It’s a book of overwhelming statistics. To quote a few:
- 35 million deaths over a period of ten years;
- 1 in 5 living spaces in Germany lost;
- 75% of Caen destroyed totally;
- 460,000 French homes destroyed and another 1.9million damaged;
- 7 million German Poles expelled;
- 3 million German Czechs expelled;
- 31,780 Hungarian Slovaks expelled;
- 41% of POWs in Yugoslavia and 35% in the USSR killed;
- 1.2 million German bastards born during the occupation.
Although on one level I was aware of this, I found the scale of violence, death, disease, starvation, retribution and massacre during those post-war years, when all taken together, quite shocking. For many it seems that the purpose of this war was to ‘Triumph over the Barbarians to imitate them and become like them’. Often those expelled from countries had been living there for generations and had nowhere to go on arrival in their supposed ‘home country’. Life in the UNRRA Camps for Displaced Persons is described in detail from accounts by the soldiers and others who staffed them as well as those who lived in them. The maps of camp locations and massacre locations make the massive upheaval and death going on across Europe very clear.
The author describes the complexity of the reasons why the war was fought and continued. As well as the usual ‘Good vs Evil’ or ‘Allies vs Axis’, he suggests ethnicity and race (Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Serbs in Croatia, Poles and Romanians in Ukraine amongst others) and religion (Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians). He argues successfully that various groups were fighting for racial superiority, propagation of their preferred political system, ethnic purity, national liberation, abolition of monarchy, restoration of monarchy and freedom from old unfair political systems! Once their common cause against German occupation ended, the internecine fighting was just as violent, with sides being supported by the nascent superpowers.
He describes in detail the countries and groups that were fighting these battles, and quotes primary reference sources to support his arguments. Also he describes how the US and Britain, in trying to do the right thing by the majority, often ended up as the hated ‘piggy in the middle’ between warring factions in liberated countries, particularly Italy and Greece. His insight into the British trying to prevent the flight of Jews to Palestine, i.e. trying to prevent a Jewish/Arab problem in the future, is revealing.
He explores the changing of perceptions due to the passing of time and release of records since the USSR collapsed. He debunks the idea that Nazi horrors are partly cancelled out by the cruel treatment of millions of Germans in 1945-6. Many readers may be saddened to realise that events in the former Yugoslavia were merely continuations of what had been going on for centuries, and was merely suspended temporarily by Tito. In these circumstances he turns a famous quote around to say ‘Because we remember the past we are condemned to repeat it’.
I like his description of the turmoil of war as a supertanker. Once the engine of the war against the Germans was switched off, the other small scale fights continued the momentum - Italy until the late 1940s, Greece until 1949 (and arguably until 1974 and the military dictatorship) and Ukraine and Lithuania until the mid-1950s.
Three Mushroom Heads – recommended to all ARRSErs. This was a difficult and sometimes disturbing read, but increased my knowledge and understanding of today’s Europe, the desire of some nations to stick to the European Union at all costs and the events in Greece and the Balkans in the last thirty years.