A movie about courage in the face of tyranny—and a rousing good time
If the past is another country, some history books revisit periods so harrowing they should carry a health warning: ‘Not for the faint-hearted; ‘To be opened only at the reader’s peril’, they should declare on their dust-jackets.
If any book merits bearing such a warning, Keith Lowe’s epic survey of Europe during the years following the Second World War does. So gruesome are the multifarious horrors it relates that its readers cannot help wondering at times for what purpose Lowe decided to substitute them for the rosier image that most Americans and Britons still harbor of them.
Indeed, some might wonder whether even considerations of historical accuracy justify Lowe in replacing the famous iconic image of an American sailor embracing a young lady in Times Square on Armistice Day with the sordid scenarios that he claims provide more faithful representations of that period of European history.
However, it is for a worthy purpose beyond mere faithfulness to the historical record that Lowe has undertaken his monumental literary disenchantment of the period. He explains what it was in the book’s concluding pages, but not before conveying, surely for the first time in so comprehensive and detailed a manner, the true magnitude of the suffering Europe endured in the years following the War. As ever, it is primarily for the light shed on present-day problems that the past bears scrutinizing. Even so, to read Lowe’s book is akin to having unexpectedly entered Dante’s Inferno. As he explains at the beginning of its fourth and concluding part:
‘From the safety of the twenty-first century, we tend to imagine the Second World War as a single, unambiguous conflict between the Allies… and the Axis…The reality was… more complicated…[as] all across Europe…were dozens of other, more local wars… over class or other political differences… race or nationalism. These alternative, parallel conflicts… upset… many of our neat assumptions about the Second World War.’
Allied victory in 1945 did not bring peace to Europe. It merely changed the dynamic of conflict there and the identity of victims. With the boot now on the other foot, little time or opportunity was lost using it to settle a multitude of scores, some new, many centuries old. Continental Europe descended into an orgy of violence allied forces had little ability to contain, or, at first, inclination to. In consequence, vast swathes of the continent became a moral, as well as a physical, morass.
Lowe spares readers little of the stomach-churning detail of the countless scenes of brutality and depravity he describes being played out in Europe during the final year of War and in the ensuing four. He adroitly organizes these details into four main themes dealt with successively in each of the book’s four parts.
He sets the scene in the book’s first part entitled ‘The Legacy of War’, detailing the sheer scale of physical and moral destruction Europe had undergone by 1945. Not only had countless communities been physically decimated, public morality and decency had similarly gone into abeyance. Lowe begins his description of the sorry condition to which Europe had been reduced by euphemistically observing:
‘It is difficult to convey… the scale of the wreckage caused by the Second World War… In Europe as a whole hundreds of cites… [were] entirely or partially devastated… In some countries – especially Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia and Ukraine – a millennium of culture and architecture had been crushed in the space of just a few short years… such total destruction has been likened by more than one historian to Armageddon.’
Shortly after, Lowe tellingly adds:
‘The physical devastation of Europe was more than merely the loss of its buildings and its infrastructure… The truly disturbing thing… was what the [ruins] symbolised… [H]idden beneath the ruins, both literally and metaphorically… was a separate human and moral disaster.’
Lowe fleshes out these pair of opening statements with a barrage of corroborating statistics. The following selection from them begins to convey the scale of devastation Europe had undergone by 1945.
‘Between 18 and 20 million German people were rendered homeless by the destruction of their cities… Another 10 million people in Ukraine were also homeless … entirely deprived of essential services… as were millions of others across Europe… [R]ural communities often suffered just as badly… [as] farms were plundered, burned, flooded or simply neglected because of the war.’
‘The number of people who died as a direct result of the Second World War in Europe is… between 35 and 40 million… Poland suffered the most proportionately: more than one Pole in six was killed – a total of 6 million in all. The highest absolute number of war deaths was in the Soviet Union: approximately 27 million people.’
Raw aggregate statistics such as these cannot do justice to the scale of loss and suffering different groups in Europe had undergone of which its Jews unquestionably suffered the most proportionately speaking:
‘In 1945, while most people counted the family and friends that they had lost to the war, Jewish survivors tended to count those that they still had left. Sometimes there were none… Jews [before the war]… made up around a third of the population in Warsaw – some 393,950 people in total – and yet when the Red Army finally [entered] … in January 1945, they found only 200 survivors… Jewish communities in rural areas fared just as badly.’
Even where people survived the War, few emerged without deep psychological and moral trauma. As Lowe explains:
‘The most striking [loss]… and one that was felt universally was the absence of men… In the Soviet Union… there were over 13 million more women than men by the end of the war… Europe had [also] become… a continent of children… separated from their families… living in gangs for safety. In 1946 there were still some 180,000 vagrant children living in Rome, Naples and Milan… forced to sleep in doorways and alleys…They kept themselves alive by theft, begging and prostitution… In the summer of 1945 there were 53,000 lost children in Berlin alone.’
‘The sombre atmosphere of absence changed the psychology of the continent on a fundamental level. Not only had tens of millions… experienced the loss of friends, family and loved ones. But many regions had been forced to cope with the extermination of entire communities, and all nations with the death of large slices of their population. Any notion of stability was therefore lost… at every level of society.’
To compound the chaos in Europe at the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and former prisoners of war began to take to the road home then, against a backdrop of acute shortages of food and shelter. This was a recipe for ensuing physical and moral disaster, as Lowe explains:
‘One might have expected the food situation in Europe to ease once the war was over, but in many places it actually got worse… At the end of the war… food riots were continuing throughout [Italy]… In Berlin children were seen gathering grass from the parks to eat, and in Naples all the tropical fish from the aquarium were stolen for food… As a consequence of… malnutrition there were outbreaks of disease across the continent.’
The damage to health to which food shortages led pale into insignificance by comparison with the moral damage they caused, illustrated by a passage Lowe quotes from the diary of a British officer who entered Naples with a food truck shortly after its liberation:
‘a row of ladies sat at intervals of about a yard with their backs to the wall… By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any one of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile. The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing, and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images.’
Such scenes of degradation were by no means confined to Italy. As Lowe observes:
‘A whole generation of young women in Germany learned to think it quite normal to sleep with Allied soldiers in return for a bar of chocolate…Across Europe millions of starving people were willing to sacrifice all moral values for the sake of their next meal.’
Looting and theft were every bit as ubiquitous and with loss of respect for the law resort to violence became endemic. Not only were acts of rape committed throughout the continent by the thousands in practically every mainland European country, in the years immediately after the war lack of suitable male role models for children created a feral generation in many parts.
‘In Britain the amount of juvenile delinquency went up by almost 40 per cent during the war, especially crimes of breaking and entering, malicious damage and theft… In Germany too… youth crime… more than doubled… By the middle of 1945 groups of “child gangsters” were reported in the Soviet zone mugging and sometimes killing for food and money.’
In some ways, this rise in lawlessness and criminality throughout Europe was the least of its woes. In terms of the number of fatalities and other victims of serious crime, far worse was that resulting from the increasingly more organized, political forms of violence with the continent became afflicted. They form the subject of the remaining three parts of Lowe’s book. These deal, in turn, with, first, the quest for vengeance against occupying forces and native collaborators; second, the residual animosities between neighboring peoples, leading to ethnic cleansing on a major scale throughout the continent; and, finally, Soviet-orchestrated communist agitation and insurrection, resulting in civil war in several states and the eventual erection of the Iron Curtain effectively imprisoning eastern Europe under Soviet rule until 1990.
Hell might well have no fury like a woman scorned, but that of liberated slave laborers and other victims of Nazi captivity towards their former oppressors runs it a close second. For example:
‘[I]n Hanover … tens of thousands of former forced labourers rampaged through the town looting liquor stores and setting fire to buildings… German police… were overwhelmed, beaten and hung from the city’s lamp posts…Since the Germans had shown so little humanity, towards their own prisoners, many Russians felt they had the right to repay them in kind. Countless Germans were shot while or after surrendering… and countless more… killed by drunken Red Army soldiers who saw revenge as part of their victory celebrations…
‘When millions of bruised and destitute refugees began flooding into Germany in the autumn of 1945, they brought with them… disturbing stories of places they called “hell camps”…[where] they said Germans were routinely worked to death, starved to death and subjected to mass executions… [In] the most notorious…torture began immediately, especially for anyone suspected of being a member of a Nazi organisation.… Every form of vengeance shown to German… was also visited upon collaborators and fascists across Europe.’
In several east European countries, some of this ostensible vengeance had an ulterior motive – namely, to precipitate an ethnic cleansing that would rid them of German-speaking inhabitants. Other minorities in several European countries were also subject to ethnic cleansing, as majorities sought to achieve in them a homogeneity they previously had never known. These several episodes of post-war ethnic cleansing form the subject of Part Three of Lowe’s book.
The saddest instance of such ethnic cleansing was perhaps that which resulted from the hostility displayed towards Poland’s Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps by their compatriots upon their returning home after the war. What Hitler failed to achieve, they succeeded in accomplishing in Poland, rendering it thereby practically Juden-frei.
The final part of Lowe’s book deals with the politically motivated civil unrest and war in Europe which eventually resulted in its fissure into a free western part and a Soviet-dominated east. As Lowe explains:
‘The appetite for social reform after the war… was enormous…In most of Europe, the political organisations best placed to take advantage of this swing to the left were the various Communist parties… Many found th[eir] popularity profoundly disturbing… communism [being] ideologically opposed to the very thing that many had been fighting for throughout the war: national sovereignty… [plus] all the middle classes held most dear, such as religion, the family, and the sanctity of private property… After many years of savage conflict, the last thing most people wanted was a new class war. Unfortunately, in some areas this was exactly what they were about to get.’
Chief among the targets of communist class war in France and Italy were police, factory owners, managers, aristocracy, clergy and, eventually, even the democratic rivals of the communists. Some countries, such as Greece, descended into bitter civil war. Others, like Romania, were victims of communist take-over, becoming entrapped behind the Iron-Curtain for half a century.
From the vantage-point of the present, Lowe explains finally what the horrors of the immediate post-War period in Europe primarily have to teach. It is that centuries-old enmities can eventually be overcome and ancient hatreds foresworn. That lesson resides in their stark contrast with the relative calm and concord now prevailing in Europe.
If that continent could be as physically and morally transfigured as it was in a mere half century, surely there is hope the current global clash of civilizations between a resurgent Islam and the West can swiftly be as conclusively abated. To date, only the precise means for achieving rapprochement between the two await discovery.
While decidedly not for the faint-hearted, it is, perhaps, above all they who should read Lowe’s book to realize how important it is the world be spared future conflict on similar a scale. It forewarns humanity of what to expect should it break out again on that scale, especially in regions so ethnically mixed, and for the most part urbanized, as Europe and America now are.