Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont's Reviews > Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
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Jun 12, 12

Read in June, 2012

A Tale Unfolds

Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II is an important book. Yes, yes, I know; you’ve heard it all before, the special pleading on behalf of some new publication or other, but believe me, it is.

Actually, no, don’t believe me; don’t take my word for it; read it and find out for yourself. If you think that the Second World War in Europe ended abruptly in May, 1945; if you think that VE Day brought peace then you are in for a surprise. I was reminded of some words from the Book of Jeremiah;

They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people lightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.

Considering the important weighting I’m giving here it’s a book that I almost did not read. A few years ago I read Giles Macdonogh’s After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift. I rather assumed that Savage Continent was essentially covering the same territory, namely the post-war trauma of Germany. It does; it touches on the savage expulsion of millions of Germans from the eastern territories handed over to the Poles at Potsdam and Yalta, and from their former homes in the Czech Sudetenland. But Lowe deals with so much more, not just a traumatised people but a traumatised Continent; he deals with the traumas of places as far apart and as diverse as Estonia and Greece.

We are dealing here with political, social, economic and moral chaos; we are dealing with the abyss, the nadir of human civilization. We are dealing with starvation, lawlessness, disruption, homelessness, rootlessness, alienation, murder and rape on an unprecedented scale in all of history. We are dealing with racial wars and ethnic cleansing that did not end with the Nazis. We are dealing with an ugliness of unbelievable intensity.

In some places the hatred and violence that emerged in the war and immediate post-war period never really went away. The former Yugoslavia is a case in point, where ethnic and racial tensions engendered by the conflict were submerged for decades, only to break out once more with unrestrained ferocity in the 1990s, a reminder of how difficult it is to escape from the past.

It’s not all about statistics and numbers, not all about mass suffering; there are also some sobering personal anecdotes. There is the story of an eighteen-year-old Polish Jew by the name of Roman Halter. He had survived Auschwitz. It’s May 1945; the war is over; the danger is past; he is free, emaciated, but free. He began a long walk east, leaving from Dresden, hoping to find others of his family who had survived the Holocaust.

On the way he met a Russian soldier, whom he greeted as a comrade and a liberator. The friendly gesture was not returned. Instead the Russian ordered him to take his trousers down. Having ascertained that he was a Jew he put his revolver to Halter’s head and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. The memory of this incident stayed with Halter for the rest of his life. Anti-Semitism had not died with Hitler.

The sad truth is, as Lowe shows, that hatred of the Jews actually increased after the war, leading to murderous pogroms in Hungary and Poland. It wasn’t the industrial scale, biology-based mass murder of the Nazis, but rather a return to more atavist and medieval forms of Jew-hatred. It was this, perhaps even more than the Holocaust, which led many Jews to conclude that they had no future in Europe.

There are other stories which, in their own way, are just as shocking, because they are less expected. There is the story of the Norwegian children, some three thousand of whom were born to women who had relationships with German soldiers during the occupation. Afterwards the assumption was that the women must have been mentally sub-normal and the soldiers they attracted also mentally sub-normal. For years afterwards the children born to these people were subject to levels of ostracism and discrimination that had a severe impact on their life chances. Compared with some of the other horror stories detailed in this book it amounts to little, though it tends to undermine one’s view of the seemingly limitless nature of Scandinavian tolerance.

There was so much in Lowe’s account of Stunde Null (wrongly given as Stunde nul) – Zero Hour – , as the German referred to the end of the war, that I had no knowledge of at all. I knew nothing of the vicious racial war between the Poles and the Ukrainians, pursued both during and after the war, with consequences even so far as today. I knew nothing about the struggles of the Forest Brotherhood, the freedom fighters in the Baltic States, who went on to resist the Soviet occupiers for years after the war, people who were still being killed as late as 1978.

The author’s whole account us tremendously illuminating, as the dust settled and the great post-war divisions between the communist east and the free west began to take shape. It’s as well to remember that for many in the east the story of oppression and occupation did not end in 1945; rather one tyranny simply took the place of another.

Communism has gone now. We have a Brave New Europe that has such free peoples in it. Ah, but that’s just the thing. Our Europe, the Europe of the European Community, is driven more by fear of the past than hope for the future. Recently we have had all sorts of dire warnings over what might happen if the euro collapses. Hence we have a bureaucratic, post-democratic New Order. It is the architects of this New Order, in their distrust of the people, who are paradoxically recreating forms of popular discontent that led to disaster in the first place.

So, yes, this is an important book, important if you want to understand the European present as well as the European past. It is cogent, well-written and well-argued account, if over-reliant at points on anecdotal evidence. The only thing that irritates me is the author’s tendency to drop into the first person singular. It is as if he is a tour guide taking us on a journey, a technique which for me is wholly out of place in a sober historical narrative. But if it is a journey we have come far. If you want to know how far, come and see; come and read.

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike What a great review Ana. I actually looked at ordering this on Amazon yesterday but went with another book. Had I read your review, I would have gone with my first inclination. Ah well, next time.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Mike wrote: "What a great review Ana. I actually looked at ordering this on Amazon yesterday but went with another book. Had I read your review, I would have gone with my first inclination. Ah well, next time."

Thanks, Mike. :-) What did you opt for?


message 3: by Tanuj (new)

Tanuj Solanki Excellent review Ana. Very eager to lay my hands on the book now. Thanks!


message 4: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Anastasia wrote: "Thanks, Mike. :-) What did you opt for?..."

Decided to go for an earlier conflict:

The Ghosts of Cannae  Hannibal & the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert L. O'Connell


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Tanuj wrote: "Excellent review Ana. Very eager to lay my hands on the book now. Thanks!"

Thanks, Tanju. :-) I look forward to hearing what you think.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Mike wrote: "Anastasia wrote: "Thanks, Mike. :-) What did you opt for?..."

Decided to go for an earlier conflict:

[bookcover:The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic]"


Now I shall also have to go down that road!


message 7: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Anastasia wrote: "Mike wrote: "Anastasia wrote: "Now I shall also have to go down that road!..."

Nice to have some company.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Mike wrote: "Anastasia wrote: "Mike wrote: "Anastasia wrote: "Now I shall also have to go down that road!..."

Nice to have some company."


I have a trip planned to Tunisia this coming October. I really want to see Carthage. Even if it's only a Roman after-thought I can still pretend to walk in the shadow of Hannibal. ;-)


message 9: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Anastasia wrote: "I have a trip planned to Tunisia this coming October. I really want to see Carthage. Even if it's only a Roman after-thought I can still pretend to walk in the shadow of Hannibal..."

*looks for "jealous" emoticon* That is so cool, walking the same ground as Hannibal. Have a great time.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Mike wrote: "Anastasia wrote: "I have a trip planned to Tunisia this coming October. I really want to see Carthage. Even if it's only a Roman after-thought I can still pretend to walk in the shadow of Hannibal...."

Thanks, Mike. :-)


message 11: by Badger (last edited Jun 15, 2012 04:59AM) (new)

Badger Hi Ana. To follow that great review with that ghostly quote - my goodness. That book must be mine!

A couple of years ago I read 'A Terrible Revenge' (ISBN-10: 1403973083) which introduced me to the scale of ethnic cleansing that affected German civilians towards and after the war's end. This was larger by a factor of twenty than the displacement of Palestinian Arabs which occurred at the same time.

It has puzzled me that the fate of fifteen million people (possibly up to nine million of whom died) has been almost completely ignored, while never a day does by without some bomb exploding, some demo taking place, some UN resolution being drafted about the self-inflicted fate of 750,000 Arabs.

Hmm... thinks: - that might provoke a reaction over on MyT...


Amicus (David Barnett) On the strength of this review I have placed an order with Amazon.


Lysergius Placed my order this evening...


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Badger wrote: "Hi Ana. To follow that great review with that ghostly quote - my goodness. That book must be mine!

A couple of years ago I read 'A Terrible Revenge' (ISBN-10: 1403973083) which introduced me to th..."


Let me know if it does!


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Amicus wrote: "On the strength of this review I have placed an order with Amazon."

David, thank you for your confidence. :-)


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Lysergius wrote: "Placed my order this evening..."

Lysergius, do let me know how you get on.


Amicus (David Barnett) Anastasia
I have just finished this. There is not a lot that I would wish to add to your review, except that I don't really go along with the attempt to establish an equivalence between the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and the US support of "democracy".

I've read before about the Greek civil war and the brutality praqctised by both sides and this book has not made me change my view that the right side won.

Like you, I had not before heard about the Forest Brethren and the Polish/Ukranian horrors.

Any way - thanks for recommending this book. It was well worth the time.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Amicus wrote: "Anastasia
I have just finished this. There is not a lot that I would wish to add to your review, except that I don't really go along with the attempt to establish an equivalence between the Soviet ..."


I'm glad. I agree with you on both the points you have raised.


message 19: by Jenny (new)

Jenny What a commentary! I can't wait to read this book.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Jenny wrote: "What a commentary! I can't wait to read this book."

Jenny, I look forward to hearing your comment also.


message 21: by Bibliomantic (new)

Bibliomantic The title reminds me of Mark Mazower's excellent, Dark Continent, which covered pretty much the same territory. This one looks interesting as well.


message 22: by Colin (new) - added it

Colin Hi Ana. You have a wonderful way with words and an incisive view of the world. I am a retired Chemistry teacher from New Zealand with a passion for politics, disruption in Europe after WW2 and civil wars...and of course, espionage. I purchased this book based on your review. Before it arrived by windjammer from England I obtained a book from the local library called "Orderly and Humane" by R. M. Douglas.This book is a harrowing account of the expulsion of German civilians from Poland and Czechoslovakia immediately after WW2.What happened can be only defined as ethnic cleansing. I would be interested on your thoughts about ethnic cleansing of Germans in retaliation for what German Nazis did to the Jews and the Poles. Is vengeance acceptable? If so, then was the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the breakup of Yugoslavia also acceptable considering the wrongs from one or two centuries before.
I also enjoy your blog!


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Bibliomantic wrote: "The title reminds me of Mark Mazower's excellent, Dark Continent, which covered pretty much the same territory. This one looks interesting as well."

I must look at that also. I enjoyed his book on the German occupation of Europe.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Colin wrote: "Hi Ana. You have a wonderful way with words and an incisive view of the world. I am a retired Chemistry teacher from New Zealand with a passion for politics, disruption in Europe after WW2 and civi..."

Thanks, Colin; you are very kind. No, vengeance is not or should not be acceptable, though inevitably one has to take account of the passions of the time. I certainly believe that what happened to so many Germans, both military and civilian, constituted a war crime. It's only in the last few years that the details have come out. You might be interested in this, one of my early blog posts. http://anatheimp.blogspot.com/2009/07...


Colleen Clark Wonderful review. If I'd read yours before I wrote my own I would have just referenced yours and let it go at that.


Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Colleen wrote: "Wonderful review. If I'd read yours before I wrote my own I would have just referenced yours and let it go at that."

Thank you for your kind words, Colleen. :-)


message 27: by Brent (new) - added it

Brent Your review really puts this on my list to find and read. Your writing sums Savage Continent up with enthusiasm! I learned about the Poland in 1945-7 at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, but never read more. I just finished reading Rick Atkinson's book about 1994-5; hope I can plug any such masterful history such a discursive essay. Go right on!


DoctorM Very much looking forward to reading this.


Espen Great review! And i agree, this is a must read book.

A correction regarding children born in Norway with German father: it's 12000, not 3000. And I think how they where treated and how little we did to save our Jews from deportation, even though some acts of heroism occurred and Jews where smuggled to Sweden, is our darkest memory from WWII and thus not in focus as much as it should be.


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