“Revenge or forgiveness. Remembrance or oblivion. These postwar challenges are never carried out according to heavenly justice: there will be more unjust vengeance and undeserved forgiveness. Already the policies of remembrance and oblivion are not pursued in a way that will serve peace and stability. The Serbs would like to forget exactly those things that the Croats or Bosniaks would like to remember, and vice versa. If by chance any of the sides remember the same event, it is a crime for one and a heroic deed for the other” — (Column in the Serbian newspaper Vreme, quoted in Savage Continent, P. 373)
Keith Lowe takes on an heroic task: to cut through all of the self-serving exaggeration of every party to World War II (including the innocent victims) in order to reveal just what all these humans were really doing to each other in the months that followed the end of the war in Europe.
It turns out that many parts of that war didn’t really end when we think they did. There is, of course, the familiar story of Communist Russia’s clamping down on the nations of Eastern Europe. But lesser known are the political purges and ethnic cleansing of places like Poland, Greece and Italy. Basically, any place where large concentrations of Allied troops were not present, a terrible chaos reigned.
But even in the zones of, say, U.S. protection, there was a sort of short-term liberty for reprisals against Nazis, Fascists and even civilians. Such “revenge” is a major theme of this fine book, and it is explored with a clear-eyed understanding that manages to walk a fine line between justification and denial. But denial is also a theme of this tale, as nation after nation faced the post-war reality of rebuilding their compromised identities in a new world. And to this end, the myth-making and exaggeration (or denial) of wartime atrocities became a sort of national industry. To the end that in many countries today the truth remains nearly impossible to find.
I respect this book for its bravery and commitment to evidence, but also for its humanity, even as it reveals to us the horrors we humans are able to inflict upon each other, be it foreigner or next-door neighbor. Well written, this book is both easy, and difficult, to read.
I highly recommend it.