Savage Continent – Europe in the Aftermath
Of World War II
By Keith Lowe
Penguin/Viking – £25.00
For all of Germany’s propensity for regulation and efficiency – and I should know as I’ve lived in Berlin for the last two years – it used to be extremely well versed in creating mayhem and madness out of almost nothing. Especially when it forced terrible choices on people. Especially when said people were threatened, frightened and confused.
In ‘Wartime Choices’ (chapter 16) of this overtly credible and complex study Savage Continent – Europe in the Aftermath of World War II - the former history publisher turned author Keith Lowe writes: ‘’In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race. In Poland for example, a racial hierarchy was devised which put Reich Germans at the top, ethnic Germans next, then privileged minorities such as Ukrainians, followed by Poles, Gypsies and Jews. The classifications did not stop there. Ethnic Germans, for example, were broken down into further sub-categories: those who were so pure that they were eligible to join the Nazi Party, those who were pure enough for Reich citizenship, those who were tainted by Polish blood or Polish influences, and finally those Poles who were considered as ethnically German only because of their physical appearance or way of life.’’
It makes one wonder who decided upon such preposterous and highly variable parameters. Not to mention why? And to what avail?
Bach, Schiller and Kant aside, many might argue it is just such stifling efficiency – if such it can be called – as that described above, that has invariably denied the German psyche from essentially investigating the unfettered realm(s) of un-tamed, uncharted possibility; particularly that of a primarily linguistic or cultural persuasion. For even if the current German economy is one of the strongest in Europe, and even if its transportation system is perhaps second to none, as a nation, it still remains artistically redundant.
With the possible exception of a fundamentally bleak period during the mid-nineteen-seventies (when the likes of Kraftwerk happened to stumble upon a synthesis of computerised note making and androidesque deliverance), German music, painting and literature continues to remain inexorably dormant due to the rigidity of its psyche. Which ought hardly be surprising, given the country’s inflammatory penchant for racial purity – whatever that is.
Indeed, one could quite easily ask if such a thing as racial purity actually exists. For as Lowe continues to write in the same section, it wasn’t a subject that was anywhere near as prominent in the eyes of other Europeans: ‘’The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they had never been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem – indeed, it elevated it to the problem – that needed solving.’’
Hence, such race drenched atrocities as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Not to mention the many other ‘problems’ that aren’t quite sexy enough for the media to report on. This goes some way in explaining why Savage Continent is an important book and definitely needs to be read. Reason being, it reads, as it absolutely must have been like – fucking terrible. It’s as Ian Kershaw is quoted as saying: ‘’Graphic and chilling. This excellent book paints a little-known and frightening picture of a continent in the embrace of lawlessness and chaos.’’
To be sure, the trajectorial thought process these 380 pages provide (excluding Sources and Notes), is not only idiosyncratically immense, but inspiring in so far as its philosophical undercurrent(s) is concerned. It puts lot of things into far reaching perspective, that nearly seventy years after the end of the Second World Was II, we now take for granted – regardless of whether it’s right to do so or perhaps more convenient to do so.
Writing in chapter 12, ‘Vengeance Unrestrained: Eastern Europe,’ Lowe beckons us to ponder upon, if not at least consider, the cold dark consequences that are invariably promoted by the silent conveniences of our own design: ‘’In every country in Europe, and indeed across the world, the Germans have always been regarded as the perpetrators, not the victims, of atrocity. The world likes to believe that if there was some small measure of vengeance after the war this was no more than the German people had deserved […]. The notion that the Germans were also treated to some horrific forms of torture and degradation – not only practising Nazis but ordinary men, women and children – and the realization that our own countrymen were also capable of such crimes – these are subjects that mainstream Allied culture has always instinctively shied away from.’’
That Savage Continent is far more balanced than it might otherwise have been in the hands of far lesser writers that Keith Lowe, is in itself, commendable. That it’s an occasional unpleasant and difficult read (subject matter wise), raises the truth stakes yet higher still – as once again, the author makes clear in view of the immediate above: ‘’Such stories must be confronted if we are ever to learn the truth about the past, or gain a proper understanding of the world we live in today. In recent decades extremists and conspiracy theorists have thrived on the fact that this subject is still treated by the rest of us as something of a guilty secret. New myths and exaggerations have begun to take root, some of which are quite dangerous. Uncomfortable though it is, therefore, it is important to shine a light on both the unpleasant truth and the myths that have fed off it.’’