Tuesday, 12 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.