VENGEANCE and THE SECOND WORLD WAR
I make no apologies in saying that the majority of detail in this post comes from Keith Lowe’s superlative book Savage Continent, Europe in the aftermath of World War II.
Growing up in the 1950s, I was vaguely aware that the Soviet Union, the bogeyman of the era, controlled much of Eastern Europe against the will of the majority of the populations of those countries. When I was eleven, the Hungarian people rose up and attempted to overthrow their communist masters. Briefly it seemed they were about to succeed but then the Red Army tanks rolled into Budapest and crushed the Hungarian revolution and the hatred between the west and the Soviet Union intensified.
Twelve years later , the people of Czechoslovakia attempted to throw off the Soviet yoke. For a while, throughout the summer of 1968, they appeared to have succeeded but then, in August that year, Russian and other Warsaw Pact countries appeared on the streets of the Czech capital and what became known as The Prague Spring was over. These are but two illustrations of the years of the Cold War. There were many others, in The German Democratic Republic and Poland for example, but the setting up of the Iron Curtain was part of the USSR’s revenge on Germany for their catastrophic losses in the Second World War.
Lowe, in his book, concentrates on the period between the end of the war and 1949 when the Soviet Empire of Eastern Europe became firmly established. He does, however, point out that the war ended at different times in different places, depending on when countries were liberated from German occupation. Like Lowe, the eminent late historian Tony Judt, in his wonderful history of Europe since 1945 Post War, makes a strong case for identifying 1989 as the real end of the Second World War when, on that joyous day in November, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. This triggered off a series of largely bloodless revolutions throughout Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Indeed, apart from the terrible civil wars in Yugoslavia, Europe has been at peace since.
Vengeance in the aftermath of the Second World War took many forms. The Soviet Union seizing control of Eastern Europe was one thing. Revenge taken on those who had collaborated with the Nazis from the shaven heads of the women horizontal collaborators to the public beatings, murders and court-ordered executions was another.
Then there was the vengeance of the displaced. At the end of the war there were 6.5 million displaced persons in Germany alone. Most of these were foreign workers taken from occupied lands to serve as slave labour in German farms and factories. To celebrate freedom there was a massive outbreak of rioting, looting and some rape in defeated Germany which the allied occupation authorities found difficult to control.
The most visible of all vengeance activities were those carried out by the victors over the vanquished. The best known of these was the mass rapes carried out by Red Army soldiers as they invaded Germany in 1944/45. German women and children were raped, some on numerous occasions and by up to a dozen soldiers at a time in one of the most horrific of history’s acts of vengeance. Men were forced to watch while their wives, mothers and sisters were subjected to unspeakable horrors. The great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once a reluctant witness as one victim was transformed from young innocent girl to abused woman and finally to a corpse in a matter of minutes.
Wiping out entire communities, sometimes but not always accompanied by rape and torture, was commonplace. The Nazis had been practising this since the invasion of Poland in 1939 but perfected their abominable skills in the Soviet Union two years later. Even as late as 10 June 1944, the SS Panzer Division Das Reich killed all 642 inhabitants of the French village of Oradour-Sur-Glane . The very first village that the Red Army entered in East Prussia was Nemersdorf where they murdered every single inhabitant. The German propaganda machine made much of this as they had when they uncovered the mass graves containing the bodies of several thousand Polish officers at Katyn near Smolensk in 1943. The Kremlin was quick to deny responsibility and only in 1991 did Russia acknowledge that the Soviet Union had carried out these killings.
However, the greatest propaganda coup of all came from the USSR when, one by one, their advancing armies liberated the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The surviving inmates of these camps, many of whom were Jewish, were too frail to carry out acts of revenge, although it seems likely that the Soviet troops meted out their own brand of justice. American troops were not above taking the law into their own hands, although there are few recorded instances of this and their conduct was far better than their Russian allies. When Dachau was liberated, US troops summarily shot more than thirty SS guards and then stood by while angry inmates killed up to thirty more.
Some used the aftermath of war to settle old political scores. There was prolonged post-war violence in both Italy and France, while in Greece a bitter full-scale civil war raged until 1949.
The Second World War was not just a conflict of territorial gain but one of race and ethnicity. It’s likely that as many as ten million died in the ethnic and racial cleansing which followed the war’s end. To this should be added the thirty five million who died during the European war itself.
Amazingly, the Jews continued to be persecuted. Survivors from the death camps were not always welcomed in their home communities when they returned after liberation. The Poles before the war were rabid anti-Semites, some would say worse than the Nazis during the nineteen thirties. When the conflict ended, the pogroms re-emerged. The worst of these was at Kiele in South-West Poland where seventy Jews were killed by Polish citizens, police and soldiers. Not surprisingly, many Jews turned their back on Europe and headed for Palestine.
In Eastern Poland, Ukranians were attacked and murdered. The survivors were sent to the Soviet Ukraine, even though they had lived in Polish Ukraine for generations. Poles who had lived in the Soviet Ukraine travelled in the opposite direction. Millions of Germans flooded into Eastern Germany. Five million were thrown out of East Prussia, Upper Silesia and Danzig when the post-war settlement saw three areas incorporated into Poland. This was to compensate the Poles for having much of their eastern lands seized by the Soviet Union. Thus in the new Western Poland Stettin became Szczecin, Danzig Gdansk and Breslau Wroclaw. Germans were thrown out of the Czech Sudetenland and parts of Hungary. Germans had lived in those areas for hundreds of years and now they watched as their land and property was grabbed by Poles, Hungarians and Czechs. The Russians, not to be outdone, took a little piece of East Prussia for herself.
These are just a few examples of the massive upheavals and blood-letting that characterised the aftermath of the greatest conflict in history. They are, if you like, signposts to Keith Lowe’s remarkable and superbly researched book that tells the whole story.