Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What We're Reading: New History

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe.

Like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (previously reviewed in this blog) Keith Lowe’s has written a broad and impressively researched survey of his subject and does not shy away from the most shocking details of the story. Snyder’s focus was on some of the worst atrocities committed during the war in areas fought over by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; Lowe follows the ethnic hatreds and patterns of violence and vengeance into the immediate post-war years in Europe. We have reviewed previously in this blog another book on the years immediately following the war in Europe, Long Road Home: The After-math of the Second World War by Ben Shephard, but Shephard’s book focused primarily on the repatriation of refugees and the Allied relief effort.

For most people in America, the way they think of the end of the Second World War is probably best represented by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous V-J photograph of a sailor kissing a young woman in Times Square. There were economic adjustments in America as it geared down from a war economy and as troops were demobilized, but what America experienced was nothing like the European experience. At the end of World War II much of Europe was rubble. Whole towns and cities had been utterly destroyed, infrastructure was in ruins, and cross-country transport systems were badly damaged. There was widespread hunger, and in some areas starvation of certain populations was a deliberate and retributive policy. Millions of people had been killed or relocated. Twenty percent of the German workforce was composed of foreigners, most of them conscripted labor. UNESCO estimated that one third of all children in Europe were fatherless. In many areas civil authority had disappeared. Liberated foreign workers went on local looting rampages. Lowe gives us an account that captures the frenzied anarchy of looting fever in Hanover, where both foreign workers and Germans were seen bursting out of a shop that sold door knobs, beating and bloodying each other as they tried to steal door knobs from those who had been more successful in their looting. This happened in a city where half the doors no longer existed. The act of theft rather than the usefulness of what was stolen seemed to be the object of importance.

In the aftermath of their war for national liberation, many countries were engaged in civil wars in which partisan groups, after fighting the Germans, began to eliminate each other in a fight for national ascendency, this as class warfare intensified, reprisals against enemies and collaborators were rampant, ethnic groups fought each other, and there was widespread “ethnic cleansing.” There was a desire for vengeance. Conditions in camps for conscripted workers and prisoners of war, especially those in Eastern Europe and the Soviet zone of occupation, were gruesome. When those few Jews who had survived the Holocaust returned to their countries and and homes, their communities were gone. Their friends and relatives were dead, buildings were in ruins. Their property had been confiscated by the state or occupying forces, or simply stolen by neighbors. The non-Jewish population was resentful about returning Jewish property and businesses, state policy was unsupportive concerning restitution, and in attempts to further reduce their Jewish populations, inhospitable governments pursued policies that were designed to encourage Jewish emigration to Palestine. The reestablishment of national governments, Soviet occupation, and especially the redrawing of national borders resulted in dislocation and extermination of populations. Twelve million ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe and the readjustment of the border between Poland and the Ukraine resulted in mass dislocations and massacres of minority populations. Representative of the moral degradation of the period is the justification offered by one Czech officer for killing German children in liberated Czechoslovakia: “What was I supposed to do with them after we’d shot their parents?”

One of the most affecting accounts in Savage Continent is Lowe’s description of what happened in various countries to the women who had dated or had sex with occupying German soldiers. They were humiliated in public displays in which their heads were shaved and they were taunted and paraded naked through town squares by groups of men, who conducted a savage ritual in which they reclaimed their proprietary rights in their womenfolk. These actions, and the rape of civilian populations that was prevalent in the sweep of victorious armies (especially the Soviet Red Army) are stark reminders about the cultural attitudes towards women and their political uses. The historical accounts are vivid and have particular impact because we know that the attitude they express towards women remains pervasive in our own culture and in so-called “traditional” cultures around the world. And what of the children of both rape victims and voluntary sexual liaisons? It is estimated that more than one million children were fathered by occupying German soldiers in Europe, and they often fared no better than the children of rape victims. The native citizenship of their mothers and their own citizenship was often challenged; they were victims of discrimination as they grew up, suffered in their physical and psychological health, and their economic opportunities were limited.

Savage Continent is an important book because it deliberately challenges the national myths that were created  about the reconstituted societies that emerged in Europe in the aftermath of the war, myths that continue to be used in current political disputes. Those myths about the unity of national resistance to the Nazis obscure the reality of what the Second World War was about and how we remember it; an examination of the chaos in Europe in its immediate aftermath makes this plain. Lowe writes, “The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.” Those myths now have life in a second generation. They present a Manichean view of the conflict and paper over its reality and complexities, hiding fault lines and patterns of human social and political interaction that persist in Europe and abound internationally.

Nations and ethnic groups harbor feelings of historical aggrievement over the loss of territory or political and economic treatment and seek opportunities to revisit old wounds for redress, restitution, or revenge. Longstanding race, religious and ethnic hatreds result in heinous crimes and genocide. Women are oppressed the world over. We seem shocked at the headlines and view with some condescension international outbreaks along these fault lines as the province of atavistic cultures, of uncivilized and benighted peoples whose feelings and actions are beyond our comprehension and beyond the tether of our patience. Savage Continent makes us aware that a denial of Western Civilization’s dystopian past in Europe makes us ill-equipped to draw lines of either empathy or understanding in the world of today that remains plagued by the same dissensions and violence. It is our memory of the past that makes us who we are, and Savage Continent looks at that past unflinchingly and argues eloquently that remembering the past correctly is important if we want to change who we are and if we want to make the world what we hope it might be.

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