“Savage Continent” by Keith Lowe (2012) – 378 pages
“While it is important to make it clear at the outset that the atrocities that took place here were on nothing like the scale of the Nazi war crimes, it is equally important to acknowledge that they did occur, and they were barbarous enough.” - “Savage Continent” by Keith Lowe on Allied prison camps, particularly Soviet prison camps, after World War II
The above is probably the most important sentence in “Savage Continent”. Revenge was one of the main matters after World War II. However the atrocities that occurred after World War II were not as dreadful as the atrocities that the Nazis perpetrated during the war itself. Keith Lowe makes this point several times throughout “Savage Continent”. Revenge is a blunt instrument; millions of German-speaking people through much of Europe who were relatively innocent suffered terribly while some of the major perpetrators of Nazi atrocities escaped to South America. Perhaps the best way to highlight the material in “Savage Continent” is to present some of the facts that are in the book.
As the Soviet Army advanced across Eastern Europe into Germany in 1944 and 1945, it took 3 million prisoners. Many of these prisoners were German soldiers and German civilian leaders and partisans, but they were also Hungarian and Romanian soldiers who were allies of the Nazis. Of these 3 million prisoners of war, more than a third or over a million prisoners died in captivity, many from starvation but some from outright murder.
When the Allied forces liberated some of the concentration camps where Jewish prisoners were kept, they would be so repelled by the conditions in these camps that they would allow the few remaining Jewish survivors to kill some of the German guards in revenge. Later there was a group of Jewish partisans called the Avengers who placed a bomb in an SS prison camp that killed eighty of its inmates. The group was planning to poison the water supply of five German cities, but was foiled when the group’s leader was arrested trying to smuggle the poison from Palestine.
As part of the settlement of the end of World War II, the ancient German provinces of Pomerania, East Brandenburg, Lower and Upper Silesia, some of East Prussia, and the port of Danzig all became Polish. Eleven million German people lived in these provinces before the war, but by the war’s end many had fled the Russian Army, and only four to six million German people remained in these provinces. Poland, with the help of the Russian army, expelled many of these remaining Germans from these lands, first taking their property and putting them in refugee camps, then sending them on trains to what remained of Germany.
The end of World War II was not only a time of retaliation against the Nazis, but also a time for ethnic cleansing of any groups that were considered undesirables within the individual countries. Between 1944 and 1946, 782,582 Poles were removed from the Soviet Ukraine and resettled in Poland. A further 231, 152 Poles were expelled from Belarus, and 169,244 from Lithuania. In turn, over 482,000 Ukrainians were expelled from Poland.
According to recent research, about 20,000 French women had their heads shaved in public demonstrations as a punishment for collaboration with the Nazis, the largest proportion of them for sleeping with German soldiers. In many cases the women were forced to undergo this ordeal partially or completely naked.
As devastating as the material in this book is, I would still recommend that if you read only one history book this year, make it “Savage Continent”.