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Savage Continent

Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

by Keith Lowe

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Savage Continent
Europe in the Aftermath of World War II
Keith Lowe

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Book Summary

Recounts the disorder in Europe after World War II, describing the brutal acts against Germans and collaborators, the anti-Semitic beliefs that reemerged, and the Allied-tolerated expulsions of citizens from their ancestral homelands.

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In his latest book, Savage Continent, Keith Lowe takes a look at Europe in the years directly following World War II. Picador hide caption

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After WWII, Europe Was A 'Savage Continent' Of Devastation

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Savage Continent

Savage Continent

Europe in the Aftermath of World War II


Copyright © 2013 Lowe Keith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-03356-7


Savage Continent
The Legacy of War
I thought you'd be there waiting for me ... What greeted me instead was the lingering stench of ashes and the empty sockets of our ruined home.
Samuel Puterman on his return to Warsaw, 19451;2
We could see the physical destruction but the effect of vast economic disruption and political, social, and psychological destruction ... completely escaped us.
Dean Acheson, US Under-Secretary of State, 1947
Physical Destruction
In 1943 the travel book publisher Karl Baedeker produced a guide to the Generalgouvernement — that part of central and southern Poland that remained nominally separate from the Reich. As with all publications in Germany at the time, it was just as concerned with disseminating propaganda as with giving its readers information. The section on Warsaw was a case in point. The book waxed lyrical about the city's German origins, its German character and the way that it had become one of the world's great capitals 'predominantly through the effort of Germans'. It urged tourists to visit the medieval Royal Castle, the fourteenth-century cathedral and the beautiful late-Renaissance Jesuit Church - all the products of German culture and influence. Of special interest was the complex of late baroque palaces around Pilsudski Square - 'the most beautiful square in Warsaw' - now renamed Adolf Hitler Platz. The centrepiece was the 'Saxon' Palace, built of course by a German, and its beautiful Saxon Gardens, which were again designed by German architects. The travel guide conceded that one or two buildings had unfortunately been damaged by the battle for Warsaw in 1939, but since then, it reassured its readers, Warsaw 'is being rebuilt once more under German leadership'.1
No mention was made of the western suburbs of the city, which had been converted into a ghetto for Jews. This was probably just as well because even as the book was being published an uprising broke out here, obliging SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop to set fire to virtually every house in the district.2 Almost four square kilometres of the city were entirely destroyed in this way.
The following year a second uprising broke out throughout the rest of the city. This time it was a more general insurgency inspired by thePolish Home Army. In August 1944, groups of Polish men, women and teenagers began ambushing German soldiers and stealing their weapons and ammunition. For the next two months they barricaded themselves in and around the Old City, and held down more than 17,000 German anti-insurgent troops.3 The uprising only came to an end in October after some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Afterwards, tired of Polish disobedience, and aware that the Russians were about to enter the city anyway, Hitler ordered the city to be completely razed.4
Accordingly, German troops blew up the medieval Royal Castle that had so impressed Baedeker. They undermined the fourteenth-century cathedral and blew that up too. Then they destroyed the Jesuit Church. The Saxon Palace was systematically blown up over the course of three days just after Christmas 1944, as was the entire complex of baroque and rococo palaces. The European Hotel, recommended by Baedeker, was first burned down in October and then, just to make sure, blown up in January 1945. German troops went from house to house, street to street, systematically destroying the entire city: 93 per cent of Warsaw's dwellings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. To complete the destruction they burned down the National Archive, the Archives of Ancient Documents, the Financial Archives, the Municipal Archives, the Archives of New Documents and the Public Library.5
After the war, when the Poles were turning their thoughts to rebuilding their capital, the National Museum held an exhibition showing fragments of buildings and artworks that had been damaged or destroyed during the German occupation. They produced an accompanying guide book, which, unlike Baedeker's guide book, was written entirely in the past tense. The intention was to remind the people of Warsaw, and the wider world, of exactly what had been lost. There is a realization implicit in both the guide book and the exhibition itself that those who lived through the destruction of Warsaw were no longer able to appreciate the immensity of what had happened to their city. For them it had happened gradually, beginning with the bombardment in 1939, continuing with German looting during the occupation and ending with the destruction of the Ghetto in 1943 and the final devastation in late 1944. Now, just a few months after their liberation, they had become used to living in shells of houses, surrounded on all sides by mountains of rubble.6
In some ways the true scale of the destruction could be appreciatedonly by those who saw its results without actually witnessing it taking place. John Vachon was a young photographer who came to Warsaw as part of the United Nations relief effort after the war. The letters he wrote to his wife Penny in January 1946 display his complete incomprehension at the scale of the destruction.
This is really an incredible city and I want to give you an idea of it, and don't know how I can do it. It's a big city, see. Over one million pre war. Big as Detroit. Now it is 90 per cent all destroyed ... Wherever you walk here it is hunks of buildings standing up without roofs or much sides, and people living in them. Except the Ghetto, where it is just a great plain of bricks, with twisted beds and bath tubs and sofas, pictures in frames, trunks, millions of things sticking out among the bricks. I can't understand how it could have been done ... It's something that's so vicious I can't believe it.7
The beautiful baroque city described by Karl Baedeker just two years earlier had completely disappeared.
It is difficult to convey in meaningful terms the scale of the wreckage caused by the Second World War. Warsaw was just one example of a city destroyed - there were dozens more within Poland alone. In Europe as a whole hundreds of cities had been entirely or partially devastated. Photographs taken after the war can give some idea of the scale of the destruction of individual cities, but when one tries to multiply this devastation across the entire continent it necessarily defies comprehension. 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. The violence that brought about such total devastation has been likened by more than one historian to Armageddon. 8
Those people who witnessed the wreckage of Europe's cities struggled to come to terms even with the local devastation they saw, and it is only in their tortured, inadequate descriptions that some of the destruction becomes imaginable. However, before we come to such human reactions to the crushed and shattered scenery, it is necessary to set down some statistics - because statistics matter, regardless of how elusive they can be.
As the only nation to have successfully defied Hitler for the entireduration of the war, Britain had suffered badly. The Luftwaffe had dropped almost 50,000 tons of bombs on Britain during the Blitz, destroying 202,000 houses and damaging 4.5 million more.9 The pounding received by Britain's major cities is well known, but it is what happened to some of the smaller towns that shows the true extent of the bombing. The ferocity of the attacks on Coventry gave birth to a new German verb, coventriren — to 'Coventrate', or destroy utterly. Clydebank is a relatively small industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow: out of 12,000 homes only 8 escaped damage.10
Across the English Channel the damage was not quite so universal, but much more concentrated. Caen, for example, was virtually wiped off the map when the Allies landed in Normandy in 1944: 75 per cent of the city was obliterated by Allied bombs.11 Saint-Lô and Le Havre suffered even worse, with 77 per cent and 82 per cent of the buildings destroyed.12 When the Allies landed in the south of France more than 14,000 buildings in Marseilles were partly or completely destroyed.13 According to government records for compensation claims and loans for war losses, 460,000 buildings in France were destroyed in the war, and a further 1.9 million damaged.14
The further east one travelled after the war, the worse the devastation became. In Budapest 84 per cent of the buildings were damaged, and 30 per cent of them so badly that they were entirely uninhabitable.15 About 80 per cent of the city of Minsk in Belarus was destroyed: only 19 of 332 major factories in the city survived, and only then because mines set by the retreating Germans were defused by Red Army sappers just in time.16 Most of the public buildings in Kiev were mined when the Soviets retreated in 1941 — the rest were destroyed when they returned in 1944. Kharkov in eastern Ukraine was fought over so many times that eventually there was little left to dispute. In Rostov and Voronezh, according to one British journalist, 'the destruction was very nearly 100 per cent'.17 And the list goes on. Approximately 1,700 towns and cities were devastated in the USSR, 714 of them in Ukraine alone.18
Those who travelled across this ruined landscape in the aftermath of the war saw city after city after city destroyed. Very few of these people ever attempted to describe the totality of what they had seen - instead they struggled to come to terms with the more localized damage in each single city as they came across it. Stalingrad, for example, was nothing but 'lumps of walls, boxes of half-ruined buildings, piles of rubble, isolatedchimneys'.19 Sebastopol 'was now melancholy beyond words' where 'even in the suburbs ... there was hardly a house standing'.20 In September 1945 the American diplomat George F. Kennan found himself in the formerly Finnish but now Russian city of Vyborg, admiring the way that 'Rays of early morning sunshine ... caught the gutted shells of apartment buildings, and flooded them momentarily with a chill, pale gleam.' Apart from a goat that he startled in one of the ruined doorways, Kennan seemed to be the only living being in the entire city.21
At the centre of all this destruction lay Germany, whose cities undoubtedly suffered the most comprehensive damage of the war. Around 3.6 million German apartments were destroyed by the British and American air forces - that is, about a fifth of all living spaces in the country.22 In absolute terms the damage to living spaces in Germany was nearly eighteen times as bad as it was in Britain.23 Individual cities suffered far worse than the average. According to figures from the Reich's Statistical Office, Berlin lost up to 50 per cent of its habitable premises, Hanover 51.6 per cent, Hamburg 53.3 per cent, Duisburg 64 per cent, Dortmund 66 per cent, and Cologne 70 per cent.24
When Allied observers came to Germany after the war, most of them expected to find destruction on the same scale as they had witnessed in Britain during the Blitz. Even after British and American newspapers and magazines began to print pictures and descriptions of the devastation it was impossible to prepare for the sight of the real thing. Austin Robinson, for example, was sent to western Germany directly after the war on behalf of the British Ministry of Production. His description of Mainz while he was there displays his sense of shock:
That skeleton, with whole blocks level, huge areas with nothing but walls standing, factories almost completely gutted, was a picture that I know will live with me for life. One had known it intellectually without feeling it emotionally or humanly.25
British Lieutenant Philip Dark was equally appalled by the apocalyptic vision he saw in Hamburg at the end of the war:
[W]e swung in towards the centre and started to enter a city devastated beyond all comprehension. It was more than appalling. As far as the eye could see, square mile after square mile of empty shells of buildings withtwisted girders scarecrowed in the air, radiators of a flat jutting out from a shaft of a still-standing wall, like a crucified pterodactyl skeleton. Horrible, hideous shapes of chimneys sprouting from the frame of a wall. The whole pervaded by an atmosphere of ageless quiet ... Such impressions are incomprehensible unless seen.26
There is a sense of utter despair in many of the descriptions of German cities in 1945. Dresden, for example, no longer resembled 'Florence on the Elbe' but was more like 'the face of the moon', and planning directors believed that it would take 'at least seventy years' to rebuild.27 Munich was so badly devastated that 'It truly did almost make one think that a Last Judgement was imminent.'28 Berlin was 'completely shattered - just piles of rubble and skeleton houses'.29 Cologne was a city 'recumbent, without beauty, shapeless in the rubble and loneliness of complete physical defeat'.30
Between 18 and 20 million German people were rendered homeless by the destruction of their cities - that is the same as the combined prewar populations of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg.31 Another 10 million people in Ukraine were also homeless, or more than the total prewar population of Hungary.32 These people lived in cellars, ruins, holes in the ground - anywhere they could find a modicum of shelter. They were entirely deprived of essential services, such as water, gas, electricity - as were millions of others across Europe. Warsaw, for example, had just two working street lights.33 In Odessa water was only available from artesian wells, so that even visiting dignitaries were given just a single bottle per day for washing.34 Without these essential utilities the populations of Europe's cities were reduced to living, as one American columnist described it, 'in medieval fashion surrounded by the broken-down machinery of the twentieth century'.35
While the devastation was at its most dramatic in Europe's cities, rural communities often suffered just as badly. Across the continent farms were plundered, burned, flooded or simply neglected because of the war. The marshes in southern Italy, so assiduously drained by Mussolini, were deliberately flooded again by the retreating Germans, causing a resurgence of malaria.36 More than half a million acres of Holland (219,000 hectares) were ruined when German troops deliberatelyopened the dykes that kept the sea at bay.37 Remoteness from the main theatres of war was no protection from such treatment. More than a third of the dwelling places in Lapland were destroyed by the retreating Germans.38 The idea was to deny the turncoat Finnish forces any shelter during the winter, but it also had the effect of creating over 80,000 refugees. Across northern Norway and Finland roads were mined, telephone lines pulled down and bridges blown up, creating problems that would be felt for years after the war was over.
Once again, the further east, the worse the destruction. Greece lost a third of its forests during the German occupation, and over a thousand villages were burned and left uninhabited.39 In Yugoslavia, according to the postwar Reparations Commission, 24 per cent of the orchards were destroyed, as were 38 per cent of the vineyards and about 60 per cent of all livestock. The plundering of millions of tons of grain, milk and wool completed the ruination of the Yugoslav rural economy.40 In the USSR it was even worse: here as many as 70,000 villages were destroyed, along with their communities and the entire rural infrastructure.41 Such damage was not merely the result of fighting and casual plundering - it was caused by the systematic and deliberate destruction of land and property. Farms and villages were burned down for the merest hint of resistance. Vast swathes of forest along the sides of roads were cut down to minimize the risk of ambush.
Much has been written about how ruthless Germany and Russia were when they attacked each other, but they were equally ruthless in defence. When the German army streamed into Soviet territory in the summer of 1941, Stalin made a radio broadcast to his people telling them to remove everything they could before fleeing: 'All valuable property, including non-ferrous metals, grain and fuel that cannot be withdrawn must be destroyed without fail. In areas occupied by the enemy, guerrilla units ... must set fire to forests, stores and transports.'42
When the tables began to turn, Hitler likewise ordered that nothing should be left behind for the returning Soviets. 'Regardless of its inhabitants, every locality must be burned down and destroyed to deprive the enemy of accommodation facilities,' read one of Hitler's orders to his army commanders in Ukraine in December 1941; 'the localities left intact have to be subsequently ruined by the air force.'43 Later, when things began to get more desperate, Himmler ordered his SS leaders to destroy everything: 'Not one person, no cattle, no quintal of grain, norailway track must remain behind ... The enemy must find a country totally burned and destroyed.'44
As a consequence of orders like these, vast areas of agricultural land in Ukraine and Belarus were torched not once, but twice, and with them countless villages and farmhouses that might offer shelter to the enemy. Industry, naturally, was one of the first things to be destroyed. In Hungary, for instance, 500 major factories were dismantled and transported to Germany - over 90 per cent of the rest were deliberately damaged or destroyed - and almost every coal mine was flooded or collapsed.45 In the USSR approximately 32,000 factories were destroyed.46 In Yugoslavia the Reparations Commission estimated that their country had lost more than $9.14 billion worth of industry, or a third of the country's entire industrial wealth.47
Perhaps the worst damage was that which befell the continent's transport infrastructure. Holland, for example, lost 60 per cent of its road, rail and canal transport. In Italy up to a third of the country's road network had been made unusable, and 13,000 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Both France and Yugoslavia lost 77 per cent of their rail locomotives and a similar percentage of all rolling stock. Poland lost a fifth of its roads, a third of its rail track (about 10,000 miles in all), 85 per cent of all rolling stock, and 100 per cent of its civil aviation. Norway had lost half of its prewar shipping tonnage, and Greece lost between two-thirds and three-quarters of all shipping. By the end of the war, the only universally reliable method of travel was on foot.48
The physical devastation of Europe was more than merely the loss of its buildings and its infrastructure. It was more, even, than the destruction of centuries of culture and architecture. The truly disturbing thing about the ruins was what they symbolized. The mountains of rubble were, as one British serviceman put it, 'a monument to man's power of self-destruction'. 49 For hundreds of millions of people they were a daily reminder of the viciousness that the continent had witnessed, and which might at any time resurface.
Primo Levi, who had survived Auschwitz, claimed that there was something almost supernatural about the way the Germans had destroyed everything in their wake. To him, the broken remains of an army base at Slutsk, near Minsk, demonstrated 'the genius of destruction, of anti-creation, here as at Auschwitz; it was the mystique ofbarrenness, beyond all demands of war or impulse for booty'.50 The destruction wreaked by the Allies was almost as bad: when Levi saw the ruins of Vienna he was overcome by a 'heavy, threatening sensation of an irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling in the guts of Europe and the world, the seed of future harm'.51
It is this undercurrent of 'anti-creation' and 'definitive evil' that makes the destruction of Europe's towns and cities so disturbing to contemplate. What is implied in all the descriptions of this time, but never overtly stated, is that behind the physical devastation is something far worse. The 'skeletons' of houses and framed pictures sticking out of the rubble of Warsaw are highly symbolic: hidden beneath the ruins, both literally and metaphorically, there was a separate human and moral disaster.
SAVAGE CONTINENT. Copyright © 2012 by Keith Lowe. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.