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How We Lost the Second World War

On Europe's 'Savage Continent,' Putin's persecutions are just one sign lessons weren't learned.

Crawford Kilian 15 Jan

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Russian leader Vladimir Putin: from collapse to relapse.

This is a hard book to read. But the fact that Russia is fevered with persecution of gays and lesbians under the leadership of a 21st century dictator is one of many facts that make it necessary to read.

Keith Lowe writes clearly and persuasively, and his documentation is strong. But he presents an aspect of the Second World War in Europe and its aftermath that neither the winners nor the losers like to think about.

It does explain much of what's happened since, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union: the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, Hungary's return to fascism, and the rise of Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. Without understanding the postwar years, we can't understand such seemingly aberrant events.

Given what Lowe documents, it's understandable why we've preferred to forget those years and think instead of the Greatest Generation who sacrificed for our freedom. It's far more comforting, especially for those of us on the winning side, to see the war's outcome as a triumph of democratic values and justice. We were the good guys, and the bad guys lost.

It wasn't that simple. The war literally demoralized not only Europe but the outsiders who took part in it. And the demoralization started early, even in the neutral and unconquered nations. Switzerland and Sweden saw their crime rates soar during the war. Rape increased by 50 per cent in Britain and Northern Ireland. In southern Italy, the Allies released mafiosi from Mussolini's prisons, and the gangsters soon began to plunder the war supplies their liberators were shipping into Naples. You could argue they haven't stopped since.

"In 1944 and 1945," Lowe writes, "large parts of Europe were left in chaos for months at a time.... The political system had broken down to such a degree that American observers were warning of the possibility of a Europe-wide civil war."

In fact, local civil wars had been going on from the start of the international war, and some of them raged on for years after the German surrender: "Greeks against Bulgarians," Lowe writes, "Serbs against Croats, Romanians against Magyars, Poles against Ukrainians."

Unready for anarchy

Ethnic wars were aggravated by class wars and the near-total discrediting of the civil governments that had run Nazi-occupied nations. The Allied armies were the only ones with the resources, and the credibility, to impose some kind of order. Unprepared to deal with anarchy, they tried. Some tried harder than others.

Lowe divides his book into four sections: the physical and moral destruction, the widespread desire for vengeance, ethnic cleansing, and the civil wars that raged for years after. The first section focuses on widespread famine; the demographic consequences of millions of deaths, millions of displacements, and millions of rapes; and the general postwar breakdown of law and order.

The second section describes much more than the routine head-shaving and public humiliation of women who'd slept with the German occupiers. The Soviet takeover of eastern Europe was brutal, but to be expected from those who'd fought the Nazis and their allies for four bitter years. Still, it was not to be confused with justice. "Revenge," says Lowe, "was a fundamental part of the bedrock upon which postwar Europe was built."

Vengeance was inflicted of course on German military prisoners; Lowe points out that the Russians simply didn't care if their German POWs lived or died, and the last of the survivors weren't repatriated until 1957.

He also takes issue with historian James Bacque, who in 1979 published a book charging the western Allies with deliberately allowing hundreds of thousands of POWs to starve to death. While demolishing Bacque's thesis, Lowe notes that the POWs in American hands did seem to die in greater numbers than those controlled by the British and French.

Ethnic cleansing began early in the war, not only with the Germans' destruction of the Jews and Gypsies, but also with Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Cossacks and the Volga Germans. It continued without a break after the war as countries deported unwelcome minorities.

'They must have forgotten to gas you'

The surviving Jews who returned home found their old neighbours had learned nothing from the war. One returning to Eindhoven in Holland was greeted by an official: "Not another Jew, they must have forgotten to gas you."

In Hungary, a popular joke described a Jew returning to Budapest and meeting a Christian friend who asks how he is. "Don't even ask. I've returned from the camps and now I have nothing except the clothes you are wearing." Under those conditions, escape to Palestine seemed like the wisest choice.

The postwar civil wars included battles in France between Communist members of the Resistance and the followers of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle. But the Communists were also capable of violence against the police and even non-Stalinist allies like the political refugees from the old Spanish Republic. In Italy, class war erupted between Resistance fighters and the remaining Fascist landowners.

Pensions for the collaborators

Stalin had ceded Greece to Churchill as part of Britain's postwar sphere of influence, telling the Greek Communists to get along with the British occupation forces. Instead the Communists launched a civil war that went on until 1948. Thousands died or were imprisoned, and Greece thereafter was ruled first by conservative politicians and the army, and then by the army alone. Ironically, the military junta declared those who had fought the Nazis to be enemies of the state, while awarding pensions to those who had fought for the Germans.

The most striking, and doomed, local revolts were those in the Baltic states reconquered by the Red Army. Resistance fighters went into the forests to fight the Soviets. The result was a years-long campaign of terror on both sides. The last Estonian resistance fighter died in 1978.

Lowe's account throws an unwelcome light on victors and vanquished alike. No one seemed to have learned a thing from the war and its aftermath. Astoundingly, the Europeans resumed their old arrogance as the most culturally and morally advanced nations, capable of ruling others when they manifestly couldn't rule themselves.

France and the Netherlands tried to regain their lost empires but only prolonged the killing for decades. The Soviets and Americans developed a policy of nuclear genocide to deter one another, while constantly prodding each other through proxy wars in former European colonies and covert actions in Soviet satellites.

From collapse to relapse

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, those satellites have reverted to their postwar vices: the Czechs and Slovaks split up, and both countries have built Roma walls to keep their local Gypsies ghettoized (so have the Romanians). Hungary has marched deliberately back to its anti-Semitic fascist past. Yugoslavia conducted its own miniature Second World War in the 1990s, complete with genocides and concentration camps. And Russia has resumed its own colonial wars in the Caucasus while persecuting political dissidents and banning the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations."

If we are appalled by these developments, it's only because we have accepted European cultural and moral values, even if millions of Europeans have abjectly failed to do so. F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that "the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." That insight is eerily close to George Orwell's definition of doublethink: "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."

By those definitions, European culture (including its colonial offspring) creates truly first-rate minds, who can destroy one another and the rest of the world while congratulating themselves on their own goodness. And that is why Savage Continent is such a hard book to read and review.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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