapters on civil wars allude to the emergence of the Cold War, pushing the case that the seeds for the postwar rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union emerged in the immediate aftermath of World War II.


Overall, Savage Continent succeeds at conveying the sense of devastation of postwar Europe. In a continent where more people were enslaved in 1945 than had ever been enslaved by the Roman Empire, and Europe’s transition, however rocky and uncertain it seems today, seems remarkable. Lowe’s supremely clear prose reveals his editorial background. His dedication to exposing the myths of the “greatest generation” – who took advantage of their chocolate rations to ‘buy’ impoverished Italian prostitutes – complements a commitment to combating all nationalist histories that continue to inflame prejudice. While not an original work of scholarship, Lowe incorporated the most recent research, particularly from Eastern Europe. For those interested in World War II, Savage Continent is a useful synthesis of contemporary scholarship, chock full of terrifying anecdotes.

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