Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review--""Savage Continent" by Keith Lowe

Overview: Lowe presents a history of Europe in the immediate aftermath of World War II--1945 to the early 1950's. In particular, he examines the social and political consequences of the mass forced relocations of people and "ethnic cleansing" undertaken by the Nazis, the collapse of the wartime governments, and the destruction of infrastructure during the immediate post-war period, together with the rise of communism in Eastern Europe and the dawn of the Cold War.

Although armed conflict between nation states largely ceased at the end of the war, the collapse of social government and the still active partisan groups led to continued conflict between different ethnic, religious, and political groups well into the 1950s in some areas. The Germans had made the idea of mass expulsion and relocation of ethnic groups conceivable, and this continued after the war--sometimes with the official sanction of the allied powers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Reprisals for real and imagined war crimes, collaboration, old ethnic tensions, and outright greed lay behind much of the violence and expulsion.

Impression: This book reveals an often overlooked period of history. In the United States, the popular history of WWII, even taught at the university level, is that the Germans surrendered to the allied forces, reconstruction began, the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe, and then the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe. There is some discussion of the resettlement of Jews into Palistine, but the United States quickly recovered from the war, and so U.S. history tends to refocus quickly on political and social issues in the United States, and the Cold War on the international scene.

From the author's description, the post-war history is often edited in Europe as well to emphasize what a particular nation did that was "good," and minimize what was "bad." What the author describes is that throughout Europe, even in England to large extent, it was a period of privation, and a period of revived national and ethnic bigotry. Lowe suggests that if it wasn't for the presence of the allied armies, Europe could have easily continued fighting for generations.

The core of the book, though, is that the nature of Europe was forever changed. The mix of ethnicities ceased to exist. The Jews had been practically exterminated from many countries, and the few that survived were not welcome back. The masses of slave labor deported from various countries within the Third Reich, were attempting to return to their home countries. At the same time, German hatred ran deep, and German populations in many other countries--communities that had been extant for hundreds of years--were killed, herded up, and driven out. The same occurred among other communities. For instance, Polish authorities not only expelled Jews and Germans, but also Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. But this happened all across Europe, although mostly heavily in Eastern Europe. So, the immediate aftermath of the war saw mass movements of displaced peoples attempting to move across a continent that lacked food and infrastructure, without a functioning economic base. Many of the these people were confined in internment camps--some of them death camps that the Nazis had used--for months and, in some cases, several years.

Revenge reared its head. In many countries, Nazis and Nazi collaborators were rounded up and killed. In Yugoslavia, pro-Nazi forces were systematically rounded up and executed en masse. Almost all countries used prisoners of war as slave labor to help rebuild destroyed infrastructure. Interestingly, crime--even in neutral countries that had not been part of the war--skyrocketed.

Finally, there were the conflicts between partisan and underground political groups, and the eventual split of the continent into communist and democratic. In Greece and parts of Eastern Europe, these took the means of political violence, strikes, and mass arrests and torture. The Soviets made good use of the pent up hatred. Says the author:
Rather than fighting against racial and ethnic hatred in the areas they controlled, the Soviets sought to harness it. There are many ways in which the nationalist and racist policies that swept eastern Europe after the war suited the Soviets. To begin with, displaced people were far easier to control than people who were entrenched in their homelands and traditions. The chaos created by the deportations were also the ideal atmosphere for preaching revolution. The lands and businesses left behind could be parcelled out and redistributed amongst the workers and the poor, thus furthering the Communist agenda. It also created a new loyalty amongst those who received land....
(p. 266). The author later notes:
Next, the Communists would seek to engineer splits amongst their rivals. They would try to discredit certain factions of other parties, and pressurize [sic] their leaders into disowning these factions. Or they would invite rivals to join them in a united 'front', causing rifts between those who trusted the Communists and those who did not. ... Eventually, having split them time and time again, the Communists would swallow what was left of these parties whole.
(p. 344).

This book appears to fill a largely ignored piece of history. It was interestingly written, although overwhelming at times. There were times after reading page after page of atrocities that I had to put the book down because I couldn't bear to read anymore. Although the atrocities during the post-war period cannot equal those perpetrated during the active time of the war, it is apparent that the Nazis had released a great evil--a Pandora's box--upon Europe that only with great effort and time was shut again.

Final Comments: Applying the lessons from the book to today, we, of course, can see the same basic strategy being employed by liberals to discredit and divide social and fiscal conservatives and libertarians, and take over the political will of minority groups.

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