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.
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St. Martin's Press
July 03, 2012
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Excerpt from Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
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
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-Brigadef?hrer J?rgen 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.