Gwern's Reviews > Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
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(~144k words, ~4h) Nonfiction European history by Keith Lowe. Savage Continent is a fascinating book on the bloody aftermath of WWII as the destruction wound down, the lingering consequences of anarchy worked themselves out in the sudden peace, and people tried to find a new equilibrium, punishing collaborators and finishing the ethnic cleansings. Quickly summarized on NPR:

"I was used to seeing these wonderful, cozy myths about the way the war ended," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and everybody celebrating and sailors grabbing hold of nurses in New York's Times Square and kissing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it hadn't quite ended like that." Europe, he says, was so devastated that "it's difficult for us to quite realize how bad the destruction was."

WWII for Americans remains the good war; while one may be familiar with tarnished aspects of that (the atrocities in the Pacific, the unnecessary atomic bombings of Japan, the domestic censorship, etc), one hears less about the post-war period. Presumably after liberation, things were cleaned up quickly and calmly and a few years later our historical memory turns to the start of the Cold War.

An example of the fluffiness I have in mind is an old movie I watched in August, Three Coins in the Fountain, a romantic comedy set in post-war Rome, where while there is still poverty and recovery from the war, things are basically OK. But one might have a better idea from my earlier reading, Catch-22's Italy scenes; or from Gravity's Rainbow's depiction of partitioned Germany's fierce stew of black-marketeering, Communism, corruption, crime, destruction, and prostitution. The end of WWII left much business unfinished: Wages of Destruction covers in detail the slave labor forces drawn from conquered Europe which worked in Germany up until defeat, and the parlous food situation of Germany and Europe at large - so what happened after? With all these victorious horny occupation forces? With the slave laborers, and the Jews, and the guerrillas or partisans or thieves or black-marketeers? How were morals slowly restored after being corrupted by the exigencies of war and the struggle for survival, and what was seen as now possible after the Holocaust?

The answers are rarely pretty, but Lowe gives a synoptic view. It can be hard to understand the early Cold War: what were the Americans & Europeans thinking when they set up Operation Gladio? What was with the persecution of homosexuals or the "Red Scare" & McCarthy? Or, when reading through Bryne's The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett (review), one can see on display his incomprehension of how anyone could plan for nuclear war or be willing to go to the edge or the security mindset. But here we see it put in context: a Europe only just liberated from one despotism, half of which has been handed over to another despot even worse and who has displayed the ruthless techniques of subversion and rewriting society on a grand scale (chapter 25, "Cuckoo in the Nest: Communism in Romania", is a surprisingly lengthy account of the sausage factory of of Communization - first, start with the internal security offices, exploit the electoral process, destroy opponents in detail, silencing or attacking or killing as necessary, and finally with a captive government take naked control and begin the purges and theft of all private property), in which Communist parties were not a political curiosity but popular, even a plurality sometimes. Without the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how one might resort to deep states, alliances with the Mafia, and so on.

Throw on top of this the festering ethnic hatreds which all sides struggled to control or exploit, which had independent lives of their own... It's hard to not see the echoes today: the Crimea appears often in Savage Europe, as it has in recent news; mentions of 'Novorossiya' would not be out of place; the Ukraine is battered so relentlessly in WWII and afterwards that contemporary events look not like an aberration but a return to business as usual; and can Finland rest very easy about its independence from Russia when it gained its independence not that long ago and long memories are so politically profitable, particularly in Eastern Europe & Asia?

An enlightening and timely book.


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Reading Progress

July 19, 2012 – Shelved
December 5, 2014 – Started Reading
December 7, 2014 – Finished Reading

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Jill Hutchinson Excellent review, Gwen. I thought the author did an exceptional job describing the hell of the war's aftermath.

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