It is little wonder that those who write about the postwar era – historians, statesmen and economists alike – often portray it as a time when Europe rose like a phoenix from the ashes of destruction. According to this point of view, the conclusion of the war marked not only the end of repression and violence, but also the spiritual, moral and economic rebirth of the whole continent. The Germans call the months after the war Stunde nul (‘Zero Hour’) – the implication being that it was a time when the slate was wiped clean, and history allowed to start again.
But it does not take much imagination to see that this is a decidedly rosy view of postwar history. To begin with, the war did not simply stop with Hitler’s defeat. A conflict on the scale of the Second World War, with all the smaller civil disputes that it encompassed, took months, if not years, to come to a halt, and the end came at different times in different parts of Europe. In Sicily and the south of Italy, for example, it was as good as over in the autumn of 1943. In France, for most civilians, it ended a year later, in the autumn of 1944. In parts of eastern Europe, by contrast, the violence continued long after VE Day. Tito’s troops were still fighting German units in Yugoslavia until at least 15 May 1945. Civil wars, which were first ignited by Nazi involvement, continued to rage in Greece, Yugoslavia and Poland for several years after the main war was over; and in Ukraine and the Baltic States nationalist partisans continued fighting Soviet troops until well into the 1950s.
Some Poles contend that the Second World War did not really end until even more recently: since the conflict officially began with the invasion of their country by both the Nazis and the Soviets, it was not over until the last Soviet tank left the country in 1989. Many in the Baltic countries feel the same way: in 2005 the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania refused to visit Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day, on the grounds that, for their countries at least, liberation had not arrived until the early 1990s. When one factors in the Cold War, which was effectively a state of perpetual conflict between eastern and western Europe, and several national uprisings against Soviet dominance, then the claim that the postwar years were an era of unbroken peace seems hopelessly overstated.
Equally dubious is the idea of Stunde nul. There was certainly no wiping of the slate, no matter how hard German statesmen might have wished for one. In the aftermath of the war waves of vengeance and retribution washed over every sphere of European life. Nations were stripped of territory and assets, governments and institutions underwent purges, and whole communities were terrorized because of what they were perceived to have done during the war. Some of the worst vengeance was meted out on individuals. German civilians all over Europe were beaten, arrested, used as slave labour or simply murdered. Soldiers and policemen who had collaborated with the Nazis were arrested and tortured. Women who had slept with German soldiers were stripped, shaved and paraded through the streets covered in tar. German, Hungarian and Austrian women were raped in their millions. Far from wiping the slate clean, the aftermath of the war merely propagated grievances between communities and between nations, many of which are still alive today.
Neither did the end of the war signify the birth of a new era of ethnic harmony in Europe. Indeed, in some parts of Europe, ethnic tensions actually became worse. Jews continued to be victimized, just as they had been during the war itself. Minorities everywhere became political targets once again, and in some areas this led to atrocities that were just as repugnant as those committed by the Nazis. The aftermath of the war also saw the logical conclusion of all the Nazis’ efforts to categorize and segregate different races. Between 1945 and 1947 tens of millions of men, women and children were expelled from their countries in some of the biggest acts of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen. This is a subject that is rarely discussed by admirers of the ‘European miracle’, and even more rarely understood: even those who are aware of the expulsions of Germans know little about the similar expulsions of other minorities across eastern Europe. The cultural diversity that was once such an integral part of the European landscape before, and even during, the war was not dealt its final death-blow until after the war was over.
The story of Europe in the immediate postwar period is therefore not primarily one of reconstruction and rehabilitation – it is firstly a story of the descent into anarchy. This is a history that has never properly been written. Dozens of excellent books describe events in individual countries – especially in Germany – but they do so at the expense of the larger picture: the same themes occur again and again throughout the continent. There are one or two histories, like Tony Judt’s Postwar, that take in a broader view of the continent as a whole – however, they do so over a much larger timescale, and so are obliged to summarize the events of the immediate postwar years in just a few chapters. To my knowledge there is no book in any language that describes the whole continent – east and west – in detail during this crucial and turbulent time.
This book is a partial attempt to rectify this situation. It shall not, as so many other books have done, seek to explain how the continent eventually rose from the ashes and attempted to rebuild itself physically, economically and morally. It will not concentrate on the Nuremberg trials, or the Marshall Plan, or any of the other attempts to heal the wounds that had been created by the war. Instead it is concerned with the period before such attempts at rehabilitation were even a possibility, when most of Europe was still extremely volatile, and violence could flare up once again at the slightest provocation. In a sense it is attempting the impossible – to describe chaos. It will do so by picking out different elements in that chaos, and by suggesting ways in which these were linked by common themes.
One of my main aims in writing this book was to break away from the narrow Western view that tends to dominate most writing on the period. For decades books about the aftermath of the war have focused on events in western Europe, largely because information about the east was not readily available, even in eastern Europe itself. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and its satellite states this information has become more available, but it still tends to be obscure, and generally appears only in academic books and journals, often only in the language of the originator. So while much pioneering work has been done by Polish, Czech or Hungarian writers it has remained accessible only in Polish, Czech or Hungarian. It has also remained, largely, in the hands of academics – which brings me to another purpose of this book: to bring the period to life for the general reader.
My final, and perhaps most important, purpose is to clear a path through the labyrinth of myths that have been propagated about the aftermath of the war. Many of the ‘massacres’ I have investigated turn out, on closer inspection, to be far less dramatic than they are usually portrayed. Equally, some quite astonishing atrocities have been hushed up, or simply lost in the sweep of other historical events. While it might be impossible to earth the exact truth behind some of these incidents, it is at least possible to remove some of the untruths.
15 December 2013
From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin's, 2012), Kindle Loc. 125-57, 168-79, 186-96:
07 December 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 8795-8835:
Those who suppose the modern media uniquely prone to hyperbole, fantasy and deceit should consider the madness of rumour and invention that overtook the world’s press in 1914. The Daily Mail published a detailed account of an entirely fictional naval victory. ‘If damaging rumours start,’ wrote Dr Eugen Lampe in Ljubljana early in September 1914, ‘they spread at immense speed. If two people meet on the street, they ask each other: Any news? Nobody knows anything. But there are people who always choose to believe and broadcast the worst. For a week, the atmosphere has been extremely tense. Families, whose husbands and sons are in the army, mourn, pray and tremble. They fight to get at newspapers. Then they whisper: there are none of our casualties on the list of wounded. They do not want to tell us! There are so many that they cannot record all of them!’
Few of the journalists called upon to write about the war had any knowledge of military matters, and their ignorance showed. The introduction of trench warfare was at first greeted in the French press as a cowardly innovation by the Germans, who were mocked as ‘moles’. Many papers talked up the enemy’s weakness, flagging morale and food shortages. Austrian cities were said to be pleading with the Italians to save them from looming famine, while Germany was allegedly struggling in vain to recruit Italians to replace mobilised factory workers. Late in September The Times produced a wildly exaggerated calculation, based on the casualty lists, showing that the BEF had lost 40 per cent of its officers in a month of fighting. Ludwig Wittgenstein, aboard a Vistula picket boat, wrote on 25 October: ‘Yesterday evening a silly report came that Paris had fallen. At first I was delighted, until I realised the story could not be true. These fantasy reports are always a bad sign. If there was genuine good news, such nonsenses would not be necessary.’ Five days later, he eagerly scanned a German newspaper, and feared the worst after recognising the vacuity of its content: ‘No good news – which means the same as bad news!’
Meanwhile in France, on 19 August l’Eclaireur of Nice announced a fictitious clash between the Royal Navy and the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, in which the British had allegedly lost sixteen dreadnoughts including Iron Duke, Lion and Superb. French newspapers were especially enthusiastic about publishing reports concerning the German Crown Prince, an army commander in the field. On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane. None of these stories contained the smallest element of truth.
L’Action française informed the public that the Maggi dairies and Kub shop chains were in reality intelligence centres manned by Prussian officers who had become naturalised Frenchmen in anticipation of war; radio transmitters were concealed in every dairy, and Maggi milk was infused with poison. These reports caused mobs to storm the premises of these perfectly innocent, though foreign-owned, businesses. Among the most preposterous myths to be widely broadcast was that of ‘turpinite’, a new super-explosive supposedly invented by the chemist Eugène Turpin, which would effortlessly extinguish German troops in their trenches. The French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné was founded at around this time, as a reaction to the deceits perpetrated in the traditional press.
Some of the shortcomings of newspapers were no fault of their own, but instead the consequence of governments’ refusal to provide facts or allow correspondents to visit the front. In Britain Col. Repington complained that censorship was being abused ‘as a cloak to cover all political, naval and military mistakes’. It was undoubtedly true that the system was exploited to sustain public morale much more than to conceal operational secrets from the enemy. In France, after the Marne the General Staff began to provide a thin dripfeed of information to the press, but the damage was already done: a credibility gap had opened which was never entirely closed. French journalists – and, before long, their readers – became chronically sceptical about all official pronouncements.
French soldiers in the field referred contemptuously to the ‘bourrage de crâne’, literally ‘skull-stuffing’, but properly ‘bullshit’, which made up the content of the newspapers that reached them. Maurice Barrès of l’Echo de Paris became notorious for his enthusiasm for the war, which prompted the impassioned pacifist Romain Rolland to dub him ‘the nightingale of carnage’. Poilus, rejecting the conventional press, turned instead to trench newspapers which soldiers wrote and copied for each other, or to Swiss titles when obtainable. Philosopher Alain Emile-Auguste Chartier, now a soldier, wrote on 25 November: ‘The Journal de Genève is eagerly seized upon here and officers make cuttings from it; the military reports are admirable and everyone agrees that our papers seem ridiculous by comparison.’
02 December 2013
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 10368-10389:
The British took 53,000 horses to France in 1914, and other armies used them in like proportion. The official historians noted: ‘The enormous wastage from animal casualties of a modern war was under-estimated.’ The BEF’s horses and mules suffered an annual mortality rate of 29 per cent, with over 13,000 dead in France and Flanders before New Year 1915 from disease or enemy action. Alexander Johnston reckoned that on the march to the Aisne he passed a dead horse every two hundred yards: ‘poor brutes, they have a terrible time of it’. Many such casualties – shot, crippled or ridden to exhaustion – were drawn from the 165,000 hunters and plough horses purchased for the British Army in the first twelve days of war. In September the retreating Germans threw down spiked metal caltrops, or ‘crows’ feet’, to cripple pursuing cavalry. These frequently achieved their purpose, especially when compounded by French housewives’ practice of tossing stove ashes onto rural tracks without removing nails and other old iron.
Many horses fell victim to incompetent or brutal handling. Vets catalogued examples of mistreatment by ignorant riders and grooms: artillery drivers ‘chucking’ horses in the mouth [yanking back on the reins]; cavalry wantonly neglecting to feed or water their mounts; men galloping horses on paved roads without urgent need; riders ignoring saddlesores. Cavalry remount depots were formed at Ormskirk, Swaythling and Shirehampton, and beside each was a veterinary hospital capable of tending a thousand four-legged patients. Army stables at Pitt Corner camp near Winchester at one time held more than 3,000 sick and injured animals.
Meanwhile heavy plough horses, conscripted against expert advice, proved quite unsuitable for the artillery role for which they were earmarked. The official historians noted: ‘Veterinary officers … foresaw their weakness for military purposes, and anticipated the heavy loss which would ensue if they were indiscriminately employed in war … because of great susceptibility to disease, large food and watering requirements, and inability to stand forced marches.’ Heavy horses perished in thousands in France, partly because of the extreme vulnerability of their feet to wet weather. Both the French and the British made huge foreign purchases of replacements, but the right sort of animal was identified only after harsh experience. Many Canadian remounts died on the Atlantic passage, or soon after arriving in Britain. It was found that the most suitable stock were tough American country beasts from areas like the Dakotas, rather than barn-reared horses. By the war’s end, the British Army’s animal strength rose to 450,000; an estimated total of two million hapless horses and mules served on both sides of the Western Front. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps, which mustered just 360 personnel in 1914, numbered 28,000 four years later.
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 5654-5669:
The long columns plodding forward into German territory filled observers with wonder at their exotic character and mingling of modern and primitive equipment. Many of the infantry lacked high boots. Supply arrangements were chaotic and inadequate, hampered by poor roads and few railways in their rear. The Russian army rejected howitzers as a ‘cowards’ weapon’, because they could be fired by men beyond sight of their enemies; for artillery support, they relied exclusively upon field guns. Communications were hampered by a shortage of radios, and commanders were obliged to signal in plain language, because each corps used a different cipher. The invaders owned a total of just twenty-five telephones and eighty miles of wire. The cavalry were trained to act chiefly as mounted infantry, filling gaps between corps, and made little attempt to fulfil the vital reconnaissance role. Most of Russia’s few available aircraft had been sent to Galicia, and those in East Prussia were temporarily grounded for lack of fuel.
In 1910 German writer Heino von Basedow described his impressions of the Tsar’s army in terms which reflected widespread foreign opinion: ‘The Russian soldier is impulsive as a child. He is easily excited by rabble-rousers (towards revolt) but equally readily restored to submission.’ Basedow was amazed by the careless culture of the Tsar’s soldiers, symbolised by the rakish angle at which each man wore his cap. An NCO calling ‘ras-dwa’ at the front of a marching column in hopes of maintaining its step and precision could not prevent a man in the rear rank from casually munching an apple. Soldiers supposedly marching at attention would nonetheless raise an unfailing hand to cross themselves when they passed a church or roadside icon. Meanwhile a grenadier might seat himself on a roadside marker and hawk his platoon’s bread to all comers. Such a way of soldiering did not inspire German respect. Alfred Knox noted the same casualness on the battlefield, where he was astonished to see Russian artillerymen sleeping huddled against their gunshields, minutes before they were due to open fire.