Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

  • Keith Lowe
  • St. Martin's Press
  • 480 pp.
  • July 5, 2012

Drawing on eyewitness accounts, the author abandons optimistic liberation narratives to show the dark and chaotic process of imposing a new world order.

Reviewed by Norman J.W. Goda

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent tries to capture a moment at the end of World War II that few can imagine today. Using eyewitness accounts, Lowe paints a European landscape that includes dreadful scenes of homelessness, mass hunger and crime ranging from black marketing to mass rape of German women by Soviet troops. He also provides dark vignettes from the shaping of Europe’s postwar ethnic and political map. They include harsh retribution for Nazi collaborators that stretched from Norway to Italy, brutal ethnic cleansing in contested border regions in central and eastern Europe that produced millions of refugees, and civil strife from Romania to Yugoslavia to Greece.

Lowe is not alone in his effort to revisit the year 1945. A number of historians have done so in recent years, on issues ranging from the Third Reich’s violent death throes to the seeds of the postwar world. No one argues anymore than 1945 constituted a Stunde Null, that is, Zero Hour, whereby Allied and Soviet armies lifted the darkness imposed by the Nazis and then speedily imposed a new order through which postwar European stability emerged. Lowe ― a popular British historian who has written an account of the Allied bombing of Hamburg, which like this book is based on eyewitness memories , as well as two novels — correctly notes that we should abandon the optimistic liberation narratives that characterized newsreels of the day. The argument over what postwar Europe would look like was bitter, lawless and gruesome.

But Lowe’s account of the immediate postwar years is shakier in other respects. First, the author repeatedly assigns responsibility for the chaos in 1945 — particularly that affecting German civilians — to on-the-ground vengeance or to the ferocity of the war in general. Indeed, many witnesses viewed matters this way, as do a number of problematic secondary works on which Lowe draws. But though vengeance is not an insignificant factor in explaining the violence, it provides by itself a limited perspective that fails to contextualize 1945 within the prewar and war years as a whole.

For instance, Allied and Soviet troops did not fight until May 1945 — as opposed to, say, July 1944 — just to spread misery among more Germans. The horrific German military and civilian casualties of that year are traceable to Adolf Hitler and his paladins, who decided to fight to the last cartridge. Civilians in Königsberg, Breslau and elsewhere were to dig anti-tank ditches rather than evacuate as their leaders sacrificed them while hoping for a miracle. Similarly, the decision by the Czech and Polish governments to expel ethnic Germans from their countries were based less on the vengeful mood of 1945 than on both states’ reading of the years prior and the desire never to relive them. Hitler’s use of those same ethnic Germans as a pretext to destroy both countries and the mass expulsions and murders that followed could not be repeated. Lowe refers vaguely to the brutality of Nazi rule, but the devil is in the details, and so is a fuller explanation.

At other points Lowe simply reaches for explanations that fit the vengeance mold. His condemnation of the U.S. army for German POW deaths is especially muddled both in terms of numbers (Lowe cites 4,500 deaths but suggests that up to 60,000 might have died in U.S. enclosures in Europe) and in terms of causes (he blames off-handed comments by Franklin Roosevelt to Joseph Stalin at Teheran in 1943 and the Morgenthau Plan of 1944, which was speedily abandoned).  But as German POWs held in the United States after 1942 attested when they wrote to their former captors in 1947 asking for care packages with exchangeable cigarettes and chocolate bars, the problem in Europe was scarcity borne of devastation, not a vicious American mood.

Another problem is Lowe’s relativizing of Nazi Germany’s war of extermination against Europe’s Jews within the milieu of postwar devastation. At several points, Lowe acknowledges the Holocaust’s unprecedented nature. At other points, he argues that in 1945 anyway, others had it far worse, noting in one passage that “the ‘Holocaust’ as we understand it today is largely a retrospective construction.” But again, the exclusive vantage point of 1945 is misleading. The Germans and their collaborators murdered most Jews a full two to three years earlier, hiding much of their crime by burning the bodies, grinding the bones into powder and leaving few survivors. Indeed, historians have spent the past decades re-constructing the Holocaust, showing in the process that the Allies and Soviets in 1945 badly misunderstood —– sometimes willfully — its unique nature.

This misinterpretation carries into Lowe’s narrative. He is, for instance, bothered by the Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg’s violent 1942 exhortations that his countrymen “kill the Germans.” The debate on Ehrenburg is old and complicated, stretching back to the war itself and involving Ehrenburg’s complicated Jewish identity, among other things. For Lowe it is simpler. He blames Ehrenburg’s “bloodthirsty tone” for Red Army vengeance three years later. He ignores that in mid-1942, the U.S.S.R. was in desperate straits, that Ehrenburg was assembling grim accounts of German extermination that later became the Black Book of Soviet Jewry, and that Soviet troops who surrendered were systematically starved to death. The Soviets could fight and kill, or they could surrender and die. Ehrenburg, in other words, wrote in the context of 1942, not 1945.

A more problematic contextualization of the Holocaust is Lowe’s treatment of postwar labor camps, including the controversial Zgoda enclosure in Poland, which was under a Jewish communist functionary named Solomon Morel. The first issue is again numerical. Lowe says 1,855 German prisoners died there — one in three — from deliberate practices ranging from beatings to starvation. Though he often provides conflicting numbers to show how the politics of postwar memory distort statistics on Serb, Croatian and other deaths, Lowe omits that the Zgoda figure is not set in stone either. In 2005 the Israeli government, in rejecting Poland’s request for Morel’s extradition, argued that only 600 were in the camp and that 60 to 100 died, likely from the squalid conditions of the day. The second issue is qualitative. Lowe dutifully notes that “To equate the atrocities in Lamsdorf or Zgoda with the Holocaust is nonsense.” Yet he makes precisely this comparison by labeling them the “new extermination camps,” without noting the salient characteristics of the “old extermination camps,” where the Nazis systematically and speedily gassed and burned trainloads of Jews from all over Europe. The book contains many other instances in which the author simultaneously draws and blurs the lines between the brutal on the one hand and the unimaginable on the other.

Ultimately, Savage Continent points to a broader problem among historians in thinking about mass killing of civilians and prisoners during World War II, ranging from the firebombing of German cities to border wars between Ukrainians and Poles to Stalin’s many crimes to the Holocaust itself. Accurately listing and describing them is only part of the problem. We must also understand them properly, either as part of the same whole, as distinct atrocities each with its own long, multilayered history, or as both. This problem moves beyond a scorekeeping question of who suffered the most. It is a question of historical continuity, causation and scope through which we can move ever closer to answering history’s darkest questions.

Norman J.W. Goda is Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida. His books include Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War (2007) and The Holocaust: Europe, the World, and the Jews 1918-1945 (forthcoming).

comments powered by Disqus