Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe, Viking RRP£25, 480 pages

An ageing couple trudge across a devastated landscape. In the fields lie upturned prams, slashed mattresses, decaying corpses. Gangs roam the countryside, ready to kill for a watch, food or even an ill-timed glance. This is not some science fiction dystopia. This is Europe in the immediate aftermath of the second world war.

Germany’s surrender in May 1945 was not the end of conflict. It was the start of a period of chaos and violence on the continent that is unimaginable in today’s peaceable Europe. The war had blown away institutions, authority and, worse still, traditional codes of morality. It legitimised acts of vengeance that fuelled civil war and ethnic violence in countries from Greece to what is now Ukraine.

Keith Lowe recounts the grim reality of life in postwar Europe in his unsettling book Savage Continent. Lowe, author of two novels as well as Inferno, a study of the firebombing of Hamburg, describes the continent between VE Day and the start of the cold war as a bleak and often lawless place. Millions of displaced people travelled the roads in the summer of 1945 seeking to return to homes that in many cases were no longer standing. There were some 17m in Germany alone – Holocaust survivors, people snatched from their homes in occupied countries for forced labour, or prisoners of war.

The scale of physical destruction they encountered was unprecedented. Cities across Europe had been razed to the ground. Caen in northern France had been “virtually wiped from the map” while others such as Budapest, Minsk and Stalingrad were reduced to rubble. Those charged with rebuilding the continent were stunned by a devastation “beyond all comprehension”.

But the physical damage masked deeper, more dangerous wounds. When Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi visited a crater-riddled Vienna, he was filled with the sense of an “irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling in the guts of Europe and the world, the seed of future harm”. The evil seed was social breakdown. Years of conflict, starvation and abuse had turned ordinary morality on its head.

In one account, a British soldier describes women with the “ordinary ... shopping and gossiping faces of working-class housewives” passively offering their bodies in exchange for tins of food in a public building on the outskirts of Naples. Allied soldiers uneasy at the thought of such desperation nonetheless deposit their tins beside the chosen housewife and in front of everyone present “a perfunctory jogging of the haunches began and quickly came to an end. It was something to get over as soon as possible.”

Rape is a consequence of most wars. But the scale of attacks on women in the days and weeks after surrender – in particular, argues Lowe, on German women by Allied soldiers – was unprecedented. He takes evidence from Marie Naumann, then a young housewife from Pomerania. After being raped by a mob of Soviet soldiers, then forced to watch her husband and children strangled, she is beaten by Polish civilians for denouncing her attackers, seen as liberators after the war. After escaping, she is raped again by a Russian officer, and finally by four more soldiers. Two more came to her but, by then, she says, “I was more dead than alive”.

The attacks on German civilians were justified in the minds of many as vengeance for the suffering inflicted by the Nazis. But the Jews who had been the main victims of Hitler’s genocidal policies fled Europe in their hundreds of thousands fearful of the wave of anti-semitism that swamped devastated communities.

Vengeance was also the justification used to target old enemies in countries where ethnic or political rivalries had simmered since long before the war. Croats massacred Serbs using techniques learnt from the Germans. Ukrainians killed Poles, Hungarians suppressed Slovaks. Communists had been victims of brutal repression from Nazis and fascists during the war; in their postwar battle for supremacy in many countries they, too, committed appalling crimes. When the Germans surrendered, only one war was ended. Dozens of others carried on, doing great violence to millions and setting the stage for the cold war.

Lowe recounts this story of chaos with a grinding relentlessness. He is meticulous in putting events in context. But by far his greatest achievement is to remind those who did not live through that maelstrom of violence and lawlessness of the miraculous nature of today’s Europe. Whatever their flaws, the institutions of the European Union have been a remarkable force for peace and stability. Doubters need only pick up Savage Continent.

Peggy Hollinger is an FT leader writer

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