Just imagine living in a world in which law and order have broken down completely: a world in which there is no authority, no rules and no sanctions.
In the bombed-out ruins of Europe’s cities, feral gangs scavenge for food. Old men are murdered for their clothes, their watches or even their boots. Women are mercilessly raped, many several times a night. Neighbour turns on neighbour; old friends become deadly enemies. And the wrong surname, even the wrong accent, can get you killed.
It sounds like the stuff of nightmares. But for hundreds of millions of Europeans, many of them now gentle, respectable pensioners, this was daily reality in the desperate months after the end of World War II.
di Dominic Sandbroock dal Daily Mail del 23 marzo 2012
In Britain we remember the great crusade against the Nazis as our finest hour. But as the historian Keith Lowe shows in an extraordinary, disturbing and powerful new book, Savage Continent, it is time we thought again about the way the war ended.
For millions of people across the Continent, he argues, VE Day marked not the end of a bad dream, but the beginning of a new nightmare. In central Europe, the Iron Curtain was already descending; even in the West, the rituals of recrimination were being played out.
This is a story not of redemption but of revenge. And far from being ‘Zero Hour’, as the Germans call it, May 1945 marked the beginning of a terrible descent into anarchy.
Of course World War II was that rare thing, a genuinely moral struggle against a terrible enemy who had plumbed the very depths of human cruelty. But precisely because we in Britain escaped the shame and trauma of occupation, we rarely reflect on what happened next.
After years of bombing and bloodshed, much of Europe was physically and morally broken. Indeed, to contemplate the costs of war in Germany alone is simply mind-boggling.
Across the shattered remains of Hitler’s Reich, some 20 million people were homeless, while 17 million ‘displaced persons’, many of them former PoWs and slave labourers, were roaming the land.
Half of all houses in Berlin were in ruins; so were seven out of ten of those in Cologne.
Not all the Germans who survived the war had supported Hitler. But in the vast swathes of his former empire conquered by Stalin’s Red Army, the terrible vengeance of the victors fell on them all, irrespective of their past record.
In the little Prussian village of Nemmersdorf, the first German territory to fall to the Russians, every single man, woman and child was brutally murdered. ‘I will spare you the description of the mutilations and the ghastly condition of the corpses,’ a Swiss war correspondent told his readers.
‘These are impressions that go beyond even the wildest imagination.’
Near the East Prussian city of Königsberg — now the Russian city of Kaliningrad — the bodies of dead woman, who had been raped and then butchered, littered the roads. And in Gross Heydekrug, writes Keith Lowe, ‘a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side’.
Many Russian historians still deny accounts of the atrocities. But the evidence is overwhelming.
Across much of Germany, Lowe explains, ‘thousands of women were raped and then killed in an orgy of truly medieval violence’.
But the truth is that medieval warfare was nothing like as savage as what befell the German people in 1945. Wherever the Red Army came, women were gang-raped in their thousands.
One woman in Berlin, caught hiding behind a pile of coal, recalled being raped by ‘twenty-three soldiers one after the other. I had to be stitched up in hospital. I never want to have anything to do with any man again’.
Of course it is easy to say that the Germans, having perpetrated some of the most appalling atrocities in human history on the Eastern Front, had brought their suffering on themselves. Even so, no sane person could possibly read Lowe’s book without a shudder of horror.
The truth is that World War II, which we remember as a great moral campaign, had wreaked incalculable damage on Europe’s ethical sensibilities. And in the desperate struggle for survival, many people would do whatever it took to get food and shelter.
In Allied-occupied Naples, the writer Norman Lewis watched as local women, their faces identifying them as ‘ordinary well-washed respectable shopping and gossiping housewives’, lined up to sell themselves to young American GIs for a few tins of food.
Another observer, the war correspondent Alan Moorehead, wrote that he had seen ‘the moral collapse’ of the Italian people, who had lost all pride in their ‘animal struggle for existence’.
Amid the trauma of war and occupation, the bounds of sexual decency had simply collapsed. In Holland one American soldier was propositioned by a 12-year-old girl. In Hungary scores of 13-year-old girls were admitted to hospital with venereal disease; in Greece, doctors treated VD-infected girls as young as ten.
What was more, even in those countries liberated by the British and Americans, a deep tide of hatred swept through national life.
Everybody had come out of the war with somebody to hate.
In northern Italy, some 20,000 people were summarily murdered by their own countrymen in the last weeks of the war. And in French town squares, women accused of sleeping with German soldiers were stripped and shaved, their breasts marked with swastikas while mobs of men stood and laughed. Yet even today, many Frenchmen pretend these appalling scenes never happened.
The general rule, though, was that the further east you went, the worse the horror became.
In Prague, captured German soldiers were ‘beaten, doused in petrol and burned to death’. In the city’s sports stadium, Russian and Czech soldiers gang-raped German women.
In the villages of Bohemia and Moravia, hundreds of German families were brutally butchered. And in Polish prisons, German inmates were drowned face down in manure, and one man reportedly choked to death after being forced to swallow a live toad.
Yet at the time, many people saw this as just punishment for the Nazis’ crimes. Allied leaders refused to discuss the atrocities, far less condemn them, because they did not want to alienate public support.
‘When you chop wood,’ the future Czech president, Antonin Zapotocky, said dismissively, ‘the splinters fly.’
It is to Lowe’s great credit that he resists the temptation to sit in moral judgment. None of us can know how we would have behaved under similar circumstances; it is one of the great blessings of British history that, despite our sacrifice to beat the Nazis, our national experience was much less traumatic than that of our neighbours.
It is also true that repellent as we might find it, the desire for revenge was both instinctive and understandable — especially in those terrible places where the Nazis had slaughtered so many innocents. So it is shocking, but not altogether surprising, to read that when the Americans liberated the Dachau death camp, a handful of GIs lined up scores of German guards and simply machine-gunned them.
By any standards this was a war crime; yet who among us can honestly say we would have behaved differently?
Lowe notes how ‘a very small number’ of Jewish prisoners wreaked a bloody revenge on their former captors.
Such claims, inevitably, are deeply controversial. When the veteran American war correspondent John Sack, himself Jewish, wrote a book about it in the 1990s, he was accused of Holocaust denial and his publishers cancelled the contract.
Yet after the liberation of Theresienstadt camp, one Jewish man saw a mob of ex-inmates beating an SS man to death, and such scenes were not uncommon across the former Reich. ‘We all participated,’ another Jewish camp inmate, Szmulek Gontarz, remembered years later. ‘It was sweet. The only thing I’m sorry about is that I didn’t do more.’
Meanwhile, across great swathes of Eastern Europe, German communities who had lived quietly for centuries were being driven out. Some had blood on their hands; many others, though, were blameless. But they could not have paid a higher price for the collapse of Adolf Hitler’s imperial ambitions.
In the months after the war ended, a staggering 7 million Germans were driven out of Poland, another 3 million from Czechoslovakia and almost 2 million more from other central European countries, often in appalling conditions of hunger, thirst and disease.
Today this looks like ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Yet at the time, conscious of all they had endured under the Nazi jackboot, Polish and Czech politicians saw the expulsions as ‘the least worst’ way to avoid another war.
Indeed, this ethnic savagery was not confined to the Germans. In eastern Poland and western Ukraine, rival nationalists carried out an undeclared war of horrifying brutality, raping and slaughtering women and children and forcing almost 2 million people to leave their homes.
What these men wanted was not, in the end, so different from Hitler’s own ambitions: an ethnically homogenous national fatherland, cleansed of the last taints of foreign contamination.
In 1947, in an enterprise nicknamed Operation Vistula, the Poles rounded up their remaining Ukrainian citizens and deported them to the far west of the country, which had formerly been part of Germany. There they were settled in deserted towns, whose old inhabitants had themselves been deported to West Germany.
It was, Lowe writes, ‘the final act in a racial war begun by Hitler, continued by Stalin and completed by the Polish authorities’.
To their immense credit, the Poles have had the courage to face up to what happened all those years ago. Indeed, ten years ago the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, publicly apologised for Operation Vistula.
Yet the supreme irony of the war is that in Poland, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, VE Day marked the end of one tyranny and the beginning of another.
Here in Britain, we too often forget that although we went to war to save Poland, we actually ended it by allowing Poland to fall under Stalin’s cruel despotism.
Perhaps we had no choice; there was no appetite for a war with the Russians in 1945, and we were exhausted in any case. Yet not everybody was prepared to accept surrender so meekly.
In one of the final chapters in Lowe’s deeply moving book, he reminds us that between 1944 and 1950 some 400,000 people were involved in anti-Soviet resistance activities in Ukraine.
What was more, in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which Stalin had brutally absorbed into the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of nationalist guerillas known as the Forest Brothers struggled vainly for their independence, even fighting pitched battles against the Red Army and attacking government buildings in major cities.
We think of the Cold War in Europe as a stalemate. Yet as late as 1965, Lithuanian partisans were still fighting gun battles with the Soviet police, while the last Estonian resistance fighter, the 69-year-old August Sabbe, was not killed until 1978, more than 30 years after the World War II had supposedly ended.
We in Britain are right to be proud of our record in the war. Yet it is time, as this book shows, that we faced up to some of the unsettling moral ambiguities of those bloody, desperate years.
When we picture the end of the war, we imagine crowds in central London, cheering and singing.
We rarely think of the terrible suffering and slaughter that marked most Europeans’ daily lives at that time.
But almost 70 years after the end of the conflict, it is time we acknowledged the hidden realities of perhaps the darkest chapter in all human history.
(Savage Continent: Europe In The Aftermath Of World War II by Keith Lowe is published by Viking at £25. To order a copy for £20 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.)
Inserito su www.storiainrete.com il 28 marzo 2012
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