Imagine a world without institutions. No governments. No school or universities. No access to any information. No banks. Money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and no judiciary. Men with weapons roam the streets taking what they want. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection…
Thus opens Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, an unrelenting non-fiction account of ground truth across Europe at the close of World War II and the years immediately thereafter. Based largely on primary sources on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Lowe takes the reader into a world obscured for multiple reasons by both victor and vanquished alike.
What is most chilling about Savage Continent is its blending of individual tales of brutality, deprivation, and survival with the national, regional, and geopolitical contexts for the post-war horror. To use a well-worn phrase from this neighborhood, “it was intentional” that Soviet troops were allowed to rape and loot with abandon across their realm in occupied Germany. It was intentional that everyday Czechs turned on their ethnic German neighbors and strung them up from lampposts in Prague and elsewhere. It was intentional that greatest-generation American officers on multiple occasions and in multiple locales allowed partisans several days to settle scores with their now-conquered foreign enemies, as well as their domestic political opponents. It was intentional that post-war tribunals convened to hold collaborators accountable for their treason devolved into farces of justice miscarried by judicial peers of the defendants. It was intentional that the sainted Democrat FDR and his haberdasher successor granted carte blanche to Stalin and his Red allies to sweep all of Eastern Europe into the Soviet sphere via mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and the ruthless imposition of tyranny.
It was, simply put, an orgy of slaughter, savagery, terror, and revenge – at both the individual and national policy levels – conducted mostly after hostilities had officially ceased.
To his credit, Lowe does not shirk from relating to his readers the central role played by revenge in this drama. He tut-tuts about the morality and the loss of the “moral high ground” (yes, he uses that phrase) occasioned by such deeds, but he unflinchingly tells the truth about modern, civilized human behavior in the wake of world-historical disruptions.
And therein lies the value of Savage Continent to the WRSA audience.
Those who believe that the former United States of America and its neighbors to the north and south will survive the coming turmoil in recognizable forms will find that belief shaken by Lowe’s efforts. His easily-readable writing style, backed by serious scholarship (17 pages of sources, with 42 pages of endnotes), will leave the reader appalled – not just by the volume and scope of the violence, but how it was perpetrated by all sides against anyone who stood in their way.
Savage Continent is not simply about post-war Europe.
It is about the bestial nature of men in war and its aftermath.
It is about illusions of civility, and the loss of those illusions.
It is about the horrific consequences of defeat, and the mythologies of victory.
It is about reality.