“Savage Continent” by Keith Lowe – Europe Immediately After World War II

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”.

5 responses to this post.

  1. The topic is very important. Few people in North America know of the widespread ethnic cleansing and savage revenge that took place in Europe after World War II. This book fills a niche — an overview of the continent from 1944 to about 1954 (anti-Soviet guerrillas were active for a long time. Other books have documented ethnic cleansing in Europe throughout the twentieth century, e.g. Benjamin Lieberman, Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe. Yet other authors have focused on specific aspects, e. g. Daniel Blatman, The Death Marches (Nazi deportations and massacres of millions of prisoners, mostly non-Jewish, towards Germany in late 1944/early 1945 as the Allies closed in) or R. M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane (ethic cleansing of 12 to 14 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and other countries). So Keith Lowe’s book is somewhere in between — more detailed than Lieberman, but much less detailed than Blatman or Douglas.I found Lowe’s book to be less satisfying than the other books mentioned above. The facts are documented, but there is less analysis of what happened, and as a result the tone is more journalistic. As well, although Lowe does use some primary sources, he often relies on a limited number of secondary sources.As well, some of Lowe’s choices of topics are odd. For example, he spends a chapter describing the Communist takeover of the government in Romania. But he devotes two sentences to the deportations to hard-labor camps of the Saxon and Schwabian communities by the Soviets, a subject much closer to the ethnic cleansing theme of the book.Finally, Lowe intrudes too often. He intersperses personal views on what happened, including moral judgments. While these certainly have their place, I would have preferred them confined to a separate chapter.Still, the book is well worth reading.


    • Posted by knowledge on December 29, 2013 at 9:16 PM

      This book is very biased and POV; it minimizes the crimes of some of the worst Nazi collaborators (like the genocidal Ustashe), while attempting to blame the communists and defend western allies for their crimes. Very poor western propaganda job.


      • Hi Knowledge,
        The worst Nazi collaborator and traitor was Edward VIII, the former King of England, who later was known as the Duke of Windsor. This has mainly been covered up in the Western press. He gave military secrets to Hitler, and he advised Hitler that if Germany would keep bombing England, England would probably surrender. So here you have an ex-King of England encouraging bombing the people of his own country. He certainly should have been hanged in 1945.
        The cover-up of Edward VIII indicates that the behaviors of a lot of Nazi collaborators have been covered up as you say.
        Edward VIII was probably the worst traitor in history.


  2. Lowe notes how ‘a very small number’ of Jewish prisoners wreaked a bloody revenge on their former captors.


  3. While the devastation was at its most dramatic in Europe’s cities, rural communities often suffered just as badly. Across the continent farms were plundered, burned, flooded or simply neglected because of the war. The marshes in southern Italy, so assiduously drained by Mussolini, were deliberately flooded again by the retreating Germans, causing a resurgence of malaria.36 More than half a million acres of Holland (219,000 hectares) were ruined when German troops deliberatelyopened the dykes that kept the sea at bay.37 Remoteness from the main theatres of war was no protection from such treatment. More than a third of the dwelling places in Lapland were destroyed by the retreating Germans.38 The idea was to deny the turncoat Finnish forces any shelter during the winter, but it also had the effect of creating over 80,000 refugees. Across northern Norway and Finland roads were mined, telephone lines pulled down and bridges blown up, creating problems that would be felt for years after the war was over.


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