The accepted chronology of World War II is that it started in 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland and ended in 1945 with Japan’s surrender after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Keith Lowe’s fine book seeks to change our understanding of when World War II truly ended. Europe in 1945 was a disordered and devastated continent, a region of civil wars, ethnic strife and violent political struggles. These conflicts were not merely a consequence of the war but manifestations of its continuation. World War II was far more than a grand military-political power contest between the Allies and the Axis: it was also a series of local ethnic, ideological and national struggles that persisted for many years after 1945.
When the war ended Europe was overwhelmed by a wave of vengeance and retribution, most directed at the defeated Germans and their collaborators. The concentration camps, emptied of their wartime inmates, were filled with millions of German-speaking civilians who had been expelled from their ancient lands in Eastern Europe. They were the victims of ethnic cleansing on a scale comparable to the Nazis’ eradication of European Jewry, except the aim was deportation not genocide. Even so, hundreds of thousands died as 11 to 12 million ethnic Germans were forcibly re-settled in Germany.
The expulsions were sanctioned by the victorious allies and carried out by Czechoslovakia, Poland and other states. Always balanced in his treatment, Lowe points out that the perpetrators believed what they were doing was right in response to what the Germans had done to them during the war. They believed, too, that ethnically homogenous states would be more politically stable.
Similar rationales underpinned ethnic cleansing in eastern Poland and western Ukraine after the war. When the Red Army liberated Poland and the Ukraine from Nazi occupation in 1944-1945 they discovered an ongoing and vicious civil war between Ukrainian and Polish nationalists. The Soviet solution was to authorise population transfers between Poland and the Ukraine that resulted in the forced resettlement of a million Poles and half a million Ukrainians. Meanwhile the inter-ethnic war continued, as did nationalist insurgencies against the communist rule in Poland and the Ukraine.
The situation was just as bad in Yugoslavia except that ethnic segregation and population transfers were not an option for that multinational state. During the war many Croats collaborated with the Nazis partly because the Germans, who had invaded and occupied Yugoslavia in 1941, permitted the establishment of a separate Croat state. The Serbs supported Tito’s communist partisans and their struggle against German occupation. At the end of the war the partisans took their revenge and killed an estimated 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians. Tito’s vision was an ethnically diverse but united Yugoslavia, however the seeds of the civil war that erupted after his death were sown.
As Lowe says, the postwar atrocities in Yugoslavia were political as well as ethnic and were directed at nationalists who might have challenged Tito’s communist regime. A similar political dynamic operated in the Greek civil war except it was the communists who suffered most.
Communists had led the struggle against German and Italian occupation during the war and their partisan army controlled most of Greece in 1945. Their nationalist competitors, however, were backed by the British. When the partisans resisted attempts to disarm them, there began a violent struggle that lasted until 1949, ending in the rout of the communists.
While most of the postwar savagery took place in Eastern Europe, Western Europe was not immune from the violence. When the British and Americans invaded Germany they stood aside and allowed former prisoners and slave labourers to take revenge on their German captors. In Italy and France communist partisans summarily executed thousands of fascist collaborators. Across Western Europe women in occupied countries who had relationships with German soldiers were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved. Any children fathered by Germans were ostracised.
Lowe provides a vivid panorama of the atrocity-filled landscape of early postwar Europe while at the same time challenging the more extravagant claims made by victim groups about the extent of the killing and ethnic cleansing. He points out, too, that in response to what happened in Europe under Nazi occupation some revenge and retribution was not only inevitable but could be considered cathartic in bringing closure to the events of the war.
Lowe’s book is filled with page after page of disturbing data about the state of war-torn Europe: 35— 40 million dead, the Jews virtually wiped out, tens of millions of people displaced, orphaned children in their millions, destroyed cities and a devastated countryside. Equally disturbing was what he calls the ‘moral destruction’ of the war, which led ordinary and decent people to behave atrociously, one example being the mass rape of hundreds of thousands of European women.
Fortunately, there was hope as well as horror. Not everyone lost their moral compass. The war produced heroes as well as villains. There was optimism about the future and new opportunities for social mobility and political change. The hope was not misplaced. Within a few short years Europe had recovered from the war and was far from being a savage continent. Eastern Europe was part of an authoritarian Soviet bloc but compared to the brutality of repression during the war communism seemed to be preferable to Nazi domination or postwar chaos.
Savage Continent is impressively researched and never fails to grip. Keith Lowe has written an outstanding and compelling book that challenges us to think again about the nature of World War II and its aftermath.
* Geoffrey Roberts is Professor and Head of the School of History at University College Cork. His latest book is Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov.