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
European Anarchy & Chaos after World War II
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: