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The Second World War might have officially ended in May 1945, but in reality it rumbled on for another ten years...
The end of the Second World War in Europe is one of the twentieth century’s most iconic moments. It is fondly remembered as a time when cheering crowds filled the streets, danced, drank and made love until the small hours. These images of victory and celebration are so strong in our minds that the period of anarchy and civil war that followed has been forgotten. Across Europe, landscapes had been ravaged, entire cities razed and more than thirty million people had been killed in the war. The institutions that we now take for granted - such as the police, the media, transport, local and national government - were either entirely absent or hopelessly compromised. Crime rates were soaring, economies collapsing, and the European population was hovering on the brink of starvation. In Savage Continent, Keith Lowe describes a continent still racked by violence, where large sections of the population had yet to accept that the war was over. Individuals, communities and sometimes whole nations sought vengeance for the wrongs that had been done to them during the war. Germans and collaborators everywhere were rounded up, tormented and summarily executed. Concentration camps were reopened and filled with new victims who were tortured and starved. Violent anti-Semitism was reborn, sparking murders and new pogroms across Europe. Massacres were an integral part of the chaos and in some places – particularly Greece, Yugoslavia and Poland, as well as parts of Italy and France – they led to brutal civil wars. In some of the greatest acts of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen, tens of millions were expelled from their ancestral homelands, often with the implicit blessing of the Allied authorities. Savage Continent is the story of post WWII Europe, in all its ugly detail, from the end of the war right up until the establishment of an uneasy stability across Europe towards the end of the 1940s. Based principally on primary sources from a dozen countries, Savage Continent is a frightening and thrilling chronicle of a world gone mad, the standard history of post WWII Europe for years to come.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Keith Lowe is the author of two novels and the critically acclaimed history Inferno: The Fiery Devastation of Hamburg, 1943. He is widely recognized as an authority on the Second World War, and has often spoken on TV and radio, both in Britain and the United States. Most recently he was an historical consultant and one of the main speakers in the PBS documentary The Bombing of Germany which was also broadcast in Germany. His books have been translated into several languages, and he has also lectured in Britain, Canada and Germany. He lives in North London with his wife and two kids.
PART I 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 1 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 b...
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