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The Chaotic and Bloody Aftermath of WWII in Europe

On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies and the Second World War in Europe ended officially. But in reality, the war continued in various guises for several years.

British author and historian Keith Lowe details the cruel aftermath of the war in his acclaimed book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (St. Martin’s Press). His  careful study of the postwar years in Europe reveals widespread anarchy, famine, crime, pestilence and violent conflict, with millions of uprooted people wandering the ruined lands. Often, Mr. Lowe writes, the bloody conflicts were a continuation of the war that had left 30 million dead and destroyed the infrastructure of most of the warring nations, including political institutions, law enforcement, transportation, media and social services. 

Based on meticulous research, including many documents finally translated into English, Mr. Lowe recounts the civil wars, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, reprisals, and human indifference that left hundreds of thousands more dead after the war, until an imperfect stability gradually took hold in Europe by the 1950s.

Readers have praised Savage Continent for it’s sweeping scope, exhaustive research, and lively writing. Renowned historian of the war, Ian Kershaw, commented: “Keith Lowe’s excellent book paints a little-known and frightening picture of a continent in the embrace of lawlessness, chaos, and unconstrained violence.” And author James Holland wrote that “It is also a timely book that deserves to be read by anyone who wishes to understand the complex nature of Europe and the deep trauma suffered not only during the Second World War but also in its chaotic aftermath.”

Keith Lowe is a British author and historian. His other books include the acclaimed history Inferno on the firebombing of Hamburg by the British and American air forces in 1943, and two novels, Tunnel Vision and New Free Chocolate Sex. 

Mr. Lowe generously responded to a series of questions by email from the United Kingdom.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: What sparked your book on the world of post-Second World War Europe? Did it grow out of your work on the devastating bombing of Hamburg?

Keith Lowe: That was the seed out of which it grew. Having seen how devastated Hamburg was after the war I originally wanted to write a book about Germany, but the more I looked at other parts of postwar Europe the more I realized that the same destruction – not only physical destruction but also human and moral destruction – existed pretty much everywhere.

German deportees waiting for a train in 1945.

What strikes you most about the conditions in Europe at the end of the most destructive war in history?

Europe was in chaos after the war. I really cannot emphasize that enough. There were all sorts of grand schemes for rebuilding and so on, but actually the biggest problem was simply to restore law and order.  

After all the violence, the continent was filled with people who regarded violence as a normal way of life. When you add to that the fact that all the normal structures of society had broken down -- well, it’s a miracle that the chaos was brought under control as quickly as it was. But it took months, and in some places years.

It may surprise many readers that hostilities didn’t cease with the surrender of Germany in May 1945, but the slaughter continued in wars and campaigns of ethnic cleansing throughout Europe. Did the conflicts in Western Europe differ from those Central and Eastern Europe?

In Western Europe it was really just a case of restoring law and order. There were a lot of people who wanted revenge and retribution for what they had been through; a lot of others who used the chaos as a cover for criminal activities; and some large Communist movements whose members were agitating for revolution, often against the wishes of their leaders.

But in Eastern Europe things were much more serious. Here there were all the same problems as in the west, but with more besides. The war had been much more brutal in the east than it had been in the west, so the desire for revenge was much more visceral. There were also all kinds of ethnic rivalries in the east that had been rumbling since the time of the great European empires, and which the Second World War had brought to a head. Just because the war with Germany was over, this didn’t mean that people in Eastern Europe felt they had to stop killing each other for ethnic reasons.

Then on top of that there was a massive resistance to the way the Soviets had come in and imposed themselves on the region. Armed partisans carried on fighting pitched battles against the Communists long after the Nazis had been thrown out of Eastern Europe. So no matter how bad things were in Western Europe, they were far worse, and infinitely more complicated, in the east.

You vividly describe post-war anarchy and chaos, a hellscape ruled by the law of the jungle: survival of the fittest.  What happened in terms of law enforcement and government after the war -- and how was order restored?

The law had to be enforced quite ruthlessly, just to re-establish control. Ironically this involved removing the very liberties that the Allies had been fighting for. So, for example, curfews were put in place, and anyone caught out of doors after dark was liable to be shot. There were lots of instances where the Allies liberated slave labor camps only to find that the inmates went out and got so drunk, and caused so much havoc, that they had to be locked back in their camps again for the good of everyone. The repatriation of these slave laborers certainly helped to bring crime levels down. But there was still the black market, which encouraged all kinds of gangsters not only amongst the civilian population but also amongst Allied troops.

In the end order was only restored by putting a huge number of military policemen on the streets, creating new and effective civil institutions, and bringing the economic chaos under control. It took years.

Do you have a sense of how many people died in Europe from disease, famine and violence after the war?

Pinning down statistics on this is extremely difficult because there are all kinds of groups who have a vested interest in exaggerating the numbers. People didn’t always report deaths -- in fact, there often wasn’t anyone to report them to -- and officials also had better things to do with their time than fussing about keeping accurate files. That said, there have been some intelligent academic estimates for the numbers of premature postwar deaths in many of these countries. There were probably between a million and 1.5 million deaths in Germany alone. When you add those killed by civil war in Yugoslavia, Greece, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states, and then those who died because of poor nutrition pretty much everywhere -- we’re almost certainly talking about well in excess of two million.

Malnourished Greek boy.

It’s stunning that Jews who had survived the Holocaust often faced death when they returned to their hometowns and cities. What prompted the shocking post-war anti-Semitism?

The biggest cause of postwar anti-Semitism was a fight over property. When the Jews had been deported from Poland or Hungary or Romania all their possessions had been confiscated and shared out. Of course, when the survivors returned they wanted this property back, which made many of the new owners really resentful. It was usually quite easy just to frighten returning Jews away, but in some cases when Jews insisted on having their possessions returned to them local communities got violent. It didn’t take much. In some areas the people had become so used to violence against Jews during the war that it didn’t feel at all abnormal. 

Millions of people were uprooted and displaced by the war.  Can you give a sense of what life was like for some of these displaced people?

These were people who were far from home, who had been separated from their family and friends, and who had lost almost all of their possessions. They lived in displaced persons camps after the war while they waited to be repatriated, and survived on rations given to them by the Allied armies, as well as charities like the Red Cross. Most of them were extremely resentful, and psychologically damaged by what had been done to them. All they wanted was the one thing that was impossible -- for their lives to return to the way they had been before the war.

Many of them longed for hometowns that they knew were not the same any more. But there were many others who didn’t want to go home at all. Many Poles, for example, had no intention of returning to Poland because it was now under Communist control. Some Soviet citizens fought tooth and nail to prevent themselves being sent back home, because they knew they would be punished as soon as they got there: Stalin was notoriously cruel towards anyone who had been compromised by western values.

Polish refugee in rags.

Whatever way one looks at it, these were desperate people. And there were indeed millions of them -- around eight million in Germany alone.

What were the special problems facing women and children, the innocents of post-war Europe?

The first problem facing women and children across Europe was the absence of their menfolk. So many men had been killed, or called away to the army, or imprisoned, that women and children were the only ones left to hold society together.

Europe was a continent of widows and orphans after the war. Since they were surrounded by military men, these people were unbelievably vulnerable. Rape was a huge problem all across Europe, especially in the east; and sexual exploitation was also rife, since selling their bodies was often the only way women could get food for themselves or their families.

Many women had struck up relationships with German soldiers during the war and were therefore shunned by their communities. Likewise, the illegitimate children of German soldiers had to live in shame ever afterwards. In Norway, for example, these children were not even considered Norwegian citizens, and had to go through the humiliation of registering themselves at the local police station every year until their eighteenth birthday. I’m not talking about insignificant numbers of children here: in France alone it’s estimated that there were about 85,000 illegitimate children of German soldiers.   

You mention several times the importance of accurate statistics for understanding what happened during the war and after. What are some examples of questionable statistics? It seems, for example, that Germans had greatly overestimated the loss of their citizens after the war.

Statistics of this period really are a minefield, because almost every national or political group has a vested interest in exaggerating them one way or another.

You mention Germans: there are various groups in Germany who have claimed that over 2 million Germans were deliberately killed in revenge attacks after the war. Naturally it suits those who want to cover up their role as perpetrators during the war to paint themselves as victims after it -- that way they are more likely to be forgiven, as if one crime cancels out another. Most historians now think that postwar violence killed somewhere between a million and a million and a half Germans, which is surely bad enough.

But let’s not pick on the Germans. French right-wingers spent years claiming that 105,000 collaborators were murdered in revenge after the liberation, when the accepted figure is now about 10,000. Italian right-wingers have claimed that 300,000 Fascists were likewise murdered out of revenge, when the real figure is more like 15,000. And throughout the Communist era, Yugoslavs claimed 1.7 million war dead, when the accepted figure today is just over a million. In that case the logic behind the exaggeration was simple -- the worse their losses were, the more they could expect to squeeze out of Germany in reparations.

French collaborator beaten by Resistance fighters.

Such exaggerations are poisonous because they introduce an element of doubt into the story -- it’s one of the main reasons why Jewish historians have been so scrupulous in documenting Holocaust deaths so precisely. We could all take a leaf out of their book. After all, there’s no need for such games -- the real figures are horrific enough.

Can you describe your research process and some of the recently released material you uncovered in writing your book?

Writing this book involved research in eight different languages, which as you can imagine posed all kinds of challenges. I can get by on a rudimentary level in three or four of these languages, but for the others I had to rely on help from bilingual researchers and translators.

None of my researchers knew precisely what it was I was looking for, so I had to spend long hours going through large amounts of material with them, picking out the themes and stories that interested me. Every language also has its seminal texts, which need to be digested in full. This presented me with a huge translation bill, although I am extremely fortunate to have a polyglot family who helped me a great deal in this respect.

I cannot claim to have been the first to discover much material, but there is a huge amount of material in the book that has only ever existed in foreign languages before. That said, I did dig out some heartbreaking personal stories from the ‘Eastern Archive’ in Warsaw, which have never been published before.

Warsaw in ruins, 1945.

You go to great lengths to remind readers of the brutal devastation loosed by the Nazis and civil wars that interlaced the Second World War in describing the post-war savagery. What would you like readers to know about this context?

Only that readers should always remember that our normal cultural understanding of the Second World War has been greatly simplified. We like to think of it as a simple war between the Allies and the Axis powers, but there were all kinds of layers to the war that most of us never register. Alongside the main war there were also local civil wars, local class wars, and local wars of race and ethnic cleansing. Sometimes the war became so complicated that it degenerated into little more than violence for its own sake. So I would ask readers to treat all accounts that paint the war as a simple black and white issue with a healthy dose of suspicion.

How did you begin writing history? What advice do you have for younger people who want to study and write about history?

I actually started writing about history almost as an accident. I worked for years as a history publisher, and became intimately acquainted not only with the academic issues surrounding the Second World War but also with the commercial issues about writing history for a popular audience.

I wrote my first history book largely as an act of protest. I was annoyed with the way the world continues to regard the bombing of Dresden as the most devastating bombing of the European war, when the bombing of Hamburg was probably twice as bad. I knew there was a great story to be told, and wanted to commission a book on the subject -- but when my colleagues at the publishing company refused to go for the idea I thought, “What the hell, I’ll do it myself.” 

For anyone wanting to study and write history, I would say this: find yourself a subject that has not been covered endlessly by other people. You are much more likely to find new and interesting material if you are not picking over ground that has already been examined exhaustively. Do not be afraid to look in difficult places. Nine times out of ten that trip to an obscure archive, or that text in Medieval Latin will end up being a waste of time -- but every once in a while you’ll turn up gold.

And if you want people to read your work, or even buy it, make damn sure you know how to write a good story.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments Mr. Lowe.