Review: Savage Continent by Keith Lowe

Savage Continent
of 5

My version:
Non Fiction Second World War

The end of the Second World War saw a terrible explosion of violence across Europe. Prisoners murdered jailers. Soldiers visited atrocities on civilians. Resistance fighters killed and pillories collaborators. Ethnic cleansing, civil war, rape, and murder were rife in the days, months and years after hostilities ended. Exploring a Europe consumed by vengeance, Savage Continent is a shocking portrait of an until-now unacknowledged time of lawlessness and terror.

“They were hungry, bereaved and bitter about the years of suffering they had been made to endure – before they could be motivated to start rebuilding they needed time to vent their anger, to reflect and to mourn.”

The they are of course ‘us,’ the winners. The Germans, the losers, had/have no right to feel in anyway aggrieved by anything ‘we’ did to ‘them,’ did they?

They started it, after all. So they should expect it, keep quiet, take it and do nothing. They knew they’d got it coming, so they can’t complain. However, what about those ‘we’ who worked for ‘them’? Yeah, they got what was coming to them as well. And why shouldn’t we look the other way when our boys in uniform let off steam? After all they’d been through. And those out in the east of Europe? Well, let them do what they’ve always done to each other. Also to the Germans.

As the book points out (not this bit) most of the western WWII books have been written by the western parties of the alliance. About what happened over here. Whereas “The true horror, as usual, occurred not in the west but in the east.” Their need for ‘justice’ was understandably more deserved. Wasn’t it? Take Ukraine. The Germans smashed their way over on their way to Russia. And on the way back. Followed by the Russians who also smashed Ukraine for having helped the Germans. And then kept smashing them until 1989. The Poles were just brushed aside by both, both ways and afterwards.

This ‘revenge’ angle, background and consequences, forms the main theme for the book, I think. Well I got this from it anyway. When is revenge one or the other? One and not the other? Is it justified by what the victims have gone through? How would that be measured, so the response is appropriate? By whom? The book also subconsciously addresses the ‘what would YOU have done?’ angle, by presenting what did go on. Would you have done any differently? You can’t sit there now and say they shouldn’t have done it. Were the Jews justified? Was anyone, when very, very little of the revenge was carried out on the perpetrators. And was the ‘justice’ of a clean execution at the hands of the Allies, adequate considering the crimes they committed and the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions they committed them against? Justice still gets mixed up and used for revenge even now. Hillsborough for example. Rightly or wrongly, they don’t want justice, they want revenge. And because I’m not from Liverpool, hold no special regard for Liverpool, and have never had or wanted children, who am I to say that they shouldn’t get their revenge? I’m not going to do it. That’s up to them to find their own peace.

Neither justice nor revenge ever brought anyone back from the dead. Never re-built a house, a city or a life. A ‘punishment’ wrecks more than it builds. As a warning? Well, full prisons of people having committed the same crimes people have committed since Cain slew Abel would seem to answer that. So what is the point of revenge, if not to make the victim feel better? Through causing the perpetrator – and their family and/or friends, the same, or worse, pain? How many times have we heard “shooting is too good for him”? They don’t want justice, they want revenge. Not to at as a warning to others, but to make themselves feel better, by causing others ‘justifiable’ pain. That is then the key, the justifiable. Who would argue that the Jews shouldn’t have some form of revenge over the Nazis who killed so many of their fellow Jews? Not many, even now.

It’s not as if, at least in the start, revenge was so widespread because the authorities looked the other way and condoned it. There was, as the book points out, no authority. No law, no Policemen – none that could be trusted, or none left. And there were fewer and fewer left at the start of the period, because the people took the chance to have their revenge on them!

No one came out of it whiter than white. Let’s just be glad we’re not in Eastern Europe, the six months before and the two years after the end of the war. What the book does very well, is show the silliness of the general picture I think a lit of people still have. “From the safety of the twenty first century, we tend to imagine the Second World War as a single, unambiguous conflict between the Allies on one side and the Axis on the other.” One side fought the other. We knew who we were and they knew who they were. They were black, we were white. They lost we won. As always, life isn’t wasn’t like that. Shades of grey as always. But it needs reinforcing next time you feel good about Great Britain beating the Germans and setting the Jews free. We didn’t want them any more than the Germans did. ‘Homeland’? We were glad to get shot of Palestine and the whole ghastly problem was moved a reassuring ‘long way away.’ The silliness too of seeing the Second World War as something that stopped in Europe on a certain date in 1945. While the book – and other books I’ve read; Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, etc – make it reasonably clear that the Second World War continued until 1989 for many, many people, even the blurb on the back falls into the trap of describing events “after hostilities ended!”

The book seemed planned out like a thesis. Where he states his aims, why he thought how he did, what he wanted to look at – then does it. It hangs together in that way, very well indeed. It is nicely written and well explained. It does, in the second half/final third, get way too bogged down in the Romanian situation leading to Communist power. Goes into way more detail than is needed to hold interest. You know what the biggest feeling you get from reading this? Thank fuck I wasn’t there. Thank fuck the heroes were.

And, while reading this, you’ll come to realise – IS, Islamic State? They are amateurs beside this sort of savagery. Compared to some of the ‘medieval’ barbarism documented here, IS are a bunch of squeamish Girl Guides helping little old ladies across the road. Rest assured they’d none of them lasted five minutes in Eastern Europe during or just after WWII.

You can buy Savage Continent at The Book Depository

Relevant reviews on Speesh Reads:

Forged In FuryThe Second World War




Me, on Goodreads

3 thoughts on “Review: Savage Continent by Keith Lowe

  1. Hi Steve, books that deal with events in Europe, ‘after the war’ are becoming increasingly common and it’s a good thing too. All we need now are a few books which debunk the ’causes of the second world war’ which we were force-fed at school. I could say a lot, but I won’t. The main thing is that wars don’t start and end on certain dates. The physical fighting may, but the war never ends for those controlling events as they amass riches from the broken bodies of millions. Which is ironic really, because it doesn’t take much thought to realise that although poverty is very real, money, and therefore wealth doesn’t really exist.


    1. Yeah, the more I read, the more I learn that it isn’t as clear cut, black and white as it was at school. I actually had it hammered home to me, when I went and saw Antony Beevor give a talk – here in Aarhus, would you believe?! – just before the Danish publication of ‘The Second World War.’ In that talk and in the book, he says “Europe did not stumble into war on 1 September 1939. Some historians talk of a ‘thirty years war’ from 1914 to 1945, with the First World War as ‘the original catastrophe.’ Others maintain that the ‘long war,’ which began with the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917, continued as a ‘European Civil War’ until 1945, or even lasted until the fall of Communism in 1989.”
      I think I’ve read some other stuff about things going on ‘under the surface’ probably what you’re hinting at. Though I see that more as reacting to, or taking advantage of, the situation and prolonging it, rather than being an attributable cause. I read a while back, Richard J Evans’ ‘The Coming of The Third Reich’ and thought from that, that the Second World War began in effect, with Bismarck!
      My next purchase on the subject, will probably be ‘The Long Road Home’ by Ben Shephard.


      1. It’s actually a bit of a wormhole once you get into it. We all have the impression that Europe before 1914 was an oasis of peace, but there was a huge amount of social agitation for change. Why not give the plebs a ‘we’re all in it together’, common enemy. Happy reading, Steve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.