Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...
19 March, 2016
The Mob Rules: Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
As I wrote last month, my brother's death has spurred me on to learn more about World War II, a favorite subject of his and of our father, who is also gone. It's like keeping a family legacy going. While I wrote about Douglas Porch's A Path to Victory first, it was Savage Continent that I read first. And so I belatedly present some thoughts on the latter.
I suspect that many Americans think of the end of World War II as having been like this:
The boys came home, went to school on the G.I. Bill, and then got homes and jobs in the suburbs. While there is certainly some truth to this highly rosy scenario, the situation was much more complicated. American World War II veterans did have what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but it was most often something that was not talked about and men kept their feelings bottled up inside.
Many American vets certainly went through hell. But they came home to heaven, in contrast to the people of Europe. In Savage Continent, Keith Lowe examines the cimmerian world that was Europe in the years following the end of World War II. In his introduction he asks the 21st century reader to use her imagination and contemplate a world without social institutions; one where there are no stores and no businesses - money is worthless; a world without police, judges, jails, etc. No law and order. "There is no shame. There is no morality. There is only survival."
Lowe begins by looking at the physical destruction. Warsaw is his first example. It was a city of nearly 1.4 million people in 1939. By the war's end about two-thirds of those people were lost. Lowe says that the Germans systematically destroyed the city and, when they were through, 93% of Warsaw's dwellings were destroyed or left uninhabitable. Here are some photos.
Warsaw was but one of hundreds of cities to lay in ruins at the end of the war. Watch this remarkable footage of Berlin in July 1945:
Beyond the destruction of buildings, there was the toll on human life. Some 35-40 million people died as a direct result of the war with some 6 million of those being Jews. Lowe concedes the difficulty in appreciating such vast numbers and so he includes the words of survivors to put the numbers into a more manageable perspective. For instance, there is the testimony of Alice Adams originally from Drohobycz, Poland. "...the whole population of Drohobycz was wiped out, about thirty thousand people, they were all shot...I watched somebody being killed every day – that was part of my childhood."
Europe was awash with widows and, with many children having lost at least one parent, kids were often found in packs wandering the streets like feral dogs. Hunger was rampant. Some 16,000-20,000 Dutch died of starvation while that number jumps to a quarter of a million in Greece. But Eastern Europe had it worst. Indeed, it seems that almost every infernal scheme the Nazis had was worse for Slavs. Much of the hunger in Western Europe was the result of Hitler simply giving preference to Germans, but in the East the Nazis were keen on starving Slavs to death out of spite and millions died.
Lowe devotes roughly a quarter of his book to vengeance. In countries throughout Europe people who collaborated with the Nazis were punished. Some were merely made to suffer opprobrium while others were given minor punishments such as the loss of voting rights. But harsher punishments were handed out both by reconstituted courts and by extrajudicial justice seekers. Collaborators were sometimes given the death penalty by judges while vigilantes meted out justice in the form of beatings and murder. And of course Germans were at the receiving end of the vengeful as well. For example, Allied soldiers often looked the other way so that concentration camp survivors could take revenge on their former jailers. Unsurprisingly, just being German was enough to incur someone's wrath. Innocent German civilians were often shown little mercy by their former neighbors and none whatsoever by the Russians moving ever westward.
Women from occupied countries who had consorted with Germans suffered at the hands of their own people. I was reminded of the tragic story of Izabel Laxamana, a 13 year-old girls who killed herself after her father punished her by cutting off most of her hair. Amanda Hess denounced the punishment as being "medieval" over at Slate. But as Lowe shows, women from all parts of Europe who had relationships with members of occupying German forces had their heads shaved. Often times this was done in a town square or other public space where the women were stripped naked (by men, of course) and had swastikas painted on them in addition to being shorn. Children from these unions were frequently shunned and written off as being evil Germans despite their mothers' heritage.
The sheer destruction of life and property was depressing. Add on to that the petty acts of vengeance and the situation is even more bleak. But it was really the book's third section on ethnic cleansing that almost sent me into the depths of perdition.
Since the concentration camps were located in eastern Europe, many people in the west were unaware of just what had happened. Jews returning home to Holland were often greeted with such sentiments as "You're lucky you weren't here. We suffered such hunger!" and "You have a roof over your head and food the whole time!"
But insensitivity was the least of all worries. Having survived the Holocaust, European Jews found that their tribulations were not yet over. The section called "The Jewish Flight" tells the tale of a Polish Jew named Roman Halter. He survived the death camps and was liberated by the Russians. On his trek back to Poland to search for his family, Halter encounters a Russian soldier who treats him no better than the Germans. The soldier "took out his revolver from his holster, pointed at my head and pulled the trigger. There was a loud click."
Jews returning to their homes often encountered resistance when trying to reclaim their property. The book has one of the darkest examples of black humor in the form of a joke. A Jew returns home to Budapest having survived the Holocaust. He encounters a Christian friend who asks how he's doing. The Jew replies, "Don't even ask. I have returned from the camp and now I have nothing except the clothes you are wearing."
In Kunmadaras, Hungary, tensions and anti-Semitism came to head when blood libel was invoked to attack an egg vendor. A mob would go on to surround the man's house and kill him before seeking vengeance on other Jews in a mini-pogrom.
Polish-Ukrainian hatred gets a section of its own. With German power declining, Ukrainians took to partisan groups such as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and set out against Poles. In 1943-44 hundreds of Polish villages were beset by the thirst blood of such groups. Buildings were burned and some villages razed entirely while victims were beheaded and/or disemboweled.
The tables turned after the war illustrated by the fate of a village in Poland called Zawadka Morochowska which was inhabited by Ukrainians. The Polish army arrived in January 1946 and began a massacre. Dozens of villagers were murdered with some having been disemboweled or set on fire.
You get the picture.
Savage Continent does a remarkable job of describing the pandemonium of post-war Europe. Going in I tended to think of the time following the German surrender as being filled with people wandering urban ruins, the Marshall Plan, and the raising of the Iron Curtain. Upon finishing the book I felt a bit numb contemplating what the darker sides of our nature can accomplish. Lowe writes for the layreader here and the text includes plenty of photos portraying the chaos and destruction in graphic detail.
Lowe sets for himself some goals in the book's introduction. As a non-historian who has never read anything on this subject previously, I really don't know about the paucity of histories of the immediate postwar period and how Savage Continent fits into the larger study of this time. But he accomplished his goal of dedicating an ample number of pages to eastern Europe instead of focusing on the western half as, he says, most scholarship on the subject does. Lowe also mentions that he attempted to sort through the varying statistics in an even-handed manner. There are multiple times in the book in which he weighs differing stats and I felt he adjudicated fairly.
While I learned quite a bit from Savage Continent, there was one section which came across as pop psychology to me. In "The Shearing of Women", Lowe claims that "On the whole, European women slept with Germans not because they were forced to, or because their own men were absent, or because they needed money or food – but simply because they found the strong, 'knightly' image of the German soldiers intensely attractive". He proceeds to opine that French men were emasculated by the Germans and that they really began to shed the effeminate taint as the French and the Allies set out to liberate France. While I'd have to check out Lowe's source materials (and this book is well-researched), this section stood out for me because it felt like it had left history and statistics behind for baseless Freudian theorizing.
Lowe ends the book with a plea for truth and historical accuracy to prevail over falsehoods and national mythmaking, things which divide and can be used to incite hatred or worse. It was refreshing to read an historian talk about and give examples to illustrate why his profession and his area of study are important and what they can give to non-historians. Lowe writes, "It is not our remembering the sins of the past that provokes hatred, but the way in which we remember them."
There is much to chew on here. Not only does it help explain how the Europe of today arose, but it also makes you ponder the future. For example, can ethnic hatreds that abated after the end of the Cold War reemerge? What can a fuller understanding of history do for us?