Rough justice or retaliation? A French collaborator is accosted in Rennes
On October 17, 1978, Jean Améry ended his life with an overdose of sleeping pills. A half-Jewish, half-Catholic Austrian, he had tried unsuccessfully to cope with the aftermath of his torture by the Nazis. He had abandoned his Germanic surname. He wrote classic essays on the Holocaust. He never managed to discard his status as a member of the living dead who emerged from Auschwitz and Belsen. What drove him to despair was the perception in 1977 that the battle for memory was being lost amid a resurgence of "old-new anti-Semitism" which was impudently raising "its disgusting head" in Germany "without arousing indignation". An analysis of Améry's suicidal anguish fills a chapter of a thoughtful, depressing book by the American literary academic Alvin Rosenfeld, The End of the Holocaust (2011). Rosenfeld gives ample evidence of a current trend to turn blame against the Jews by subtle as well as direct methods. Holocaust consciousness, reports Rosenfeld, is attacked on the grounds that it promotes Jewish "self-aggrandisement" (especially in Israel) and "prevents other victimised peoples from receiving a proper share of public attention and sympathy".
The justification for reviewing Keith Lowe's Savage Continent is that it is an example of a current genre of gory popular histories of Europe in the 1940s which, to a greater or lesser degree, minimise the moral distinctions between Nazi Germany and its adversaries.
The author is right to point out that the Allies and even some Jewish Holocaust victims were capable of cruel acts after Hitler's defeat. However, he goes much too far in his attempt to break down the difference between perpetrators and victims into "many varying shades of grey". The generally favourable reviews of Lowe's book, which includes little new material, show that there is a taste for such an approach. A recent work by Jörg Friedrich on the bombing of Dresden and other cities was a runaway best-seller in Germany; Lowe's earlier book on the bombing of Hamburg by the Allies was another commercial success.
In his new book Lowe is, of course, realistic in recording the sufferings of millions of ethnic Germans who were expelled after Hitler's defeat from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other countries of Central Europe. There was a terrible civil war in Greece. Inevitably, peace did not return all of a sudden on VE Day. Lowe is careful to insist that the "vengeance" suffered by Germans after the Second World War was on a considerably smaller scale than the atrocities carried out by Hitler. Yet, the overall impact of his writing is to leave the impression of a war of all against all in which innocence and guilt are not so far apart. The main beneficiaries of this approach are Germans. It is Jews who emerge in a diminished light.