Keith Lowe's attempt to blur the moral distinctions between Nazis and Jews makes Savage Continent as distasteful as it is misleading
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.
The author uses a number of questionable techniques. His chapter titles are tabloid. Qualifications are introduced less prominently. One of his main themes is that postwar Europe has been shaped by indiscriminate revenge visited on the defeated Germans upon Hitler’s defeat. The threat, or promise, of vengeance against them “permeated everything,” he claims. “Vengeance”, “Revenge”, “The Thirst for Blood”, ”The Revenge of Jewish Prisoners”, “Vengeance Unrestrained”, and “The Purpose of Vengeance” all appear in headings. A subtitle goes as far as calling some postwar detention camps in Poland for Nazi suspects “The New ‘Extermination Camps'”. The term “extermination camp” refers in common usage to a place where victims were systematically murdered in gas chambers. Yet Lowe makes clear that that “there is absolutely no evidence . . . of an official policy of extermination” in the postwar camps in question. So, why does he use the term “extermination camps” (albeit in quotation marks) in the first place? Why does he state that they were not extermination camps only ten pages later?
Much of the book consists of recycling accounts of postwar atrocities or alleged atrocities emanating from former Nazis or from Hitler’s former Central European allies. The ground for criticism of Lowe is not that he uses these sources but that he tends to do so without making the origins of the writers he cites sufficiently clear to the reader. Works commissioned after the war by Theodor Oberländer, the Nazi-tainted minister for displaced persons in Konrad Adenauer’s West German government, are given too much respect. Lowe does not mention that the editors were two deeply compromised professors: Erich Maschke was a former member of the SA; Theodor Schieder was later shown by younger German historians such as Michael Fahlbusch and Ingo Haar to have been involved in aspects of the Final Solution. Lowe makes more than 30 references to their works.
Lowe’s long account of a massacre in 1945 of Croatians by Tito partisans at Bleiburg is drawn largely from the work of a postwar émigré from Croatia to the United States. It might have been appropriate to mention the author’s close connections with and admiration for Krunoslav Draganovic, the Croatian priest who ran the organisation which arranged the escape of war criminals such as Klaus Barbie from Italy to Argentina. The same author recently wrote an open letter to the Croatian president in which he attacked Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial institution in Jerusalem, and referred to “Serbian-Jewish lies” and “the so-called Holocaust in [the Croatian concentration camp of] Jasenovac”. Such language ought to provide further warning that the testimony gathered by the author and cited by Lowe needs to be examined with some caution.
On the “Nemmersdorf massacre” of German civilians by Russian forces in October 1944, Lowe cites as a main source a report of the following month in a Swiss newspaper. He does not reveal that the name of the reporter was not given in the newspaper, that he has no idea of the reporter’s nationality and that the despatch was part of a propaganda exercise orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels.
He recounts vivid personal stories which he then refers to as typical even when the evidence for generalising from them is weak. For example, Sir Martin Gilbert’s book The Boys uses the testimony of numbers of young Holocaust survivors to show that they did not take vengeance on their tormentors when their concentration camps were liberated. There is one exceptional report in Gilbert’s book of a ten-year-old who did kill Germans. It is this alone which rates a mention by Lowe. Lowe’s researches do reveal examples of revenge — in the case of the Zgoda camp in Silesia, horrific Jewish acts. But his narrative is misleading. Despite his self-defensive aside that “only a very small percentage of Jews” indulged in acts of revenge upon their liberation, his main aim is to portray such revenge as considerably more common than has been recognised and to accuse Jews of the subsequent “playing down of vengeance”. He draws this conclusion by glossing over or ignoring much contrary evidence. He is on relatively strong ground when he describes at length the conditions in Zgoda and the deaths of some 1,500 prisoners from ill-treatment and an epidemic. When he states that “similar conditions prevailed in many other Polish camps and prisons”, he goes well beyond any evidence presented in his book.
He argues that the Jewish commandant of Zgoda, Salomon Morel, ought to have been tried in the 1940s for ill-treating his mainly German prisoners. Whatever the justification for this (and it is considerable), the treatment he advocates as suitable for Morel contrasts with his argument elsewhere in the work that “it simply was not possible to locate all the (Nazi) war criminals” and to put them on trial. Yet it certainly would have been possible for the British, French and Americans to have brought many more Nazi war criminals to trial had they so wished and had the Cold War not diverted them. The policy of the anti-communist Allied powers to bring a rapid end to war crimes trials and to rehabilitate leading Nazis is not part of Lowe’s chosen narrative. Even such a classic work as Tom Bower’s Blind Eye to Murder, which detailed the British policy from the late 1940s of ending such prosecutions, does not appear in the bibliography.
The long bibliography and large number of footnotes give an impression of learning. Yet a number of his generalisations are unproven or are based on questionable (mostly secondary) sources. He interviewed a mere 11 persons, including one single Holocaust survivor. Lowe’s ambitious attempt to survey the entire European continent in the aftermath of the Second World War meant that he could not always assess and check his sources with sufficient care. The core argument of Savage Continent that revenge against Germany “was a fundamental part of the bedrock upon which postwar Europe was rebuilt” and that everything described in his book “bears its hallmark” makes a good story; it is not good history.