Today I am recommending a book you don’t want to read, but probably ought to. It is a dark, terrifying, troubling tale in which the worst impulses of humankind are floridly on display. It might be regarded as excellent Halloween reading, except for the fact that this horror story is all too true.
I’m in a book club that expects me to read roughly one book a month, most of which I would not ordinarily pick up, some of which turn out not to have been to my taste, others of which come as a pleasant surprise. I am glad I read this one, but it wasn’t pleasant.
The book is “Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of Word War II” by Keith Lowe, a 44-year-old British author of two novels and two histories including this one. It is a stunner.
Lowe offers a look at Europe in roughy the first five years after the surrender of the Third Reich, May 8, 1945. The conventional wisdom regarding the period is a fiction purveyed largely by the victors. The vanquished gave up, order was restored, the wreckage was rebuilt, the villains were held to account, an Iron Curtain descended, a forty year tug of war between communism and capitalism began, the Marshall Plan and other magnanimous gestures by America rebuilt a new and better Western Europe that recovered in an economic miracle. Good triumphed,evil was defeated, justice prevailed.
Not exactly. In his introduction, Lowe describes a continent bombed flat, with millions dead and more millions displaced, homeless, hungry. Even where food wasn’t in short supply the ability to process it and transport it was shattered. In most countries there was a complete breakdown of legitimate civil authority. Governments had fallen or were discredited or were overwhelmed. Law and order was often absent. Schools were closed, banks closed, factories ruined, working age man dead, women forced to prostitute themselves for a crust of bread.
The numbers are mind boggling. In a city like Budapest, 54% of buildings were damaged, 30% completely uninhabitable. In Minsk, 19 of 332 factories survived. In France, 460,000 buildings were destroyed, 1.6 million damaged. Six million Germans died. In France, 500,000 died including 83,000 murdered Jews, one million in Yugoslavia, 6 million in Poland including 3 millions Jews, 27 million in the Soviet Union, five percent of all Hungarians, six percent of Greeks, almost 10% of Balts, 20% of Ukrainians.
And in the aftermath of this barbarism and carnage came new horrors. Lowe’s chapter headings provide a catalogue of dysfunction. Holocausts (and not just the destruction of the Jews but a long list of other persecuted minorities), Widows and Orphans, Displacement (during the war 40 million people were forcibly removed from their homes — slave laborers, people fleeing bombing campaigns and clashing arms, captured soldiers, and on and on), Looting and Theft, Rape, Vengeance, Ethnic Cleansing, Civil War, Terrorism.
Those who remember the chaos and atrocities that came with the splintering of Yugoslavia in the 1990s or contemplate the present multi-sided strife in Iraq will have some idea of what much of Europe was like after World War II. Oppressed minorities sought to get even, vigilantism was rife, religious and ethnic hatreds long suppressed burst into the open, left and right fought for political power not at the ballot box but in the streets, whole populations were evicted — a German minority from Czechoslovakia, Poles from the Soviet Union and vice versa. Millions of people. Tribalism reigned, monsters from the id were released.
Aside from offering a corrective cleansing of our rose-colored glasses when it comes to the period, “Savage Continent” is also a cautionary tale for our own time. In this increasingly polarized right and left, Red State/Blue State era, people have begun to talk as if they were from different tribes rather than from the same country. There is loose talk, even from state governors, about the possibility of secession. Racial animus is alive and well as is xenophobia. Nativism is celebrated. Government compromise and democratic civility are scorned. We proceed down that road at our peril. “Savage Continent” provides a portrait of what such a world looks like. It isn’t pretty.
In “A Man For All Seasons,” Robert Bolt describes a debate between Sir Thomas More and a hot head who wants to mow down every law if it will allow purity to triumph over the devil. To which the cautious More replies:
“And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”
“Savage Continent” reminds us what it looks like when all the laws are down.