Viking, £25, 460pp. £21.25 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War Two, By Keith Lowe

 

In his memoir If This is a Man, the Italian writer Primo Levi recalls that the most terrifying time for him at Auschwitz was not the years of incarceration by the Nazis, when beatings, hunger, back-breaking work and the threat of murder were omnipresent. He came closest to despair during the vacuum between the flight of the guards and the arrival of the Red Army. This period, in which the prisoners were effectively left to their own devices, was characterised by a complete breakdown of all authority, however unjust, as well as the system of supply. I was reminded of these passages when reading Keith Lowe's Savage Continent: an excellent account of the two years or so between the end of hostilities in Europe with the defeat of Hitler, and the establishment of the Cold War order.

As the author points out, the Second World War did not end in 1945. In large parts of the continent, the contest lasted a lot longer as Polish, Ukrainian, Baltic and Greek partisans battled on in the mountains and forests of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Some of these stories, such as the post-war travails of the Greeks, are well known to Western audiences, but the activities of the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian anti-Soviet "Forest Brothers" are not. Perhaps the most arresting fact in this compelling book is that the last Estonian guerrilla fighter, August Sabbe, was killed as late as 1978, trying to escape capture.

Even where there was no fighting, Lowe demonstrates, Europe was in flux. A contemporary observer described Germany, the crossroads of the continent, as "one huge ants' nest", in which everyone was on the move. There were refugees everywhere, some trying to escape the victors, others returning to their homes. Millions of German prisoners of war were crammed into insanitary Anglo-American camps in the West; and they were the lucky ones, unlike those captured by the Russians and taken to camps in Siberia, or murdered en route. Almost everywhere, the Nazi collapse was followed by a bloody settling of scores against real or alleged collaborators. Lowe shows that the numbers affected in places like France to have been much exaggerated by subsequent myth-makers; in Yugoslavia, on the other hand, the reckoning was truly horrific, the more so as British troops were actively involved in sending men and women back to face certain death at Tito's hands.

All this was accompanied by the greatest population shifts in Europe since the Dark Ages. These had, of course, begun during the war. Lowe notes the huge void left by the Nazi murder of the Jews, but he points out that it was not so much the Holocaust itself as the persistence of anti-Semitism in places like Poland and Hungary which persuaded so many survivors to make for Israel or the US. In eastern Poland and western Ukraine, new borders led to a massive exchange of populations attended by great hardship and brutality.

The principal post-war victims, however, were the Germans, systematically expelled by the Czechs and Poles from lands which they had settled for hundreds of years. Lowe describes these events too with admirable sensitivity, placing them squarely in the context of prior Nazi policies, without in any way justifying them.

Europe was also in political flux. The war had destroyed the standing of the old elites, and brought the Red Army into the heart of the continent. It was Soviet power, rather than the failure of the ancien regime as such, which underpinned the wave of Communist takeovers in Eastern Europe. Lowe describes the Romanian case in fascinating detail. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Bulgaria all met broadly similar fates: red terror, arrests, expropriation of land and property, and executions. In Greece, the boot was on the other foot, as the right-wing government parlayed first British then American help into brutal victory over the communists. Lowe notes the "unpleasant symmetry" caused by Cold War imperatives without in any way denying that "the capitalist model of politics was self-evidently more inclusive, more democratic and ultimately more successful than Stalinist communism".

Savage Continent is thus a fitting title for this book, and surely also an allusion to Dark Continent, Mark Mazower's brilliant history of the 20th century. Lowe's vivid descriptions of Europeans scrambling for scraps of food, rampant theft and "destruction of morals" are a timely reminder that a certain humility is in order when we look at less fortunate continents today. The author is also right to remind us, with respect to current travails in Iraq and Afghanistan, just how long it took to rebuild Europe and for democracy to take root – or to return.

That said, Lowe could perhaps have said more about the Europeans who emerged from the war with a new and uplifting vision: that the only way for the continent to prevent this from happening again, and to realise its full potential, was to chart a course towards greater unity. It was in the midst of the ruins described by this book that men such as Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Alcide de Gasperi and Altero Spinelli were taking the first steps towards what was to become the European Union. In this sense, Europe is a continent which contains not only the seeds of its self-destruction but also of its renewal.

Brendan Simms is a professor of history at Cambridge University; his 'Old Europe: a history of the continent since 1500' is published this summer by Allen Lane

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?