This survey of post war Europe is a natural sequel in terms of my reading to Ian Kershaw’s “The End”, reviewed here last month. “The End” described and explained the utter destruction of much of central Europe at the end of the Second World War – this books follows on by describing some of the consequences of that destruction.

I knew very little about this period before reading this book. If pushed I would have mentioned the Marshall Plan, and guessed that the process of moving from the anarchy and chaos of war to civilised society would take time and a lot of pain. Britain, which had never been invaded or occupied (the Channel islands excepted), and which had ended on the winning side, struggled to recover, and was not clear of the shadow of war until the 1950’s (arguably a whole generation was damaged by the conflict) – how much worse must it have been for those countries utterly wrecked by occupation, saturation bombing, and the deliberate destruction of industry by retreating forces? Add in the bitterness of ethnic tension and a thirst for revenge against collabarators and others, and it is hardly surprising that “Europe in the aftermath of World War 2” was the “savage continent” Lowe describes.

The human instinct for neatness means we readily accept the story that the war ended in 1945, but for many of the people of Europe their problems had only just begun. For many others the war raged on without respite. Lowe chronicles these stories clearly and navigates the complex moral issues adrioitly. His analysis is bravely unblinking – he does not turn away from analysing atrocities irrespective of who commits them. Suffering is not ignored, even if he does not fall into the trap of drawing moral equivalences between the crimes of an invading regime, and the revenge attacks of the newly liberated. He engages with some of the most difficult and passionate controversies of the 20th Century – for example, do the crime committed against the German people of Eastern Europe by the Soviets and others in any mitigate the impact of the Holocaust – and presents the arguments and evidence and makes judgments the reader is compelled to trust.  

The importance of knowing how the Europe of today emerged from the ashes of World War 2 is key to understanding so much about European history – the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (the one country that didn’t undergo massive ethnic cleansing in the post war period); the Cold War; the formation of the Warsaw Pact, and the modern European Community amongst many others. I simply didn’t know before I read this book about the subversion of democracy in (ironically) post-War Greece, aided by the British, nor how the Communists took control in many Eastern European countries in a manner reminiscent of the Nazi take over in Germany – get a foot in the democratic door, then gradually use what levers of power you do control to get more, until the opposition is finished. That is what makes this such an important book. Knowing World War 2 didn’t have a neat tidy ending is one thing; understanding how the continent was torn apart before it could be slowly reassembled is quite another. This isn’t an easy read, both in terms of content and length, but it is well worth the investment.