This is the second of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.
Keith Lowe talked about his book, Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He argued that the British view of the end of the war is fixed and cosy, different from that of the rest of Europe.
The end of the war was not clear-cut. A massive mess was left, which was inevitable after a war of this scale. American and British officials were shocked by what they found, including the level of destruction of German cities by bombing. Warsaw was 90% rubble. Millions of civilians had been killed. British deaths were far lower than those of countries such as the USSR, Poland and Germany.
Many people, such as refugees and former forced labourers, were in the wrong place. There were 18 million refugees of all nationalities in Germany. Huge numbers of starving displaced persons were crossing the continent. Messages to loved ones were left on trees and lamp posts at every crossroads.
Lowe told the story of Andre, a 9-year-old Polish refugee. Andre saw immobile and abandoned German wounded and huge numbers of PoWs with very few guards. Andre and his mother walked for a month and met nobody in any authority until they reached a UN Displaced Persons Camp.
Europe was full of very angry people who wanted revenge. Germans were universally hated. The Red army raped many women and large numbers of Germans were shot in Czechoslovakia. There was some symmetry between actions by the Germans during the war and actions against them after it, but nothing equal to the Holocaust.
Many of the Germans were guilty, but that does not excuse indiscriminate beatings and killings of Germans. The authorities did little to discourage these actions. In some cases they were openly encouraged; the Czech Justice Minister said that there was no such thing as a good German.
The fighting did not end on 8 May 1945. The Germans fought for another week in Yugoslavia and were massacred by the partisans after surrendering. The Greek Civil War started during WWII and continued until 1949. Nationalist partisans in the Baltic continued to fight the Soviets into the 1950s. The last Estonian partisan was caught in 1978.
WWII was more complex than Allies versus Axis. There were wars of liberation, but also ones of national purity, culminating in ethnic cleansing, and class warfare. The defeat of Nazi Germany was only one step in this process.
A former member of SOE asked a question about the escape of Klaus Barbie after the war. Lowe said that one of the reasons why there was so much unofficial punishment after the war was that official punishment of war criminals was ‘rubbish.’
Lowe said that he paid particular attention to statistics as these are often used to feed national sensibilities and views. German refugees from the East became a big voting block in the West. They exaggerated the number of post-war German dead from the actual 0.5 million to 2 million in order to increase their victimhood. The Yugoslavs increased their deaths from 1 million to 1.7 million.
An interesting presentation on a book that shows how the experience of the end of WWII in the UK is not typical of that of the rest of Europe.